Wednesday, 21 March 2018

On safe spaces: Public Galleries Summit, Sydney, March 2018

A 10 minute presentation given as part of a panel discussion on current trends in the museum and gallery sectors at the Public Galleries Summit.

What I was going to talk about today

My original talk today was going to be a summary of trends and influences in the visual arts and museum sector, from the perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand, as a director and as a member of the Museums Aotearoa board.

But when I sat down to write that talk, it didn’t feel very urgent. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to try to organise the thoughts I’ve been having recently about the changing cultural moment that museums – and specifically, in my case, art museums – are working in.

Please bear with me, as this territory is complex, and I am still struggling to find the language needed to turn what I am sensing into something I can clearly explain.

Four case studies

2017 and the beginning of 2018 saw a series of controversies play out in contemporary art galleries – situations where artists, activists and indigenous groups protested museums’ activities and decisions. These events have given rise to freshly invigorated discussions about censorship, cultural appropriation, and the power imbalances that pervade society and museums.

To give a brief rundown of a few of the most well-known examples:

Let’s start with Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which was to be installed in a massive revamp of the famous sculpture garden at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis.

The work was based on gallows used in seven state-sanctioned executions conducted around the world between 1859 and 2006. This included the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in 1862, in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from the museum.

The Dakota community learned of the sculpture only when promotion of its installation began. Dakota people assembled to protest at the construction site, and after a series of facilitated meetings, the museum’s director Olga Viso and the artist agreed that the sculpture and its IP would be handed over to tribal elders to dispose of as they wished.

The museum had failed to conduct any discussions with Dakota groups prior to this. The work had originally been commissioned for documenta 2012, and in an open letter of apology Durant wrote:
I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations.  
Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.

* * *

Second, Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, included in the Whitney Biennial.

This abstract painting is based on posthumous images of Emmett Till, the black American teenager who was brutally lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that his body be presented at his funeral unembalmed and undoctored; photographs from the funeral ran in two African-American publications.

Schutz’s painting had been shown in Berlin without comment before being presented at the Whitney.

The work triggered a vast array of responses, centred on who has the right to work with which stories and histories, and where the line lies between censorship and perpetuating violence.

Parker Bright, a black artist, conducted a series of peaceful protests in front of the painting, standing before it blocking other visitors’ view, wearing a t-shirt that read "Black Death Spectacle”, livestreaming his protest on Facebook.

British artist Hannah Black posted a widely-circulated open letter online that demanded the work be removed and destroyed. "It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun," she wrote.

When interviewed while still working on the painting in 2016, Schutz had said it had been made in the context of Trump’s presidential campaign and a media coverage of shootings of black men by police officers. She expressed hesitancy about taking the images of Till’s face as her subject matter, saying to The New Yorker writer Calvin Tompkins “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

In a statement following the opening of the Biennial, Schutz said:
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother. 
Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
The painting remained on display throughout the Biennial, with alterations to the wall label that noted the protests.

I find both the Sam Durant and the Dana Schutz examples compelling and concerning because in both cases, the artists were trying to use art to think through and present issues of violence, racism and oppression. These were not casually created or presented, or made by naïve people. They were presented at two of America’s leading contemporary art museums. The art works had both been previously presented without controversy. The museums were seemingly unprepared for the response.

* * *

Another example of the use of social media to protest art museums’ activities came in December last year. Mia Merrill started an online petition asking the Met to either take down Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 painting by Polish artist Balthus depicting his 12 or 13 year-old subject in a dreamy-slash-suggestive pose, or to provide better contextulisation for the work.

Merrill noted that Balthus had a well-known tendency to form relationships with pubescent girls who he used as models and that that it could be argued that this painting romanticises the sexualisation of a child. She wrote:
Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.
The petition is thoughtfully worded and Merrill is clear that she is not asking for the work to be destroyed or even necessarily taken down – just that visitors be given more information about the background of the artist who made it.

As with Hannah Black’s open letter, Merrill’s petition occasioned reams of online coverage. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for The Guardian, wrote that if we started removing art from museums that depicts sexual violence – or simply sexual and gender power imbalances –we’d rapidly start running out of things to show. He argued:
Merrill’s petition confuses acts and images in a way that is deeply dangerous. Art and life are related, but they are not the same. A painting is not an assault. It’s just a painting – even when the content and style seem utterly offensive, you can walk away, leaving it to gather dust on the museum wall.
Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post art critic, wrote, more cogently:
... the petition goes wrong when it argues that the painting should be removed from view now because of the larger and still unfolding scandals of sexual abuse in the media, entertainment, arts and political worlds. Now is precisely not the time to start removing art from walls, books from shelves, music from the radio or films from distribution. The focus should be on the social structures that perpetuate abuse and the people, mostly men, who commit it. 
We must deal with sexual harassment and sexual abuse without losing all that was gained during the sexual liberation of the last century. And we are at a critical moment in that process. Men who would lose everything if their past abuses come to light would love to see this cultural firestorm snuffed out before they are exposed. But there are forces, particularly on the academic left, that reflexively resort to censorship as a quick and easy solution to social oppression.

The danger in the wings is a new Puritanism that would only increase the shame surrounding sexuality (a convenient weapon wielded by abusers) while undoing the painful, 20th-century process of deregulating sexuality from religion and heterosexual male power.
* * *

This year, a fresh controversy has broken out around senior American artist Chuck Close, after a number of women have alleged he harrassed them when they were modelling for him. A New York Times article by Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler collected responses from a variety of museum leaders on whether, like Balthus, Close’s work should be taken off display or displayed with a warning.

Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, is quoted as saying:
How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave? Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?
And Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, said:
By taking action in the form of canceling an exhibition or removing art from the walls, a museum is creating an understanding of an artist’s work only through the prism of reprehensible behavior. If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth — and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.
All this has got me thinking

And this is what I am thinking about these days. The fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be. And especially, I have been thinking about that line that has often been trotted out when museums face controversy over the artists that they show and collect: that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.

The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, is quoted this month in an article by Julia Halperin looking back on 2017’s controversies, saying:
It’s about a contest of ideas—and this is where ideas are displayed and contested and seen, and it’s also, to a degree, safe territory
All these works – Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, and yes – Chuck Close, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin; all these works are unsafe in some way. For several decades now we have acted as if somehow museums are a neutralising force, a separate space into which people can enter and somehow engage differently with these works and these ideas than they would elsewhere. And to some extent that is true, and that is what we have taught our audience to expect: it is true, because we have made it so.

But what these examples all show is that museums are still capable of doing violence – unknowingly, or thoughtlessly, or because we value the presentation of art and art history over the individuals, communities and cultures who may have been harmed in its making, and may continue to be harmed in its public display.

We are missionaries for contemporary art, with all that implies – and I think that this the most pressing issue for us to grapple with at this moment.

References that informed or are cited in this talk

Carey Dunne, Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles, Hyperallergic, 22 December 2015

Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading, 15 October 2016 (a round-up of pieces on the protests over Kelley Walker's 2016 survey exhibition at CAM, St Louis)

Randy Kennedy, White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests, The New York Times, 21 March 2017

Calvin Tompkins, Why Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till, The New Yorker, 10 April 2017

Olga Viso, Learning in Public: An Open Letter on Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Walker Art Centre, 26 May 2017

Sam Durant, Statement on Scaffold, 27 May 2017

Andrea K. Scott, Does an offensive sculpture deserve to be burned, The New Yorker, June 3 2017

Courtney Johnston, Long weekend reading: The Scaffold issue, 4 June 2017 (a round-up of coverage of Sam Durant's The Scaffold)

Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading: the Confederate statues edition, 18 August 2017 (a round-up of coverage of the protests around, the removal of, and counter-protests against the removal of, Confederate monuments)

Mia Merrill, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus' Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming, Care2 Petitions, Decemeber 2017

Philip Kennicott, This painting might be sexually disturbing. But that’s no reason to take it out of a museumThe Washington Post, 5 December 2017

Gina Bellafante, We Need to Talk About Balthus, The New York Times, 8 December 2017

Jonathan Jones, Arguing over art is right but trying to ban it is the work of fascistsThe Guardian, 8 December 2017

Lauren Elkin, Showing Balthus at the Met Isn’t About Voyeurism, It’s About the Right to Unsettle, Quartz, 19 December 2017

Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler, Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?The New York Times, 28 January 2018

Cody Delistraty, The Problem With Chuck Close, The New York Times, 30 January 2018

Linda Holmes, 'A.P. Bio' And The Complications Of Context, N.P.R., 1 February 2018

Courtney Johnston, In this current climate, 6 February 2018 (a round-up of coverage on Chuck Close, and also the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) from the Victorian galleries at Manchester Art Gallery by artist Sonia Boyce)

Julia Halperin, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, Artnet News, 6 March 2018

Various authors, Museums and #MeToo, Walker Art Centre, 7 March 2018

Susan Goldberg, For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It, National Geographic 

Siddhartha Mitter, After "Open Casket": What Emmett Till teaches us today,  The Village Voice, 12 March 2018

Priscilla Frank, The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help, HuffPost, 20 March 2017

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Reading list, 17 March 2018

Re-upping this Julia Halperin piece, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, because is makes perfect companion reading to this set of 5 takes on Museums and #MeToo from the Walker, featuring an artist, director, critic, educator and journalist writing about museums showing the works of artists who are alleged (or actual) harassers.

I've been strongly influenced by Maciej Ceglowski's thinking, and his recent foray into fundraising for Democratic candidates in tilt-able districts is fascinating.
The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations. The discrepancy with regard to the understanding of what a copy is has often led to misunderstandings and arguments between China and Western museums. The Chinese often send copies abroad instead of originals, in the firm belief that they are not essentially different from the originals. The rejection that then comes from the Western museums is perceived by the Chinese as an insult.
Byung-Chul Han, The copy is the original, Aeon Magazine

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne is leaving the LA Times to become the city's chief design officer, sitting inside the mayor's office alongside roles like chief data officer and chief sustainability officer.

Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic, writes about commissioning writers to investigate the magazine's own biases and racism for their new issue on race.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Reading list, 10 March 2018

Read this, if you read nothing else: Julia Halperin's round-up of comments from directors and curators for artnet News, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever

A new study finds regular arts-focused field trips are correlated with improved student performance across a range of measures, attributed possibly to students being more engaged at school.

After experimenting with smart-watch interpretation for their permanent collection galleries, the Barnes Foundation finds human guides get the best response from visitors.

Texas Forever

From Hyperallergic: Seph Rodney's Is Art Museum Attendance Declining Across the US? and Bob Beatty's Running the Numbers on Attendance at History Museums in the US.

What's the microfiche for digital news? The internet isn't forever, by Maria Bustillos for Longreads.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Reading list, March 3 2018

'Would you burn the Mona Lisa if it was sent?' - a detailed and really interesting account, less of how Australian biosecurity ended up destroying 18th century French botanical specimens collected in Australia, and more of how botany has worked over the last 300-ish years and how the international research community (used to, anyway) share specimen.

The Albright-Knox Museum is co-running a work skills development course based around carpentry, bringing a kaupapa of creativity and artistry that creates pride in people's work. Best of all, they have a three year plan to exit and hand over the mahi to a new non-profit.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Reading list, 24 February 2018

A thorough review by Roberta Smith for the NYT of “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at Washington's National Gallery of Art. Five years in development, curator Lynne Cook has chosen to focus on three periods of the 100 years when 'taught' and 'self-taught' artists and practices overlapped. I wish I could see this show, it sounds like a great model for a exhibition that is overdue in Aotearoa.

Steve Braunias rounds up pay rates for book reviews across New Zealand publications.

The second part of that Charles Venables interview (part 1 here). His observations about smaller galleries, smaller exhibitions and smaller collections are very interesting in terms of contemporary museums' bigger-bigger-best focus.

Interjection: I think one thing to remember when reading about this refashioning of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is that (a) it does have these beautiful adjoining gardens to make the most of but also that (b) it's on a (from the perspective of a public-transport-inclined New Zealander) godforsaken highway on the outskirts of Indianapolis, sandwiched between a cemetery and a country club, and more like the Gibbs farm than MOMA in terms of its accessibility and the likelihood you'd just drop in for a half-hour browse. It makes sense to think of it as an entertainment campus. It doesn't necessarily make sense to think of it as a model for the future of museums (unless you happen to own a 550-seat theatre and some spacious gardens as well as a museum with an outstanding collection and acres of exhibition space ....).

And a fascinating response to the Venables interview from Tim Schneider, looking at the longer 9but actually reasonably short) history of our current Western museum model: Why Newfields, the Museum the Art World Loves to Hate, Was Inevitable (and Other Insights).

Musing on the dearth of leadership development programmes for arts leaders in Canada.

Following the Pantograph Punch's announcement that is is going to reduce the amount published, pay contributors better and stop running reviews, the site's editor Lana Lopesi writes persuasively on the necessity of reviews for an informed culture. I'm of course chair of the PP board, and my decision to stand (and to originate The Dowse's partnership with the site) was strongly influenced by my belief that we need to find new ways of funding criticism.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Reading list, 17 February 2018

Turns out if I don't write these posts regularly I just end up with dozens of open tabs waiting for my attention ...

Michael Parry of MAAS has written a thorough and really fascinating review of Melbourne Museum's flagship summer exhibition Inside Out. It's especially interesting because he's woven together his experience visiting the show with his experience in a senior leadership role developing such shows. It's a terrific model of a professional, constructively critical response to an important exhibition.

The Wireless gets into sexism and Wikipedia. I respond with a Twitter thread so long and dull that I'd probably recommend it only if you're looking to nod off. But speaking from my own experience - the sexism that exists within parts of the community is not nearly as off putting to new editors as the utterly arcane structure of Wikipedia and the difficulty of mastering the wiki software if you're not a person who finds computers intuitive.

On my lengthy to-read list -Making the Case for Philanthropic Support for Advocacy from Philanthropy Australia.

Take this MediaWatch segment on dwindling mainstream media sports coverage, replace every use of the word 'sports' with 'arts, transport the piece back to 2008, and you can see how we wound up today with barely any intelligent coverage of any arts form (except book reviews, which makes them - rugby?) featured in our daily papers.

A new review of UK museums by historian David Cannadine finds that 'except in the case of the national museums, collecting for most museums and galleries is no more than a marginal activity.'

This is going to get a lot of play in the profession: Charles Venables, director since 2012 of Newfields (the new umbrella brand for the Indianapolis Museum of Art & its attached gardens and hospitality experiences) on the dramatic changes he has made since coming in after previous director Maxwell Anderson (who went to the Dallas Museum of Art, to continue his own data-led experiments, and left there in like 2016? 2017?):
You asked earlier what were some of the “aha” moments when we were talking to consultants? Well, we found out that 52 percent of people in our metropolitan area who demographically look like they should be art museum visitors never came to the art museum, ever. Ninety-four percent of them knew about it, and where it was located, but they never chose to go there! So, we went and asked some of these people why they didn’t visit, and they basically said it was because they wanted to be social and they didn’t want their friends to say, “You wasted my precious Friday night with a boring, static art-museum experience.”
The IMA and the Anderson / Venables eras are going to make fantastic research areas in a few years.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Reading list, 16 December 2017

A beautiful piece in the NYT's 'One Little Thing' series by Jason Farago on Manet's Mademoiselle V … in the Costume of an Espada.

Daniel Penny's long essay comparing our current Instagram moment with the development of the picturesque drifts towards the end, but is good up top.

I still hope to revive the idea of an art podcast sometime, and when I do this guide from NPR's Alison MacAdam will be getting a lot of exercise: The journey from print to radio storytelling: A guide for navigating a new landscape.

It's a long path between a speech and legislative change, but French president Emmanuel Macron has made some strong statements about repatriations to African nations.

The Odyssey's most recent translator, Emily Wilson, on its 'complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us'.

Boris Kachka for Vulture on The Director and the Pharaoh: How Thomas Hoving Created the Museum Blockbuster.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Reading list, 9 December 2017

The National Museum of African American History's community curation project, digitising family collections and archives.

'How a Trove of Nazi Art Wound Up Under Lock and Key on an Army Base in Virginia' in the Washingtonian

"Conserving a building’s skin while destroying its heart isn’t historic preservation. It’s taxidermy." - Feargus O'Sullivan in Citylab on the V&A's acquisition of part of a 1960s social housing project.

I've really enjoyed Philip Kennicott's writing this year. Here's another: The new Bible museum tells a clear, powerful story. And it could change the museum business.

And on the topic of new museums, from Holland Cotter: Louvre Abu Dhabi, an Arabic-Galactic Wonder, Revises Art History

Ignore the bombastic title - this piece on artist educators at PAMM (Pérez Art Museum, Miami) is really interesting.

Everything I hate about the current fixing-art-with-apps conversation in one handy article.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Reading list, 11 November 2017

I find the current musings on shapeless women's clothes quite intriguing: Modest Dressing,
as a Virtue (bonus for gallery assistant viewpoint on selling art, not sexual availability)

Alexandra Lange has a fascinating take on the Museum of Icecream, through the lens of play theory

Kyle Chayka's article on the 40th anniversary on Walter De Maria's Earth Room is actually a lovely feature on the man who cares the the installation

A gorgeous interview with classicist Emily Wilson in the NYT: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Reading list, 4 November 2017

Carolee Schneeman on developing 'Double Knowledge' - "the knowledge I knew I had to live by and [the] knowledge that the wall of male culture insisted was appropriate, but that was not true to my experience." (A funnier and more touching article than that extract might have you assume.)

Jerry Saltz's tribute to art historian Linda Nochlin, who died at the end of October.

Fiona Clark recalls the gay and drag scene of 1970s Auckland for The Spinoff.

The Remai Modern in Saskatoon (headed by ex-GBAG director Gregory Burke) is ready to open.

On Racked: ‘Menocore’ Is as Much About Wealth as It Is About Age by Sara Tatyana Bernstein. You start off thinking "God, now I have another fashion mistake to worry about' and end up having a fascinating insight into social trends.

A ghastly story of historical child abuse from Tuam, Ireland, told by the New York Times with matching gothic gifs and photographs.

On the new Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town, and musings on whether a private museum can do more public good than restricted government-funded museums.

You only need so many articles about mid-century apartments laid out with astonishing art, but this is a good one.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Reading list, 21 October 2017

The New Zealand Labour party's Arts, Culture and Heritage election manifesto

Why fancy restaurants have Aesop soap in their bathrooms

Artsy previews the 2017 Culture Track report: "The number one barrier to all forms of cultural participation? “It’s not for someone like me”."

Article of the week: Philip Kennicott on the best gallery bench placements in Washington.

'Wim Wenders on his Polaroids – and why photography is now over'

A great article about outreach at the world's first museum of Somali culture, in Minnesota

Beatrix Ruf resigns from the Stedelijk Museum after media stories about her conflicts of interest around deals with collectors and her art advisory business: New York Times and artnet news.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Reading list, 14 October 2017

Wesley Morris for the New York Times, on three months spent listening only to albums by women, inspired by NPR's 'Turning the Tables' list.

Former Canadian art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario Andrew Hunter explains why he quit his job. (Sort of. I mean, it's never really stated in terms of "I quit so that X would hopefully happen." It's more "I couldn't effect any more change so I left". I think.)

The Julian Schnabel comeback machine.

Kickstarter has started facilitating commissioning alongside crowdfundraising.

On sleeper hunters (curators, dealers and connoisseurs who haunt auction websites looking for mis-attributed works).

A brutal (and somewhat relieving) take on Instagram influencers.

"My problem is what it represents as a first corporate commissioned artwork of sorts that is designed to open the way for a market invasion of 3D geo-tagged branding entertainment and advertising." Artist Sebastian Errazuriz finds a way to digitally vandalise Jeff Koon's Snapchat sculptures.