Saturday 30 April 2016

Reading list, 30 April 2016

I read Sarah Jaffe's New Republic review of Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, which introduced me to the term 'marketplace feminism', just before I read Robert McCrum's article on Germaine Greer's The Feminist Eunuch for the Guardian's '100 Best Non-fiction Books' series.  They make an interesting and illuminating pairing:
In a way, [Zeisler's] book is most useful as a work of media criticism, when it turns the lens onto feminist media itself, and particularly onto the burgeoning “thinkpiece” industry, which she calls “one of marketplace feminism’s biggest triumphs: women who act on the illusion of free choice offered by the market and then offer it up to corporate media to capitalize on.” The endless personal essays wondering if this or that or the other act is feminist, excoriating it for being unfeminist, or confessing to liking said unfeminist thing wind up circling back around to the writer’s personal choices and feelings. Those writers, it should be noted, are paid a pittance to feed the content mill: the personal essay industry itself could be the site of collective struggle for labor rights. - Sarah Jaffe 

Greer’s explicit liberation struggle focuses on the self, not the collective. She wants a new society in which women write their own script, set their own agenda, and make their own deep personal choices. The “women” Greer addresses are not the majority of womenkind – she concedes that she does not “know” poor people – but people like herself, university graduates, the comparatively privileged members of the western democracies. - McCrum
This also motivated me to google the designer of the iconic cover of The Female Eunuch, John Holmes, who died in 2011.

Speaking of pairings: Ed Rodley's short piece on the dominant binary analogies for describing the purpose of museums (temple and forum; cathedral and bazaar) could have interesting things to say in light of George Monbiot's recent and influential analysis of neo-liberalism as the invisible framework of the Western world - when I have time to properly think about it.

The Canada Council, in contrast to our own Creative New Zealand, has been assured of increasing funding for the next five years. A new five-year plan has been released,  prioritising "reconciliation through the arts, ... helping Canadian artists thrive in a digital environment, raising their profile internationally and giving them more money."

Saved up for my own weekend reading: Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett have created an illustrated timeline of how identity politics conquered the art world.

(For the record: this is the 1525 entry posted on this blog. I like big square numbers.)

Wednesday 27 April 2016

An experiment with Tiny Letter

I've decided to have a play with Tiny Letter over the rest of this year. I'll be sending a version of my weekend reading lists to all subscribers - one email per week, half a dozen or so pieces of writing that I've found useful or thought-provoking.

If you don't follow this blog religiously (gasp) but would like to give the newsletter a whirl, sign up here.

Monday 25 April 2016

The counting game / women, the art market, and visibility

I'm already saving up for my next trip to the States, and visiting the newly (massively) extended SFMOMA is high on my to-do list. Paul Laity's article in the Guardian gives great background on the museum as it was, the major long-term loan from the Donald and Doris Fisher collection and subsequent drive to get SF-based collectors to contribute works, and the new building and displays.

Given that SFMOMA is asserting its cultural might against the benchmarks of its East Coast 'rivals' - it has been previously 'lost out' for having a weaker modern art collection compared to the holy grail held by MOMA - director Neal Benezra is focusing on contemporary (1960s-onwards) art:
The director talks of the reopening being a “game changer for San Francisco”, but is careful to emphasise that the museum is now world-class in “contemporary” art – work, that is, from the last four decades of the 20th century and since – rather than “modern”. “I define modern art as going up through abstract expressionism,” he explains, “then with Warhol and Lichtenstein and the pop artists, Johns and Rauschenberg, there is a return to the visible world in one way or another. And to me that’s … contemporary art.” 
... Benezra offers no apology for where SFMOMA’s strength lies, and as we tour the galleries his excitement at the remarkable bounty of the new museum is obvious. “You’ll be hard pressed to see a better room of Warhols,” he says, pointing out celebrated new acquisitions including Silver Marlon, with Brando on his Triumph motorbike from The Wild One, and the Triple Elvis, as well as the museum’s own famous study of Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, National Velvet. There is also a “museum within a museum” of 26 works by Kelly, who became a good friend of Doris Fisher. These include the jazzy arrangement of rectangles Cité from 1951, and the vivid stripes of Spectrum I, as well as the sliced shapes of Red Curves (1996) and Blue Panel (1985). The Kelly rooms, Benezra says, are “strikingly beautiful”: “We expect our colleagues in other museums to be green with envy.”
Now, I adore Ellsworth Kelly. When I first saw a whole room of Kellys, I cried. But as I was reading the article I couldn't help noticing the paucity of women artists being name-checked compared to men, to the point where I had to get up and grab some paper and a pencil so I could do a count. It worked out as 32 named male artists to 7 named female artists (not all the male artists are necessarily represented in the new displays - Picasso, for example, is noted for not being well represented at the museum).

This might well be unconscious bias on the part of the author, or a quirk of the way the tour of the building was organised, or perhaps there were far more works by women artists on display that just didn't make the cut for the final article (no works by women artists are represented in the images either). But even when we get to the top floor and the most recent art - the self-consciously contemporary zone - it's all men:
The top floor of the museum leaves the Fisher collection behind and brings the museum’s holdings up to date, by showing media arts and works made since 1980. “We wanted it to be the most contemporary space,” Benezra says: instead of a ceiling, the ductwork has been left exposed for a rather predictable touch of industrial chic. We walk past a Jeff Wall light box not yet switched on, and pieces by Ai Weiwei, Matthew Barney and Richard Prince.
The article makes an interesting contrast to this recent interview with Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, which is also about to reopen a major extension. Morris has taken a feminist approach to curating (though it makes me a bit sad, still, that showing women artists should be a considered a feminist act and not simply a curatorial standard) and the re-opened Tate Modern will position the museum in our current cultural focus on diversity:
For the past decade, she has been devoted to building up the Tate’s international collections of modern and contemporary art, and has also been the curator of, during the past decade, a trio of important exhibitions of women artists: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin. This rebalancing towards work by women has become an increasing priority for Morris, along with shifting the gaze of the institution away from just Europe and the US, towards Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Her feminist drive “began to grow significantly when I started working with the collection a decade ago; I realised what a deficit [of work by women] there was. And then I was in a position to do something about it. I encourage colleagues to dig a little more when they see interesting work by a woman artist they haven’t heard of before, or to be aware of where women have been overlooked. Sonia Delaunay [the subject of a show at Tate Modern last year] is a case in point. For years people had been saying, ‘Let’s do a Sonia Delaunay show,’ but the feeling would be, ‘Oh no, the work isn’t strong enough.’ Well, what on earth did that mean? The work was unbelievably strong and diverse – but nobody actually knew its full extent.’”
I don't want to shit all over SFMOMA from a great distance, based on no more information than this single article. In fact, I'm more calling the article out as part of thinking through a current trend in art dialogue. There has been a great deal of attention paid to Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's opening show in their new L.A. mega-gallery, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, and a reasonable amount (somewhat less favourable) to the touring exhibition of women artists represented in the Rubell collection, No Man's LandWomen Artists from the Rubell Family Collection.* It has been suggested - I forget by whom, and where - that part of the reason for this rising emphasis on women artists, especially in the context of dealer galleries, is that this is a place where the market has headroom. If only a handful of living women artists (e.g. Cindy Sherman) are commanding the astronomically high prices at auction that their male counterparts achieve, that suggests that there is a place to grow the market by asserting the importance of women artists, both contemporary practitioners and the back-catalogue of older or deceased artists who can be brought under the spotlight.

It feels like a slightly grubby way of achieving equality: capitalism driving diversity. But the article about SFMOMA also feels to me as if it's framed by the market: these are blue-chip artists being name-checked, and their prices are not far distant from their works ("Richter, the world’s most revered (and expensive) living painter."). As part of their expansion drive, the museum went out and made specific asks to local collectors for particular artists' works, or works from a certain period in an artist's career. I can't help but detect as I read the market-driven effects of private patronage on American art museums. The only way to test this against reality, of course, is to visit as soon as possible.

*Coincidentally, but perhaps not surprisingly, the name of a show of women artist's work at The Dowse in either the early 80s or early 90s - I'm not at my desk to check.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Reading list, 23 April 2016

A 29-year-old New York journalist reports on an American Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the demographics of 29-year-olds in the U.S., which disrupts some of the Millennial mythologies.

An interview with new Tate Modern director Frances Morris in the Guardian.

Following the way Lita Barrie's name was constantly raised at our Four Waves of Feminism event, it's quite fascinating to read her recent review of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's opening exhibition Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016 and think about how the American and European artists' names could be replaced by New Zealanders (Pauline Rhodes, Jacqueline Fraser, Christine Hellyar, Maureen Lander, Vivien Lynn, Mary Louise Browne, Kate Newby, Fiona Connor ...)

Immi Paterson-Harkness interviews Phil Dadson for The Pantograph Punch.

Via Putting Women on the Map: Women’s Museums and Gendering the Public Space, a link to Nancy Fraser's 1990 article Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, which I plan to read over this long weekend.

Gina Fairley questions the numbers on art gallery attendance from The Arts Newspaper's latest report, with a particular eye to Australian galleries.

Falling revenue and lower payments of the 'suggested' entry price at the Met contribute to announcement of delays to building plans, reduced programming, and reduction of staff numbers.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Reading List, 16 April 2016

I feel a strange conflict about Christine Coulson's 'Behind the Scenes at the Met' in the NYT Magazine. On the one hand, it's an intoxicating view of the unseen spaces of a legendary museum ("At first glance, these areas are functional: places to stack boxes of Met shopping bags, store unused shipping crates and transfer vats of chicken salad between the public and staff cafeterias.") On the other, every time I think of it I hear the Family Guy 'No-one at the New Yorker has an anus' joke.

Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed about writing a new series of Black Panther.

Jessi Hempel for Wired about Medium launching a a new content management system (similar to Wordpress's offer) and two beta experiments in deriving revenue from sites hosted on the platform, with promoted content and paid-access. It makes me sad that the future of the web is all about selling our attention and sealing off access, but I wonder how else we are to sustain it?

Lana Lopesi for the Pantograph Punch on the recent Pacific Art Association symposium in Auckland. Read it for generational themes and 'nothing about us, without us' resonance.

Anna Pickard's talk about writing release notes for Slack at Webstock earlier this year was a highlight of the conference for me, showing how care put into small things captures but also shapes company culture.

I have feelings about our gotcha media culture. Hadley Freeman's advice for elderly celebrities on being interviewed about trans rights is satirical but also speaks to my discomfort with the way people are being treated at the moment.

There's a connection between these two pieces which I'm still working out (about whose contributions are valorised and valued in a culture that prioritises authorial creation and innovation over maintenance): Debbie Chachra 'Why I Am Not A Maker' and Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell's 'Hail the maintainers'.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

On exposing the archive, and being held static in time

(Fair warning: this piece is full of waffly writing and some awkward language. I will refine with time and feedback, but I wanted to get this out more than I wanted to edit it.)

On the 8th of April we hosted 'Four Waves of Feminism' at The Dowse, a one-day conference that re-presented a group of talks given by artists, curators and researchers from the Making Women Visible conference earlier this year at Otago University, and bookended these with two panel discussions, one looking back to earlier moments in New Zealand's feminist art history, and one exploring the current energy around feminism in our art scene.

I said in my opening remarks that we had chosen the title Four Waves of Feminism as a nod to the emergence of a new, internet-fuelled era of feminist consciousness and activity, and also  to the different decades and generations the presentations covered. The metaphor of waves also appeals to me, as I feel like each generation (or more accurately, each hub of thought and action) of feminism has acted like a wave: rolling in, carrying ideas upon it, sometimes joining together, sometimes tussling, depositing traces, and occasionally writing over each other. In employing this metaphor I was very much thinking of how Lita Barrie's 1985/6 paper 'Remissions: Toward a Deconstruction of Phallic Univocality' and other pieces of criticism had argued the case for artists such as Jacqueline Fraser and Christine Hellyar (artists whom I became very familiar with early on in my studies and through visiting exhibitions from the 2000s onwards) and dismissed as essentialist the work of artists like Juliet Batten (far less prominent in the art history I was taught and the art I saw).

The day didn't try to be didactic or to drive towards a statement about what feminism means today. Rather, it was an attempt to surface and share information and perspectives. It was driven by the same desire to better understand where we have been and where we are now that led me to kick off the timeline of the feminist art movement (still not the right title - as Tina Barton raised at one point on the day, are we talking about feminism as a subject, a mode or as a tool?) that I felt earlier this year.

The day was very densely packed with presentations and I've yet to really process it. On reflection, we shoe-horned too many presentations and panels into this one opportunity; as Matariki Williams discusses in an excellent assessment of the day for Tusk, there wasn't time to discuss everything that was quickly raised and moved on from.

Two interlinked strands of thought have evolved from me since Friday, which I want to explore here. One is around history and the archive: why things are saved, why they might submerge or disappear, and how and to whom they are made available in the future. And the other is the way people change over the duration of their lifetimes, and the tension when we want to treat (or use) people as an artefact.

In doing so I've organised my snippets from talks according to how they've fitted into the development of these chains of thought, not how they were presented on the day: some talks do not appear, but that doesn't mean they aren't in my mental mix.

Ahi Rands, speaking about the work and archive of performance artist Linda T, evoked the activist catch-cry: Nothing about us without us. It was a phrase that certainly resonated with people at the event, but one that for me summed up the struggles of not only those being spoken about, but those doing the speaking.

There are pragmatic difficulties inherent in undertaking even relatively recent art history: of tracking down dates, places, titles, names, contact details, of negotiating permissions and access. The women's art movement in New Zealand included a number of networks and collectives, with core and more transient members, some of whom have stayed connected with the art world, some of whom have migrated elsewhere, and some of whom have died. Some participants remain close to that time and their work then; others have distanced themselves from, no longer feel close to, or simply struggle to recall the events and emotions of 30 or 40 years ago. The challenge for the art historian in particular is to what extent they chose to work in collaboration with participants from the time, and to what extent they chose to historicise the period, working with documentation and primary material and the accompanying body of theoretical thought. This is a tension of the archive: the degree of separation you chose to enforce between the object and its original maker and context. While it wasn't voiced directly on the day, I got the feeling from conversations in breaks that an archival/academic or theory-driven approach was definitely not the favoured approach for many of the younger members of the audience, compared to a preference to consult with participants from the time.

Kirsty Baker presented on the Wellington Women's Gallery (1980-1984), based on her MA thesis research. Talking to Kirsty later on in the day, and asking her what triggered her to select this topic (she is a Scottish transplant to New Zealand), she told me about visiting the Wellington Media Collective exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, seeing the Women's Gallery mentioned there, feeling somewhat shamed that she didn't know what this was - and then realising that many people she spoke to had not heard of it either. (Over the weekend I read Marian Evans' (one of the co-founders of the Women's Gallery) piece 'They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us' on the way the gallery was portrayed - or not - in the exhibition.)

Kirsty made a elegant point about visibility and prominence, using a quote from Juliet Batten. She was kind enough to email it through to me:
In the decades prior to the Gallery's opening, the Western discourse surrounding New Zealand art was concerned predominantly with an effort to characterise a distinctive national identity. The prevalence of landscape painting, along with the painterly portrayal of New Zealand's 'hard, clean light', were observed to be central to this development. The increasing dominance of this type of painting was compounded by Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith in their 1969 book An introduction to New Zealand painting, in which they insinuated the weight of their qualitative judgement into the discussion. Writing 20 years after Brown and Keith, Juliet Batten - an artist and educator heavily involved with the Women's Gallery - highlighted the narrowness of their judgement, stating "much has been written about the quest for the 'New Zealand' identity in art: in fact it has been written about as if it were the only identity search going on in the visual arts in this country."* 
 In question time, a point was raised from the floor: perhaps not all those involved in the Women's Gallery wanted to be mainstreamed? This point made me think of a talk I heard by Latoya Peterson at a MOMA panel discussion titled 'United States of Fluidity' when I was in the States last year. You should definitely watch the talk online, where Latoya talks about appropriation of culture, and especially black culture, in areas as diverse as high fashion and Korean rap. At the end of her talk, whilst noting that "everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed, ... everyone wants to be appreciated", she quotes bell hooks:
Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation.
In the Q&A following the presentations, Latoya said one of the most powerful things I heard on my trip: Culture always loves to sell your revolution back to you. The impact of hearing this inside the walls of MOMA - the pinnacle of recognition, and also the ultimate site of the smoothing of any narrative for the public digestion of millions - was massive for me. It made me question whether the mainstream museum impulse to "recognise and reconcile" marginalised groups and stories by making them accessible and understandable to a wide audience can avoid either the dulling of edges or (perhaps worse) the removal of the integral nature of difference and resistance from activist and dissident groups in particular. What do you lose when you arrive?

Roma Potiki, a panellist from earlier in the day, also raised the point that for some women, participation in the Women's Gallery was a potentially dangerous activity, and that being outed (for instance, in the case of women who explored a lesbian identity in this safe space) could have resulted in the time (or even now) in personal or professional damage. Again, the tension of the archive: does the act of saving something for the future presuppose the notion that its future involves becoming public?**

Caroline McBride gave a short presentation on the Auckland Art Gallery's early concepts around an exhibition of their feminist art archives, including the Juliet Batten archive and the Feminist Art Network archive.  Given the general tenor of the day, this possibility created a lot of excitement. (One of my hopes, as a co-organiser, is that the day would be one full of sparks, as people connected what they already knew with new information. Given that the history of feminist art and activities in New Zealand is a scattered and partial one, it seemed to me that by drawing together speakers from different generations could help create this situation. I was delighted to see it happening, and experience it myself, and I know from talking to Caroline that the context she has for these archives held by the AAG was enlarged by the day.)

The AAG also holds copies of the Women's Art Archive interviews conducted in the early 1980s by Lita Barrie. The idea of presenting these interviews - and the challenges of tracking down all the interviews and gaining permission - is fascinating in light of some of the above points. In her talk, Caroline noted how struck she was by the way individuals and collectives had committed from their beginnings to documenting and recording themselves. Was it done, she asked rhetorically, from a fear that their voices would disappear as soon as they began to be heard - that visibility was a tenuous thing?

This may have been one driver. Another is that rediscovery and presentation of past female artists was a key activity in feminist art history (see Linda Nochlin's germinal 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' on this) and thus the assembling of evidence was a tactic in increasing women artists' - past and present - profile. Yet another, perhaps, is that self-examination, documentation and analysis had entered artistic practice and some disciplines (such as anthropology or sociology) as a valid undertaking, alongside forms of performance art that also intersected with feminist practice. Take Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) as perhaps the most famous example from the time. I think there's an intriguing piece of work to be done around this documentation and its drivers in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand.***

Again, I wondered during Caroline's talk whether display in such a public domain as the Auckland Art Gallery was what these original contributors had in mind. To be preserved does not automatically mean 'in order to be made public one day', and even to be published even means something different in the internet age.

I'm particularly alert to this at the moment thanks to a piece written by Canadian librarian (and for a short period, my colleague at the National Library of New Zealand) Tara Robertson, on the digitisation of On Our Backs, a Canadian lesbian porn magazine that ran for 20 years from 1984. The magazine has been digitised by Independent Voices, an incredibly admirable undertaking to digitise special press archives, and especially dissident or radical publications.

As Tara writes, on the one hand her heart leapt to see something she could relate to recognised and made available in this way. And the correct copyright process had been followed. However:
... there are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this. Consenting to a porn shoot that would be in a queer print magazine is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be available online. ... Most of the OOB run was published before the internet existed. Consenting to appear in a limited run print publication is very different than consenting to have one’s sexualized image be freely available on the internet. These two things are completely different. Who in the early 90s could imagine what the internet would look like in 2016?
The art historian in me wants access to everything because detail and context is delicious, and because it's how I can build a full picture and come to a nuanced understanding of what I'm studying.

The museum professional in me has a greater regard, perhaps, for the right for objects, ideas and information to be restricted in their access, because different individuals, groups and cultures place different value upon the importance or correctness of sharing them widely.

Laid over this is the situation when public institutions are the chosen repositories of material, for the long-term safety but also the mana that they hold. At same time, these institutions tend to uphold the values of access and dissemination of knowledge and culture. This of course is the tension we've been banging on about with Tiffany Jenkins' latest book and her arguments against repatriation and for mandated general access to museum holdings.

These values are mutable as well, and change over time: to think that the feelings and expectations that surround an object (a taonga, an oral recording, a portrait photograph) remain preserved at the point when they entered the archive is to misunderstand changing relationships over time, either from the originating individual or from their associates and descendants. Okay then isn't okay now; not okay now might be okay one day. It's vexed and there's no one answer or easily applied logic and that's why its vital we have develop shared understandings of expectations and culture (including the expectation and culture of the museum) so we have a firm basis to honour these agreements throughout time.

Tina Barton gave perhaps my favourite presentation of the day, for its unexpected playfulness. It was an examination of her own archive: of the period when she returned to university, aged 26, and did the new Women in Art paper at Auckland University (taught by Elizabeth Eastmond and Cheryll Sotheran). Tina showed us pages from the diary that all students in the paper were encouraged to keep, and read us sections, simultaneously wondering at and gently ridiculing that special headiness of being a post-grad student who's both fired up by and questioning their topic.

Tina has unearthed this diary for the purpose of Four Waves, having not looked at it in many years. She said she felt distant enough to assess what she had created with some objectivity: she's not that person any more. On the other hand, she was somewhat horrified by the notion that someone might use that diary in an assessment of her current practice. Later in the day, in conversation with Roma again, we talked about how some participants in early feminist activities had moved on in their lives: they may no longer hold those same views, or feel them with the same energy, or even recall them with great clarity after the passage of several decades. There's another tension here, of wanting to treat (or use) people as storehouses of information and memory, to access the power of first-hand knowledge.

I read, just before the event, Michelle Dean's wonderful essay on the poet Adrienne Rich in the New Republic. In it, she quotes a letter from Rich to a friend, about James Baldwin:
James Baldwin is as dead as Medgar Evers. Was he always, or did he die a slow death? I haven’t reread any of the early essays or that first novel that seemed so good to me five years ago. Maybe our perceptions are getting sharper. Maybe he sharpened them, blunting himself in the process.
As with Tara's post, with Latoya's presentation, and the talks called out above, those words got into my head. Maybe art history is written and experienced through a constant process of sharpening and blunting. Hopefully with Four Waves we've contributed to the sharpening, for a while at least.

* The Batten quote is from an essay of hers titled "Art and Identity" in David Novitz and Bill Willmott (eds.) Culture and Identity in New Zealand (1989).

*Of course archives have protocols such as embargoes and permission levels that can determine when and by whom material can be accessed. As noted above though, any decision made at the time of depositing cannot plan for all future eventualities.

**Now that I have said this, I daresay someone will point out to me that it's already been done, in which case, hooray.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Reading list for 9 April 2016

This week, a special focus on profiles:

Political commentator Morgan Godfery in Etangata "The way we make law is through politics. If we accept that, then the natural starting point for Māori struggles is actually to reclaim some political control as opposed to meeting Pākehā on their favoured battlefield, which is the law and the courts."

Writer Maggie Nelson in the Guardian "I like to think that what literature can do that op-ed pieces and other communications don’t do is describe felt experience,” she tells me, “the flickering, bewildered places that people actually inhabit."

Fashion designer Guo Pei in the New Yorker "I’m not a feminist," she said emphatically. "I think women should be like water: it looks soft and tender, but it’s very powerful."

Adrienne Rich in The New Republic (On teaching at Columbia) "[The students] are extraordinarily unhypocritical, candid, impatient of anything that seems abstract or mere ritual. I feel they live in a different time-scale from us. I like them better than most of their elders, I suppose, but I have never felt so concretely that I’m thirty-eight, middle-aged, and drenched in assumptions which they haven’t even heard of."

Zaha Hadid in the L.A. Times Arts critic Carolina A. Miranda argues that Hadid's gender and ethnicity both warrant discussion in the many memorials currently being published.

Sunday 3 April 2016

How to Network, in Five Easy Steps

Update: 5 May 2020

I just reviewed this post as I'm planning to re-share it as part of the mentoring sessions I'm currently offering up.

On reflection:

God, I miss writing. Look at all those words! And four years ago they would've rolled out of me effortlessly. I don't have that brainspace any more and I miss it.

Also: Look At All Those Words. I've highlighted a few passages if you're skim-reading.

I still use "I don't know anyone else here. Can I talk to you?" as an opening line.

The single actionable piece of advice I'd still give? Learn to introduce yourself.

I talk about diversity here. At least I had the insight here to acknowledge that. A work in progress.

These notes were posted in advance of a talk I gave at an emerging museum professionals hui. Still one of the most interesting and useful professional events I've attended. I met some awesome people there who I still value having in my network, and I've had great pleasure watching their paths unfold.

Originally published 3 April 2016

This is possibly the most boring thing I've ever written, but maybe it'll be helpful to someone. The title is a tease, of course. It's more like How to discover, after ten years and with little to no strategy, that you are indeed part of a useful and fulfilling network.

Emerging Museum Professionals hui

The EMP group has kindly asked me to give a presentation at their hui the day before this year's Museums Australasia conference in May. I've been given a wide brief ('feel free to speak about any aspect of your career journey thus far that you feel is of interest, relevance and potential benefit to our EMP members') and my talk, and that of the other Australian keynote, will lead into a panel discussion about 'the myths of museum career progression'.

I have a few issues with the 'journey' brief, and I'm also reluctant to hold my career progression up as an example because - frankly - many of my major decisions to date have been driven by shitty moments in my adult life which have miraculously worked out in my favour.

Having said that, I also realised over summer that looking to someone as a role model doesn't mean mindlessly replicating them. In fact, it's more like having the ability to adopt another perspective by thinking through a situation in a 'What Would My Role Model Do?' kind of way.

Having been asked to speak, and having said yes, I'm determined to be useful to the audience. So I emailed out the brief I received to some newer colleagues whose opinions I respect, and asked them what they would find interesting and helpful if they were in the audience.


The responses really surprised me, because through the back and forth, the strongest theme to emerge was networking. Networking seems to be held out as the silver bullet for progress in a congested sector with little growth in employment numbers that faces new and recent graduates. A post-grad degree only gets you through the first cull of the applications pile. Get the right placement, get endorsed by the right person, form the right network - and that will be the difference between having that degree, and having a job that relates to that degree.

You need to network. It's the bit of advice given to every young striver. But what does it mean? You go to openings and public programme events, but you can hardly just bowl up to senior figures and bust into their cosy, gossipy conversations (Can you?). Ask them out for coffee. Who wants to cold-contact a gallery director or senior curator? What would you say? Find a mentor. How? What does that even mean?

The thing is, when you're at the start of your career, networks seem to be something other people (older and more established people, usually) have. You look upwards, and you see this thing that you're trying to break into.

Since that email exchange, I've been jotting down notes for my talk, but also talking about this networking thing with some of my friends, especially people who I perceive to have great networks. Interestingly, they also viscerally remembered that helpless early career stage, where you seemed to have your nose pressed up against the glass, watching people who had their shit and their networks sorted out get on with their glittering opportunities. They shared that same embarrassment and fear about approaching senior figures. They still, in many cases, feel it.

Change your mindset

But after talking it through, we all agreed on one thing. We had all - after ten, fifteen, twenty years - got ourselves to the point of having solid networks. Those networks occasionally included senior figures, but the strength was actually in being surrounded by your peers.

A lawyer friend told me that when her firm was bringing on with new grads, they encouraged them to network with their peers at other firms. The reasoning was that established staff already had networks with their own peers - the firm needed the next generation to get networked. Rinse and repeat, and one day you look around and figure out you're the establishment. (Now you get to ask yourself how you found yourself in this invidious and privileged position, and not be the douche you perceive the generations before you to have been.)

A dealer gallery friend, when I was talking this same thing over with her, observed time was key. Not time put in attending events and wangling pick-your-brain coffees, but letting time pass. One day (one day ten years on, mind you) you look around, and the people you used to hang out with are now your network. The ones you went to uni with, the ones you've worked with in various organisations, the ones you've been on committees with: they're now the ones you ping when you need some advice, who you find yourself calling to reference-check a job applicant, who you send interesting opportunities you can't use on to.

Your friends and professional acquaintances, over time, become the network you always imagined you wanted. Basic, but true.

You are actually going to have to be gregarious

Did anyone who's not a certifiable sociopath ever stand on the threshold of a room packed with strangers and think Oh goody, this looks like fun?

Unfortunately, while your network will grow organically over time, just like a slow-to-rise sourdough loaf, you still need to feed the starter. That means turning up at things and being friendly.

Every Myers-Briggs (coughbullshitcough) test I've ever done has me hovering right between introvert and extrovert. Professionally, I've learned to turn my extrovert up through sheer willpower. I ignore the butterflies in my stomach and I walk into the room and if I don't know anyone I just pick someone who looks approachable and I go over and start talking to them.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I have on occasion used  'I don't know anyone here. Can I talk to you for a while?' as my opening line.

I have also convinced myself that at most networking-type events, at least half the people in the room feel the same way I do and will welcome someone else making the first opening.

And sure, over the years I've been frozen out, made a bit of a dick of myself, and felt like I've saddled some poor person with the responsibility of nursemaiding me. But I have survived all these small discomforts and lived to network another day.

Great networkers make connections

The best way of avoiding the hellishness of most networking events is just to stage your own. Talking with my friends, and thinking about those whose seemingly effortless network-enlarging skills I admire, I realised another basic truth. Great networkers make connections, not for themselves, but between others.

I think we start out thinking about networking in a transactional manner. When you've just graduated, all focus is on getting a job. 'Networking' seems crucial to getting a job, and then once you have one, to succeeding in it. You're trying to get into a network so you can milk it for your own ends.

Today, I think about networking more in terms of bringing people together and sharing information, support and opportunities. Maybe I just drank the meet-up kool-aid when I was working on the web, or maybe there's an event organiser inside of me after all, but for the past nearly ten years I've organised or co-organised or publicised or funded all sorts of get-togethers.

The best networkers I know run public or private events that bring people together, not for their own immediate benefit, but for the greater benefit of the group. They build their own networks, they build trust and reciprocity with the members of their networks, and they build communities of interest. Everyone's a winner.

These skilful networkers are also generous with their introductions and recommendations between people, and seem to get a real kick out of introducing people to each other.

Diversity makes great networks

I need to make a pre-emptive statement. My first point above, about networking with your peers, suggests your network could easily become homogenous in terms of age and profession, and potentially gender and culture.

I am particularly fortunate to have been supported throughout my career by more senior professionals. I try to pay this forward now by finding ways of supporting those younger than me. In turn, I'm regularly introduced to new thinking by these younger colleagues, whose education (now that I'm more than a decade out of uni) and generational outlooks are quite different from my own.

I'm also fortunate that by virtue of having worked across libraries, museums and web, and having gotten myself involved in cross-sector activities and topics like Creative Commons and the open data movement, the range of people I know is much wider than it would've been if I had have achieved my dearly held university dream and become a curator. Not getting my dream job actually opened things up for me. (There's a cosmic lesson for you.)

Recently I've started following more Maori and Pacific artists, writers, curators, museum professionals, journalists and media outlets on Twitter, as well as a couple of American collaboratives working on diversity issues in museums. I keep pretty quiet in this world, but I'm learning. Likewise, finally committing to te reo lessons - just through my Council - is widening my network and perspective.

Most of the great networkers I know are part of the web world, and their commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness is fierce. They call out examples of straight-white-ism and they work hard with all they do to not fall into the easy grooves of their own social and cultural backgrounds. They keep themselves honest, and their networks and their outlooks on life are all the richer for it.

Some practical advice

So all of this is great in theory. What can you actually do? Here are four ideas that don't involve having to go on a $3000 leadership course:

Learn to introduce yourself

When people ask me what I do, I say 'Oh, I work in an art gallery'. Which is so dumb, and which I am working on changing to 'I run The Dowse, it's an art gallery in Lower Hutt'. Because the first answer doesn't give the person enquiring any actual information, and puts the onus on them to draw you out. That's lazy and unhelpful.

Read widely

My morning routine is to haul myself through the shower, make us breakfast and coffee, and then spend 45 minutes clearing my feedreader. I subscribe to the Washington Post and NYT culture sections, ArtsJournal's full feed, the tech blogs from Brooklyn Museum, Cooper Hewitt and ACMI, the books section from the Guardian, and about 50 individual blogs. I've done this for about 10 years now, and it helps me not only in my day to day job, but with keeping a finger on the wider arts and tech sectors, so I can think about how they intersect with what I do. It's part of the diversity thing, especially as every interesting person you follow online leads you to another.

Ditto following interesting people using whichever social media network suits you (I'm still totally Twitter and zero Facebook or LinkedIn, YMMV). Twitter has a really lively sub-culture of New Zealand museum people who are sharing and discussing all sorts of interesting topics - I can only imagine that FB has the same. I'm still surprised by how few New Zealand museum people I find on Twitter, compared to, for example, writers and book reviewers.

Find free or cheap things you can attend

I came of age professionally at the beginning of the age of the meet-up, when social media started to support the existing culture of people coming together around special interest topics. Again, the most valuable opportunities for me have always been groups and events that coalesce around interests or topics that cross various industries or sectors. For me, it was things like the Open Data movement, and Creative Commons, along with NDF and Webstock.

I'm a bit out of touch today with regular meet-ups, but try the NDF barcamps around the country, and the Refactor event in Auckland. The forthcoming Women Who Get Shit Done unconference, to be held in May near Wellington, could also be interesting (though less cheap).

Take control of your professional development funding

This is something I never thought of doing before I was in control of my own PD budget, and wish I had. No one gets enough funding in our sector for professional development - the budgets everywhere are pretty miserable, and it's a great shame.

At The Dowse, I've tried to amplify our budget by doing one or two events a year that bring smart people/training opportunities/hui to us so as many of us as possible can attend, rather than sending one or two people away. We've done disaster preparedness training, training with Autism New Zealand, a LEOTC hui, a curatorial hui, and this week's Four Waves of Feminism event, among others: all times where I've used our PD budget to underwrite a training and/or networking opportunity.

There's nothing stopping you from doing the same thing. Make the choice, and ask your manager if you can use your allocation this year to organise an event, rather than attend one. Or get together a group and make it happen together. There are all sorts of ways to do this: bring people together for an afternoon to share case studies from their discipline; keep an eye out for visiting speakers (e.g. Museums Aotearoa, NDF, the nearest university) and convince them to add your organisation to their itinerary; approach senior managers or people you look up to and ask them to help you secure speakers and look at something like the Refactor event again as a model. (Remember that if your organisation hosts the event they get to share the glory and count the visitor numbers, so it's all win-win-win.)

Organising events stresses me out. I don't enjoy it at all - in the lead-up or, usually, at the time. But it's been the single best way that I've grown my own network, and when you're running something, you don't have to worry about turning up in a room full of people you don't know, because you've got a job to do. Playing host is also a great way to build your own public speaking confidence.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Reading list for 2 April 2016

Judith H. Dobrzynski is outraged by the Indianapolis Museum of Art doing online market research (similar to surveys Te Papa regularly undertakes) about potential future exhibitions. over market research. A local journalist follows up with the IMA, where staff talk about 'guest satisfaction' (the museum has recently re-introduced charged entry and limited free access to its extensive grounds). In case we're worried she's a fuddy-duddy, Dobrzynski points to an online survey being run by the RA in London that she can get behind.

"this exercise of discretion ... reasserts his status as a radical". Holland Cotter in the NYT on the current Robert Mapplethorpe shows at LACMA and The Getty.

Hilarie M. Sheets in the NYT on The Resurgence of Women-Only Art Shows. American art critic Tyler Green responded on Twitter that a focus on woman-only shows removes female artists from the wider context of contemporary practice and of art history, and pointed to this 2015 podcast (which is lined up for my weekend listening).
Scouring the Internet for something subversive to cover for our “arty dirtbag” readership, I happened across a newly-published coffee table book, 1968: Radical Italian Design, which collected photos of a number of garish pieces of impractical-looking furniture. Since strange furniture always gets the clicks, the book made for a perfect post. It was doubly improved by the fact that the furniture in question was so unequivocally terrible.
So hard to tell if this is satire: The Declining Taste of the Global Super-Rich.

And also part of the so-hard-to-tell files: "Using a unique auction dataset from, we find that narcissism measured by the signatures of artists is positively associated with the market performance of artworks." The Art of Narcissists Earns More at Auction, Researchers Claim.