The Art Newspaper, 1

I apologize for getting political, particularly for those who might not agree with me. But, I imagine most of you probably do, so I’m not too worried.

There was an article in the Art Newspaper reminding us, in case we forgot (which we might have, because it’s ridiculous–see below), that Romney and Ryan, like all Republicans eventually do, would propose to cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). I did my second graduate school qualifying paper (I wrote a bit about the first one here) about the removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2010, and by extension, about public funding for the arts. This included a slight detour back into the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which eventually saw the end of grants to individual artists and the budget of the NEA drastically cut. It has steadily risen since, only to be hacked at again and again.

I don’t plan to go on a rant about how important the arts are to society. I won’t even give you numbers detailing how the U.S.’s arts budget falls far below much smaller countries with much smaller budgets, revenues and GDPs. I will say this: the combined budget of the NEA and NEH is currently $292 million. They would like to cut that in half, and that is part of their plan to lop $3.3 trillion off the federal deficit.

Let’s do some quick math-how many zero’s is a trillion? Oh, interesting, my computer calculator won’t do that many. OK hang on… got it. Cutting the NEH/NEA budget in half would get you — drumroll please — 0.44% of the way towards your $3.3 trillion goal! Congratulations, dream team!

In the meantime, the three R’s, Republicans Romney and Ryan, would lose us $2 trillion in revenue over the next ten years by reducing the tax rate on the top income bracket to 25%, and ending taxes on income from interest, capital gains, and dividends. Fun fact: this means Romney, for one, would pay only .82% on $21 million he earned in 2010/2011. Not a bad deal! For him. Not a bad deal for him.

If I’m being snarky, it’s because I’m absolutely befuddled how anyone could fall for this. This is a lot like my math about how fast I’m reading the many e-flux articles flooding my inbox. It does. not. make. sense.

There’s a note towards the end of the article about how the Reagan administration increased charitable giving from the private sector through tax incentives, and that’s great; it was particularly important for corporations and wealthy patrons to step up to the plate once public funding for the arts went kaput. The implication in the article, however, is that maybe letting the rich keep more of their money will also help with private giving. This is also pretty anti-logical. As an artist/blogger quoted in the article says:

When your tax rate approaches zero, the tax benefit of donating money or art drops, too.

Right. Getting a break on your taxes is no longer a benefit if you’re barely being taxed. This guy adds that there are social and cultural motivations to donating money for the arts besides tax incentives. Of course there are! But those won’t radically shift giving trends, whereas it’s clear that tax incentives do: charitable giving rose 25% under Reagan’s incentives (I would like to state that despite this one policy, I am not a Reagan fan: he is the one who got us into this mess in the first place). The end of the tax incentive would once again cause this number to drop.

It’s basically the same argument they’re making about the economy: putting more money into the hands of the extremely wealthy will “trickle-down” to the rest of us (see! goddamn Reagan!). I wonder how Romney’s charitable giving is.

NOTE: Of course the Art Newspaper requires a digital subscription; I’ll try to get a good scan of the article and post it later. Coming up, a repatriation controversy special! Nigeria demands back Benin bronzes from the MFA!

Keepin’ Up with the E-Flux, 3; or, Why I’m Moving to Rotterdam

I wrote one of my graduate school qualifying papers on the theory of literary critic Harold Bloom, called “the anxiety of influence.” In a quick nutshell, the theory is about how a “poet simultaneously imitates and distorts the work of his predecessors in order to overcome the anxiety that their influence provokes” (my words). It has often been applied to artists as well as poets, as it was in my paper (in my case, to appropriation artists–Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine specifically).

I often worry that the artists and theories I’m interested in are passé; in Bloom’s case I believe he has fallen somewhat out of favor because… why was it again? Oh, yeah, cuz he’s a racist sexist jackass. But, much like Freud, his personal shortcomings do not completely invalidate his better ideas.

Anyhoo, I was pleased to see, in my e-flux reading (see parts 1 and 2), that an MFA graduate exhibition in Rotterdam used Bloom’s theory as the theme, and one of his books on the theory, The Map of Misreading, as the title.

Validation! The Witte de With Contemporary Art center in Rotterdam had an exhibition in 2005 on forms of reenactment in contemporary art; it included my guy Mike Bidlo, who is very out of fashion. Man, they really get me in Rotterdam!

Blast from the Past

I present to you a blast from the past: a paper/exhibition review I wrote for a museum studies class a couple of years ago. I’m posting it because in my last post (ack! there’s gotta be another word for it!), I was writing about trying to get creative with exhibition design, but warned that going too far with it can just be confusing. Whenever I think of too much exhibition design, I think of this.

I attended “The MIT 150 Exhibition” at the MIT Museum. The exhibition celebrated the university’s 150th anniversary by featuring art and artifacts that represented work done at MIT or by MIT alumni and professors. The exhibition was organized by themes like “Academic MIT,” “Entrepreneurial MIT,” “Pioneering MIT,” and “Artistic MIT.” (As an art specialist this last was my favorite.) Themes were color-coded and represented by the color of the walls, text panels, and pedestals. For the majority of the exhibition, this worked well: sections were clearly separated by the colored walls but still open to each other and the larger gallery space, which allowed for a good flow. However, the exhibition’s designers decided to introduce all ten themes in the narrow hallway that was the entrance to the exhibition. Overly bright wall panels introduced the theme with a quote and brief text, accompanied by an object representing the theme, and that object’s individual text label. This was visually overwhelming, spatially overcrowded, and confusing. It was not clear from just that entryway that the themes would be continued in the exhibition; nowhere in the entrance was the thematic organization explained, and it seemed as if every object would have its own colored wall panel. The museum would have done better to put the thematic introductory panels in each section, rather than all packed into the entrance.

The displays were generally quite interesting. Most of the objects were themselves captivating, like a 6-foot-tall computer memory unit from the 1950’s. If I initially found certain objects or photographs dull, a closer look would usually reward my curiosity with a fascinating story, like a tape measure used by a professor to demonstrate the disparity between work spaces given to male and female researchers. Some gallery labels were better written or better researched than others. For example, a label about glass talked about how many hits “glass” gets in a Google search, a rather inane and un-illuminating factoid. There were a few good interactive screens, but some digital displays did not move or interact, making them glorified picture frames. In some instances, videos were not working; in another, a video console was missing.

The exhibition took up one larger gallery and one smaller. More objects were packed into the smaller, second gallery, in part because of a display case full of objects representing the businesses of alumni. This was not unpleasing, but it did create an odd rhythm when I, fully immersed in the show, exited this gallery expecting more but abruptly found the exhibition over. The exhibition would have been much better had the museum been more thoughtful about the experience they create at the entrance and exits.

“The MIT 150 Exhibition” at the MIT Museum, Spring 2011

Keepin’ Up with the E-Flux, part 2

In my last post, I talked about keeping up with email announcements from e-flux. Another interesting note I came across…

First let me preface this with the fact that I’ve been thinking about curating and exhibitions a lot–well, yeah, obviously, since that is my field. But in particular, I’ve been thinking about exhibition organization and design. For practical reasons, due to a lack of money, energy and time on the part of understaffed museums, exhibition organization and design often defaults to the basic. As my current boss asked me pleadingly in my interview when he was still just my prospective boss, “what’s the solution?” I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it.

I worry that, in my career, not only will I lack the resources but the creativity to come up with alternatives to white walls, single row hangs, organization by chronology or theme. I am finding that when I work with my curator on installations, I think very linearly, while he does not; he says he was the same way when he just got out of school, but he was pushed and he changed, so hopefully I will too.

Part of the tension is that I am perhaps taking the educational function of museums too literally. How can we teach our visitors about art history unless we hang our permanent collection chronologically, or by school or nationality, and explain exactly why we’re doing it? But you can’t teach unless you first attract, and my curator tends to focus on the aesthetics of the installation, without being overly concerned with didactics. There may yet be a happy middle ground between our approaches, one I can learn to implement in the future.

But I digress. The point of this meandering thread was that in my e-flux readings I came across an idea that intrigued me. The announcement was about an exhibition of a Danish furniture designer in a Korean museum:

New exhibition style, new stories each month
In a dedicated space at the museum, some of his famous designs will be displayed differently under different themes each month—a new exhibition style experimented for the first time in Korea…

So many questions! Does this mean an actual rearrangement of the objects? Or just different didactic texts? I doubt they’ll actually be changing wall color, but will they actually be changing wall color?  I want to see what form this experimentation takes, but given that the exhibition’s in Korea, and I’m not sure how good or public their installation photography will be, I doubt I will. So the other question: “the first time in Korea…”–where else has it been implemented? Can I see how that worked?

An intriguing idea, and one to keep in mind in future. But as I said, I worry about the educational function of museums, and that overly designed or gimicky or obscure arrangements will confuse and alienate visitors, rather than attract and educate them. Once again, a middle ground can be found, but it’s a delicate balance.

In my next post, I’ll post (the noun is the same as the verb) a little mini paper/exhibition review I wrote for a museum studies class a couple years ago, about a case when exhibition design went too far.

Keepin’ Up With the E-Flux

I once asked an older grad of my program how, as a busy full-time assistant curator, and one not living in New York (still largely the center of contemporary art at least in the U.S.) she kept up with contemporary art. She suggested subscribing to e-flux, and actually making an effort to read it. Well, I got the first part of that covered. The second part, well… I’ve started accumulating old ones in a folder, telling myself I will eventually go back and read them all. Of course, I get about 8 new ones a day. I maybe read a couple every few days. So you do the math. But I remain ever the optimist. Or, naïf.

So, I was going through a few of them, and I came across this, which I thought was a great way summing up some of what I was saying in a previous book review, about the conundrums surrounding the documentation of Land and conceptual and other ephemeral art that was meant to avoid the market, and yet…

Much discussion of performance or Land Art from the 1960s and 70s considers whether the art consists of the work itself or its documentation. Could it really be experienced secondhand? Was the art the idea … or the stuff of it? Such recondite questions had to be put in the closet when it came to making saleable works in order to live, and few artists of note have ever proven themselves capable of true disinterest in the career element of being an artist.


From Dada Prodigy to Tacky Plop Art?

I first became familiar with Niki de Saint Phalle through an exhibition on female pop artists that I worked on at the Tufts University Art Gallery. She has an interesting history: she was gorgeous and had been a model, was a friend and prodigy of Marcel Duchamp, and eventual consort of Jean Tinguely (of the self-destroying machines). Her particularly Dadaist gesture involved creating assemblages of objects with paint pellets in them, and then shooting them, perhaps her own sort of violent protest against the patriarchy still ruling the art world.

Niki de Saint Phalle, My Heart Belongs to Marcel, 1963

Later, her (essentialist) feminism was expressed through her “Nana” figures, curvy female figures in bright colors and textures, emphasizing, celebrating, their fecundity, most famously in a giant figure whose womb the visitors could enter–and exit–through her vulva.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon, 1966

These figures continued to be the bulk of her work until her death, and ended up being manifested in many a sculpture garden and outdoor plaza, including a recent installation on Park Avenue in NYC, written about in a NYTimes article about this summer’s public art offerings:

Back in the ’60s, when Ms. de Saint Phalle was developing her aesthetic, figures like these had a goofy, liberationist vibe. But the works here seem woefully outdated, more tacky than visionary.

Since I was going to MoMA, I decided to take a detour up Park Avenue afterwards to check these out myself, along with the John Chamberlain sculptures also mentioned in the article, which he originally sculpted in miniature in aluminum foil, and which retain that same texture: 

And I enjoyed the de Saint Phalle figures; there’s definitely great joy in them, and I don’t think that’s a reason to discount them as Art with a capital A.

Niki de Saint Phalle on Park Avenue

However, I worry that sometimes I like things because I want to, and that this may be one of those times. Before I knew about Niki de Saint Phalle’s feminist and art historic credentials, I might not have liked these as much. I might have agreed they were tacky, or enjoyed their lightheartedness but not taken them so seriously. An artist friend of mine mentioned the idea that she did not want to have her personal, instinctual taste–the immediate sense of liking or not liking things–affect her judgment. This may be the opposite: my foreknowledge, tied to my judgment, affecting my taste. But I guess we can’t really help but do otherwise.

Nevertheless, it’s definitely better than the parade of pretty uninspiring public art that’s been installed on the Upper West Side,on the islands on Broadway. It started with Tom Otterness, whose subway platform installations had a certain cuteness initially, but after you’d seen them for the fifty billionth time, the characters lose their charm. Since then it’s only gotten worse.


UPDATE: I have to add that I walked by Columbus Circle and saw the construction of the living room around the statue of Columbus, which I mentioned in a previous post.

Public Art in Columbus Circle, under construction