Saturday, 13 July 2019

Reading list, 13 July 2019

Art historian Douglas Crimp has died, aged 74

Speaking of which - an opinion piece in the NYT by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, The Dominance of the White Male Critic

That article tackles critical responses to the Whitney Biennial: see also Xaviera Simmons' Whiteness must undo itself to make way for the truly radical turn in contemporary culture

Ongoing in sponsorship discussions: British Museum director endorses controversial sponsor BP as part of future vision (British institutions are receiving significant pressure on sponsorship from BP; the BM has announced they will continue to take funding and BP will sponsor a 2020 exhibition but it will not be the planned exhibition about the Arctic).

The German Museums Association has released a reworked version of its Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts, and called for greater cultural awareness when dealing with colonial restitution.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Reading list, 6 July 2019

SFMOMA announces its first acquisitions made using funds raised by deaccessioning and selling a Rothko

How the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art has been working to repatriate a Benin bronze head

Mark Amery and Megan Dunn are editing the new art review section of The Spinoff

Lots of words, not many dollar-figures, but still interesting in the Washington Post: Women are increasingly getting the top museum jobs. Will more of them finally get equal pay?

Bookmarked for later reading: Change Agents: Kaywin Feldman and Bryan Stevenson on Embracing Empathy and Confronting American Racism in Museums

Ditto: Laura Raicovich's Rethinking the “Bigger Is Better” Museum Model

And for listening: my colleague Dr Amber Aranui on her mahi as a repatriation researcher and self-care in this role

Friday, 5 July 2019

The joy and weight of responsibility in our working lives - Webstock 2019 talk

About seven years ago, I did a personality test in a HR workshop which gave me one of the most useful self-insights I've ever received.

It was one of those exercises where you're presented with a list of 50 motivations, that you have to whittle down to 20, and then to 10, and then 5, and then to 2.

And at the end of the exercise, the two motivations I had left standing were "responsibility" and "adventure". This pairing told me such a lot about myself. I like to take on responsibility: not just so I can be the boss, but to fulfil my need to take care of things, to make them better. And while taking on responsibility makes me feel secure, I also crave adventure: I need intense experiences, I love the feeling of being on the brink. Being responsible is what makes it safe for me to go into risky places.

This linkage, between responsibility and adventure, is what drives me. And it's what creates the most stress and the most reward in my working life.

When Tash asked me to speak at Webstock I had to ask myself: what value do I have to offer here?

I started by thinking about being in this audience myself, and what I've taken out of ten years of being part of this community.

The defining characteristic of the Webstock kaupapa for me is the shared understanding that as people who create experiences and services for a living, we have the ability to create great benefits for society, but also hold the power to do harm. This morning then I want to explore this familiar idea of responsibility in our working lives, by going deep into what is hopefully a less familiar topic for most of you: the world of museums.

Museums are places of joy, learning and connection. They are also sites of inequity, institutionalised bias, and repression. As a Pākehā New Zealander who has made a career in museums, I spend a lot of time in quite an uncomfortable place - and so I should.

A phrase I often hear is that museums "hold a mirror up to society". This suggests some kind of inherent objectivity, and almost an absence of human intervention, as if somehow the truth automagically appears in front of you when you walk into a museum.

I find museums endlessly fascinating places to work in because they are absolutely the opposite of this. Every choice we make is a choice about value and representation. By driving a museum's intellectual agenda, its funders, management, and staff create the stories and imagery that informs (or confirms, or challenges) how a society thinks about itself.

The way we develop collections places permanent value on selected creative acts and lived experiences. The way we interpret and share these collections out into the world instructs the public on how to think about the past, the present and the future. The voices we give power to are the voices people hear.

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, Times Square, NYC, 1982

As much as we may have liked to believe in the past that we exist above the political fray, museums are the products of colonialist and capitalist systems, as exposed to and implicated in abuses of power as any other institution emerging from these contexts.

This is why museums are not, and can never be, neutral. As a museum worker, as a museum leader, as a person charged to make decisions with public money, with our nation's cultural heritage, and with the attention and trust of our audiences, this is the knowledge I strive to apply every day, with the myriad decisions I make, big and small.

We are also living in a time of elevated public interest in our public institutions. Social media, as we all know, has given voice to groups who have long been silenced. Institutional choices are no longer a private matter, negotiated between management and funders and identified stakeholders. The mainstream media is no longer the dominant conduit of public information.

Museums and their leaders have been swept up in the tide of things that "used to be okay". Like many institutions of power, we got a bit lazy, a bit complacent. And like many institutions of power, we can be bewildered when we're attacked for the habits we've developed over decades, which have rarely been questioned, and certainly not at the volume and frequency they are being questioned today.

Most museums, around the world, have to make money. Depending on whether you're in a context that favours public or private support of arts and culture, your institution may have to raise anything from 5 percent to 95 percent of your annual operating budget. Fundraising is an important facet of any museum director's job, and depending again on your funding model, might even be the most significant measure of your performance.

Commercial sponsorship - effectively, paid-for brand alignment - is one important source of revenue. Private patronage is another, and in American and larger British museums especially, this hinges not just on the director's networks, but those of the Board.

There's an American phrase - "give, get or get off" - that summarises the primacy of revenue generation for what is presented as a governance system. Many American boards expect a minimum annual donation from their members - an expectation, it's worth noting, that greatly impacts the diversity of people you'll see around the board table.

Supporting cultural endeavours has long been seen as a way to "give back to society" - especially when your wealth has been gained, in some way, by exploiting people or the environment. Museums may have had some squishy feelings in the past about the donations they've pursued and received, but for a long time the purity of our missions has insulated us from the taint of dirty money.

Not so much any more.

Last week, for example, Yana Peel, CEO of London's Serpentine Galleries, resigned after the Guardian revealed her connections to a cybersecurity firm whose spyware has been used by governments to track journalists and activists. Peel owns one-third of Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by her husband. In March, funds controlled by Novalpina bought a controlling stake in NSO Group, an Israeli company offering technology developed by former intelligence operatives. Although Peel argued she had no influence on Novalpina Capital's investment decisions, her resignation took effect immediately.

Following the announcement, Peel hit out at people leading campaigns like the one that unseated her:

“The world of art is about free expression,” she said. “But it is not about bullying and intimidation"

If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community — which are so fundamental to our society — risk an erosion of private support. That will be a great loss for everyone.

I'm part of the vanishingly small group who still uses a feedreader. Every day, I check in to see what's happening in the international art world, particularly following the British and American commentary, as the issues that arise there tend to flow through to us here in Aotearoa.

One of the most significant developments in the area of philanthropy over the past 18 months has been the conscious uncoupling between art museums and two foundations, the Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The foundations are built on the wealth of Mortimer Sackler, who with his younger brother led Purdue Pharma while it pioneered and sold OxyContin, one of the drugs at the heart of the American opioid crisis.

The two foundations have ploughed tens of millions of dollars into English and American art institutions. In January last year American photographer, and recovered Oxy addict, Nan Goldin launched PAIN, an activist group with the mission of addressing the opioid crisis by targeting the Sackler family through the institutions that receive their patronage. The group has staged multiple protests, including a die-in where protestors lay prone on the ground, scattered with prescription bottles, in the foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has been associated with the Sackler family for over 50 years.

In March this year, the National Portrait Gallery in London announced they were no longer pursuing a million pound grant from the Sackler Trust, which they had been negotiating for over a year for a building redevelopment. Among the pressures on them was Nan Goldin, who publicly announced she would not go forward with a planned retrospective at the Gallery if they took the money.

Days later, the Tate announced they would not take any further Sackler money.

A few more days, and the Guggenheim announced they too were opting out (though it turned out they had not received any Sackler funding since 2015 and were not currently negotiating for any, leading some to see their announcement as virtue signalling).

The announcements came at the same time New York State laid a civil complaint against members of the Sackler family and others involved in the opioid crisis. It accused defendants of seeking to “profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” And the lawsuit explicitly attacked how the Sacklers had deployed philanthropy:

Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense.

In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they had ceased taking Sackler funding. "On occasion", the Met's president, Daniel H. Weiss, said in a statement, "we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest."

There are plenty of museum wings built over the past 50 years that carry the Sackler name. There may not be any more inaugurated in the future. The two Sackler foundations I mentioned have announced they are halting all new giving "until we can be confident that it will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants."

In another long-running example, since November 2018 a campaign has been directed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, calling for the removal of board member Warren B. Kanders. Kanders is chief executive of Safariland, a company that amongst other products manufactures tear gas, which campaigners say was used on migrants at the Mexican border and water rights activists at Standing Rock, among other instances.

After arts website Hyperallergic published an article detailing Kanders' position at Safariland and the use of the company's products against migrants and protestors, over 100 members of the Whitney staff wrote to their leadership demanding a response to the allegations in the article, arguing that the museum's silence on the article, and willingness to accept Kanders' position on the Board, made it complicit in these injustices.

Kanders' public statement in response to the letter was unequivocal:

Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed. Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality. 
.... I am proud that we have broadened the Whitney’s role as the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States. While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.

Despite protests from staff, public protests in the museum, and significant media coverage, Kanders remains in place.

These examples illustrate one of balancing acts museum leaders are performing. We're responsible for the financial sustainability of our museums. We are also responsible for their reputational sustainability; these two things are inseparable. And we're responsible for the ethical sustainability of our museums; not just our internal actions and immediate influence, but our much wider and more diffuse connections with the rest of society. Balancing these responsibilities and understanding how to make our decisions - in an atmosphere of growing public scrutiny - is one of the biggest challenges we face.

In his statement, Kanders also wrote:

More than ten years ago, I became involved with the Whitney because I believe its mission is bigger than any one person and that creating a safe space for artists and expression is critical.

When the Whitney director, Adam Weinberg, wrote a response to his staff he elaborated on this idea, calling out to the museum's mission as he asked them to open up a "safe space for conversation". He wrote:

Our community united in common purpose to reimagine a home for artists in the 21st century where they can envision, experiment, struggle, risk and even protest openly, unencumbered and uncensored. We have fashioned this protected space together through mutual trust, respect, openness and discussion even when opinions differ. We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst. As one director colleague describes the contemporary museum, it is “a safe space for unsafe ideas.

This idea of safe spaces is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. It is a concept I daresay I've used myself in the past, as a defence against what I felt to be conservative criticism and as a statement of pride in the role of museums in society.

It's a statement I've become far less sure about recently.

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

In 2017, Dana Schutz’s small-scale figurative painting Open Casket was included in the Whitney Biennial.

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

Schutz’s painting had been exhibited in Berlin without comment before being presented at the Whitney. In America, the work triggered a vast array of responses, centred on who has the right to work with which stories and histories, and where the line lies between censorship and perpetuating violence.

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

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

In a statement following the opening of the Biennial, Schutz said:

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

The painting remained on display throughout the Biennial, with alterations to the wall label that noted the protest actions.

Also in 2017, Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold was due to be installed in a revamp of the famous sculpture garden at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis.

The work, originally displayed in documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Germany, was based on gallows used in seven state-sanctioned executions conducted around the world between 1859 and 2006.  This included the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in 1862, in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from the museum. Visually replicating the angular lines of the gallows piled on top of each other, the sculpture was designed to be walked over by viewers.

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

The museum had failed to conduct any discussions with Dakota representatives prior to this. In an open letter of apology Durant wrote:

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

The Dakota elders made the decision to bury the sculpture. The museum is now working to consult more with indigenous people, and put more of their programming resources into the hands of indigenous artists. Director Olga Viso has left the museum.

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

In 2018, controversy broke out around the American artist Chuck Close, after a number of women alleged he harassed them when they were modelling for him. The National Gallery of Art decided to cancel a scheduled exhibition of his paintings because of the allegations.

After this announcement, two New York Times arts reporters went out and canvassed museum leaders for their opinion on whether Close’s work should be taken off display in art galleries, or shown with a warning.

Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, was quoted as saying:

How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave? Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?

And Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, said:

By taking action in the form of canceling an exhibition or removing art from the walls, a museum is creating an understanding of an artist’s work only through the prism of reprehensible behavior. If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth — and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.

This is what I think about a lot these days. The fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be. And especially that line: that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.

For several decades now we have acted as if somehow museums are a neutralising force, a separate space into which people can enter and engage differently with these works and these ideas than they would elsewhere. And to some extent that is true, and that is what we have taught our audience to expect: it is true, because we have made it so.

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

Te Papa's current statement of intent includes the strategic priority "Taking a lead in creating safe places for difficult conversations". As the director of the museum's programme, this priority falls into my remit.

I fully believe that it is Te Papa's role to support New Zealanders in having important and informed conversations. But I have to admit that I have struggled a great deal when I ask myself how we deliver on this goal responsibly and meaningfully.

For example, in the wake of the shootings in the Christchurch mosques on March 15th, I received some pressure to start planning public programming around the topics of white supremacy, hate crime, and institutional racism.

At first blush, these suggestions seemed totally aligned with our ambition - "Taking a lead in creating safe places for difficult conversations".

But what I asked myself was - are we in the position to create that safe space? Te Papa is only just now building links into Muslim community groups. We don't have a high level of existing cultural competency with Muslim histories, protocols or experiences. Our first responsibility, I think, is to becoming a safe partner for the community to work with - if they wish to.

Organising events around a topic like white supremacy also risks turning the museum into a site for these groups to gather and generate attention. It gives them legitimacy by giving them airtime. I question whose safety is protected in this situation - and whose goals are advanced.

I also question whether this is what the community wants or needs right now. Grief needs time and privacy, and those who are close to you, not strangers and extra demands. Coping with a sudden death - especially such traumatic and public events - does not require fulfilling other people's well meaning efforts to help you, or their desire to understand what you are going through.

My response to this situation is deeply coloured by my own personal experience. Seven years ago, I was widowed. My husband, who was a curator in Te Papa's art team, killed himself. It was a reasonably big deal in the little New Zealand art world.

I am not drawing a comparison between his death and the deaths of 51 people in Christchurch. But my experience of a reasonably public loss has forever coloured my feelings around public responses to grief and trauma.

When my husband died, I briefly became a celebrity in a very little world. There was a lot of sympathy, and also some morbid, almost voyeuristic, curiosity. There's a strange glamour that can come along with a tragedy. People want to get close to you, want to share. Some, it seems, are just excited by the emotional intensity, are chasing their own contact high.

At the wake, someone asked me if I still wanted to have kids.

Several men took me aside to warn me not to jump into bed with the next guy who came along.

People asked me how he'd killed himself, how I'd found him, if he'd left a note for me.

And people shared. People shared and shared and shared their stories of suicide: their own attempts, and the deaths of people they loved. People poured their grief into me, and although it was well-meaning, it was overwhelming. There were so many of them doing the sharing, and only one of me to absorb it.

As the years have passed, I can see from my own behaviour how new trauma triggers old trauma, and how sharing is one of the ways we deal with this.

But I can't forget how ghoulish it was to have people wanting to warm their hands on the fire of my loss.

I also remember feeling obligated to reciprocate people's interest. It took me months to learn to say to people ... "thank you for asking, but I don't want to talk about that right now".

So when these questions came to me about museum programming, my instinctive reaction was to say no. Until I could establish that we would be helping, I could only see the potential of being intrusive, demanding, and doing well-intentioned harm.

This, for me, is the problem with the notion of "creating safe spaces for unsafe ideas". "Unsafe ideas", in practice,  usually means "not the majority view". Often, we are asking people from minority communities and experiences to come in and do the labour of educating the majority. And while the majority - and I count myself in here - need this education, I question whether this is the way to fairly and safely achieve it.

So, where does this leave us?

At the start of last year, contemporary art curator Helen Molesworth left Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art under a cloud. The museum's statement said she was stepping down over creative differences; the art world's consensus was that she'd been driven out over her progressive politics, and lack of willingness to pander to conservative museum donors.

In an essay published in ArtForum around the time of the announcement, Molesworth wrote:

The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise.  Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by. I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.

Given this grim recital, how do we stay positive and keep doing things?

I don't want to end on a glib note, or simply to promote my place of work. But we've done something big recently, that has involved weighing up thousands of decisions on the basis of research, ethics, and community and iwi collaboration.

Te Papa opened Te Taiao | Nature, the redevelopment of our natural history galleries, on the 10th of May this year. It is the biggest project, physically and financially, we have undertaken since opening in 1998. It is also our most indepth interweaving of mātauranga Māori with Western systems of knowledge, and te reo Māori with English interpretation.

Every decision that went into the making of Te Taiao is based on the impact we are hoping to have. As you move around the exhibition, we hope to lead you on a journey through which you become more knowledgeable about our unique environment, more aware of the threats to it, and more motivated to make changes in your life to help protect it.

We dazzle you with specimens, we stun you with science, we engage you with shadow play and interactives, and we move you with the silenced voices of extinct species. If we really do our jobs though, you go home and make a change; in your own life, in your community, in the way you get involved in political decision-making.

Using our audience impact model - developed in house by one of my colleagues - we're seeking to track and understand our success against these objectives. This isn't a short-term thing: the exhibition will likely be around for 20 years, and we're hoping to affect generation after generation with it. With 1.5 million people through the building every year, in addition to our education, social and online reach, the museum has a significant opportunity to lead social change by shaping how people see their environment and their responsibility to it. It is a privileged position, to hold the resources to do this mahi, to build the knowledge and the relationships to do it responsibly, and to experience the joy of creating things that people will use.

And that's the crux of it, isn't it, really?

The ability to affect social change, to change people's minds and lives, to correct past wrongs and not create new ones.

The responsibility of holding power.

The joy and the weight of our working lives.

Sources of thought and direct quotes

Sponsorship and Board conflicts

Safe spaces

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Reading list, 30 June 2019

ArtNews's summer edition has some good good writing:

Better Safe Than Sorry: American Museums Take Measures Mindful of Repatriation of African Art 

Exhibiting Change: When Some of the Best-Attended Exhibitions in Museums Are Protests, Where Do Institutions Go from Here?

 The Sound of Listening: Candice Hopkins’s Curating Lets Indigenous Artists Do the Talking 

 Emma Ng's forthcoming essay for the Guy Ngan catalogue being co-published by The Dowse and Artspace appeared on The Spinoff: Guy Ngan, an artist ignored but not forgotten (another experiment in sponsored content from The Dowse)

 Also on The Spinoff: Rebecca Kiddle's The buildings are ‘uniquely Aotearoa’. Their Māori designers are ignored 

V&A director Tristram Hunt asks Should museums return their colonial artefacts? (and then answers himself: no)

I'm fascinated by how Maria Yeonhee Ji's piece for The Pantograph Punch The Truths we Bury About Childbirth in Aotearoa draws on the thinking of Puawai Cairns and Moana Jackson, in a health and wellbeing context.

Dr Spencer Lilley of Massey University has been awarded a grant to study te reo Māori capacity in GLAM organisations

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Reading list, 22 June 2019

The Cleveland Museum of Art releases the findings of its two-year study into whether digital technology deepens engagement at the museum

Barbara Pollock for ArtnewsExhibiting Change: When Some of the Best-Attended Exhibitions in Museums Are Protests, Where Do Institutions Go from Here?

Simple, effective: The Metropolitan Museum Shrouded a Mark Chagall Painting to Draw Attention to World Refugee Day

Laura Raicovich is a kind of writer in residence for Hyperallergic (I guess that's a columnist really though, right?) and her latest is on Rethinking the “Bigger Is Better” Museum Model 

Nothing to do with art museums but I really enjoyed the style & discomfort of Natasha Stagg's Welcome to the doll's house

The Art Institute of Chicago is deaccessioning more than 300 Chinese artworks from its collection via a Christie’s auction in New York in September

Shows by 20th century surrealist artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo in NYC

Tess Thackara for the NYTimes on the Minneapolis Institute of Art's exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists”

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Reading list, 1 June 2019

A whole bunch of old stuff as I finally clear and close some ancient tabs ... and some new news

Ed Rodley's report on the 2019 Immersive Design Summit with his take on how it applies to museums, and also the Immersive Design Summit Annual Report (trends and things to watch for)

From April - the report into Australia's national arts / culture / memory institutions, Telling Australia's story - and why it's important: Report on the inquiry into Canberra's national institutions

Jarrett M. Drake's Graveyards of Exclusion:’ Archives, Prisons, and the Bounds of Belonging, a keynote lecture given at the annual Scholar and Feminist Conference.

Adam Moriarty of Auckland Museum posts the notes from his 2018 NDF talk Do Museums Still Need A Collections Online (actually, it's all about getting digital collections out to where people will use them)

Dear lord, just send them home: British Museum considers loan of ‘invisible’ objects back to Ethiopia (The Arts Newspaper)

An article about the Australian Cruthers family & their foundation supporting visual art by women (read it for the foundation's name alone)

Vanessa Friedman in the NYT's collation of Gen X articles on CK One, perfume of an era. That's short, throw in Alex Williams' lengthy overview of the generation if you want more.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has been appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (first museum director to be appointed in 74 years)

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Reading list, 19 May 2019

"on occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest" - the Met turns down Sackler moneyAnand Giridharadas opinion piece.

There's something nice about seeing a director interviewed four years in about their philosophy & changes they've made, rather than at the time of their appointment: ‘There Were Women Working Then, Too’: How Dia Director Jessica Morgan Is Breaking Open the (Male) Canon of Postwar Art

Interesting for museum interpretation: the Guardian is changing the language it uses when reporting on the environment to be more emphatic. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. ... The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

In a similar vein - Erin Banks' guide to trans-inclusive design, which has a lot to share about communicating with people across all media.

Julia Halperin for Artnet: Borrow, Barter, Crowdsource: How Small Countries Bootstrap Their Way to the Venice Biennale

Still open in my tabs: a reflection, 30 years on, on the importance of the 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Reading list, 11 May 2019

Stagecoach South East, the bus company, was brought onboard by Turner Contemporary in Margate, host of this year's Turner Prize: the company and the gallery have parted company one day after the announcement, due to protest over Stagecoach's boss's anti-gay views.

Marc A. Thiessen's column for the Washington Post on Jenny Holzer's installation: A museum has turned itself into an instrument of anti-U.S. propaganda:

It’s no surprise that the art world is left wing. But the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao — an institution owned by an American foundation, in the heart of Spain — has turned itself into something worse: an instrument of anti-American propaganda. The museum is spreading calumnies against the men and women of the U.S. military and fueling hatred of America in a foreign land.

Linking to Rebecca Solnit's writing is so passé, and yet: When the Hero is the Problem

teamlab and Meow Wolf are taking over the world: here's Rachel Monroe on the latter for the New York Times - Can an Art Collective Become the Disney of the Experience Economy?

The papers from the 2019 Museums and the Web conference are available online

A useful history of art / artists / arts communities on the internet by Kelsey Ables for Artsy: The Rise and Fall of Internet Art Communities

Canadian Heritage has allocated $680,000 Canadian i to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake a national review of museum policies with Indigenous communities, to ensure alignment with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and make recommendations for best practice.

The New York Times Magazine documented the development of its cover designs for a year

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Reading list, 4 May 2019

Still chewing this over with a lot of discomfort: Is this ‘Common’ Language? A College’s Misguided Guide by Rand Richards Cooper on Commonweal and a copy of the Amherst common language guide referred to in the opinion piece, since redacted by the university.

Recent writing by Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance: Queering [the museum] needs to be anti-colonial

Three pieces of catch-up reading from the Pantograph Punch:

Speaking of which, the Pantograph Punch is looking for a new director: a 0.5 role working alongside the Editor in Chief to run the platform

I'm sure I've linked to this before, but an extract & link to the full statement: Germany reveals Framework Principles for Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts

Recently from Nina Simon: evaluating and ranking potential risks of failure, to get organised & reduce stress

NPR's guide to saying "foreign" names on air

Thousands of articles of everyday women’s clothing are being preserved in lockers in a college basement. But where, exactly, does their value lie?

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Reading list, 27 April 2019 / different from usual edition

I spent much of Easter writing a preface for a forthcoming book that I will share more information about here when I can (it's really, really good though).

As part of writing the preface, I spent a good deal of time of thinking about how the development of the contemporary web - as tool and ethos - has tracked alongside the development of the contemporary visitor-focused museum. As the web has afforded new communication and social abilities, it's also created new metaphor - myths, in Roland Barthes' term - that shape the way we view and describe the world.

The text that first articulated this for me was actually from 1998, when the web was still in quite a restricted state. It's an address given by Neil Postman, an American cultural theorist and educator, to a group of theologians and religious leaders in Denver. It's called 'Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change' (I suspect this talk was given often, and tailored to this group) and it's about patterns you can see playing out in society with each introduction of a major new piece of technology.

Postman's third Thing is the argument that embedded within every technology is one or more ideas that we may not consciously grasp, but which have massive potential to influence us. He writes:
The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.”
Writing my preface, I did that thing where you get so off track that you've basically started a PhD thesis, all because you're desperately trying to cram that one perfect quote into your text. I was trying to make an argument about how web / digital development and technology has seeped over from tools to mental frameworks.

Eventually I discarded the quote but kept some of the thinking. But in pulling my train of thought together, I revisited some really influential pieces of writing that illustrate this timeline I was seeing inside my head:

Richard MacManus writing at the launch of the influential tech blog Read Write Web, about what that phrase means in terms of a new era of the web where the tools of publishing are embedded in the medium, and newly available to 'ordinary' people. The metaphor comes from computer science - something that is read / write can be displayed (read) and modified (written to). There is something powerful in that metaphor that speaks to me about the way a generation of experience designers in museums started to create interactive museum displays - not just buttons that people could push, but new techniques to elicit opinion and contributions from the public. Still a really enjoyable short read.

Tim O'Reilly's What is Web 2.0 - the codification of the design patterns and business models he and his collaborators saw as characterising the tech companies who survived then thrived after the 2001 dot-com bubble burst. It is both a group of technical processes and approaches (constant deployment, web as platform) and conceptual approaches ('harnessing the collective intelligence'). So much of the exciting museum work I saw when I first got involved in the web in 2006 at the National Library of New Zealand was enabled and inspired by this moment. It seems almost cheesy now, but holy shit - remember when Web 2.0 was new and changing the world?

Alexis Madrigal, The Weird Thing About Today's Internet, his comeback article for The Atlantic and a reflection on his 10 years covering technology, starting as a writer for Wired in pre-GFC 2007. I'd read this 2017 article sometime around when I was first approached to write this preface, and I pasted this paragraph into the Google doc I fired up to start collecting ideas:
But then in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated.
I felt that shift in play when I went to the States in 2015 on a Churchill scholarship, visiting museums renowned for their digital leadership. I noted then a move from the big projects of 5-7 years ago, which were driven by those ideas of the open web, universal access, all people contributing knowledge on an equal footing, to the new hot experiences, designed to enrich the physical visit. The 21st century web had driven the first round of innovation, and the smartphone & widespread wifi the second, but I couldn't help but feel there was some evolution in ethos as well (partly, I suspect, from the funders and granters, who might have been starting to question the value of reaching a global audience, and becoming easier to convince on projects that were about value for the exclusive, on-site visitor. However, I also see the natural curiosity of digital leaders playing out in this change: minds adapting to and making use of each tech advance in the museum. Chicken and egg stuff really).

This 20-something year history sits within a wider context of the successive eras of thinking about the social purpose of museums, as articulated by Seph Rodney here. It's not surprising then that I had to spin my wheels through about three days of writing what was basically the outline of a thesis before I could relinquish enough of my treasured quotes and observations to get down to the guts of the piece. I'm not going to tell you how the preface ends, because that will give it all away. But I'm really looking forward to sharing that book with you.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2019

Pursuit of knowledge 

Earlier this year I was invited by the Royal Society of New Zealand to deliver one of three ‘provocations’ at their annual strategic gathering, speaking from the perspective of both my new(ish) role at Te Papa as Director of Audience and Insights, and as chair of Museums Aotearoa.

I met with the Royal Society’s chief executive to ask what he was trying to achieve by bringing these provocateurs in. One of the things he noted was that while the Royal Society’s Act had been amended in 2012 to include the humanities, the society as a whole had not made significant progress on that front. Membership is still made up largely of research scientists (with an increasing number of engineers and other applied science aeas); the Council is still made up of scientists, and the public did not perceive the society as having a focus beyond science. This despite the Act’s very wide definition of the humanities, ranging from philosophy to media theory to te reo Māori. As the Royal Society’s website states, “Our act talks about science, technology and humanities. In practice that includes engineering, applied science, and social sciences; and effectively the pursuit of knowledge in general.”

I spent about a fortnight mulling over what I would say, testing it out with colleagues at Te Papa, and during various other meetings and conversations, including a hui of art gallery directors conveniently held at The Dowse during my prep time. Finally, I spent the evening before the event drafting my ten-minute talk.

What I didn’t anticipate was that writing a provocation would feel so depressing.

One area where the sciences have excelled is the establishment of science communication as a contemporary field of study and applied endeavour. The growth of this area has tracked quite closely with my own entry to university and then the workforce. In fact, if I had known such a thing existed when I was in my final year at high school in 1997, it’s a career path I may well have taken. From within the arts, I’ve watched this development with envy. I look at the Masters in Science Communication at Otago, the Science Media Centre, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, the Science Communicators Association, and I feel deep envy for a sector that seems to have collectively and successfully committed to bringing expert knowledge into the realm of everyday conversation, and thereby promoting the importance and validity of scientific research and investment.

When I questioned this envy, I realised that what lay at the bottom of it was worry. Because I’m worried about the arts. I’m worried about what’s happening at our universities with their support for the humanities. To write my provocation I googled the phrase “Cuts to the humanities at universities” and opened tab after tab after tab of media reports. As I paged through the coverage I felt paralysed by the consistent song of decline: declining enrolments, declining staff numbers, declining job prospects.

I’m worried because I graduated with a MA in Art History in 2004 and in five years’ time I question whether anyone will be able to do that at a New Zealand university. I worry because Te Papa employs about half a dozen art curators, and I don’t know where our talent pipeline is going to come from in the future. Extrapolate this over all the humanities disciplines represented in museums, and we have a small-scale future crisis. This might seem a luxury problem. But in the biggest sense, I’m worried because what I think we are truly at risk of losing with the changes at our universities is the education of our educators, our communicators, our thinkers and advocates; our interested audiences and our informed citizenry. What is at stake is our ability to support the visual, cultural and historical literacy of New Zealand society.

That was February. Since then, the urgency of this endeavour has been sharpened in the most horrific way. Now I am writing in the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, and in the midst of museums and museum workers seeking to understand their role in documenting this tragedy, supporting the Muslim community, and playing our part in building a better, safer society for all.

Under Te Papa’s Act, we are charged with the responsibility to be a forum in which the nation may present, explore and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment, in order to better understand and treasure the past, enrich the present and meet the challenges of the future. This responsibility is not unique to us – the kaupapa is shared across our sector. In February, I was asking the leaders of the Royal Society what we could do to influence universities together, to protect our ability to serve and support the diversity of thought and diversity of communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Today, this responsibility feels all the more urgent, focused, and meaningful.

Reading list, 20 April 2019

Lined up for post-deadline listening: Hrag Vartanian interviews two artist estate managers about how families should cope with a dead artist-relative's legacy.

Also on Hyperallergic: a write-up of a new transcription project from the Smithsonian, focused on female figures from 19th century art history, including the diaries of Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculptor who made custom prosthetics for soldiers injured during the first world war.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, has the most tricked-out office I've seen to date.

Another "must read later" - The Happy Museum project's list of tools and resources for measuring organisation's impacts on social wellbeing.

I'm sure you used to be able to download the AAM annual TrendsWatch survey for just the cost of your email address? At least you can still download the exec summary. This year's five key trends - "truth and trust, blockchain, decolonization, homelessness and housing insecurity, and self-care".

A nerdily detailed article on the review and decommissioning of minimal and conceptual artworks from the Panza collection at the Guggenheim museum.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Reading list, 14 April 2019

One of the recent issues of The Gray Market newsletters (looking at how museums in England and the US refusing sponsorship from the Sackler Foundation, now deemed too toxic for brand association) introduced me to the concept of the Overton Window, from media theory, which describes the 'window of discourse' in which a politician can suggest policy changes (the window of discourse on military-style weapons in New Zealand, for example, has shifted dramatically following the attacks in Christchurch). When yet another article about an art museum selling collection items off to finance more diverse additions (this time the Art Gallery of Ontario) floated across the transom, it made me reflect that the window of discourse on this particular topic has shifted markedly in recent months, from radical to acceptable, possibly almost sensible (though without a concerted collective decision from the sector, still falling well short of policy).

A similar shift (and dramatic increase in publicity) has happened on the subject of repatriation from museums collections over the last couple of years. The latest piece I've read is by museum curator Chip Colwell, a letter to the editor in the NYT that talks about what museums have to gain, rather than lose, from repatriation.

Ticketed for future reading: Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access relevant to the digitization and restitution of African Cultural Heritage and associated materials

I learned a massive amount from this NYT article, which describes how 12 linked exhibitions in Spain are exploring the art of its former colony Peru (which gained independence in 1821):
“This is the first time we’re showing a painting from colonial America,” Miguel Falomir, the Prado’s director, said in a telephone interview. The Prado owns “between 15 and 20” paintings made in Spain’s former colonies, he said, but they are kept by the ethnographic Museum of the Americas. They have never been shown alongside European old masters. 
For centuries, “we’ve considered this art as second-class,” Mr. Falomir said. “That, thank God, has changed.”
Smart work at SFMOMA: Tracing the Roots of Photo Sharing, From Mail Art to Instagram

One of curator Okwui Enwezor's final interviews: “There are code words to push back against change”

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Reading list, 6 April 2019

A history of working class protest: Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, via the Guardian

Farah Nayeri, 'A Museum Tackles Myths About Jews and Money' in the New York Times, on a new exhibition at the London's Jewish Museum.

Siri Hustvedt on why Duchamp's urinal should be correctly attributed to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Susan Tallman's 'Painting the Beyond' for the New York Review of Books:
But the claim for af Klint as an inventor of abstract art runs into two serious problems. The first is that it doesn’t seem to match how she thought the work should function. The second is that abstraction was “invented” in the same sense that the Western Hemisphere was “discovered.” Millions of people knew about both for millennia, just not the people who counted. It is a myopia that art historians have helped sustain through their habitual “canvas or it didn’t happen” bias, but once you look beyond easel painting, it becomes clear that af Klint’s seemingly unprecedented visual language had been circulating for centuries in the diagrams, illustrations, and serial formats of books and prints.

Ela Bittencourt's review of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s new anthology Photography after Photography: Genre, Gender, History for Hyperallergic

The Art Institute of Chicago has pulled a show of Native American pottery:
"The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project,” [president and director James Rondeau] said. “And I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice."

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Reading list 30 March 2019

A show at the Musee d'Orsay temporarily retitles works after their previously anonymous black models. Kehinde Andrews responds in the Guardian: " n the most part, we remain subjects oppressed to the margins of the canvas."

A diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, depicting an imagined 17th-century meeting between Dutch settlers and the indigenous Lenape people, has been marked up to show its biases

A lawsuit against Harvard University asserts that photographs of slaves should rightfully belong to their descendants.

Olly Wainwright reviews the immense and dramatic new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel.

Julia Morgan designed more than 700 buildings, died in 1957 aged 85 and has just had her obituary, by Alexandra Lange, published in the NYT's 'Overlooked' series.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Reading list, 23 March 2019

My dormant nerdy art historian side really enjoyed the quiz that accompanies this lengthy NYT piece on deaccessioning from American art museum collections, where you can try to guess which of three artworks from the Indianapolis Museum of Art's collection has been ranked by its curators as of lower importance than similar works.

In repatriation news: 16 German states have joined in issuing guidelines and releasing funding for repatriation of art and artefacts stolen or looted during the colonial period; the Rijksmuseum begins talks with Indonesia and Sri Lanka to return items; the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures (NMWC) has published guidelines last month for countries wanting to repatriate from the three co-managed institutions that make up the museum, though these have been criticised for centring the museum.

Taylor Whitten Brown's statistical analysis for Artsy: Why Is Work by Female Artists Still Valued Less Than Work by Male Artists?

So interesting to see what Olga Viso is advocating following leaving the Walker after the Sam Durrant affair: here, writing about the need for changes in leadership style and focus; Finding Resilience in Challenging Times

The Sackler Trust has withdrawn the offer of a long-discussed 7-figure donation to the English National Portrait Gallery to avoid embarrassment to the institution. The New York Times article on the decision (fascinatingly worded) also links to the NPG's donations and grants policy.

I hadn't been aware of this aspect of the Metropolitan Museum's introduction of entrance charges: Met Admission Fees Will Send $2.8 Million to Over 175 City Cultural Groups.

May we all receive such a generous obituary when our times come: Vale Edmund Capon

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Reading list, 16 March 2019

On artists:

An interview with American painter Betty Tompkins, once shunned and now celebrated for her 'porn' paintings:
“Everybody says to me, ‘Oh, you were so ahead of your time!’ You cannot be ahead of your time. You can only be in your time. Your today is the same as everybody else’s. What you can be is rejected by your time, and I was rejected.”
On the future of experiences in (or near) cultural institutions:

The Library of Congress wants to attract more visitors. Will that undermine its mission?

French museums operator Culturespaces has opened the Bunker des Lumières in South Korea, following on from the Atelier des Lumières in Paris, a "30-minute immersive audiovisual experience of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, featuring mural projections of the images set to music by Wagner, Strauss and Beethoven" (images here)

A Former Guggenheim Director Thinks Museums Need to be More Like Theme Parks

On arts journalism:

Niemann surveys 300 visual arts writers for a new report, Newsroom Pressure and Generational Change

On gosh, about time:

Oxford museum rethinks famed display of shrunken heads

On data:

Price comparison of various leisure activities, from art museums to the Superbowl

On copies and attributions:

‘It is for art historians to decide who painted this picture’ (a depiction of Judith and Holofernes that may be attributed to Caravaggio)

The Imitation Game (on objects in Washington D.C. museums that may not be as 'original' as they are displayed to be)

Sunday, 10 March 2019

NAVA's gender equity resources

Australia's NAVA (National Association for the Visual Arts) is releasing some terrific documentation at the moment as they build out their Gender Equity Resources.

This morning I read their latest set of guidelines, Clear Expectations: Guidelines for institutions, galleries and curators working with trans, non-binary and gender diverse artists in Australia, written by Spencer Messih and Archie Barry and supported by The Countess. It's an excellent, simply and clearly explained, informative and actionable set of guidelines that institutions of any size could use.

The previous set of guidelines to this is Anonymous “Speak Up” Protocol: A guide for boards, designed for boards that are responding to an allegation of gendered harassment.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Reading list, 9 March 2019

Mega-dealer Marc Glimcher interviews by artnet on the art gallery of the future (and why painting came roaring back in the 1980s)

I recently finished Thomasin Sleigh's second book, Women in the field, One and Two, which is set in 1950s London and wellington and hinges on two (fictional) Russian modernist paintings purchased by an external art consultant for New Zealand's National Art Gallery. That sent me back to Holly Walker's interview with Sleigh for The Pantograph Punch, published earlier this year.

Hyperallergic on a suite of forthcoming solo shows across the Tate galleries that focus on women artists (course correcting some of the criticism around male-dominated programming at the institution)

I often think that simply having a history of free entry places New Zealand's visual arts institutions so far ahead of the American curve: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland Will Become Free as Part of Inclusivity Initiative

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Reading list, 2 March 2019

Some interlinked reading and listening ...

A new academic study showing that the collections of 18 sampled US art museums' collections are hopelessly white and hopelessly male has been written up in many outlets - such as on Artnet. The study itself is also available online. Here's the method: 18 museums with their collections fully available online were selected by the researchers as credible and representative, then ...
We scraped the public online collections of 18 major U.S. art museums, retaining the
museum name, artist name, and a web link pointing to the artist’s entry in the
museum’s collection. Then, we deployed a large random subset of scraped records to the
crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and asked crowdworkers to
research the demographics of each sampled artist, using the web link as a starting point.
Crowdworkers reported their inferences of gender, ethnicity, national origin, and birth
year, along with a numerical rating of confidence in each inference. We put in place
multiple safeguards and checkpoints to ensure the quality of our data. Starting with the
data obtained from crowdworkers, we first eliminated records that did not correspond to
individual, identifiable artists. For each remaining record, we aggregated the inferences
of multiple crowdworkers and if their responses were sufficiently self-consistent, we made a final inference of each artist’s demographic characteristics.
In line with that - a piece of research from last year, co-commissioned by Art Agency Partners and Artnet, asked African American Artists Are More Visible Than Ever. So Why Are Museums Giving Them Short Shrift?

And the Art Agency Partners podcast this week was a recording of a panel discussion they held recently at Frieze art fair: Californian Museum Leaders on Expanding the Canon.

And some randoms ...

Adrian Ellis writes about the increased public scrutiny of museum boards in the social media age, the first in a new series for The Art Newspaper.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Reading list, 23 February 2019

A long write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald of the planned renewal changes to ACMI, including its permanent exhibition and rather discouraging reception areas, with discussion of "the lens", destined to be the new "the pen".

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Reading list, 16 February 2019

Three pieces on words ...

Nicole Martinez's A Lively Debate on the Value of the Term “Latinx”, for Hyperallergic

Aaron Bady's White Words for Popula (on the notion of "Eskimos having more than 50 words for snow")

And a 2018 publication from the Netherland's Research Centre for Material Culture, Words Matter, in which curators and museum staff write about art, word choice and communication in light of the rapid changes around the language used in art work titles and interpretation in the European context (much more interesting than I've made it sound)

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Reading list, 9 February 2019

This week's listening: Kim Hill interviews Gregggggggggorrrrrry Burke, incoming director of the AAG.

From a podcast that's new to me: Expectations and Epiphanies with [UK's National Portrait Gallery] Director Nicholas Cullinan. I'm also starting to mine the Art Agency Partners' (an arts agency that's a subsidiary of Sothebys, explaining their access) backlog of articles, including this one on the squishy (often icky) definitions of outsider / self-taught / outlier art.

It's gonna take me ages to to process this: Dan Hill's The city is my homescreen - "How design practice can work better for people, services and cities together, and not simply individuals".

I found this really thought-provoking: Johanna Jones of the Oakland Museum of California describes an evolution of her organisation's thinking on how to describe its value and mission, in What problem in our community is our museum most uniquely equipped to solve?

Lucie Paterson of ACMI on the development and testing of the physical/digital accompaniment to their exhibition WonderlandThe Lost Map of Wonderland — four months in (from August last year, but still really interesting).

Anne Helen Petersen just keeps banging it out. Here she is on a recent profile of Lorena Bobbitt, with bonus analysis of the 1990s and the cultural moment of postfeminist backlash.

"Either we say that improving health, wellbeing and social outcomes is our proper motivation, or we admit that the value of the arts is different to this." I don't think it's an either/or argument but Carter Gillies picks up here on something I've been thinking about in terms of how we position arts institutions and arts funding.

The German culture ministry has announced US$2.17 million for research into artifacts that entered German public collection in the colonial era. The eight member panel that will allocate the funding includes Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the report on repatriation commissioned by French preseident Emmanuel Macron in 2018. It's striking to me that the German fund will be administered by the German Lost Art Foundation, established in 2015 to aid with Nazi-looted artworks; it's a reminder that repatriation and restitution look very different in every national/geographic/historical context.

Endearing. Gig posters for science talks - by a cellular biologist.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Reading list, 2 February 2019

Hartwig Fischer deployed a spectacularly misjudged bit of phrasing this week discussing demands for the return of the Parthenon marbles, saying that "When you move a cultural heritage to a museum, you move it outside. However, this shifting is also a creative act." I say "spectacularly misjudged" because I am myself very guilty of opening my mouth and saying stupid things, or saying things stupidly. However, the British Museum backed this up through a statement, saying in the piece of Guardian reporting linked above that "Hartwig Fischer was stating the longstanding position of the British Museum".

Jonathan Jones reliably leapt on to the resultant controversy: as always, I hope he is not responsible for his headlines - Let's not lose our marbles over the British Museum boss's remarks.

And speaking of reliable, an otherwise on-point piece of BBC reporting on the Pitt Rivers Museum's repatriation efforts brings conservative warhorse Tiffany Jenkins in to trot out her opinions once more about the role of museums as world knowledge centres, cultural contexts be damned.

Moving on. The reliably interesting Gray Market newsletter for this week - Why the Government Shutdown's End Should Be Cold Comfort to US Arts Institutions.

Saved up for weekend reading: Doing the Work: [art journos] Carolina A. Miranda and Siddhartha Mitter in Conversation.

And Kajsa Hartsig on thinking of exhibitions as one of many possible endpoints.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Reading list, 26 January 2019

A grubby, sad story: His Art, Their Ideas: Did Robert Indiana Lose Control of His Work?

I'm still pondering this manifesto in the Harvard Design Magazine by Joanna Kloppenburg and Nicholas Korody (What if we began by admitting that we hated writing this? What if we said we did it because we needed the money? What if we acknowledged that we had fallen out of love with architecture and couldn’t remember why we loved it in the first place?) alongside Anne Helen Petersen's How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation (Those expectations encapsulate the millennial rearing project, in which students internalize the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying, recognizable as a “good job”) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company) and fulfills what they’ve been told has been the end goal of all of this childhood optimization: doing work that you’re passionate about.)

Conflict of interest much? A late nineteenth-century case less well known than the Elgin Marbles, but more scandalous in its scope, also victimised Cyprus. Luigi Palma de Cesnola was the U.S. consul there and used his consular office to strip Cyprus of a staggering 35,000 items of antiquity. This serial looter sold his collection to the new Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Seb Chan has started an enewsletter.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Art News New Zealand Column, Summer 2019

New Year's Resolutions

Early in January, Minneapolis's Walker Art Center posted an intriguing set of opinion pieces on their influential online magazine, under the rubric of New Year's resolutions for museums.

Laura Raicovich (who left the directorship of the Queens Museum last year after growing tensions with the institution's board around her progressive programming) called for a dismantling of the myth of neutrality, and a closer accord between an organisation's values and its operations. This touches every sphere of decision-making, she argues, from repatriation to recruitment decisions: in 2019 "the authority of the museum is being questioned not only in terms of what is collected and how, and what is exhibited and how it is shown, but also how decisions are made and who has the power to make them."

Nicole N. Ivy, educator, futurist and inclusion activist, urged art museums to "to examine who is not being represented in their collections and also reflect on their relationships to wealth inequality", in the pursuit of equity. Ivy cited the Baltimore Museum of Art's announcement last year that it would sell off a small number of collection works by 20th century white male artists to create a fund to buy the work of under-represented artists as an example of a museum "using their resources to expand access and promote the democratic circulation of their collections."

In the hardest hitting of the four short essays, artist and writer Antony Romero argued for long-term planning and work towards social change and representation over short-term profiling and programming: "Developing a program or exhibition that reflects upon or invites dialogue on some contemporary social movement, such as Black Lives Matter, for example, is not the same as investing in the cultivation of black life. It is never a question of representation over resource allocation. Both should be happening at the same time. Programmatic shifts should be taking place at the same time as resources are reallocated to bolster your institution’s commitment to investing in excluded communities." In emphatic prose that I have since seen repeatedly cited, Romero writes "Remember that you are not your institution. An institution is not an organism but an instrument, a tool. It may be a bloodied tool but remember there are no clean tools, only those that still serve a purpose and those that don’t."

Finally, Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at Melbourne's ACMI, made one concrete suggestion: do away with salary cloaking. It's not a phrase I'd hear before, but it's a practice I'm very familiar with - not advertising salary ranges and starting pay when recruiting. As Chan notes, the practice benefits those who have the "time and upfront confidence" when applying for roles, and also establishes "an unequal trust relationship between employer and employee which then continues when the employee is hired". Furthermore, inside the workplace, trading insider knowledge of people's pay "embeds individualized competition instead of collective camaraderie". Advertising salaries seems a small and noncontroversial measure, he acknowledges, but this is one of the " very first baby steps towards workplace diversity and community representation", which are going to be needed to face the truly brutal challenges facing society, from racial inequality to climate change.

When I worked in digital, we talked about "full stack" development: a consideration of what we were designing from the deepest backend of the hardware support to the individual actions of users on the frontend of the product. In reading these pieces, I see that same fullstack in operation - the change that all four writers are calling for requires honesty, authenticity and change throughout every phase of a museum's operations, from governance, funding and recruitment to collection development, fundraising and working conditions.

The essays also tap into a rising discussion around burn out, specifically (but not exclusively) focused on the millennial generation, the oldest members of which are now entering their late 30s. At the same time that I was considering the Walker essays, a piece by Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen titled 'How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation' was being passed around and around my social network. Petersen's core argument - that burn out is not a temporary affliction but a permanent condition for those brought up to expect their work will be meaningful, even enviable, but working in a context of carrying massive student debt and facing increasing job instability - chimed with a memorable article published by Lucinda Bennett on the Pantograph Punch last April, where she interrogated the idea of 'passionate work' as it applies to the visual arts. When work is redefined as being done for love, Bennett writes, it becomes boundless: "even fulfilling work needs constraints and needs to be remunerated. Without the former, we never have time to rest, to attend to our physical and emotional needs, to spend time with our families and friends. We become burnt out, disillusioned, physically and mentally unwell."

And thus to resolutions. It seems a large task, to dismantle the inheritance of the Western museum and democratise its assets and influence. But as Chan notes, small steps take you somewhere. So when I did my first pieces of recruitment for 2019, I told candidates what the ceiling of the starting salary was, and published salary ranges up front. It's a small step but hopefully one in the right direction.

Read the originals: