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.

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