Thursday, 22 January 2015

Confirming that there are few things worse than listening to your own voice

This week's edition of The Dowse podcast sees Sasha and Cat embark on their mission to demystify museum jobs by talking to me about being a first-time director.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Yo Yo Yo

Today was a good day at work for a few reasons. One of the big ones was that we launched a new experiment - The Dowse Podcast.

The podcast is designed to be a short, quite playful look at the workings of the art world and art galleries. You can read more in this blogpost.

I'm thrilled about the podcast for two reasons. The main one is that Sasha Greig (front of house host) and Cat Auburn (exhibition preparator) have taken this idea from pitch to reality. This isn't a comms or curatorial project - it's two people who are interested and interesting, trying a new way to share The Dowse spirit.

The second, smaller, reason is that Sasha and Cat agreed to call the inaugural podcast Yo Yo Yo when I asked them to :)

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Every so often, I toy with the idea of a PhD.* I don't know what it would be on, exactly, but it would be something to do with tracing webs of connections - whether that's relationships between changes in arts funding and arts practice, or the way curators/directors have moved around the country and how that's influenced programming, or a study on women in the museums profession, or the movements in influence between Dunedin at the start of the 20th century, Christchurch in the 1930s-1950s and Auckland from the 1960s onwards. History, so far as I can make out, is the outcome of the jostling of personality, social connections, opportunity and hazard, and I'd like to test that idea against some research and data.

I'm thinking about that this weekend as I've been reading this NYT article on MOMA's Object:Photo project. A 'multi-platform' project (exhibition, book, website and symposium) that's taken four years to develop, it is based the Thomas Walther Collection of ~300 photographs from the 1920s and 1930s which MOMA acquired in 2001. As with our present moment, that period was one of rapid technological development and new infrastructures and conversations sprang up around photography.

MOMA's team has taken the collection as a microcosm through which to explore the moment. I can't speak for any of the other formats, but the website is what's got me thinking about the connections that are the building blocks of art history. Using the Visualization section of the site you can compare photo techniques and trace artist's geographical movements. But the most interest tool lets you trace connections between artists, by school, major exhibitions, cultural hubs, photo industry hubs and publications, allowing you to ask questions like which artists identified with the Bauhaus movement also worked for Vogue? 

As I continue to chip away on our Wikipedia project at The Dowse, I've realised that 'joining up' pages are very important to the endeavour. We needed, for example, a page about the New Vision Gallery to flesh out the early careers of many artists. A page was needed on Bone Stone Shell. I'm currently pulling info together one about the Portage Awards, and we've added info about the Arts Foundation Laureate Awards and the Creative New Zealand Craft/Objects Art Fellowship and Pacific Arts Awards, all to provide greater context.

What's missing though are the generational and social connections, and that's where I could see something like MOMA's project being really interesting for New Zealand art history. So much to ponder.

*The reason I think I couldn't ever undertake a PhD is that I've discovered I really like to work collaboratively - or even more accurately, socially - on projects, and I don't think I could apply myself to such a solitary task for such a long time. If however a way of taking on PhDs in a more collaborative way emerges, I'll be there with boots on.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Some things I read this morning

37-year-old curator Dr Nicholas Cullinan has been announced as the new director of London's National Portrait Gallery, the 12th in its 158-year history. Currently a curator at the Met, and co-curator of the Matisse cut-outs show, Cullinan worked as a host at the Portrait Gallery in his early 20s. Cue Drake.

artnet News asked 20 women in the visual arts whether the art world is biased.

I've been lucky enough to work only under women directors but all the institutions they inherited had an annual budget of $15 million or less, which is the glass ceiling of female women directorships. Sexism is a broad problem that cannot be reduced to simply men oppressing women, but is about the set of expectations we have and the goals we set for each other that need serious reevaluation.
—Naomi Beckwith, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
George Oates, now of Good Form & Spectacle, has worked with Tom Armitage to create the V&A Spelunker, a way of mining through the V&A's vast collections using the fields in the collection catalogue that a 'normal human' could interpret. I'm particularly interested by what George says in her blog post about the Date Graph, where they have matched up 'data created' with 'date acquired'.

Perhaps because I've spent a lot of time with digitised collections, or because I'm not easily swayed by visualisations and maps and graphs, I find it hard to get extremely excited about these projects, but that feature really does trigger insights about how the collection has developed, and gets you asking questions.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ummm. Hmmm. Yeah.

I'm finding Ellen Gamerman's series of articles about trends in American museums for the Wall Street Journal interesting, but weirdly - slanted? It's hard to put my finger on it, but there's a vague air throughout them that museums are out to exploit the punters. (See this earlier piece on crowd-curating & the online responses.)

Gamerman's latest is on museums and visitor data, and the moves (led by the Dallas Museum of Art) to use various forms of tracking to learn more about visitor behaviour. None of this is news to me, or particularly unsettling (the comment about the MIA's programming changes in response to visitor surveys aside) but if I was a punter and not a professional I'd probably feel well creeped out.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Learning WIkipedia

This month at The Dowse we've officially launched a summer Wikipedia project, researching and adding biographical entries for New Zealand craft/applied art artists to the site.

We've learned a lot already, and we're going to be regularly blogging about the project. I didn't expect to be very hands-on with the project - in fact, I was quite scared of the Wikipedia culture and frankly have been avoiding it for years now.

However, I've been sucked in, and over the last few weekends I've found myself diligently at my laptop, doing battle with rules around notability and wiki mark-up to create and edit pages. There's a real satisfaction to creating something that 30 or 40 minutes ago didn't exist - putting Alan Preston or Tanya Ashken or Manos Nathan into a place where I feel they belong - and more importantly, a place where they become more discoverable to the world.

If you want to follow progress - or join in! - there's also a scratchpad on Wikipedia itself you can review and add to.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Things you should read

For a Wellingtonian, I've bought an unusual number of copies of Metro magazine this year, and that's credit to the room they're giving arts writer Anthony Byrt for pieces like this: Why Michael Parekowhai’s State House Sculpture is Worth Celebrating.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The American system

“A $10,000 gift to a smaller museum can make a huge impact, and the donor will see a deeper engagement with the institution. To get to that level at one of the larger institutions, you have to give millions.” 
That’s a fine final point. For all of the glory bestowed on a trustee at one of the august museums on our list, moderately wealthy benefactors would be wise to be contrarians. Their time, money, and collection are likely to be treated better, have more impact, and serve society better when put to work at a regional or local museum.

The American system of museum fundraising and patronage just fascinates me. This article in Barrons outlines how American museums have recovered from the GFC and subsequent withering of their endowments.

Sunday, 30 November 2014


The New Republic has just released a (beautifully laid out) 100 Years 100 Thinkers, which includes five artists: Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Balthus and Mondrian.

No Duchamp, no Malevich; no Kahlo, Bourgeois or Abramovic; no Warhol, Hirst or Koons; no photographers. Lists, huh?

Friday, 28 November 2014

Shock value

At the NDF conference this week, the audience was divided* by the final keynote, MONA lead designer Leigh Carmichael, who talked about how the museum is driven by David Walsh's vision and personality, how it eschews traditional marketing in favour of spectacle and spectacular events, and nudity and vaginas.

MONA is clearly an adult museum, and - though I haven't visited yet - I like that about it. It is definitively not for everyone, and proudly so. Walsh seems to me to be a fantastic hedonist, and the collection and experience he has built reflect that.

Still, Carmichael's slides and videos - slick, black, and on the artful side of explicit - raised hackles both on the basis of being hard to read from a distance, AND full of content that some felt was NSFW/conference. (The slide titled 'Cunts ... and other conversations', after one of the works in Walsh's collection, in particular.) Not to mention some sanctimony around the funding source for the museum (Walsh's gambling syndicate income, which - if you read his recent bio - he's trying to pull back from so the museum can through its various revenue-generating activities, be sustainable).

I was startled by the level of outcry. Sure, there was bravado and bombast, but that's MONA. But to instantly jump to the 'porn not art' and 'what a load of pretentious wank' discounts both some very good art, some very skillful museum making, and some outstanding (whatever you call it) marketing.

But shock value drives MONA. I was reminded of a story I read when I was researching my thesis on Peter Tomory, second director of the Auckland Art Gallery. When the Gallery brought in the Henry Moore show in 1956 Tomory, concerned the exhibition would get the visitor numbers they wanted, got one of the staff (I think, from memory, Peter Webb, but I might be wrong) to call the Mayor's office and phew outrage done the phone line over the barbaric art going on display at the Gallery. The Mayor predictably decried the show to the newspapers, and the Gallery sat back and counted the river of visitors.

And I was reminded again when I read this article by Alastair Sooke on the second showing of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary in New York. Fifteen years ago, when the work was shown at Brooklyn Museum as part of Sensation, then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described the show (sight unseen) as "sick stuff", called Ofili's work out as particularly offensive, and suggested the Museum's funding should be cut off.

Now part of a mid-career survey at the New Museum, Ofili has received nothing but praise. The curator suggests it may be that the work is better contextualised within his practice; or that the true elephant in the room was the depiction of the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Sooke's thread is that Giuliani dominated the media cycle - there was no coming back from "people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary". Words and images, huh? 

*Divided is a strong word. The tweet stream carried a lot of condemnation, but the insta-outrage of the quick-fingered on Twitter is one of the reasons why I'm going off it.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The pull flower

Ms. Ventimiglia was referring to a moment that is now almost standard in the curtain-call ritual, whereby after receiving her bouquet, the ballerina pulls out one flower, kisses it and presents it to her partner. (“City Ballet ballerinas don’t do that,” Ms. Koolish said dismissively.)
Red pins at dealer galleries aside, the art world is kind of low on rituals. Which might be why I liked this NYT article on the protocols of giving flowers to dancers so much. That, and a lingering love for Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

You’re nobunny till somebunny loves you

Like some kind of WASPy counterpoint to Simon Denny's The personal effects of Kim Dotcom, this NYT account of the auction of Bunny (Rachel Lambert) Mellon's household goods makes strangely transfixing reading.