Wednesday 17 December 2014

On the radio

On the radio today I'll talk about Metro magazine's nomination of Michael Parekowhai's light house sculpture as a 'best is yet to come', and art books for Christmas.

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.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

On the radio

Squeezed for time this week, we only snuck in a garbled (I had to phone in, which I loathe doing) segment on the 40th anniversary of Fingers, one of the world's longest running contemporary jewellery galleries.

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.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Monday 3 November 2014

termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art

The chief objective of a exhibition review is to give you a reason to see the show, and points to test your own viewing against while doing so. (IMHO, anyway.)

Two [p]reviews I read this week certainly met that objective. The Rhode Island School of Design's exhibition 'What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, from 1960 to the Present' sets out to present an alternate history of the visual arts in America over the past 50 years, one that is funnier, livelier, more niche, more figurative, more unsettling. From the RISD website:

What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular image-making from 1960 to the present that has been largely overlooked and undervalued. At the heart of What Nerve! are four mini-exhibitions based on crucial shows, spaces, and groups in Chicago (the Hairy Who), San Francisco (Funk), Ann Arbor (Destroy All Monsters), and Providence (Forcefield)—places outside the artistic focal point of New York. These moments are linked together by six influential or intersecting artists: H. C. Westermann, Jack Kirby, William Copley, Christina Ramberg, Gary Panter, and Elizabeth Murray. 
All of these artists ran against the modernist grain and its emphasis on theory. Rather than distancing their art through irony or institutional critique, the artists in What Nerve! seized imagery and ideas from vernacular sources as diverse as comics and pottery, pulling and reshaping material from their environments to tackle a variety of subjects with equal doses of satire and sincerity. What Nerve! looks at their distinctive idioms, shown in works that are often earnest, sometimes narrative, frequently transgressive, and always individualistic.
An article on Huffington Post piqued my interest, but Ken Johnson's review in the NYT blew it up.  It's an incredibly satisfying read, that opens with a brio (with a brio that makes me want to use the word 'brio', even) that matches my perception of the energy of the show.

The brio, however, is fueled by another life force, and it's this source that has been my real revelation. Johnson frames What Nerve using a dichotomy coined by film critic Manny Farber in 1962 in an essay titled 'White Elephant Art and Termite Art'. Johnson writes:

In 1962 the film critic Manny Farber published the provocative essay “White Elephant Art and Termite Art,” in which he distinguished two types of artists: the White Elephant artist, who tries to create masterpieces equal to the greatest artworks of the past, and the Termite, who engages in “a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor” that “goes always forward, eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” 
While White Elephant artists like Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons and a few other usually male contemporary masters still are most highly valued by the establishment, the art world’s Termite infestation has grown exponentially. They’re everywhere, male and female, busily burrowing in a zillion directions. They’re painting, drawing, doodling, whittling, tinkering and making comic books, zines, animated videos and Internet whatsits — all, it seems, with no objective other than to just keep doing whatever they’re doing.

Farber's essay is one of the most fun things I have read in a long time. Largely about film, it opens with an attack on exactly the names What Nerves deviates from:

The special delight of each painting tycoon (De Kooning’s sabrelike lancing of forms ; Warhol’s minute embrace with the path of illustrator’s pen line and block-print tone, James Dine’s slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist’s signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today’s esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.

But it's this phrase that  I know I'll keep returning to, the one that sums up this relentless, burrowing, wonderful 'termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art':

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it. 

Monday 27 October 2014

Long weekend reading

The New Yorker has been releasing content from its archives, bundling highlights into weekly blog posts. This 1950 interview of Hemingway by Lilian Ross is a mid-century gem, still smartly observed and full of quotable quotes.

Preparing for Peter Peryer's show at The Dowse meant getting to think about how the art world - and art market - has changed its approach to photography since the 1970s. This obituary/tribute in the New York Times for Sam Wagstaff - collector, curator, and patron/partner of Mapplethorpe - captures the story through the lens of a life.

To accompany the new anthology - a Wikipedia entry for Wystan Curnow, prepared by Thomasin Sleigh. This has given me a new idea, to add to the ideas we're already working on ...

Wednesday 22 October 2014

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about the concept of post-internet art; The Light Show at Auckland Art Gallery; and the Auckland Potters Society Great Mugging event.

Wednesday 15 October 2014


A recent article in the Art Newspaper covers the trend for curators to revive or re-work historical exhibitions.

This has, of course, got me thinking about exhibitions - New Zealand exhibitions - I have missed that I'd want to see again. A quick list includes:

  • Alter/Image, Tina Barton and Deborah Lawler-Dormer's 1993 show on contemporary feminism and art
  • The infamous Headlands and Cultural Safety shows, landmarks of the 1990s
  • Several of Colin McCahon's exhibitions at Barry Lett Galleries
  • Auckland Art Gallery's 1961 Painting from the Pacific, an experiment in bringing together work from the coasts of US, NZ, Aus and Japan to see if a geographically-determined link could be discerned (it couldn't)
  • Leon Narbey's opening exhibition for the Govett-Brewster
  • Selwyn Muru's 1979 Parihaka show at The Dowse, when the gallery was transformed temporarily into a wharenui

Which all goes to show that really, what I want primarily to experience is the time that I missed, rather than the art.

Monday 13 October 2014

Wikipedia workshop

The National Digital Forum conference has released its pre-conference workshops.

There's a full day workshop on digital project management, run by Dr. Lynne Siemens, Associate Professor in the School of Public Management at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It looks like a really solid introduction for people new to commissioning software and website projects, and could be a great option if you or your team have a project like this on the horizon.

Meanwhile, I'm taking part in a workshop on Wikipedia and the GLAMs, coordinated by Mike Dickison, Natural History Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum with a group of representatives from the NZ Wikipedia community & galleries, libraries, museums and archives. The session is an introduction to getting New Zealand cultural content into Wikipedia, and will include hands-on editing.

The workshops will be held on 24 November at Te Papa and you can attend even if you're not attending the full conference. All the info is available on the NDF website.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about Simon Denny's new exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom.

Audio is up, and there's also a gallery of installation shots.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Last day

This year on 18 and 19 November The Dowse is hosting the annual Curator's Hui, a chance for people working in (and near!) museums and galleries to share ideas, updates, case studies and emerging trends.

The first call for proposals closes TODAY. We are offering a range of talk formats (from 10 minutes to an hour) and the list of topics we're interested in is long and diverse.

All the relevant info is available on our website, and if you're familiar with the hui and want to dive straight into submitting your proposal, there's a handy dandy online submission form here.

Monday 29 September 2014

Whither the design museum

Behind the Financial Times registration wall (hand over an email address and some "details" for access), a lengthy article about the history of design museums (starting with the didactic impulse behind the first, the V&A) and their current status, as directors and curators deal with the digital age and the sense that design might actually be in and of everything.

[V&A director Martin] Roth is animated about the future of the museum. “There are three issues facing a design museum today,” he says. “First is the question of how you avoid it looking like a furniture store; how is it different to a typical bourgeois living room? Second is the problem of the inflation of design. Is it craft or is it a philosophy? Or is it lifestyle? Is everything digital part of design? Design isn’t everything and the perception that it is, is confusing and damaging to the museum. And third . . .” 
He pauses, I’m not sure whether for dramatic effect or if he’s considering if he should tell me this, “ . . . is the quality of contemporary art – which is 95 per cent rubbish.” 
I raise my eyebrows over my coffee cup. “The hyper-currency of art, the plutocrats’ purchases, these things corrupt the relationship between art and design at the same institution. They affect the future of the design museum and I worry that as contemporary art runs out of ideas it will need fresh blood . . .” He makes a theatrical sucking noise “ . . . and they will come to design.”

Sunday 28 September 2014

On the radio

On the radio this week I talked about three ceramics shows at Dunedin Public Art Gallery: The Dowse's touring Barry Brickell exhibition, Paul Maseyk's solo show, and Madeleine Child's contribution to a group show of work by Dunedin artists.

Friday 12 September 2014

High rotate

Two songs with absolutely no connection

Wednesday 10 September 2014

On the radio

On the radio today I talked about the DomPost's decision to cancel art critic Mark Amery's fortnightly column.

Monday 8 September 2014

Fact checking

Next week I'm talking at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design in their seminar series about careers in the art world.

I'm going to talk about my own trajectory, but I also want to tackle the question of whether we're currently in a 'golden age' of female leadership in the visual arts, or whether this could be as big a blip as 2005/06 turned out to be, when the five most powerful positions in New Zealand (PM, Governor-General, Speaker, Chief Justice and - sign of the times - CEO of Telecom) were all held by women.

As part of that I'm trying to grok some figures on museum and gallery leadership. For the purposes of this exercise I am focusing on the larger council-funded organisations (not artist-run, CNZ or university) that have been around for 25+ years.

I'm also interested in how many women have held multiple directorships across these institutions.

Corrections and additions are MOST WELCOME, either in the comments, or via email or twitter.


Auckland War Memorial Museum
8 directors, 1 woman

Auckland Art Gallery
10 directors, 1 woman (most recent)

Waikato Art Museum / Waikato Museum of Art and History
X directors, 2 women

Tauranga Art Gallery
I director, 1 woman

Govett Brewster Art Gallery
10 directors, 3 women

The Sarjeant
4 directors, no women

Whanganui Regional Museum
12 directors, 2 women

Manawatū Art Gallery / Te Manawa
9 directors, 3 women
*Note: Mina McKenzie at the Manawatu Museum pre-Te Manawa

The Dowse
6 directors, 1 woman (most recent)

Te Papa
3 directors, 1 woman

City Gallery Wellington
5 directors, 3 women (most recent)

The Suter
3 directors, 1 woman (most recent)

Christchurch Art Gallery
6 directors, 1 woman (most recent)

Canterbury Museum
10 directors, 0 women

Dunedin Public Art Gallery
9 directors, 3 women

Otago Museum
8 directors, 0 women


Priscilla Pitts - GBAG and DPAG (plus Artspace)
Cheryll Sotheran - GBAG, DPAG, Te Papa
Jenny Harper - NAG-that-was and CAG
Elizabeth Caldwell - DPAG and CGW (plus Robert McDougall Art Annex)
Rhana Devenport - GBAG and AAG
Julie Catchpole - Te Manawa and Suter

While we're on the topic: an oldie but still a goodie from Over The Net: length of director tenures.

Opposing views

Jonathan Jones:
People may think I'm London-centric, but that's where the great art needs to be, and here's how the capital's top museums can make themselves more enticing.
(King for a day: what I'd do if I ruled Tate Britain - The Guardian)

Hrag Vartanian:
We need to break up the major museums. That may sound radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come. I’m suggesting not that museums sell off their collections but that more museums consider aggressively building outposts or prioritizing longer-term partnerships with smaller or newer institutions that could benefit from such relationships. 
(Break up the major museums to save them - Aljazeera America)

Friday 5 September 2014

For god's sake

Many things in this article about Bendigo Art Gallery Karen Quinlan (it's a few months old, but I only just stumbled on it) are interesting: her career path, her strategic choices, the collection development. But it was pretty much spoiled for me by this thumbnail sketch:
Behind her sylphlike frame and a gentle voice that doesn't have to be raised to be heard, is a determination forged from titanium: slender, light, but incredibly durable. 
Why the journalist found the need to include a paragraph that reads like something out of the Drina series is frankly beyond me. 

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Quote of the week

As the search goes on for a new director for the National Gallery of Australia, quote of the recruitment campaign has to go to art historian and Canberra Times art critic Sasha Grishin:

"The reason for this is the enormous amount of scrutiny that is actually given to the position of director. Every single bowel movement is reported on," he said, adding that Dr Radford's state counterparts were rarely watched as closely. 
"The director of [the Queensland Art Gallery] or the director of [the Art Gallery of SA] would have to be seen screwing a dog in the middle of the street during the early morning peak for someone to take notice," Professor Grishin said. 

Monday 1 September 2014


A thought-provoking piece by Auckland Museum director Roy Clare published on MuseumID has received the tl;dr treatment from MuseumHack. Either makes for good reading.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about art-inspired internet memes, and Te Papa's rehang of Nga Toi

Sunday 17 August 2014

Open wide

Walking towards Te Papa this morning, through the fruit and vege market in the adjacent carpark, and then onwards to City Gallery via the harbour front, it struck me again how much that building seals itself off from the activities and interactions taking place on the waterfront. The entrance to Te Papa doesn't meld in with any of the natural paths in that area, but nor does it provide that feeling of anticipation that the classical frontage of the old Museum created.

I thought about this again this afternoon after instapapering up this interview with Renzo Piano about the museum projects he has worked on, and particularly this comment
All the buildings you mentioned—they “fly.” They are rooted, but they lift up, above the ground and that lets light to come under and inside and allow the ritual of the city life to merge with the ritual of the building life. By lifting the building, the ground floor becomes almost a continuation of the public realm. You leave space beneath it for life to happen.
It reminded me of hearing, years ago, Dan Hill talk about the State Library of Queensland. Of course, the clemency of your climate plays a significant role in your ability to embrace the world, but there's a generosity there that I think is incredibly important.

(See also Dan Hill's follow-up work with SLQ and the way the environment was used, particularly in relation to the wi-fi availability.)

Tuesday 12 August 2014


I'm not sure if it's new, or new to me, but I've just discovered Te Ara's 'Creative and Intellectual Life' section.*

Sections include Roger Blackley on the history of art galleries and collecting, Peter Ireland on photography and Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams on criticism (art and literary). Other sections include anthropology, libraries, theatre design and more.

*The section title is happy-making in itself - unapologetic and standing tall in a time whne where I'm looking for art stories on a newspaper site I generally have to make a call between 'lifestyle' and 'entertainment'.

Monday 11 August 2014


Expansionist or localist, idealist or realist: this article in the NYT about digital goals at the Met and Brooklyn Museum shows how much the BM's thinking has changed as a result of the ambitious experiments resulting decisions vice director Shelley Bernstein has made.

I would argue that the BM is far closer to where of the world's art galleries should be looking, and it's increasingly unrealistic to take the behemoths as our role models.

Thursday 7 August 2014

And now, for some backlash

Jake Chapman's comments about kids in galleries are creating some column inches (pixels?)

Dea Birkett in The Guardian

Anthony Gormley and Will Gompertz for the BBC

Summing it up for the New Statesman

More in The Times (behind a paywall)

Thursday 31 July 2014

"Be a fucking soldier about it"

I don't listen to the This American Life podcast nearly as much as I used to. That doesn't mean I don't still idolise Ira Glass. Which is why you should read this interview with Glass on Lifehacker - skip the product promos at the start, and get straight into how the TAL team create their shows, and especially how Glass breaks hours of recording down into a story. Inspiring.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

On the radio

On the radio today I'll be talking about critics' poetic response to Jeff Koons, a new way of auctioning off art, and a problem with huge ships in Venice.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Turning it off

When I saw Shelley's post come out about turning off the tagging activities at Brooklyn Museum, I half-jokingly tweeted about how in 20 years time my cohort will be sitting up near the front of a conference while some whippersnapper gives a history of the digital GLAMs and talks about the blip that was tagging.

I'm not even half-joking, to be honest. And I think tagging has long gone the way of comments; we just do not interact and share - or contribute - like this any more. In fact, one of the most interesting points in Shelley's post points to just that: "Tagging has shifted to a more social language, not a descriptive one. For as much as we want the keywords, the notion of tags as keywords has changed considerably."

Friday 25 July 2014

Finally it's happening to me

Or at least, it's a step closer. The Newspaper Club has launched PaperLater, a service that lets you bookmark online texts and then automagically organises them into a 20 page newspaper, delivered to your door.

I've been dreaming of this service for years: imagine making your Sunday coffee and settling down, to read on sympathetic paper, to read all those interesting things you'd noted but never got round to during the week. Here, Dan Hill shares my (future) bliss, while also discussing benevolent parasitism and online services.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Whither arts journalism?

On the long list of 'debates that will never be resolved', one item that gets the go-around treatment frequently is 'has the internet killed arts journalism/reviewing?'

A recent article that focuses on New Jersey led me to two newish models of funding arts reporting.

In one, the MinnPost - a "nonprofit, nonpartisan enterprise whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota", staffed by professional journalists - recently completed a $10K crowdfunding effort to expand their arts reporting

In another, the News & Record of Greenboro N.C. took $15K to fund arts reporting from a non-profit advocates for the arts and distributes funding.  

MinnPost's business model is based on sponsors, advertisers and donors. Crowdfunding to support extra arts reporting seems consistent with that model: donate to buy more of what you want to read. The agreement between News & Record and the non-profit states that the paper "shall have complete independence and discretion", while the non-profit is also clear that reporting is more authentic than paid advertising and therefore more compelling to cultural consumers.

That first article I linked to above paints both these acts as 'desperate' and states that both "[challenge] journalistic ethics to the max".

In New Zealand we suffer for a paucity of paid opportunities for professional arts journalists and reviewers. This problem is not going away. Most people who write, report or comment on the arts are doing it as part of a range of paying-the-bills activities, because as a full-time job it's just not feasible.

We've talked about this a lot in terms of what that means for the writer/commentator (it's difficultly, for example, to write negative reviews when (a) there's so little opportunity to publish that you want to be positive when you do get airtime and (b) you also need to keep friends in the industry) and the artist (who isn't getting good critical feedback, or the coverage needed to develop a career). But what does it mean for our ability to keep existing audiences and develop news ones, if arts coverage keeps dwindling in amount and quality?

People can't be interested in what they never hear about. Newspapers, magazines, radio and tv (on and off-line) are still the best places to raise awareness and create interest. If getting our stories in there means having a debate about what it means for ethics if we look at sources other than old-school paid advertising to get airtime, then count me in. 

Monday 21 July 2014

On the radio

Belatedly, last week on the radio I spent the whole segment with Kathryn talking about Kara Walker's A Subtlety and debating whether the Instagrammed responses of some visitors could be considered to be "doing art wrong".

Friday 18 July 2014

Jewellery jewellery everywhere

The cumulative effect of the Wunderruma show preparations and eventuation for me is that I see jewellery everywhere: houses are jewellery, streets are jewellery, trees are jewellery ...

And jewellery literally is everywhere in Wellington right now. This is your final three days to see Wunderruma in the context of Bone Stone Shell and check out new work at Pataka as well, and in this post over on the work blog I explain why you really, really need to do this.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Part swan dive, part belly-flop

Reviews are starting to come in for New York museum MAD's first biennial of 'makers'. Here's Roberta Smith of the New York Times on this 'ambitious, inchoate, sometimes dissatisfying sampling'.

Monday 14 July 2014

Now hear this

I know podcast recommendations are about as riveting as being told about someone's dreams but seriously - this 99% Invisible episode about naming companies (ie. companies that are paid to name things) is fascinating. Different kinds of names, different naming philosophies ... fascinating.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Yet more

On the other side of the world, sight unseen, I continue to be fascinated by responses to Kara Walker's A Subtlety. The latest: a comparison between the success of that work and Jeff Koons' latest outdoor sculpture, as public art.

Friday 11 July 2014

Some might balk

The Victoria and Albert have followed through on their promise with rapid-response collecting to get a mini-show out in the galleries, but it's the new exhibition 'Disobedient Objects' that sounds like it's going to ruffle up some important conversations:

The curators have also created a blog, with downloadable “how-to” guides, showing instructions for making a shield in the form of a book and a tear-gas mask out of a plastic bottle. 
Some might balk at such a politically charged exhibition at a publicly funded institution, but the curators at the Victoria and Albert say the museum has had a long history of socially engaged collecting, and today they see part of its mission as exploring the design of social movements and the social history of everyday objects. 
“It’s there, it’s out in the streets, so why don’t we discuss it in here?” Mr. Roth said. “It doesn’t mean that we think the same way. It doesn’t mean that we support these kinds of movements. It’s a platform for debate.”

Monday 7 July 2014

Personal histories

A few weeks after being quite shaken by the Instagrammed responses to Kara Walker's A Subtlety comes this thoughtful interview with a volunteer docent at the ex-factory installation, who also worked in the Domino Sugar refinery for 20 years.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Instagram thoughts

I continue to struggle with Instagram. I enjoy using it, and like every user, I'm delighted to open the app and discover 6 new orange hearts, flicking eagerly to the News page to see who likes what. But I'm unsettled by the way it's effecting my gaze, making me look at the world as a primarily photographable thing. I find this tiring (I wonder often what it's like to be someone like Peter Peryer, with photos floating half-taken in front of your vision everywhere you turn) and shallow (I'm definitively not a photographer, and there's no inner artistic vision guiding this activity). 

And yet. At the same time, I'm intrigued by how it is massively upping people's visual game; just the sheer amount of looking, sharing, responding that goes on. I was thinking the other day about what makes working at an art gallery special, and one of the most basic things is that you spend all day looking at things. Your visual database keeps expanding, and it changes your sight. I think Instagram is doing something similiar.

My friend Virginia pinged me a link to Ben Davis's Ways of Seeing Instagram the other day, where Davis looks at Instagram through the lens of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. It's a fascinating piece.

From Berger:

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums.

From Davis

Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.) 
Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Well, hello there

The news has just broken that Lara Strongman has been appointed senior curator at Christchurch Art Gallery.

The Gallery has obviously had a challenging few years, and has risen to every one o those challenges, keeping a vibrant presence locally, nationally and internationally with ambitious outreach exhibitions and events, online developments, and projects such as the fundraising for Michael Parekowhai's Venice Biennale work.

Having said that, like all the art loving public in this country, I'm so looking forward to seeing the rehung gallery when it re-opens late next year.

Lara will be leading the curatorial team as they develop those shows. I worked with Lara ten years ago at City Gallery Wellington, chiefly on her Shane Cottom show and publication. She has a magisterial grasp on exhibition development, a deft and witty writing style, a real love for the physicality of art works, and great equanimity. I admired her tremendously while working with her, learned an enormous amount from her, and am very excited to have her back in the public gallery world.

Casting around

On the search for new (or new to me) podcasts, I recently returned to 99% Invisible, and fell head over heels for this piece on sports uniforms.

That podcast put me on to Bullseye, which I'm queueing up for my next Sunday night cooking / ironing / sorting my life out session. (My friend Emma does these charming weekend lists. My Sunday night is like her weekend notes, but without the 'charming' bit.)

Speaking of Emma - her recent piece on where New Zealand crafting is heading is interesting; partly because I deal every day with the concept of 'craft' at work, and none of it (well - 99% of it) doesn't involve bunting. Or owls. And yet we share and try to differentiate words, which is why in a single speech you'll hear me dot between craft, art, applied art and design - because words are hard.

Monday 30 June 2014

Current state

I'm keenly watching the soon-to-open The MAD Biennial at New York's Museum of Arts and Design, previewed here by the NYT.

Friday 27 June 2014

High rotate

I have taken a #fridayoff and this new Grimes track is my song for the day

Thursday 26 June 2014

There are more museums in the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonalds – combined

Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post breaks down the American Institute of Museum and Library Services' latest tally of active museums in the U.S. - ~35,000, nearly 50% of which as historical societies / local heritage / historic houses & sites. Art museums account for 4.5% of the count, and when you break the figures down to a per capita view, some strange pictures arise ...

See Hyperallergic for more commentary

Monday 16 June 2014

I'm still laughing

At this Onion article - Shitty Museum Doesn't Even Have a Mona Lisa. Kudos to the MFA Boston for handling it well

In more serious reading: Suse Cairns asks 'Do museum professionals need theory?'. As the comments tease out: yes, they do. Plus hands-on experience. Plus local knowledge.

Friday 13 June 2014

High rotate

Sometimes it's just fine to go with the mainstream

Wednesday 11 June 2014


A friend of mine refers to me, somewhat disparagingly, as a paper-sniffer, because I haven't switched from print to e-books. This is actually less because I'm fetishistic about the nature of print publications than because e-readers still feel to me like 'work' reading - it's because of the one-page-at-a-time layout, which reminds me irresistibly of photocopies for tutorials, reports for reviewing, or documents for proofreading. Two pages facing each other are leisure reading: one page squarely in front of me maybe be informative, important, interesting, but it is still something that has got to be gotten through, not something to enjoy.

You can't escape the discussion of the ongoing allure of the printed book if you hang about on the web or with publishing types though. If you're interested in perfume as well, this is doubled. I even own L'Artisan's Dzing!, meant to evoke circus tents and excitement. Luca Turin and Tanya Sanchez spot it admirably though: vanilla cardboard

Olivia Giacobetti is here at her imaginative, humorous best, and Dzing! is a masterpiece. Dzing! smells of paper, and you can spend a good while trying to figure out whether it is packing cardboard, kraft wrapping paper, envelopes while you lick the glue, old books, or something else. I have no idea whether this was the objective, but I have few clues as to why it happened. Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good-quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us. 

And if you want to grok that book-to-scent magic even more scientifically, you can check out this guide to contributing compounds to 'old book smell'.

Monday 9 June 2014

Recommended reading

A lengthy, detailed, passionate and understanding piece about the challenges of maintaining the Smithsonian's collections.

Friday 6 June 2014

High rotate

New just in time for Friday morning, 'Little Mouth' by Los Campesinos!

And from this week's typing playlist, two bits of Jon Hopkins

Monday 2 June 2014

Round the web

Some things I read over the weekend:

The gift shop at the 9/11 memorial museum has taken a lot of flack, especially over a USA-shaped cheese platter with three hearts marking where planes went down on September 11. Fast Company looks at this and gift stores in other museums that mark traumatic moments in history.

More Intelligent Life recruits four companies to re-imagine indie bookshops. The results are pretty bland - except the last, which goes 50 years into the future to imagine robot-assisted hand-bound self-publishing and rockstar-author presentations.

Laura Miller on Donna Tartt. I really like Laura Miller.

An insight into how the budget goes for a $4.3M production at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

The economics of book festivals - maybe it's only the ticket-buyers who win.

Frankly icky Instagram encounters with Kara Walker's massive sugar sculpture A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: it's not what we're taking photos of, it's how we're taking them.

A new British survey says "more than 70% of contemporary visual artists who took part in publicly funded exhibitions in the last three years received no fee."

Sunday 25 May 2014

Museums and social work: a year of changing thinking

Over the past 18 months, since starting at The Dowse, I have given a series of talks on the idea of Museums and Emotion.

At the 2012 NDF conference I gave a talk with that title, that was hard, personal, and transforming. It came out of a very particular set of events in my life, which changed me irrevocably, led me to do things I am proud of and things I deeply regret, and gave me a new way of viewing and being in museums that compelled me to apply for The Dowse position when it became vacant.

You can read the notes and see the slides here. But to summarise:


At the time I applied for the job I read a New Yorker article about changes at the Tate Modern. One of the people interviewed, curator John Elderfield, observed that we’re now seeing a period of radical change in how people use museums.

He was quoted saying: “It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilisation, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things that transport them."

This quote gelled with some things I’d been thinking about for a while. One is a thought that goes back years, to a day when I heard a commentator on Radio Sport talk about a rugby game in terms of spectacle. He didn’t mean this in a ‘what a total freaking disaster’ kind of way. He meant it as an event designed for the viewers, built around a physical contest between two opposing sides. It made me realise that ‘spectacle’ does not have to be a dirty word. It can mean an event or experience that is carefully crafted to evoke a reaction. That reaction does not have to be dictated, but the expectation is that the viewer or participant will be aware that they are in a moment. Spectacle in this sense means memorable, meaningful, moving.

The second is a feeling - a question - that I had. I wondered if we have become a little timid. Our visitors are hungry for experience. I wanted to explore what it might mean to have more emotion in our museums.

Taking this idea for a walk, I took inspiration from Charles Simic’s poem William and Cynthia in a talk I gave not long after starting at The Dowse.

Says she'll take him the the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

I had been thinking about how our language has become impoverished. How we have fewer words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our feelings is likewise diminished.

The Museum of Emotions is not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It is a place you can go to to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your workaday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet.

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them. I had a conversation with a museum friend about this idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions, performances, experiences, all around the idea of evoking emotion in the viewer or participant. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume coming off warm skin.

* * *

Last year at the 2013 NDF conference I picked this idea up again, in a co-presentation with Paula Bray from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Paula and I had both lost people in recent years, and had, through the very specific, strange, and utterly non-normalised experience of grief come to look at our work differently. Here is where I picked up after that 2012 talk ...


The metaphor of a museum of emotion struck a chord with a lot of people I spoke to in the following year. At the same time, I try not to look back and berate myself for being terribly naive. I still believe in a lot of what I said last year. But I think I’ve internalised that Museum of Emotion. It informs the way I work and the way I lead, rather than shaping what The Dowse puts out on the floor.

Rather than making emotional experiences at work, I generally find myself having them.

(At this point in the talk I recounted two stories about things that happened to me at The Dowse. They are stories I prefer to share in person, rather than share where I can't see people's faces while I talk. So I will summarise them here.)

One was a conversation with one of my Front of House team about a homeless man who regularly visits one of our museums, and what we should be doing to help him: in particular, whether we should feed him when he visits.

The second was a couple of conversations with a local foster mother and a social worker - let's call them Anne and Josh - who were talking about a group of teens they work with who have lives that are hard and sad, to a point almost beyond my comprehension.

The first conversation was part of a meeting with local stakeholders conducted by my division of Hutt City Council. When we asked Anne and Josh what we could do to help them, and these kids, they basically said - do a good job of what you’re doing. You’re a Council. You can’t love these kids, and that’s what they need. That’s what we do.

These two encounters really shook me. They made me question whether I was doing the best thing I could with my energy and talents. I had a follow up meeting with Anne and Josh to talk more. I said: I keep thinking about what you said about being able to love those kids. I keep thinking, what if a museum could be a caring organisation? What if we could care about people?

And Josh looked at me, and he said "Whoa. That's not normal. That's not what museums talk like."

And I thought Yes. This is it.


I often feel like institutions like mine operate between two modes: the academic and the touristic.

On the one hand, we generate and share new research and insight, and stimulate the creation of new art and understanding.

On the other hand, we have visitor numbers as KPIs and compete with other tourist attractions for attention and visitation, and with other like institutions for staff, funding and product.

What I began thinking, especially after that time with Josh and Anne, was:

What if, instead of seeing ourselves as a meld of academic and tourism impulses, we saw ourselves as part of the health and community sectors? What if we became part of the caring professions? What would the museum of the future look like if it was focused on improving the lives of the people who use it?

I found this to be an incredibly exciting and moving thought. Typically, it sent me scurrying off in all directions. I got quite righteous and started saying things like ‘Why do we employ educators and public programmes people but not social workers?’.

Emotion is great. But it’s got to be tempered in order to be used. Three things have helped me reflect on Anne’s observation that we need to do a good job of what it’s our job to do.

The first was a research report published by the British Museums Association, seeking to capture what ‘regular’ people want and expect from museums. Titled ‘Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society’ the report gathers feedback from a series of workshops held around Britain, with carefully selected pools of museum visitors and non-visitors.

The report found a “strong, positive emotional attachment to museums by both visitors and non-visitors” and that attitudes have warmed as museums “shed their image of stuffiness and sterility and become more entertaining and interactive”.

One of the most notable findings was the trust participants accorded to museums, with museums being perceived as more trustworthy than both the government and the media.

Perhaps given the current British cuts to cultural funding, museums were widely seen as being "under threat" and concern was expressed that museums were "spreading themselves too thinly". Participants wanted museums to focus on what they are good at, in order to preserve the essential purposes for which they are respected and loved.

So what are these essential purposes? The museum sector had proposed a range of purposes for workshop participants to discuss and prioritise.

The core of museums’ existence for these groups is our role as the caretakers of national and local heritage. This was strongly linked to national pride and seen as the key contribution we make to society.

In addition to caring for collections, participants emphasised their display, and the need to keep refreshing exhibitions to attract more visitors. Interactivity was seen as very desirable.

Museums were seen as having an important role in public education: we provide equitable access to education, and we provide opportunities people can make use of, rather than generating elite research.

While they thought museums had a role in promoting wellbeing and happiness, participants did not broaden this definition to encompass mental health and wellbeing. Instead, this purpose was regarded as being about entertainment, and linked to the education goal; this is what differentiates museums from theme parks.

Where it got almost hurtful for me, with my nascent ideas about museums and social work, was when participants got on to low priority purposes. These included ‘fostering a sense of community’ and ‘helping the vulnerable’.

Here’s the summary:

Both these purposes were seen as being aimed at specific individuals or groups in society and were therefore somewhat at odds with the essential purposes that provide accessible benefits for everyone in society. The idea of museums reaching out into communities or sections of societies isn’t one that the public sees them as being the best placed to do.

As one attendee put it: “Social services should look after the vulnerable and museums should look after the history.”

Hardest of all to read were the purposes that were challenged by the workshop attendees.

Two objectives were not seen to sit well with the core purposes of museums, and indeed were seen to undermine “the essential values of trust and integrity that people cherish with regards to museums”. These are:
  • Providing a forum for debate, and
  • Promoting social justice and human rights

The report observes:

participants consistently agreed that museums were not appropriate environments in which to hold controversial debates.  Rather, museums are regarded as places to go to find out factual and unbiased information and for people to subsequently make up their  own minds about a particular topic.

This is not to say that people felt museums cannot broach controversial subjects, but that they should remain neutral in the displaying of information, rather than act as a leader in telling people what to think.

I was initially deeply thrown by this finding. Museums and galleries are often promoted as ‘safe places for unsafe ideas’ and centres of debate and discussion.

But for participants in this particular exercise, attempts to ‘tell people what they should think’ threaten the perception of privileged, trusted position museums hold. As the report noted, though museums professionals may question the notion of an objective truth that can be expressed through an exhibition, the public – at least as represented by many in this sample – does not.


I found this report deeply deflating. I felt like I had all this energy and all these ideas, and then I felt like no-one wanted them.

Fortunately, around this time I came across a post written by Nina Simon, who is always about five years in front of where I seem to be able to think for myself. Or perhaps, to be less self-deprecating, Nina is about 18 months ahead of me in this process of transitioning from working within and with cultural institutions to running one.

The post is titled ‘Seeking clarity about the complementary nature of social work and the arts’. In it she unpicks what it is we’re speaking of when we talk about “cultural institutions as vehicles of social and civic change”.

The blog post grew out of a conversation Simon had with two of her friends who work in not-for-profits focused on homelessness and criminal justice. While all three worked in organisations that care about making a difference in the community, when you move from the ‘why’ to the ‘what’, museums and social service organisations are emphatically not the same. Simon writes
Their work involves life-or-death situations. Museum work is mostly non-contact. The consequences of risk-taking and experimentation are incredibly different. 
There is infinite demand for their services, whereas we struggle to generate demand for ours. There will never be enough meals for hungry people or mental health facilities for those who need them. Meanwhile, arts industry leaders worry about "oversupply" of organizations in the face of dwindling demand. 
Social service providers often find themselves working in a reactive stance to unexpected incidents. Arts organizations can operate on their own timelines and internal values. Those that want to be more relevant often have to push themselves to work responsively to events outside their domain.

As the participants in the Museums Association’s research and as Anne the foster parent observed: we are not social workers. While we might be moving into the social sphere, we are not doing social work. When I’d been beginning to get a bit depressed, Nina gave me another way of looking at this topic. She wrote:

Instead of asking whether we are focusing too little or too much of our attention on social work, we should be asking HOW we can approach the work of community development in a distinctive way.

We are in a luxurious position. Few people rely on us to provide social services. Few people expect them of us. By drawing on our strengths and thinking about how we direct them, we have tremendous opportunity to create new value in our communities.


Finally there came a point when I realised that I’m far from the first person to think about social work and museums. It is always useful to discover that your mad tangle of ideas is someone else’s academic career.

In my case, it’s the work of Lois H. Silverman as collected in her recent book The Social Work of Museums.

What I have taken from this book is a framework of four levels of social interaction, that offer different ways to engage with people, to channel our energy, and to connect in a meaningful way.

Social work operates in its broadest function in the level of culture - the shared way of doing things that allows humans to live together. As Silverman says, at the widest angle, the work cultural institutions do “involves nothing less than the making and changing of culture”. This is where we, through the language we use, the collections we form, the programmes we run, the buildings we build,  the products we make, and the audiences we try to reach, can intentionally aim to create social change at a macro-level.

Come down a level, and social work is focused on relationships between groups. This is where we can play a role by being as accessible as possible to all people in society, and running the kinds of programmes that bring diverse groups together with the aim of increasing understanding and connection.

The level below this is interpersonal relationships. What opportunities can we create for people to form or reinforce relationships? What can we do to strengthen connections within a family, or within an environment like a rest home?

At the narrowest angle, social work is concerned with the individual self. The self is defined as the fundamental building block of all social relationships. Furthermore, the self is defined as already being a relationship: a person to a sense of the divine, a person to another person, and a person to his or her experiences and memories.


What I am trying to do now, as I get stuck into a year of thinking strategically, is to use all this as a new lens that I hold up to each piece of work. I am trying to hold every possible project up to these four levels and ask myself: where do I see this operating?

We can’t be all things to all people, and nor should we try to be. We can’t just walk up to people on the street and start loving them. But we can add value through our strengths: our collections, our buildings, our social capital, and our staff. And we can enhance our strengths by finding new ways to look at our work and our mission.

* * *

In a recent talk for the Govett-Brewster, I recapped the points above. To help clarify them, I gave this illustration:

The Queens Museums in New York is widely respected for its Art Access programme for people with differing physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive abilities across New York. The programme has been running since 1983 and now serves thousands of children and adults.

They have a special focus on families affected by autism. They are regarded as world leaders in this area, and I believe the reason for this is that the programmes operate on many of the levels I’ve described above.

On the individual level, the programmes are about giving kids on the autism spectrum a safe social environment to enjoy art.

On an interpersonal level, there are programmes targeted at teenagers, aimed at building friendships, and programmes targeted at bringing families together through art projects.

On a group level, activities include visits to other museums and galleries, who are coached on how to support families with autistic children when they visit.

And on a macro level, the Queens Museum team has also published a book to help other arts and community spaces, like libraries, develop programmes for families affected by autism, and provides professional development courses so others can learn these skills.

These are not one-off, opportunistic, or project-based activities. This is a belief in who the museum is here to serve and how its does its work, enacted.

* * *

So, this is where my thinking is these days. Add to that thoughts about creating value and the production chain of the visual arts, and you pretty much have what's inside my head when I try to make decisions - well, mixed in with Council priorities, awareness of what other institutions are doing, lack of awareness about what other institutions are doing, personal taste, and thinking about what will make my team's working lives as rewarding as possible.

I want to thank Suse Cairns, Rob Stein and Ed Rodley, for whom I'm right now meant to be writing an essay for to join the CODE | WORDS project. This post comes entirely out of productive procrastination, fuelled by Michael Edson's exemplary opening essay for the series, Dark Matter.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Creating value and production chains - thinking about the role of the museum

Here are two things I have been pondering lately.

The first is Tim O’Reilly’s well-known maxim ‘Create more value than you capture’. O’Reilly - publisher and philosopher, I think, is the best description - has used this phrase repeatedly to explain how he sees his business, O’Reilly Publishing, functioning within the wider world - beyond business and customers and into social change.

An economy is an ecosystem, O’Reilly says. If you take more out than you put in, the ecosystem fails. If you put more in - if you create more opportunity -  you create growth, and new ideas, and new producers, and new consumers. I'd say 'everyone wins', only his thinking is so much more supple and significant than that.

Here’s a small example of that thinking in action, from way back when: the 2009 Twitter Boot Camp. O’Reilly is talking about how he uses Twitter, within this framework. He says

The secret about social media is that it’s not about you, your product, or your story. It’s about how you can add value to the communities that happen to include you. If you want want to make a positive impact, forget about what you can get out of social media, and start thinking about what you can contribute. Not surprisingly, the more value you create for your community, the more value they will create for you.

He continues: “What I do on twitter is also what I do when I publish books. I pay attention to a community, find interesting people and ideas, and use my platform to amplify them.”

O’Reilly might have started out publishing books, but they’ve branched into conferences, Foo Camp and Maker Faires: ‘In each case, we’ve told a big story by amplifying the voices of a community of early adopters.’ O’Reilly benefits through the association with those early adopters: they are their authors, speakers, and advocates. The rest of us benefit from these (almost) freely shared ideas:

If you’re succeeding at this goal, you may sometimes find that others have made more of your ideas than you have yourself. It’s OK. I’ve had more than one billionaire (and an awful lot of startups who hope to follow in their footsteps) tell me how they got their start with a couple of O’Reilly books. I’ve had entrepreneurs tell me that they got the idea for their company from something I’ve said or written. That’s a good thing! I remember back in the early days of the Internet, when the buyer at Borders told me after one of my talks, “Well, you’ve just given your competitors their publishing program for the year.” If my goal is really “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” I’m thrilled when my competitors jump on the bandwagon and help me spread the word! 
Look around you: How many people do you employ in fulfilling jobs? How many customers use your products to make their own living? How many competitors have you enabled? How many people have you touched that gave you nothing back? 

(From Work on stuff that matters)

This idea of creating value is one that I try - not always successfully - to apply to the path I’m forging at The Dowse. It takes a great deal of mindfulness, and mindfulness takes discipline and time to develop, before you can even get to the point of communicating what you're being mindful about clearly and meaningfully. But, you work on it, right?

Last weekend I downloaded the Artspace-commissioned report by Stephanie Post, Staying Alive: Some thoughts on opportunities for private funding for small scale visual arts  organisations in New Zealand. I've read it a few times since then, initially getting little out of it, and then slowly having some things dawn on me.

The report is heavily influenced - of course - by the work that’s coming out of CNZ and MCH and if you’re familiar with that then much of it will not be new to you.

What I did find really useful was the thread that runs through it about the role of the small arts organisation (defined loosely here as having a turnover of up to $1M) in the production chain of the arts, and how this could/should be communicated and measured. As Post writes

... the value of an art exhibition in a major gallery is often measured through the metric of visitor numbers, however, this is not really useful for an exhibition in an experimental artist-run space, where, although only a handful of people may see the exhibition, if one or two of those are influential, ie curators or collectors, the exhibition may lead to re-exhibition of the work in a larger institution or biennial, or new projects for the artist, and as such will be immensely significant.

There’s a small level of defensiveness in the report and the international sources cited within it (a defensiveness I often find myself sharing, the Goldilocks conundrum of explaining why you’re too big for some things and too small for others, desperately trying to articulate the just-right). But there’s a useful move towards an idea of a chain of production (which, I guess, could also be seen from the artist’s point of view as a career path):

Small scale visual arts organisations are fundamentally producers, either through the commissioning of new art, or enabling new research or education projects, or publishing new writing. This is in contrast to larger organisations which generally exhibit works of art already in existence, or sell books or journals published by other organisations.

The report makes the point that this kind of production shouldn’t simply be seen as ‘funding’, but - citing a text in the Circular Facts publication - production thought as ‘...initiatives that are interested in production, but also become spaces for discussion; where projects can be contrasted as they’re being carried out, thus effectively working as co-producers.’

The report continues

Working with less established artists or with artists at critical stages in their careers, and commissioning new works and projects, small organisations not only take risks and experiment in their own programme, but also support artists to take risks and experiment at crucial stages in their careers. 
Projects and commissions initiated in small arts organisations frequently continue to have impact both nationally and internationally, long after their initial exhibition at the commissioning organisation, through inclusion in exhibitions in larger galleries/museums and at biennales around the world, often becoming seminal works in an artist’s career.

Here, of course, we’re talking about creating value. It’s not value through audience numbers, it’s value through impact. Which is, of course, harder to measure. (Tim O’Reilly is on to this one too, of course).

Anyway. Those are the things I’m thinking about, on a wet and windy weekend. Value and our position in the production chain. Or - to frame the issue in another way, as I hope we will when we host the Curatorial Hui later this year - if we remind ourselves that artists are one of the communities we are here to work with, what is the value we’re trying to create together?