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what

are the
most
pressing questions
for
contemporary
curators today?

C U R A T I N G N O W
c c a c
C U R A T I N G N O W

What are the most


pressing questions
for
contemporary
curators today?
On November 13, 2002, FIVE panelists gave their perspectives on the issues and debates that are
influencing the future of exhibition making. The transcripts of their contributions are reproduced in
this publication.

panelists

Michelle Grabner, artist/independent curator/critic and director of the Suburban Gallery in Chicago

Matthew Higgs, artist/writer and curator at CCAC Wattis Institute, San Francisco

Lars Bang Larsen, independent curator/writer based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Glasgow, Scotland

Renny Pritikin, chief curator of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Fred Wilson, artist based in New York

Curating Now
Organized by the new MA Program in Curatorial Practice at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in collaboration with Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts, to coincide with Bay Area Now 3, a triennial survey that presents recent developments in Northern California’s art scene.

cover photo: Eric Wesley, Kicking Ass, 1999 (China Art Objects, Los Angeles)
photo: Kate Fowle
introduction
K a t e Fo w l e
There were two reasons to instigate this panel discussion, the first being the
development of the graduate program in curatorial practice at CCAC. This
kind of event is one of the ways in which we hope to open up discussions
that start to unravel contemporary issues of curating and their relationship
to current art practice and thought.

The second reason, and the motivation behind the collaboration with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was that it
made sense to have this event in the context of the Bay Area Now 3 show. In his introductory essay for the exhibition
catalog, René de Guzman, Yerba Buena’s visual arts curator, suggests that the artists selected for the show share an
interest in creating subtle and idiosyncratic ways to visualize perceptions that evolve out of their immediate surroundings
and experiences. Drawing on the language of film, politics, the media, and music—and with a strong emphasis on
utilizing common materials or mundane actions—each artist works to challenge, or perhaps question, the conditioning
that naturally develops through routine. At the same time they are linked by an obvious awareness of the broader
context within which their work is now presented. The show can be seen as a spotlight—not just on the individual
works, but also on the many discussions around current art practice and sociopolitical trends in the Bay Area.

In a similar spirit, each panelist is going to outline his or her thoughts about curating in the context of his or her own
work, as a starting point for further discussion. Each has been invited because of the contribution he or she has
made to different approaches to, and perspectives on, current curatorial practice, helping to create a more open and
discursive arena through which to think about and experience contemporary ideas and art.

Curating today is a kind of renaissance endeavor, with practitioners positioning themselves perhaps more as
mediators or cultural producers than the upholders of an institutional mandate or purveyors of taste. Looking at the
approaches taken by the panelists alone, we can start to see diverse strategies at play. They work as artists, writers,
facilitators, performers, educators, and collaborators, commissioning new work from artists, re-presenting cultural
and historical artifacts and data, initiating discussion, and creating exhibitions that highlight the fluidity of
contemporary art practice.

Each of the panelists has initiated projects that reveal different ways of understanding and interpreting the traditional
museum display; of pushing the permeability of the “white cube” gallery space; or of developing the language of
presentation in domestic settings and shops, in civic and corporate spaces, and on the street, as well as through
publications. In effect you could say that this panel is a partial representation of ways that curators are going beyond
working with spatial concerns in relation to art, creating mental, social, and political spaces through which issues
and ideas that are relevant to us today can be explored.
biographies
K a t e Fo w l e is the associate director of the MA Program in Curatorial Practice and an adjunct lecturer in the MFA Program in
Fine Arts at CCAC in San Francisco. Fowle is also codirector of smith + fowle, an independent partnership based
in London and San Francisco that specializes in commissioning and curating contemporary art. Recent exhibitions
include Shelf Life for Gasworks Gallery, London and touring (2001); three: art projects for social exchange for
Kent Institute of Art and Design, U.K. (2000); and to be continued for The New Art Gallery, Walsall, U.K. (1999).
A regular contributor to publications such as Contemporary, Artists Newsletter, and Graphics International, Fowle
is writing a book on recent architecture in San Francisco, forthcoming in 2003 from Chrysalis Books.

M i c h e l l e G r a b n e r is an artist, writer, and curator based in Chicago. She is codirector of The Suburban, a nonprofit
space that she initiated in 1998 together with the artist Brad Killam, which hosts international artists and projects,
including Dave Muller and Joseph Grigely. Currently Grabner is developing projects with the London-based
collaborative Bank and with Luc Tuymans. Grabner also develops independent curatorial projects, including
Inheriting Matisse: The Decorative Contour in Contemporary Art in 2002 for the Rocket Gallery in the U.K. In
1998 she collaborated with Lars Bang Larsen and Jacob Fabricius on Bicycle Thieves, which took place at multiple
sites across Chicago.

A regular contributor to Frieze, Tema Celeste, and New Art Examiner, Grabner is an associate professor of
painting at the University of Wisconsin and a graduate advisor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since
1996 Grabner has exhibited her paintings regularly with the Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica; Ten in One
Gallery, New York; and the Rocket Gallery in the U.K.; as well as participating in numerous group shows across the
U.S. and in Europe.

M a t t h e w H i g g s is curator at the CCAC Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and associate director of exhibitions at the
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. He is also a faculty member of the MA Program in Curatorial Practice at
CCAC. Since 1992 Higgs has organized more than forty exhibition projects, including Program & Survive at the
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 2000, and The British Art Show 5, which toured the U.K. in 1999. Since
arriving at the Wattis, he has organized To Whom It May Concern and Reality Check: Painting in the Exploded
Field, both in 2002. A regular contributor to Artforum, Higgs has written for many catalogs and other publications
on artists such as Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller, Peter Doig, Rodney Graham, and Susan Hiller, among others.

Higgs also publishes Imprint 93, a series of artists’ editions and multiples, which to date has presented more than
seventy projects with artists including Elizabeth Peyton, Chris Ofili, and Paul Noble. As an artist, he is represented
by Murray Guy, New York, and by Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London.

As an independent curator and critic, L a r s B a n g L a r s e n has established a reputation as one of the leading protagonists for
contemporary Nordic art. In 1998 he was a curator for the Nordic Biennial that took place in Norway, and from 1997 to
1999 he was a curator at the Danish Contemporary Art Foundation, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Bang also has
developed exhibitions across Europe, including Pyramids of Mars in 2000 at London’s Barbican Art Gallery and
Something Rotten in 1998 at the Fridericianum Museum, Kassel, Germany.

Now working between Copenhagen and Glasgow, Bang is the author of many critical essays and interviews with
artists who have emerged on the international scene over the last ten years, particularly those who engage in social
and critical practice such as N55, Aleksandra Mir, Jens Haaning, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen.
Currently he is an associate editor for Art/Text, Nu, and Springerin, as well as a contributor to Artforum and Frieze.
Bang is also the art critic for the Copenhagen-based newspaper Politiken.

Just before his trip to the West Coast, Bang mounted his most recent show, Fundamentalisms of the New Order,
at Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. His book about Sture Johannesson’s psychedelic art of the 1960s was published
by Lukas and Sternberg in 2003.
R e n n y Pr i t i k i n was named director of the Visual Arts Program of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1992 and subsequently chief
curator for all artistic programs—visual art, film, performing arts, and education—in 1997. He initiated the Bay Area Now
triennial six years ago as a centerwide festival to celebrate regional practice. From 1988 to 1992 Pritikin served as
executive director of New Langton Arts after joining the gallery as codirector in 1979. A founder of the National
Association of Artists Organizations, Pritikin is a frequent consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts and
other agencies in California and nationally. In 2001 he was selected to organize the U.S. participation at the Cuenca
(Ecuador) Biennial, and in 2003 he traveled to Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington, New Zealand, on a Fulbright
fellowship.

As a writer, Pritikin received the 1989 McCarron Fellowship for art criticism and has had two small press chapbooks
of his poetry published. In 1995 he received a United States Information Agency fellowship to tour and lecture at
four museums in Japan and the Koret Israel Prize, a fellowship to visit Israel. In 2003 Pritikin also will be a faculty
member of the MA Program in Curatorial Practice at CCAC.

Fr e d W i l s o n is an artist who has become known for his pioneering interventions in the museum environment. For over two
decades his projects, including the landmark Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, have
exposed underlying cultural and racial issues in many institutions across the world. In 2001 his exhibition Fred
Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979–2000 was presented at the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Maryland,
Baltimore, and it has subsequently toured the country. It was presented at the Berkeley Art Museum in January
2003, together with a new project that he has developed through his research at the university’s Hearst
Anthropological Museum.

Wilson has participated in many group shows internationally, including Museum as Subject at the National Museum
of Art, Osaka, Japan, in 2001, and Unpacking Europe at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the
Netherlands, in the same year. His work also was included in Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in
Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994, as well as in The Museum as Muse
in 1999 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Wilson has served on the boards of directors for many visual arts organizations, including Artists Space in New York
and the National Association of Artists Organizations. He was a curator for the Bronx Council of the Arts from 1988
to 1992 and a member of the exhibition committee for Independent Curators Inc. in 1998. In 2003 Wilson will
represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. He will also be a faculty member of the MA Program in
Curatorial Practice at CCAC.
remarks on
mediation and
1

production
Søren
Andreasen
and
Lars Bang
Larsen
We use the term “middleman” as an overall denominator for productive
subjectivity, including the nominal roles of artist, critic, curator. Take the two of
us, for example, artist/writer and critic/curator, respectively, we are at the same
time producers, distributors, and consumers of art. Middlemen between ourselves.
In 1970, the critic Harold Rosenberg stated: “At the present time—and this explains the interest shown in [the
curators’] work—only the middleman has the power to fulfill the dream of union between the creative individual and
society.”2 Rosenberg’s nearly thirty-year-old concept of the middleman resonates with the many functions of today’s
flourishing culture of middlemen and -women: curators, consultants, producers, DJs, facilitators, spin doctors, etc.
People whose profession it is to mediate or to prevent the occurrence of problems. It seems like the middleman is a
privileged agent of subjectivity in late capitalist-bureaucratic society. However, the concept of the middleman is more
than a mere job description and more than a critique of certain functions; our claim is that middlemanship is today a
general condition of authorship and behavior. The existence of middlemen indicates that exchange itself is central to
how value is estimated. It means being acutely implicated, it is a portrait of the desire for complicity. There is, so to
speak, no “outside middleman”: everyone is a middleman. Which isn’t to say we don’t do different things in different
ways; it is subjectivity as it is predicated by the marketplace of a globalized economy.

In 1993 Pierre Bourdieu wrote about the field of cultural production: “… the subject of the production of the
artwork—of its value but also of its meaning—is not the producer who actually creates the object in its materiality,
but rather the entire set of agents engaged in the field. Among these are the producers of works, classified as
artists, … critics of all persuasions, … collectors, middlemen, curators, etc.; in short, all those who have ties with
art, who live for art and, to varying degrees, from it, and who confront each other in struggles where the imposition
of not only a world view but also a vision of the art world is at stake, and who through these struggles, participate in
the production of the value of the artist and of art.”3 Bourdieu’s analysis seems apt, if it weren’t for the productive
identity he assigns to the artist as a maker of “material objects.” In the era of immaterial work this comes across as
somewhat outdated. In other words, Bourdieu sees the site of artistic creativity as a primal scene of sorts; we would
like to argue that there is no such primal scene of production. That is a modernist idea. Instead, the style of
productivity today is a patchwork of mediated sign-materials.

Let us take a look at the mechanisms of authorization that underpin the role of the cultural producer. What we are
talking about might be called an evaluation of power, a dissection of the complex web of signification that the
mediating subjectivity is entangled in. As Michel Foucault told us, having power or being empowered is not a
problem in itself. The question is how power is used and represented. We need to find positive ways to evaluate
power from within the role of the middleman, from the position of networking and being networked.

The classical problem with the middleman—which is at the same time the perennial prejudice against the
middleman—is that as soon as he interferes, the situation is no longer one to one. Middlemen are seen as the ones
who quietly follow and are subservient agents of market trends. In opposition to the traditional notions of the maker,
the worker, and the author, the middleman is only involved in a process part of the time, but in that time his agency
significantly affects the further course of this process. Typically, his involvement raises the value of the goods that
are circulated. He is seen as having shifting loyalties and being somewhat immune, comfortably placed as he is
between producer and marketplace. You can’t reduce him and you can’t add anything to him. At the same time as
he has power, he isn’t really the guy in charge, which is why it is difficult to address the question of authority in
relation to the middleman.

But on the other hand—and this is the other aspect of the middleman—we must bear in mind the colonized
infrastructures of the past and the present. The middleman is not just somebody who quietly follows, but also one
who can be a part of basic infrastructures. In This Sex Which Is Not One the feminist thinker Luce Irigaray talks
about woman as a go-between, as having functioned as “an infrastructure, unrecognized as such by our society and
culture ... everything depends on their complicity: Women are the very possibility of mediation, transaction,
transition, transference—between man and his fellow-creatures, indeed between man and himself.”4 It looks like the
middleman can be more than one who, like capitalism, arrives when everything is ready. And infrastructures, of
course, can convey many different desires, depending on their composition. The flows we put in orbit can be mere
ornaments, but they can also be big waves or columns of rising air, staged to go somewhere in order to see what
they collide with.

In a lecture he gave at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle, England, almost exactly two years ago,
Hans Ulrich Obrist stated his curatorial priorities: “[what is important is] how within curatorial practice and also
within institutions one can bring back, against the background of an obvious acceleration, new forms of slowness.
How can we re-inject slowness into velocity?”5 We’d like to deconstruct this statement, because even though it is a
criticism of the speed of productivity—certainly a relevant point—it still assumes that it is up to curatorial authority to
slow things down, that it is up to the middlemen to perform the operation of “re-injecting slowness.” The curator, or
the middleman, can speed things up and slow them down again. Now, which subjectivity injects slowness? From the
above statement, the curator appears to be a kind of harmonizer. Can he also be a radicalizer, and if so, how? In
any case it seems like the curator is free to choose different producer identities and different sets of operations for
himself. Moreover, curators can decide what institutional format, or metaphor—archive, laboratory, platform, etc.—to
work with.
But we shouldn’t isolate the curator’s professional identity in its pragmatic subjectivity. Let us try for a moment and
think beyond this specialized role and have a discussion about the cultural location of mediation.

The subjectivity of mediation—the middleman—is the subjectivity that brings us modernity. We are the ones through
whom information travels. Often, you hear us curators urge pushing the envelope, urge new strategies to engage
with new audiences, art practices, and ways of using the institution. The curator is professionally curious, looking for
new ways and “tools” to implement these new strategies with. We want to question this notion of the curator as
someone always waiting to be filled with new knowledge, new qualifications—in other words, the middleman as a
receptacle. The figure or the concept of the receptacle is something recurring in discourse about avant-garde
curatorship: The curator is one who is “learning from art and artists,” and a “pedestrian bridge between artist and
audience,” to quote Maria Lind and Alexander Dorner. A migratory subject who is filled up by new meetings, new
cities, new information. The curatorial mind is like a palimpsest, like Freud’s magical pad, the metaphor that he uses
to describe the unconscious: it is covered, only to be erased, but something discernible always remains underneath.
The curatorial mind is accumulative and erasing. How do the intentions of curatorial subjectivity translate to this
manifest-and-erased knowledge?

Today, production gets organized in shorter and shorter sequences through the discontinuous reinvention of
institutions. In the networked society, every nodal point in the network is a go-between for flows, for material in
movement. The cultural critic Bülent Diken has written that “network power is about the capacity to escape; its
instruments are fluidity, liquidity, and speed. In ‘liquid modernity’ power lies in the ability to ‘travel light.’”6 With this
in mind we would like to quote the curator Francesco Bonami from his catalog text for the recent Manifesta 4: “To
call Manifesta an exhibition is misleading [...] Because of its fluid structure when conceived and its mobile
whereabouts it is impossible to identify Manifesta with a particular place or identity.” Presumably without wanting to,
Bonami has here given us a very precise definition of authority as it today exists in its pure and amorphous form: it
simply can’t be pinned down. We don’t know what form authority has or where it resides; it refuses to be identified.
In the networked society, traditional parameters of evaluation have disappeared. What do we put in their place?

When we use the term mediated sign-material, we want to talk about what exists under certain conditions: sign-
material that exists due to economical, ideological, or psychological interests and therefore always exists somewhere
else too, namely in the context of these interests. Obviously, sign-material is always already produced. We ought to
focus on how to understand the significance and potential of mediated sign-material as a matter of fact. As a
representative figure for this we want to propose the sign-materiality of the echo—the echo itself with no reference
to the source, because a reverberation process produces a version of the source that is also a division: you end up
with two different structures.

A production of an echo that is deliberately promoted exposes a desire to produce something else by producing
the divisions of versions. The production of an echo is a way to escape the authority of the source and therefore
makes an implicit promise of change and difference. As we take it that this style of mediation-production is very
much the raison d’être of the middleman—because sign-material is brought into a state of flow that enables a
takeover of control—we again arrive at the question of how to relate to these gestures of promise and desire
produced by the operations of the middleman. In other words: how do we trust the middleman? How do we trust
ourselves as middlemen?

The middleman, this agent of mediation-production, probably entered western civilization in the early eighteenth
century, in the era when capitalism became articulated between global markets. However, here we would like to
ask this question in a different way: how and when did civilization start to trust the workings of middlemen as
cultural agents? How and when did a middleman gain power on his/her own terms? We would like to suggest that
the work of Phil Spector in the early 1960s is such a turning point, in cultural/aesthetic mediation-production,
which is the frame of this discussion. Interestingly, Spector’s rise coincided with what has been described as
“rock’s lost weekend” (that is, 1959–64; from the decline of Elvis to the global breakthrough of the Beatles).7
Spector was onto something different from the mythologies of the Bard. He didn’t perform, he rarely composed (he
merely forced his autograph onto compositions), and still he became a star name in popular music. What he did do
was to produce music in a very all-embracing meaning of the word. Born in the Bronx, New York, and partly raised
in Los Angeles, Phil Spector established himself as a successful freelance producer by the age of nineteen,
producing hit records for the Top 10 world of popular music. He formed his own record company (Phillies) by the
age of twenty-one and took absolute control of all aspects of the music he produced and released. Composers and
musicians were hired on a freelance basis—performers were constructed and renamed over and over, whether as
solo or as group artists—and recording techniques and studios were developed to suit Spector’s sound production
style: the Wall of Sound.
So, Phil Spector produced a sound—a style of music production. It has to be noted that the pop music of Spector
was at the time regarded as highly disturbing as the songs were about teenage trouble and the sound was like
“plastic”—not real—music, but a symptom of the times. He was very much aware of this and defined himself as a
rebel, both in the sense that he gave teenage sensibility a cultural form and also because he transgressed the
workings of the music industry. This double gesture combined the ambition to take over the means of production and
to generate a public flow of adolescent desires, that were at the time very much excluded from the public sphere.
What is of great importance here is that Spector didn’t operate by the means of dialectics; he didn’t establish an
antithesis (a counter-cultural/subversive form) but aimed to gain impact on the “Top 10” world of popular culture.
What he did was to establish a new synthesis of the means of production and we suggest that only a middleman
could take on such an operation, as the ability to deal with all aspects of production is needed to gain authority. The
authorship of the middleman is the control of the flow of production. There is no claim for autonomy in Spector’s Wall
of Sound—it is merely a staged flow of desires that echoes a certain cultural sensibility. Accordingly, when this
sensibility changed and Spector’s production style was adapted throughout the music industry, his powers declined.
That is the sad fate of the middleman: as soon as you lose control of the flow, you’re replaced.

The question of “style in production” might be the thing to take us further in this discussion of the middleman. The art
historian Ina Blom has made some interesting remarks on style in contemporary art in her essay “Dealing with/in
Style” (2001). She finds that discourses of style have vanished due to the influence of the terminologies of
conceptual art and institutional critique, which regard discussions of style to be a simple question of reference and
formalism. What she points out is that there is a “productive ambiguity of style in much recent art,” which cannot be
represented in the before mentioned discourses. “In [...] these discourses [...] style functions as a marker or a
symptomatic formation, which seems to pulsate around oppositional figures such as singular/general, subject/system,
art/the everyday. It would perhaps be just as relevant, then, to focus less on what style is, it performs a kind of
double gesture that both produces these divisions and renders them uncertain.”8 The point made here is that a
contemporary discussion of style should “focus away from the postmodern notion of diversities of style in favor of an
attention to the diversity—or the multiple operations—of the object of style itself.” This is a production of difference
and ambivalence that has much to do with the present postmedia situation of art production, where formal media
categories are no longer relevant and where productivity defines itself in terms of “project,” “situation,” or “event.”

To take Ina Blom’s remarks a bit further, we find that her analysis of style applies very well to the overall look of many
recent group shows. Curatorial work as well should be regarded as an agency of style that “performs a kind of
double gesture that both produces [...] divisions and renders them uncertain.” A patchwork of mediated sign-
material, staged to produce differences. In this way, Obrist’s ambition to re-inject slowness would represent a desire
to stage differences of velocity, and Bonami’s description of Manifesta exposes a desire to authorize ambiguity.

Now, the most empathetic way of striking up a relationship with the multiple operations of the object of style—or
should we say the multiple operations of the flow of style—would be one of interpretation rather than one of
mapping. With a desire for interpretation, one has the chance to comprehend and maintain difference, whereas
mapping—inherent to the concept of the postmodern style palette—is a gesture of archiving that is potentially
inimical to invention. The mapping subject controls flows by making them irreversible in isolated domains, while not
considering him/herself as part of that domain.

Therefore, to us, parameters of trust hinge on the historicity and materiality of the way a flow is styled. How else do
you evaluate the composite flows and your own role in the flow when you are part of it? Domains have to be opened
up, roles switched around, and levels of experience synchronized in order to establish relationships and cede control.

In conclusion, we are not suggesting that the middleman is to be reduced to a producer of symptomatic formations
(something that has been a point in the critique of curatorial work), but rather that the middleman establishes an
authority in the control of the flow of productivity. In other words, the middleman is an author—and the author is a
middleman—who exposes a desire to stage mediated sign-material, thereby producing a certain subjectivity.

1 Parts of this essay were presented at the conference “Polyphony of Voices” in Krakow, Poland, in October 2002. Andreasen and Bang have been
collaborating on critical essays on practices and discourses surrounding contemporary visual art since 2000. As curators they are currently
preparing The Echo Show, which will take place at the Tramway, Glasgow, in autumn 2003.
2 Harold Rosenberg, The De-definition of Art (1972), quoted in Claudia Büttner, Art Goes Public (Munich: Verlag Silke Schreiber, 1996), 221.
3 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 261.
4 Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, quoted in Sadie Plant, Zeroes and Ones (London: Fourth Estate, 1997), 36.
5 The Producers (Newcastle: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, 2000), 23.
6 Bülent Diken, “The Aesthetic Critique of Capitalism and Transpolitics of Immigration.” Conference paper, Under Construction (Helsinki, 2001).
7 At press time (May 2003) this discussion takes on a certain tragic resonance due to Spector’s arrest in February.
8 Ina Blom, “Dealing with/in Style,” Critics’ News (Helsinki, 2001).
from left to right:
Lars Bang Larsen, Matthew Higgs, Michelle Grabner, Renny Pritikin, and Fred Wilson at Curating Now, November 13, 2002
photo: Shane Aslan Selzer
i work for
history
David Robbins
Michelle Grabner read from a screenplay-in-progress by artist and writer
David Robbins. These excerpts offered the responses of Lycra Duvall,
curator at the Center for Contemporary Acquisitions, in attendance at an
art opening.
Look how they keep their distance. That’s fine. Let them fear me. They know that Lycra Duvall has drawn a line.
They know that History and she have an arrangement—the sort of arrangement which licenses her to sit in a
darkened conference room at the Center for Contemporary Acquisitions gazing at the projected slides of an
altogether minor artist who stands nearby promoting his creations, her impatience with his presentation mounting,
her attention quite understandably wandering from his babbling to the genuinely important meeting to be held
later that day with a group of collectors, licenses her to turn to him and ask him, point blank, whether he actually
considers what he’s doing to be a career. Sure it was a hard question to ask, but those of us who are history’s
deputies are fully authorized to ask hard questions. Authorized and obligated.

Just last week, that feisty Michael Applicatta character had the cheek to assert—to my face—that art history is a
fiction, invented in order to justify and reinforce the transactions of the art marketplace ... How tiresome. Yes,
Michael, a curator does work with just a part of the big picture, but that’s hardly the same thing as equaling an
outright fiction. A person can only work with what has become known. The evidence. Which is always and only a
portion of what has been produced during a given historical period. God! A Lycra Duvall grows so weary of
explaining that art history is always a partial history, that we do have the evidence and the evidence is real, as real
as this strand of pearls circled about this beguiling throat. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs—not only is
the evidence real, the evidence is in fact all anyone has to go on. How can that possibly be characterized as a
fiction? Something that is known is never a fiction.

A Lycra Duvall is a successful curator because she understands that her power as a curator is predicated on her
skill in advancing your sense of the power of the evidence while suppressing your sense of the fiction. This is not a
skill possessed by all.

I can’t seem to get used to how unfamiliar with beauty so many artists seem. So many artists mistake the merely
weird for the beautiful. So many settle for the weird ... the transgressive ... the subversive .... That, or they settle for
personal adventure! As though personal adventure were sufficient excuse for creating something that has forgotten
beauty is its goal!

Who’s Martha? Really, you don’t know? Don’t tell me history has already forgotten Martha McCoy! Head
cheerleader for “post-professionalism”? Author of Strategic Shrugging, and Assert the Power of Caprice? Well,
then I’ll tell you. Artists were to abandon New York, LA—abandon the centers. The real action was now in the
provinces, supposedly. Why an artist should want to go from being an insider to an outsider artist, when the normal
progression is completely in the other direction, this is beyond me, but be our guest, Ms. McCoy, move out of New
York. Move to Omaha. Move to Shreveport. What’s that? You detect a shade of anger? How astute. My show—
Style, Structure, Identity, Politics, Gender, Context, Issues: A Reconsideration—was only the most important
show that year. And Martha? “Not in the mood,” was little Martha’s reply to my invitation—after which she turns
around and shows the piece I’d requested in some gallery in a suburban Youngstown strip mall! Why, Martha?
“Liked the organizer’s phone manner.” Well, that one was always on the nasty side anyway. “Curators are art dealers
who lack the guts to open galleries,” I remember she asserted once, publicly, when we were empanelled together.

Why is it people are always advising other people to relax? Not if you keep instructing me to, I can’t! Anyway, that’s
all in the past. Martha’s hopelessly ’90s. Professionally, we’re under no obligation to consider her contribution for
another twenty years. In the meantime there’ll be plenty of opportunities to conspicuously overlook Ms. Martha
McCoy. Unfortunately, an artist has all the time in the world. They either have a date with history or they haven’t. If
they do, they can wait us out. They have forever. Not a privilege that’s extended to the curator, may I point out. We
don’t have the luxury of forestalling an intimacy with history. A curator has to make the most of a proximity to history
right now, while she’s still drawing breath. During her lifetime.

Why do I put up with the pressure? If I had a Raymond Pettibon for every time I’ve asked myself that very
question.... It certainly isn’t the money, I can tell you that. Fame? Please: I can hang a retrospective in the time it’d
take the layman to name a famous curator. Whereas everyone remembers the artist. No, the reason is quite simple.
Simple and beyond reproach. Lycra Duvall has a responsibility to beauty. She has always felt an obligation to
identify, to protect, to advance beauty. All her life she has felt close, personally close, to quality things. Lycra Duvall
works for history.

Demanding? History? Between the egos of the trustees, the museum director, one’s competitors, the artists ...
—honey, a diamond would feel the pressure.

David Robbins has had more than thirty solo exhibitions of his work in the United States and Europe, and he is the author of numerous essays and
satires. Since 1997 he has frequently collaborated with Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam on video projects. In May 2003, their video, One Mother’s
Love, was exhibited at Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery, Chicago.
between the
audience and
the stage
Matthew Higgs
I recently turned thirty-eight. Before moving to California at the end of last year, I
lived and worked in London for almost fifteen years. Before that I studied as an
artist in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years. And before that I lived in a small
market town in the Northwest of England called Chorley.
Chorley made me. It defined who I am. In the late 1970s—my youth—Chorley was down on its heels. Chorley
had—and probably continues to have—a lack of self-confidence. A predominantly working-class community, Chorley
had grown up around the textile mills established in the late-Victorian era. By the time Margaret Thatcher came to
power in 1979, Chorley’s once-proud manufacturing heritage (with its accordant legacy of trade unionism) was
already long gone. My youth was dominated by the specter of unemployment, by the specter of Thatcherism.
Beyond a handful of pubs there was little or nothing to do. I had four close friends, brought together by a shared
passion for the then-developing independent music scene that had emerged in the aftermath of punk. If Chorley did
have one thing going for it, it was its proximity to Manchester and Liverpool. Manchester and Liverpool would
provide me—more than any schooling ever would—with my primary education. For those not from the northwest of
England it is hard to describe the importance of these places during the years between 1978 and 1981. There
existed a skeptical pragmatism, nurtured through years of economic neglect that was as palpable as the gray skies
that hung over our heads. From the estranged perspective of Chorley, the London of the Sex Pistols and The Clash,
the London of 1976 and 1977, was a foreign land. (At that time I didn’t actually know anyone who had even been to
London.) Manchester in the late 1970s was home to Joy Division, The Fall, and Factory Records; Liverpool home to
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, and Eric’s nightclub. I ultimately became interested in art through
an interest in music. Obscure references on record sleeves induced my curiosity for the Situationist Internationale,
the Dadaist milieu of the Cabaret Voltaire, the twisted literature of William Burroughs and other avant-gardes. In
1979, aged fourteen, I started a fanzine. Inspired by the proliferation of independent publishing and fueled solely by
teenage enthusiasm, my fanzine was to provide me with a line of communication that went beyond Chorley’s
claustrophobic limitations. Despite its modest circulation I soon found myself implicated in an informal network of
like-minded correspondents from across Britain, Europe, and eventually the United States and beyond. It was a
community of sorts. Certainly the first I had encountered outside of my immediate circle. Aged fourteen, the world
suddenly got larger.

Today, when I am asked to talk about my practice as a curator, writer, publisher, and (sometimes) artist, I always
refer back to this time. For me it is important to publicly acknowledge how and why I became involved in working
with artists. There is no consensus as to the role of the curator, just as there is no definition as to what constitutes
art. In struggling toward rationalizing my own practice, the closest I have come is in the possibility and potentiality of
working “between the audience and the stage.” The reference to a “live” context is as intentional as it is explicit. All
exhibitions—whatever form they might take—are “events,” ultimately dependent on their relationship with an
audience, with a lived experience. My own experience as a teenager, in fact the reason why I started to write,
publish, and distribute my fanzine, was born out of a frustration with the traditionally passive role consigned to the
audience while simultaneously acknowledging no personal desire to perform on the stage. Between the audience
and the stage, between the spectacle and its reception, there exists, I believe, a “space,” a tangible if indefinable
space in which to operate. It is in this “space” that I am interested, and it is this “space” that I continue to negotiate.
I have always enjoyed organizing things. While publishing my fanzine I would simultaneously organize gigs in my
hometown—bringing the mountain to Mohammed, if you like. Later, while studying art in the mid-1980s, I started a
nightclub in Newcastle with a friend from art school. Each of these endeavors was born out of a necessity. Born out
of a desire to make something happen. To fill a void. To alleviate boredom. To make life more interesting. My
involvement with art, and with developing projects with artists, emerges from exactly these same desires.

I’m interested in “gaps,” in the spaces, situations—and sometimes individuals—that are neglected or overlooked for
one reason or another. The monolithic institutions with their accordant bureaucracies hold no fascination. If nothing
else they are too unyielding, seemingly unable to act responsively. In 1993, after a six-year, self-reflexively inactive
period, I initiated a publishing project called Imprint 93. Indebted as much to the do-it-yourself aesthetics and
strategies of fanzine culture as it was to the earlier methodologies of, say, fluxus or the mail art movement of the
1970s, Imprint 93 was a vehicle, an agency, through which I could both commission and distribute artists’ projects.
Despite me being the sole proprietor, my project was essentially a collaborative act—an accumulative project: the
sum of its parts. Its motto: “Imprint 93 celebrates other people’s ideas.” Realistic in its ambition, Imprint 93 operated
on a minuscule budget, supported for many years by my income from a part-time administrative job in an advertising
agency. Imprint 93 was an attempt to rationalize my ongoing interest in contemporary art while negotiating the
everyday practicalities of living and working within a specific context: namely, London in the early 1990s.

The “local” is often depicted pejoratively, invariably aligned with suspect nationalistic tendencies. I don’t subscribe to
this view of the local. A sense of locality and an acknowledgment of the responsibilities (and limitations) that go with
working within a particular community are at the center of my practice. An acknowledgment of the specificity of a
particular context and how its particular (and peculiar) nuance impacts upon individuals and cultural production
continues to motivate me. Much has been written about the London art scene of the 1990s. Mythologized through
the acronym “yBa” (young British art/artists), the real story of British art’s passage through the 1990s has yet to be
written. Contrary to its received history, there existed a spirit of adventure and exchange. Despite, or in spite of,
often conflicting interests, a genuine sense of dialogue existed. Artist-run spaces, artist-led initiatives, artists’
collectives, collaborative projects, and individualistic gestures were proliferating. Each in their own distinct way
struggling toward a redefinition, a reexamination, a reconsideration of what constituted a public threshold for the
presentation and dissemination of art. It was, in the best sense of the word, amateurish, run largely by enthusiasts.
Improvisatory and ad hoc, it survived and thrived outside of any commercial imperatives. These determinants
impacted upon my publishing project. Distributed by mail and free of charge, Imprint 93 published some sixty
projects. Its hybrid form allowed it to represent my, often catholic, tastes in art: from, at one extreme, the brutal and
often maudlin poetry of punk musician Billy Childish, to the tragicomic conceptualism of Martin Creed at the other.
Imprint 93 operated in the manner of both a parasite and a virus. Parasitical inasmuch as it was realistically aware of
its dependency on the context of the art world for its legitimacy; viral inasmuch as it arrived unannounced,
unsolicited from an ostensibly anonymous source. In the early 1990s few, if any, people in London were publishing
and distributing new work by artists in this way. Imprint 93, by default, had the territory to itself. It distinguished itself
through a lack of alternatives. Imprint 93 afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with a generation of artists, of
roughly a similar age, at an early stage in their practices, establishing mutual working relationships that persist to
this day. This sense of continuum, the necessity for an ongoing dialogue that goes beyond the momentary status of a
particular project or “event” is critical to my practice as a curator.

Over the last ten years I have realized some one hundred projects with artists, either independently or through the
agencies of public or private organizations. From their outset each project is determined by the specifics of its
context. Curating remains a largely intuitive act. My job—if it is a job—is to establish an appropriate response to
each given situation. Consequently each project is different—determinedly so—demanding an entirely distinct
rationale. Of course this might sound like stating the obvious, but the reality is that most exhibitions are still
instigated, administered, realized, and received according to models established decades ago—models increasingly
inappropriate to current artistic production. This “consensus” or status quo has increasingly led to the
homogenization of exhibition culture. A culture that aspires to a kind of visual Esperanto, the results of which are
invariably empty spectacles drained of any specific nuance, inflection, or dialect. In 2000, the British artists
collective Bank imagined a scenario in which all of the publicly funded galleries in London would be forcibly closed
down—in turn, taking all the money from “… those curators & status-mongers & bureaucrats & moneymen &
managers.” According to Bank’s vision, those monies would then be redistributed “… to ARTISTS, who would set
up loads of temporary, more exciting spaces for lots of artists to show in. There’d be much more art around because
the money would go so much further than it does now as it wouldn’t be spent fuelling the careers of all those who
pretend to be the friends of artists but are really their lazy, powerful enemies … JUST IMAGINE ALL THAT ART! It
would make London a phoenix reborn from the ashes of bureaucracy!! LET’S DO IT!!!” This might seem a little
dramatic, but I can sympathize with Bank’s position. (Indeed, why restrict it to London?) The contemporary art world
is too professional. The increasingly bureaucratized role of the curator should—as Bank identified—be the cause of
some concern. Curators do not initiate shifts in culture—at best they can merely respond to the new directives
initiated by artists. The artist should be privileged at all costs.

Artists are among the last great amateurs. My dictionary locates the origin of the word “amateur” in the Latin for
“lover.” Nowadays the amateur is a maligned figure—often little more than a byword for contemptible ineptitude. But
in our increasingly professional and bureaucratic art world we should learn to cherish the amateur, learn to celebrate
those rare individuals motivated by enthusiasm and love. From the inspired Victorian philanthropist Sir John Soane,
whose incredible museum in central London remains unburdened by the typical hierarchical notions of value and
taste, to the recent projects of the British artist Jeremy Deller, the spirit of the amateur is alive and well. I once
contributed a list of ten exhibitions that I wish I had curated to a fanzine (The Poor Pony, issue 1113: The Liaison).
A significant number of them are exhibitions curated by artists, and I would like to speak briefly about one of them by
way of a conclusion. Jeremy Deller recently completed a yearlong residency in the Bay Area with the publication of
his Capp Street project After the Gold Rush, an idiosyncratic guidebook to California. Deller operates loosely within
the relatively recent trajectory of the “artist-curator”: a slippery coalition, whose numbers would surely include such
seminal figures as Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Broodthaers, and Claes Oldenburg. Deller’s ongoing project proposes
a radical reappraisal of conventional assumptions about both artistic and curatorial practice. Unconvention
(1999–2000)—while not typical—is illustrative of Deller’s approach. Essentially a group show—for which I wrote the
introductory catalog text—Unconvention was devised specifically for the short-lived Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff,
South Wales. Unconvention emerged from an earlier Deller project, The Uses of Literacy (1997). The Uses of
Literacy was a display of artifacts—drawings, paintings, poetry, and prose—produced by fans in response to the
historical and cultural interests and obsessions of the Welsh rock group the Manic Street Preachers. Described by
one of its participants as “… a poetic record—seen through often extraordinary images—of the screams, sighs, and
whispers of some remarkable young people…,” The Uses of Literacy encapsulated and prioritized the latent
creativity of its teenage authors. The Manic Street Preachers, more so than any other British band, have continually
sought to contextualize their intentions through references to other artists and writers. For their fans, the band has,
in turn, become a kind of parallel education: providing them with access to images and literature denied or
suppressed by conventional schooling. Rejecting conventional curatorial wisdom, Deller assembled an exhibition
from the viewpoint of a rock band, rather than from an art historical, theoretical, or thematic perspective. The
resulting exhibition provoked visual juxtapositions as unlikely as they were profound: key works by Lawrence Weiner,
Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, Martin Kippenberger, Pablo Picasso, and Jenny Saville were displayed
alongside documentary war photographs by Robert Capa, Kevin Carter, and Don McCullin. Archival sections
devoted to the Welsh miners’ fraternal involvement in the Spanish Civil War sat alongside the complete literature of
the Situationist Internationale. For its opening weekend, Deller invited numerous local organizations—from Amnesty
International and the Campaign against the Arms Trade, to fanzines produced by fans of the band—to set up stalls
amid the artworks. Reminiscent of a radicalized village fete, the opening weekend’s events concluded with an
impassioned speech by Arthur Scargill—president of the National Union of Mineworkers—and a stirring performance
by the Pendyrus Male Choir, singing songs of passion and resistance, songs originally sung in the mining
communities of South Wales. Each artwork, each organization, each document, each individual was accorded an
emotional and intellectual equanimity. The usual distinctions between “high” and “low” cultural artifacts were
abolished. Unconvention was one of the most context-specific “artworks”/exhibitions I have encountered. It engaged
explicitly and unashamedly with the social, cultural, and political legacies of its constituents—the people of South
Wales—mediated through the agency of a local contemporary rock band, which since its inception has sought to
address the discrepancies and injustices that exist in society. That some four thousand people attended its opening
weekend made it all the more remarkable, not only validating Deller’s enterprise but vindicating his persistent belief
that art does not and cannot exist in isolation. Jeremy Deller operates as a catalyst. Working literally “between the
audience and the stage,” Deller’s art is an art of democratization: one that demystifies and liberates the construction
of meaning, empowering both its audience and participants alike. Ultimately Unconvention consolidated my own
persistent belief that art does have the potential both to illuminate and to transform our experience and expectations
of life, without patronizing its audience. It reinforced the necessity for self-determination that I had encountered as a
teenager in the independent music scene of the late 1970s. In amplifying and privileging mutuality, Deller served to
remind us that only together can we confront and challenge orthodoxy and that together we must accept
responsibility for our own destiny. Or as the Bristol band The Pop Group once said, “Where there is a will, there has
got to be a way.”

“Between the Audience and the Stage” is a revised version of a text originally commissioned by Catherine Thomas for her anthology of contemporary
curators’ writings, The Edge of Everything (Banff, Canada: Banff Centre Press, 2002).
Peter Fillingham, Installation of Window and Untitled
photo: Kate Fowle
notes toward
a curatorial
portrait of
ybca 2002
R e n n y Pr i t i k i n
When SFMOMA was rehoused in 1995, the architect of its new building,
Mario Botta, frequently stated that he saw the museum as the new cathedral.
This set the curatorial team at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts pondering about
the architectural metaphor for our ambition for this institution. We aspire to be
a different kind of public site, perhaps a really comfortable bus station or a really
cool mall. That is, a place where you can hook up with the means to get you
where you need or want to go inexpensively or get turned on to the newest stuff
without having to buy it. If you go to a baseball game you will always see at least
one thing you’ve never seen before. We’re seeking to design a museum experience
that’s equivalent; a place where it is safe and fun to hang out and meet or watch
or learn from a wider-than-usual variety of people for a few hours. In those kinds
of places we feel unselfconscious, interested, comfortable, relaxed, ready to spend
some time, never sure exactly what might happen, open to possibility. The site
has a context and meaning, but it is open-ended, rife with potential. We’re talking
about the life of the mind being understood as a good scary choice, an escapade.
It’s a given that most curating in contemporary art is of artists, not art; perhaps the next step is curating of not just
artists, but projects and institutional alignment. We can identify in a rough way four areas of activity at YBCA that
put that evolution in thinking to practical use. These include:

1. the “lively mix” of community-based pop culture and contemporary art

2. multidisciplinary approaches, including Centerfest theme projects

3. remodeling the museum for the new century with the whole of visual culture in the mix. For example, in our
bicycle culture show (or boxing, or surf culture, or hip-hop, or comics, or tattoo, or halls of fame, et al.) we
were able to achieve diversity and a wonderful variety of materials: Latino teens’ low-rider bikes, artist bikes,
designer abstract bikes, prison-made bikes, and state-of-the-art commercial mountain bikes and
progenitor cruisers from the ‘40s.

4. repositioning the institution as a catalyst, a shape-shifter, a resource, a good partner, “solving more problems
than we create”

Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the most recent Documenta in Germany (2002), said, “I want to make a distinction
between curating within the canon and curating within culture. ... That is, to curate within culture is to see art in a
totality that is not simply bounded by art history. It is there that we begin to make room for new forms of knowledge,
new possibilities for articulating different types of intelligence that are unruly and cannot be disciplined by the
academic world.” He is arguing for expanding the universe of the kinds of art we look at beyond the academy and
outside art history. I have found in my practice that if we open up the gates that far it just doesn’t make sense to
then continue to exclude the greatest percentage of our society’s visual production, which is generally referred to as
visual culture. Things we make that are beautiful, interesting, emblematic, informative, worthy of scrutiny, that are not
art or considered art generally. We are not equating this material with art; we’re saying that the question of whether
it is art or not is not the driving force for us, all the time. It is this insight that has led Yerba Buena to produce
exhibitions that are one consistent thread in our programming, that are manifestations of what people are actually
doing and making and getting excited about in our communities.

The number one rule you’re taught in curator school is not to go over the line to thinking you’re an artist. I think in
most cases, and certainly within traditional practice, that is true and important. However, in order to take on these
kinds of projects it is necessary for the curator to take a more active stance. I don’t know if it is an artistic practice,
but it is more of an artistic practice than merely exercising connoisseurship. It probably is close to being an old-
fashioned impresario, crossed with the newer notion of a facilitator. In our experience, putting on such projects
involves responding to and/or assembling teams of community aficionados/experts as consulting curators. This can’t
be overemphasized because they often are the ones who push us to think of different approaches—beyond art
about bikes or by bikers, why not show bikes themselves or keep pushing the idea and show bike-related ephemera
like patches and ‘zines and outfits? Also it is vital to engage partners such as fringe commercial supporters (comics
stores, bike stores), relevant political groups (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition), new audiences (subscribers to
bike newsletters, Critical Mass enthusiasts), non-art institutions (environmental groups), academics (UC Berkeley
professor Iain A. Boal’s “Bicycle Roots”), including also other arts groups, media sponsors, et al., ad infinitum.
So the idea that has been radical for us is working with cultural participants to create an opportunity to celebrate
their achievements. We can guide their enthusiasm and expertise with our ability as outsiders to edit and bring to
bear our knowledge of display, organization, marketing, etc., as well as access to our facility and whatever
financial resources we can muster.

The image is of an institution that is no longer monolithic and stable, but rather involved in a constantly shifting
network of alliances, projects, communities, supporters, and partners. Our goal is to have an institutional identity
that is as contingent, in flux, fugitive, self-renewing, complex, and evolving as any individual’s identity.
Fr e d W i l s o n
Although an ever-changing phenomenon, museums move imperceptibly, almost
glacially. And as they move, they absorb new ideas along the way, freezing them
and fusing them with their own established ways of doing things.
In my own practice I’m interested in mixing genres, communities, popular culture, art and artifacts, etc., in a more
fluid way, and I’ve been doing this for quite a while. At the time I created Mining the Museum, 1992, at the Maryland
Historical Society, major art museums rarely made exhibitions that challenged the master narrative of the great white
male artist as genius, or group exhibitions of “treasures and masterpieces.” When they had previously tried organizing
unusual exhibitions, such as Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art, 1984, organized by William Rubin at the Museum
of Modern Art, New York, or Magiciens de la Terre, 1989, organized by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Pompidou Center,
Paris, they were roundly attacked from all sides, sending many into retreat. Though I agree with the critiques of these
exhibitions I do not agree that this was an indication that museums should give up trying to break out of the stale
environment they had become and maintain their status quo, as some would have liked.

I’m interested in how mainstream museums take in new curatorial ideas and then regurgitate them for the public.
Although my ego’s not so big as to allow me to take complete credit for all new ideas, I do feel like the work I’ve
done over the last fifteen years has had some impact on museums. Curating internationally is going through a
welcome change, but the road is a bumpy one. Curators in major museums are trying to diversify their exhibitions and
do things in ways that were unheard-of only fifteen years ago. I think what’s going on in international exhibitions,
organized mainly by independent curators in alternative museums and spaces, seems to display an understanding of
what’s at stake socially and culturally. Many national museums, however, have recently been engaging the public with
exhibition schedules that try to both organize exhibitions in a traditional way and create shows that mix things up a bit,
with, in my opinion, varying degrees of success. For the most part what I’m seeing makes me nervous. I would like to
mention a few exhibitions that stand out in my mind as ones whose problems are very emblematic of the state of
contemporary exhibition making in major American museums, and in this way instructive. Some of the curators are, I
think, fantastic and I always believe that we can grow by making problematic exhibitions. So this critique is not
intended to slap hands, but rather to encourage learning about things by doing them. The first exhibition I want to
mention is Black Romantic, 2002, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, organized by Thelma Golden, a really gifted
curator. Golden presented black artists engaging in the art world and those who work outside the mainstream but
often have a great deal of success within a black art market. All representational, a great deal of the art was
illustration or design based, focusing on popular themes relating to African-American culture. This work was shown
alongside artworks of subtle and complex African-American subject matter and visual invention, and I believe that the
curator acknowledged the distinction between the two in her essay, albeit in an oblique way. Due to that and the way
the exhibition was set up, it seemed to be an uneasy mix of an ethnographic study and the usual type of art museum
display based on aesthetic quality. It is confusing to create an exhibition in an art museum partially around a cultural
phenomenon and partially around the artworks’ aesthetic value, rather than combining the two. Forefronting cultural
phenomena over visual interest is reminiscent of an anthropologist’s—rather than an art curator’s—approach to
exhibition making.

Actually, I’ve been seeing these anthropological/art exhibitions a lot lately—they have become something of a cultural
phenomenon in themselves! Of course I am interested in an anthropological way of curating, but it might be best to
be clear about what constitutes examples of cultural phenomena that are instructive but lack vivid visual excitement,
and what is worth a second look as particularly interesting art and visual culture. Without clarity of intention this
approach can miseducate the public. An example of a successful visual art presentation that really struck me can be
found at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia. This museum is very clear about including current
indigenous artists’ works in its contemporary art galleries. While they might not be working within the international art-
making that we are more usually presented with, the museum sees these artists as contemporary and therefore part
of the dialogue about contemporary art, and it exhibits them alongside their European-descended Australian artistic
peers. That a similar dialogue has not taken place in recent years in American museums is to me a huge oversight, to
put it mildly. This is not only a problem of curating interesting exhibitions and the need to invigorate them, but also a
clear indication that there are artists who are being systematically overlooked.
And race is not the only area of oversight. Although you do see one or two so-called outsider artists occasionally
included in exhibitions—such as the mind-blowing carnival costumes in Beau Monde, 2001, at SITE Santa Fe and the
gorgeous African-American quilts in the last Whitney Biennial, 2002—these are the exception to the rule due to
fearless curators. Outsider artists’ relationships to current art practice—the fact that they are working in contemporary
times—is somehow not enough for them to have a dialogue within exhibitions of contemporary artists working in what
I call “the international style.” In fact, I’ve had ongoing conversations with outsider artists in Georgia and North
Carolina, who over the years have told me how they have to “act dumb” around collectors, who don’t want to know
that these artists actually communicate and compare notes. So they have to act like they are really alone, working in a
wilderness of their own minds.

The other exhibition that reminds me of Black Romantic is the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Guggenheim, New
York, 2001–2. The museum used the hackneyed “artist-as-genius” mold to present an artist eternally popular with
Americans, but ignored the obvious questions that might surround Norman Rockwell’s work. To me this is an
appropriation of what has been going on in alternative art exhibitions to insincere ends. Choosing a subject ignored by
the “high art” community, but one of mass appeal, and recasting an insider American illustrator as an “outsider” artist
could have been brilliant, if the museum confronted the complexity of the choice and educated its audience, rather
than just count the cash at the door. I think probably where the curators of the Rockwell show went astray was in not
really saying what they were trying to do, whereas Thelma Golden did.

Part of the problem is that (unfortunately) the public doesn’t expect a dialogue about society, fame, multiple art
markets, and parallel art worlds when they go to museums. Ironically, they don’t even expect to have to grapple with
aesthetics. The public expects one truth, the highest quality, and one way of thinking about an artist. This expectation
was created by the art market and is supported by the major museums themselves. They create “masterpieces and
treasures” exhibitions, which decide for the viewer what great art is, without explaining why (visually), and they
organize shows touting the artist-as-genius, as if “he” (quotation marks intended) were just born that way. This dumbs
down the public to believe they do not have to actively engage their own critical instincts, flex their own connoisseurship
muscles. They are not given the tools to understand that they have a role in their own aesthetic and cultural
development. In an art museum, ignorance is not bliss—and should not be. A museum could honestly explain who the
curators are, and how the environment within and without acted as the catalyst for its choice of exhibition. It could
discuss the philosophical concerns that determined its decisions. Simply opening up the process of exhibition making
for the public to understand might go a long way toward diffusing any frustration.

Occasionally major museums do flip into exhibition-as-dialogue mode in an effort to remain current with contemporary
exhibition-making trends, leaving the public to wonder, “Well, are we supposed to think this is great art? Is this what
the museum thinks? Who should we trust?” and causing further confusion. For example, the Museum of Modern Art,
New York, organized an exhibition for the millennium called MOMA 2000, which combined the art and design of
various departments of the museum, again with mixed results. The one problematic gallery I particularly remember is
the one where they combined works from the Painting and Sculpture Department with the Design Department, pairing
a Joseph Beuys felt suit with a designer suit. The meaning of the felt suit, even though explained on the label, was
evacuated from it because of the visual relationships being built up around the room. The visual almost always cancels
out attempts to modify the meaning with label text, if there is an inherent strength in what you see, especially if the
text and image are at odds. In contrast, a similar type of exhibition they did that really worked well was Ensor/Posada,
part of Modern Starts: People 1999–2000. Here a seemingly simplistic visual connection—between the use of
cadavers and skeletons in the work of the Belgian expressionist James Ensor, and that of his contemporary, the
Mexican folk artist Jose Guadalupe Posada—was supplemented by a very complex case for the relationship between
the artists and their work, which was extremely satisfying.

The first exhibition at the new MOMA QNS, for me, presented a similar problem albeit on a smaller scale. It was
called Tempo and each room had a theme. One room entitled “Time Elapsed” was a show about artists’ use of time
in their work. It used the visual to a fault, presenting works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cildo Mereiles, Matthew
McCaslin, Andrea Zittel, and several other artists, all of them using clocks, so that it really felt like a clock store in
there. The meaning of these works was, again, completely lost, because in the desire to have a theme and maintain
visual cohesion, the conceptual underpinning behind these objects that made them more than clock studies just
disappeared. Beau Monde, the SITE Santa Fe exhibition organized by Dave Hickey, was hands-down the most
beautiful exhibition I have ever seen. It had art, it had so-called crafts, it had folk/popular culture, and the exhibition
architecture itself was designed to inform your reception of the art. However, the beauty of the installation and the
beauty of the art rendered meaning subservient, nothing had to be culturally important or intellectually stimulating;
though outside of this context, they were. Everything was beautiful and colorful in the extreme, so visually dazzling it
had a numbing effect, subverting at least a good part of the artists’ intention. This to me was the most problematic
and reactionary use of what we’ve been doing with contemporary exhibition making in the last twenty years. The
exhibition included Ellsworth Kelly paintings paired with Ken Price ceramics, New Orleans carnival costumes next to
a Jessica Stockholder sculpture, Bridget Riley paintings, a Josiah McElheny glass installation, etc. It included works
that had some inferences of pornography, some inferences about the dark side of childhood, but you didn’t think
about any of that. It was like eating colorful cotton candy: you whomped it down and then wondered, what did I eat?
California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) MA Program in Curatorial Practice
1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107
www.ccac-art.edu

Editor: Leigh Markopoulos


Production Manager: Erin Lampe
Design: Richard Chang
Printing: Valencia Printing
Event Conception: Kate Fowle

Thanks to: Søren Andreasen, Nancy Crowley, Peter Fillingham, Michelle Grabner,
Matthew Higgs, Lars Bang Larsen, Erica Olsen, Renny Pritikin, David Robbins,
Shane Aslan Selzer, Eric Wesley, Fred Wilson, and Jonathan Yorba.

©2003 CCAC MA Program in Curatorial Practice and the authors

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