Monday 31 May 2010

Crazy beautiful

One of the reasons I continue to buy print books - and believe that I will, even when all the ebook readers reach our shores - is simply that I like the way they look on their shelves. And I like walking past my books on my shelves, and thinking about them. I recently read this article about the joys of leaving books unread, and while I wouldn't go quite that far, I do like catching glimpses of books on my shelves that I'm saving for the right moment, or will return to when necessary.

I think that's part of the reason why this (s)lavish recreation of Donald Judd's library appeals to me so much.

Partly it's because yes, the books you acquire and keep over a lifetime of reading and thinking become an aggregate that says something about the person you have become.

And partly it's because someone at the Judd foundation didn't think it was enough to simply catalogue all 10,720 titles. Instead, they thought it was important that we be able to see a shelf-by-shelf, book-by-book facsimile of the two rooms of Judd's library, and the placement of every single item. It's magnificent, and a wee bit insane.

Friday 28 May 2010

Pick a path

Best of lists always create antagonism (unless the list in question is this year's Turner or Walters prize finalists, both of which have pretty much disappeared without creating a ripple).

These lists of the Best Children's Books Ever by Lucy Mangan for The Guardian certainly raised ire as well as endorsement in the comments section. But debate's part of the fun, right? Why pick Matilda over Danny, Champion of the World (or Boy) - and so on, and so on.

I can't speak for the books for wee kids, but I think the lists for 8-12 and 12 and over are real gems. I particularly like the way recent books (Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, for example) are mixed with the often-snobbishly-overlooked (come on, what girl didn't feel secretly relieved upon reading Are you there God? It's me, Margaret) and the classics - The Borrowers, I Capture the Castle.

Sure, if I were including a saccharine morality tale for girls I might have gone for A Little Princess over Little Women (only because I still resent Jo's decision - why, Jo? For the love of god, WHY?) . I would have liked to see either Ursula Le Guin or Madeleine L'Engle in there. And naturally, I'm pissed that The Sword in the Stone - hands down best children's book ever - doesn't feature. But nonetheless, you should check the lists out.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Let them down easy

Or, if you prefer a Human League earworm with your internet browsing ... don't you want me baby? don't you want me ooooo-oooooh?

A WSJ article about when and how museums say 'no' to donations has some interesting numbers:

13: the number of works Cleveland Museum of Art has returned to Italy because their provenance has been questionable. Solid histories of ownership, especially around antiquities and works that have come from Europe in the Second World War period, are an important consideration for potential donations.

1/3: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' estimated turn-down rate

9/10: Houston Museum of Fine Arts' estimated turn-down rate

3: number of years an institution must hold a 'commodity' (an item that is donated but not accessioned into the collection) to qualify as a tax-deductible donation from the IRS after its sale

The article also gives some examples of the need to be very clear when rejecting offers:

In the mid-1970s, a Florida resident contacted a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, offering to sell a purported Rembrandt. The curator, who knew the picture wasn't by that artist, gently declined the opportunity to buy "the painting by Rembrandt." The curator was unaware that the work's owner would use her words to proclaim that the painting must be authentic. For years, she found herself explaining to one Rembrandt expert or another what she had meant.

On the same day I saw this article, I saw a response by Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar to a Jonathan Jones column on museums' declining purchasing power. Deuchar cited a recent Art Fund survey of museums and galleries in which 75% of respondents cited a lack of funding as the main barrier to collecting, and only 2% saw acquiring new work as a top priority. Deuchar made an interesting point:

Take away acquisitions and you take away one of a curator's reasons for living. So as budgets are pinched, curatorial jobs are inevitably coming under threat. And once expert knowledge starts to ebb away, it won't only be that museums can't afford to buy great works of art; they simply won't know how to.

I'm curious about how curators learn to approach buying for a collection - which is, I think, a very distinct task from selecting works for an exhibition or putting together a book.

It seems to me that building a collection requires more than just cash. It requires curators with vision, skill and deep knowledge, and an organisation that gives these curators time to mull decisions slowly, and licence to make decisions swiftly.

Collection building is a deeply strategic activity that requires the balancing of current and potential future needs, opportunism and careful planning. It requires a deep understanding of the existing collection and how and why it has been built, and a vision of how it will continue to grow. It needs a mixture of pragmatism (will it physically last? do we have a wall big enough to hang it? how much of this year's budget will this leave? would anyone chip in to help us pay for it?) and connoisseurship (what's its wall appeal? how will it fit in? is it the best of its kind? does it need to be - or is it making another point?). And it needs people who know how to bid fearlessly, negotiate tenaciously, network assiduously, and charm in a meaningful way. It seems to me that these are skills that need to be learned, and I wonder if New Zealand provides enough opportunities for this learning to happen?

Monday 24 May 2010

Acknowledgement (for Paul Reynolds)

Paul Reynolds - advocate, champion, gadfly, orator, pot-stirrer, asker of hard questions, master story-teller - died yesterday.

Many others will be putting together tributes over the coming days; Russell Brown (and see the discussion), Graham Beattie, Katherine Greenhill and Don Christie have all already posted.

As people are noting, as well as being a general advocate for the glories of the web - in particular as a commentator on Radio New Zealand and in other forums - Paul has been a special friend to New Zealand's libraries, archives, galleries and museums. Through McGovern Online he and partner Helen have worked professionally with many organisations, and Paul has criss-crossed the country delivering workshops and lectures, urging us all to open up and embrace the world through the web.

I've got to know Paul over the past few years of working on the web at the National Library, most closely in terms of working with him on the annual National Digital Forum conference, and most recently on joining the NDF Board, of which he is also a member. We've certainly locked horns at times - my practical, pragmatic approach running up against his visionary, hell for leather, shoulda-happened-yesterday stance. But Paul made me realise that every endeavour needs a range of people behind it, and every organisation needs someone to push it forward.

It's comforting to reflect on a miserable day like today just how deeply Paul's spirit is embedded in the thoughts and actions of those who work in New Zealand's cultural institutions, particularly in the technology, digital and web arms. I expect 'What Would Paul Say?' will become a well-worn refrain in gatherings where we're trying to thrash out the best ways to not only get New Zealand's culture online, but to get more people into New Zealand's culture.

"I don't know what the story is", he roared in the last meeting I attended with him. "You need to tell me a story!" So I told him a story; a story about dusty books on dark shelves that were full of treasure and wonder, but languishing unknown, which - with a little money and a little effort and a little good will - we could rescue, and release out into the world where they could become useful and marvellous again. And he said thank you, and threw himself behind the idea. So that's what I'll remember, and take into the world with me - the need to tell stories, to excite people, to bring power to your ideas.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Count down

Often at conferences I hear people say 'We have [X number] of seconds to grab people's attention before they walk on to the next picture / label / interactive".

The number of seconds that seems to be most frequently cited is 6. Or maybe 8. My memory is a bit shonky. But surely it's not 27.2, which is the mean number of seconds according to this study.

I thought of this figure today when reading this article about the genericitisation* book cover design, in which bookseller Jonathan Ruppin asserts that "on average, book buyers spend just 0.8 seconds looking at a jacket ". Yikes.

The article, which discusses the growing power large retailers have over book cover design, details several interesting examples of changes made to cover designs in response to requests from chain stores. It called to mind an article from a few weeks ago, about the rather odd things that happen when book covers are redesigned for international markets (my pet peeve - the gorgeous, restrained English version of Alex Ross's The rest is noise, and the meh American version).

*Genericitisation - the process of things of becoming samey. Similar to 'gentrification'. You heard it here first.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Search and serendipity

The sting in the tail of all the work art institutions have been doing to digitise their collections is that the more stuff you have, the harder it is to find any single thing.

To my mind, collection sites have two core needs:

1. Search

This is for the people who know what they want, and want to get to it fast. Academic and professional image researchers may benefit from advanced search options. Experienced searchers might use filters, or other tools that allow them to expand and limit their searches easily (say by date, region, maker, materials, subject matter). It's also good to cater for people who get their search terms nearly-but-not-quite right (collin mcahon) with fuzzy search or suggested search options.

One of my favourite solutions to the search-right-now demand is the IMA's mega-menus: from absolutely any page on the site you can start a new collection search, but because the tool is tucked away in the site navigation, it doesn't have to be visually present on every page.

This blog post by the IMA's Charlie Moad explains the tools that have been put in place for collection searchers

2. Serendipity

This is for the people who want to know what you have, but don't know where to start. A search box is scary if your question is "what is there?".

Yesterday LACMA's Tom Drury blogged about findings from a survey of website visitors. People said they LACMA should let images rule the website (rather than the more proasaic info, like opening hours, that LACMA expected).

As a result, LACMA have introduced two new collection display techniques.

First up, collection splash pages - like this one for photography - provide entry points to works, blog posts, exhibitions and events related to different collection areas.

Second, a new collection homepage (in Flash) based on the idea of remixing. Clicking on an item in a tag cloud opens up three works grouped according to a word or short phrase.

The initial sets are been curated by staff, although visitors have been invited to email suggested sets in. Although the first thought I had was that this should work more like Flickr's galleries - with people being able to sign up and create their own groups for sharing or personal reference - on reflection I actually like the very lightweight implementation.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Getting them through the doors

Today Will Cary tweeted about LACMA's Project Membership - an effort to sign up 10,000 new members within 10 weeks. Prizes for joining include a trip to Hawaii!*

In the tab next to Project Membership I had a NYT article open that I had clicked through to from ArtsJournal. Titled 'Giving Museumgoers What They Want', Carol Kino's article is about the revamp of the Oakland Museum's exhibition spaces.

According to the article, director Lori Fogarty saw the renovations as “a huge opportunity to rethink how we’re engaging the community.” Community engagement is obviously embedded in the museum - from the numerous advisory councils to welcoming people to invite museum staff to their events.**

What I found just as interesting were the details about the changes made to the galleries after extensive visitor research. For example, individual wall labels had been done away with when the museum opened 40 years ago, but asking visitors now revealed people wanted to read stuff - as long as it was interesting. So more labels have been added, "some with background information, others with more personal observations by conservators, scholars, local artists and writers, all of which are signed."

Another aspect of the redevelopment which I really admire is the decision to focus on providing faster-moving exhibitions and collection installations for the local community, rather than long-lived exhibitions for the tourist market:

Part of the plan Ms. McLean and the museum staff devised involved creating exhibits that could be modified easily. Unlike San Francisco and New York, “we’re not a tourist destination,” Ms. Fogarty said. “We need to have our local community come back, so our big challenge is to have people see that there’s something different every time.”

In the history galleries, that means presenting the objects and environments on inexpensive plywood stage sets that can be broken down quickly and redesigned. In the art collection galleries, it means ensuring that the work and the wall texts change frequently.

*Ironic use of exclamation mark. Museum membership should surely feel a bit more special than joining up for a discount card - unless that's basically what your membership offer consists of.

** This page has a nice touch - listing areas that the museum can provide expert speakers and commentators on - smart media move.

Monday 17 May 2010

Concrete modernism

Back near the beginning of the century, when I was researching for my Masters thesis, I spent many happy hours poring over issues of Home and Building, which regularly featured articles on the visual arts alongside advice on soggy lawns, home furnishings, and knitting patterns.

Peter Tomory, the subject of my thesis (and director of the Auckland Art Gallery from 1956 to 1965) wrote a number of pieces for the journal, including a brave self-assessment of the Gallery's ambitious 1961 exhibition 'Painting in the Pacific'.

While I dutifully sifted through boxes and boxes of back issues looking for relevant articles, it was the covers and the advertisements that kept me going. This was when I first noticed the strong connection between smoking and modernism - a casually held cigarette seemed essential for selling everything from linoleum to copper piping.

Home and Building resurfaced in my visual memory a wee while ago, when I spotted this post about Concrete Quarterly by Aegir Hallmundur on his blog Minstry of Type (a must for design-related goodness).

The exquisite covers immediately brought Home and Building to mind. Concrete Quarterly has been in production since 1947, and is still being published - you can download the back issues as PDFs.

Home and Building was published between 1937 and 1998. The redoubtable New Zealand Electronic Text Centre has digitised a small number of back issues in a test project in collaboration with the Architecture and Design Library at Victoria University of Wellington. The NZETC has also digitised the Architectural Centre's Design Review from 1948 to 1954. Happy scanning.

Friday 14 May 2010

Web muster

A varied bunch today:


Every morning I open up my feedreader and look for Pippin Barr's latest drawing

The feed I get doesn't include Barr's note on the drawing, so I always end up clicking through - as you should ....


Many of these links are brought to you from my Instapaper file. I love this bookmarking app - it's one of the few tools I've bothered to implement both at home and at work. I also follow Instapaper creator Marco Arment's blog, and found this post about letting things go, in order to make the remaining things better, to be great reading. I'd like to train myself to ask "what could we get rid of" before I ask "what could we add" when I'm talking about improvements to things.


A little bit of library porn. I'm leaving the sector soon, but my love of libraries and belief that they're essential community services continues to grow.


I don't know if I'm disappointed or relieved that the trend of desserts that look like collection items hasn't reached New Zealand's shores. This post by a pastry chef at SFMOMA still leaves me undecided.


One of the nicest leaving-my-job blog posts I've read, by Lesley Williamson, on departing from the Mattress Factory:

The Mattress Factory operates with just 12 full-time employees – a talented, creative, multi-tasking, collaborative group of people. Many are artists themselves. The organizational structure is extremely horizontal. Of course everyone knows that the buck stops with Barbara and Michael, but otherwise there is no hierarchy. Bureaucracy is almost nonexistent.

Sadly, I don't have time right now to listen to this hour-long interview with Jeffrey Deitch, but maybe one of you does.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Turn to the left

Fashion exhibitions bore me to tears. I think it's the mannequins. They look as bored as I feel.

Having said that, now I'm going to blog about a fashion show. Well - two fashion shows, and the (much more interesting to me) online activity around one of them.

In January 2009 the Metropolitan Museum of Art took over the custodianship of the Brooklyn Museum's fashion collection, as the BM was no longer able to afford to maintain it. Two concurrent shows have been organised using the combined collection: 'American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity' at the Met, and 'American High Style' at the Brooklyn Museum. (Check out the Roberta Smith and C-Monster reviews).

Installation view of 'American High Style' by Carolina Miranda, on

So far, so-so. Bored looking mannequins. And then I saw Shelley Bernstein's post, where she described how Brooklyn Museum has partnered with Polyvore (a fashion-lovers website, where members get tools they can use to collage together fashion items and other visual material then save & share the results), uploading images of collection items so they can be remixed with contemporary fashion items.

My friend Nat nailed it in an O'Reilly Radar post: "the greatest challenge to heritage institutions is irrelevance, not penury. Brooklyn Museum is unsurpassed in creating relevance for its collections and its existence, and they do it by reaching out, where people are and not expecting them to come directly to us." As they so often do, the Museum has successfully taken itself out to the community, rather than waited and hoped the community might come to them.

The interactive on the Brooklyn Museum website

The remix tool is available in three places; on a kiosk in the exhibition, on the Brooklyn Museum website, and on Polyvore itself.

Vintage, by pinkopaque22 on Polyvore

As Shelley Bernstein notes:

I often speak about going to community and engaging on their terms and this is a good example of that—we need to be reaching out, where people are and not expecting them to come directly to us. As a museum with a small tech staff, we need to be mindful of any opportunities that come our way that can save us time and coding and Polyvore fits that bill too. ... It’s rare to have an opportunity like this one that so beautifully melds all of these objectives, but keeping our eyes open to these possibilities has provided something exciting for our visitors.

I think this is a beautiful project. The only extension I can think of would be to get the writers from Go Fug Yourself to review the exhibitions (in much the way they reviewed the Met's recent Costume Institute ball).

Monday 10 May 2010

Take me there

Humans make patterns out of information, even when patterns don't really exist. Hence lucky undies, and this post.

Over the past few weeks I've seen posts and articles about 'curation' popping up all over the place.

First up, Aaron Straup Cope at this year's Museums and the Web presented a paper titled 'Buckets and Vessels', looking at curatorial practices ranging from Flickr Galleries to Newspaper Club. (See the slides from Cope's presentation) He argued:

People are not suddenly self-identifying as curators. Rather, what we are seeing is a growth of tools being made available to allow people to exercise a curatorial muscle many people never knew existed, even if the results don’t always look like something we’re used to.
Cope cited Pete of New Curator's March 2010 article 'You are not a curator'. Pete argues for the difference between filtering (sifting and aggregating data) and curating, which in the comments he says begins with "providing meaning".

The difference between aggregating (picking) and curating (adding meaning) is a sub-current of Robert Scoble's lengthy post 'The seven needs of real-time curators'. Scoble sees a market gap to build tools that will let people aggregate, weight, and visually represent data from all over the web in a way that's meaningful to them and to others.

Then a post a few weeks ago on the Nieman Lab site caught my eye: Calmness, curation, cat porn: Dave Eggers’ joys of print:

“I want a printed newspaper curated and edited by professionals that have been in the trade for decades,” Eggers said. “I am in eternal deference to expertise.” Eggers likes the idea of branded — which is to say, vetted — news outlets shaping his view of the world. “I entrust my daily news input to the professionals,” he said.

Finally - another MW2010 paper, this one by Nate Solas on 'Hiding Our Collections in Plain Site: Interface Strategies for "Findability"' about a website re-design intended to help with the problems faced with surfacing large amounts of digitised collection items.

What's the pattern that I see here? You could say "ways to defeat information overload", but I refute that term. Close your eyes. Switch off the tv. Shut down the browser. Or - find people and tools that reliably take you to things that are valuable, entertaining, expanding.

Friday 7 May 2010


So, turns out Friday is book day round here right now.

I saw a bunch of news stories today about Puffin's 70 best-ever children's book list. I couldn't figure out why none of them linked to said list - then I realised you had to go to the Puffin site, navigate to their anniversary sub-site, go to Downloads, and then open a (slow-loading in NZ, just a warning) Flash file to read what is actually an entire, and rather wonderful, book that covers babies to teenagers. So, my Friday gift to you ... The Puffin Handbook (open with care, and whatever you do, don't click the circle beside the left-hand arrow, it takes you back to the homepage).

One of the nice things about the book is the way it mixes classics and recent publications, and the small recommendation lists. [YAY! The Guardian has published the list as a list]

I read a lot of YA, but I tend to read classics, or stuff that falls into the fantasy sci/fi category. I think I do this because YA set in this everyday world is often shallow, or modeled on the same dreary stuff that adult fiction is - so what's the point?

But I'm trying to self-medicate, and I'm starting with Mal Peet's Exposure. You might argue it's fantasy, but I don't care.

Exposure is the third in Peet's series of books about football (that's soccer to us NZers), set in a imagined South American country with one continuous character, leading sports journalist Paul Faustino.

This third book is a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is a superstar soccer player, bought in from the North for fifty million dollars to play for Rialto. 'Born in the North, and famously proud of his African heritage', Otello comes to Rialto at the cost of the transfer of one of their white players, doesn't endear him to his team mates. All hell to break loose when Otello and americana (white) pop-star Desmeralda fall in love and marry - especially with Desmeralda's rich, powerful father, who is also a part-owner of Rialto, who objects to the colour of his new son-in-law's skin. Throw in Iago in the form of Otello's janus-faced manager Diego, and boom - you're off.

The story of Dezi and Otello - of paparazzi, charity auctions, and controversial product endorsements - is intercut with that of three street kids, living under the threat of the 'Rat-catchers' (government employees clearing the streets prior to an election campaign) and vague rumours of deaths and disappearances. There's something about the narrative structure that reminds me of the tv series The Wire - slices of society that rub up against each other almost unknowingly, but whose actions have flow-on effects, sometimes immense. And awash, of course, with corruption and emotion.

My favourite review of the book was a no-stars write-up on Google Buzz, with the reader complaining that "The story is improbable". Well - duh. Shakespeare is. People fall head over in heels in love after two sentences and a bit of merry gender confusion. With Exposure, you just need to accept it - of course two young hot kids from different side of the social divide are going to fall drastically in love - and then roll with it.

Exposure is a rollicking good tale. But the quality of the writing sets it apart. I'm half-way into the book and I know we're about to enter the 'murder mystery' storyline, and the slightly hard-boiled tone of the writing is perfect. One of my favourite passages so far:

Walking back to his car, Diego smiles. It's like walking on eggshells, talking to Otello about drinking. Diego likes the way they crunch beneath his feet.

So, sport. And life, death, love, and betrayal. If you want an equally gripping non-fiction take on all this, I highly recommend H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, about high-school football in Odessa, Texas, and the origin of the terrific (and scandalously badly-programmed) tv series of the same name.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Buy now, pay later

The lawsuit Miami collector Craig Robins has brought against New York art dealer David Zwirner over access (or lack thereof) to works by Marlene Dumas has caused a mini blizzard of coverage in American publications (see the Art Newspaper, the New York Times.)

From the NYT:

Mr. Robins asserts that he sold a painting of a dark figure by the highly praised South African-born artist Marlene Dumas through the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea in 2004 with an agreement that the sale remain confidential. But the gallery, which did not yet represent Ms. Dumas, told her about it, Mr. Robins claims, causing her to become angry with him because, like many artists, she prefers to see her paintings remain long term in prominent collections.

Mr. Robins says that Ms. Dumas — one of whose paintings sold for more than $6 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 — maintains an active blacklist of those she views as speculating in her work, a blacklist that, he says, he is now on (and whose existence his lawyers, who were back in court on the case this week, say they plan to prove).

Edward Winkleman suggests that one way of introducing more transparency to the art market would be to bring in droit de suite, or artist resale rights, a scheme under which artists and (and then their estates) continue to receive a percentage of every resale of one of their works up to a certain number of years after their death.

On June 9 Australia goes live with its own resale rights scehem. According to the Sydney Morning Herald not everyone is happy with the scheme or how it's been implemented:

Even supporters of the resale royalty are critical of its implementation. Gallery owner Michael Reid said the scheme would be a costly administrative burden for commercial galleries and dealers.

"Why should I be expected to undertake this time and paper burden for nothing? The absence of any details as to how the scheme will work screams volumes as to arts policy incompetency," Mr Reid said.

Artist resale rights were debated here in New Zealand under the previous Labour government, but the issue seems to have gone cold. The National government's focus has shifted instead to philanthropy, with the recent release of the Cultural Organisations: Giving and Sponsorship Research Report and the creation of the Ministerial Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce (Peter Biggs, Margaret Belich, Carolyn Henwood, James S Hill, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Dayle Mace), which is looking at possible incentives to encourage private individuals to give more dosh to the arts.

Monday 3 May 2010


Last week I wrote about visiting the Anthony McCall show at the Adam.

While I was there, two art students (well - that was what I thought, anyway) were rather self-consciously playing with the light-streams. It reminded me of this post on the Walker Art Centre's site, announcing a forthcoming event focused on David Lamelas' 1967 work Limit of a Projection 1.

On one of the museum's Target Free Thursday Nights, visitors were invited to have their photos taken under the spotlight. The images were then posted to a Flickr set.

It makes me wonder how many 'guerilla' portraits are already out there ....