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.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


I've been sitting on these four tabs for weeks now, trying to come up with the appropriate response. And after those weeks, my overall response is - meh. "Crowd-curated", or public-picking, exhibitions are a bit of a thing right now - intrinsically, I don't think they're any more harmful than exhibitions themed on colour, or animals, or size, or any other topic that doesn't tend to generate much deeper thought about the artworks included.

I don't think this is a big trend, nor a "risky" one. In contemporary art, at the very least, when working with living artists (which is what New Zealand galleries spend the majority of their time doing), participatory practices tend to be initiated or adopted by the artist/s involved, not that institution.

In late October the Wall Street Journal published an article by Ellen Gamerman on crowd-sourced exhibitions. She gives a number of examples of exhibitions, ranging from the contribute-your-own-work genre to the vote-for-your-favourite vein, and canvases museum professionals who are pro, anti, and undecided on the topic. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, helmed by Nina Simon, is prominently discussed in the piece, which states
The trend is sparking a growing debate among artists, curators and other art-world professionals about everything from where to draw the line between amateurs and experts to what even constitutes a crowdsourced show. How far can museums go in delegating choices to the public? How tightly should they control the voting on exhibit content? And at what point does a museum start looking too much like a community center? 
In a long blog post Ed Rodley takes Gamerman to task for creating "this false tension between scholarship and popularity/financial gain" and featuring "a ton of generational baiting", but notes that it also contains "some fascinating observations about the museum industry today". He summarises
Probably the biggest takeaway a novice museumgoer might glean from the article is that there’s this conflict going on in museums between curators and people interested in art and learning on one side, and young popularists, interested in…something… on the other side. The dominant narrative is that proponents of participatory projects are only interested in getting bodies in the door.  
Paul Orselli also tackled the issue, drawing, I think, a false dichotomy between generations of museum professionals - stuffy hanging-on-by-their-fingernails traditionalists and innovative newer professionals desperately banging their heads against the baffled and baffling management class. He writes
When I first started working in museums over 30 years ago, I thought I could I could just "wait out" the Old Guard, but in some ways, I feel like I'm still waiting.  There's an obstreperous and intransigent lot that seems like they'll never get off the stage and give the younger people coming up behind them a chance to help the museum field grow and evolve.
To which I'd say that in my experience the philosophies of museum professionals tend to be less driven by age than by the ideas and experiences they chose to value and give their attention to. Take, for example, if you were there, Anthony Byrt and Sarah Farrar fighting for the value of the encounter with the physical object in the physical museum when Jim Barr dropped the 'surely museums are just going to become defunct in the internet age' provocation on them at a panel discussion in Simon Denny's show at the Adam a few weeks ago.

Finally, Nina Simon wrote a response to Gamerman's article, in which she pointed out that director and curator voices are prominent in the piece, but none of the people who form "the crowd". She also struggles to find a better capture-code for this kind of activity, seeing the 'crowd' bit as somewhat cynical (driven by boosting ticket sales or visitor numbers).

After reading all the articles several times, and again just now, I once again conclude - meh. It's a topic worth talking about, I agree, but best discussed in the context of ALL the different ways we - whoever 'we' is - might make exhibitions. Single it out and it stops making much sense. Contextualise it, and we might have more of a conversation.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Long read

This New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson on Anne Marie Gardner, founder and editor of 'Modern Farmer' magazine, is fascinating on two levels.

The first is her description of the publication as 'less a magazine than an emblem of “an international life-style brand"' - a device that pulls together a bunch of similar niche audiences she refers to as 'rurbanistas'.

The second is the detail Wilkinson got around Gardner's battle with VC funder Frank Giustra for a second capital injection six issues into the magazine's (money-losing) life.

I haven't heard of a VC-backed publication in New Zealand (though I'm happy to be better informed). I occasionally daydream of what a new visual arts periodical might look like - this article is a solid reminder that dreams are free but staff, printing and distribution really aren't.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Panhandling or performing?

Dance articles are my kryptonite. I know bugger all about dance, but I love reading about it - from street style to notation for choreography. So, in that vein, a long piece about New York's subway dancers and the legal issues now surrounding this practice under Bill de Blasio's mayorship.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Yup, that'd be the boss

"Mr. Penny’s body language, sighs and restrained impatience make it obvious that he is the boss"

From a NYT review of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary about London's National Gallery.