Some Artsy Explorations

I have previously lamented how intractably difficult it is to feel that I am keeping up with contemporary art, particularly without the means to travel to such international art events as the Venice Biennale. I’ve never even been to the Armory Show, despite it being in my hometown; I just haven’t been there at the right time. A colleague suggested signing up for and reading all the e-flux announcements, but the flood is just impossible to keep up with. And anyway, it’s a big commitment of time to read all those emails, on the off-chance that I might discover some new artist whose work I connect with.

All this considered, I was glad to see that Artsy, the new website billed to be like Pandora for art, was offering a full preview (ending soon, so act fast!) of the works at the Armory Show, which was this past weekend. I’d been meaning to but hadn’t yet explored Artsy in great depth, and this was a great opportunity. The nicest thing about it was how quickly I could peruse for new artists I liked–and I didn’t have to jot names down, just hit the favorite button and have that work saved for me for later, should I choose to go back and explore these artists and others like them in more depth.

Some of the new favorites I found, among many others: Kata Legrady, who evocatively combines everyday girlish and childish objects with weaponry; Jacob Hashimoto and Rashaad Newsome, who create three-dimensional wall works referencing Japanese and European/African-American material cultures, respectively; and Anoka Faruqee, whose optical paintings, much like the three-dimensional works, one can’t help but feel don’t fully translate into digital images. I was pleased to find so much new work I liked, when generally I’m not very attracted to the most contemporary art.

As I was discussing with a colleague the other day, Artsy is a fascinating hybrid. Like sites such as Artnet, it does provide a link to galleries, highlighting in particular art that is on sale. Nonetheless, this commercial function does not interfere with its more exploratory function. Given that the commercial art world is such an huge part of the art world as a whole, it is nice to see that barrier somewhat broken down; just because galleries are for-profit enterprises does not mean they can’t also cooperate in a somewhat educational venture.

A Long Overdue Repatriation Special

Many great museum collections–the British Museum, the Louvre–were essentially founded on empire-building, war, and looting. The countries these objects came from–Greece, Italy, Egypt, and most recently Nigeria and Turkey, among many others–constantly demand these things back, and the more valuable and famous the object, the more vocally they do so. Particularly well known cases include the Rosetta Stone, the head of Nefertiti, and especially the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.

A not-so-recent (I originally planned to post this in November) article in the Art Newspaper highlighted a collection of objects from the Benin Empire in what is now Nigeria, which are now being transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the private collection of Robert Lehman. The objects were looted from the palace in Benin City in 1897, when the Brits launched a “punitive expedition” in response to the killing of a few British ambassadors, thereby dismantling the Benin Empire, and its rich artistic tradition.

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897


The Nigerian government is demanding these objects be returned. Should they? There is no easy answer to that question, and it is extremely difficult to divorce one’s answer to this question from one’s self-interest; anyone with curiosity about these historically valuable objects will want them in whichever location they are more likely to visit.

First-world countries like Britain and the U.S. will claim firstly that the objects will be better cared for in their hands (museum standards and budgets for conservation and security presumably less in other parts of the world). They will also say that, as shared cultural heritage, it is important that the greatest number of people have access to them, and that will be more true in London or New York than Nigeria.

The object’s home countries will argue that the objects will be better contextualized close to their place of origin; even if the Elgin marbles cannot go back onto the Parthenon, they can be near the Parthenon (in a museum Greece already built, in bold anticipation of the return that may never take place). They will also argue that it is important for national identity and pride (not to mention tourism revenue).

It’s easy to see how intractable the problem is. Both sides have their points, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which side I fall on. I will leave you with a comparison to a similar issue.

In the case of objects looted by Nazis during World War II, there is a clear moral imperative to return works that were stolen from their owners, or left behind when they were forcibly moved, et cetera. Museums have put in an enormous effort to uncover those histories, including using a public online database, and if it discovers that a work in their collection was obtained in such a way, it unquestionably returns the work to the owner or his/her heirs (there was a case in the paper the other day). It becomes a bit more vague if the previous owner actually sold the work legitimately, even if they would not have sold it if not for the circumstances–requiring the money to get away, for example. Heirs may still demand the work, but the museum might not surrender it so easily.

Something similar occurs with repatriation issues. The argument has been made that, even if the circumstances were exploitative, the Elgin Marbles were, however shadily, bought. Such an argument cannot be made about the Benin bronzes. They were looted, in an aggressive “punitive expedition” that, in vengeance for the death of a few British citizens, destroyed an entire empire, dismantled a magnificent palace, and distributed the booty among the looters and their allies in the Western world.

The argument is also made that the statute of limitations has passed on such “historic” actions. No matter the shady dealings of the past, it seems intuitive that the British Museum is the de facto owner of the Elgin Marbles now, since the museum has been their steward for 200 years. Certainly the Benin bronzes fall into this category as well?

Well, the punitive exhibition that destroyed Benin took place in 1897, less than 40 years before the rise of the Nazi party and the beginning of the erosion of the rights of German Jews. Not so historically distant when put in those terms.

So, what are the differences between the two cases? The property of an individual versus the property of a country? Well, technically the palace riches of Benin were the property of the oba (king), so also belonged to an individual. By now you probably know what I’m getting at: the Benin riches were stolen from Africa, from people with black skin, from the “third world,” even though Benin was a highly sophisticated society.


This past week I attended my first College Art Association (CAA) conference, the largest professional gathering of artists and art historians IN THE WORLD ::echo::

Friends and coworkers told me how great it was–how engaging the panels are, how great a chance it is to reunite with everyone you know. So, of course, I found it disappointing.

Firstly, it is so huge, (and this particular hotel, the Hilton on 53rd St. and 6th Ave. in NYC, is set up in such a way) that you are not guaranteed to run into everyone you know. There are people I know were there who I would not have seen if we had not set up a specific meeting, especially if we were unlikely to be interested in the same panels. I can only guess that people I hoped to see but didn’t may very well have been there, and that next time I will have to reach out to them in advance. (Nonetheless, I did have some great grad school reunions, and connected with fellow undergrad alums in the field who I hadn’t known before.)

Nor did I find it as intellectually-stimulating as I had hoped, particularly as I have been craving the kind of mental challenge I experienced in grad school. The panels I ended up attending fell generally into two camps:

1) the practical/museological, focused on either academic art museums or curatorial careers

2) the art historical/scholarly – and for these I mostly went to panels about photography, as I am organizing a show on surrealist photography but have little background in it

Panels in the first category were generally productive, even if a lot of the ideas were ones I was already familiar with. One panel provided excellent examples and ideas for ways to promote cross-discipline cooperation with the college museum, whereas another stuck to a broader discussion of the academic art museum, in which the conclusions seemed quite self-evident–a proverbial preaching to the choir.

Panels in the latter category, however, could be a bit of a drag. As I told one (rather rude) woman at a bar who asked why I would study boring (!!!) art and art history: “art and art history are interesting; art historians are boring.” To be more accruate, I should have said that they can be boring, but that would not have been as snappy a response.

One panel on photography jammed six–six!!!–presenters into one hour-and-a-half session, demonstrating how art historians have no conception of reality when it comes to human attention span. Initially I found these talks interesting, but by the last presenter I was ready to bolt, which then tainted my reception, and ruined my retention, of even the earlier presentations.

Some speakers take their full twenty minutes to explain a point that could be summed up and easily understood in one sentence. Others take meandering strolls through many theoretical frameworks and disparate examples (from daguerrotypes to Blade Runner–in one talk), leaving the listener perhaps intrigued, potentially confused, and likely ignorant of what the point was in the first place.

There were of course exceptions. I believe the single best talk I went to was by Caitlin Condell, curatorial assistant at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. It was focused but intriguing, exactly as a good presentation should be. Zeroing in on Man Ray’s Compass, an object consisting of a gun hanging from a magnet, and its presentation in three photographs over the course of a few years, Condell explored the tension between the object and the photograph of the object as artwork, the lost history of this particular artifact, and a reconsideration of Man Ray’s relationship to photography.

Generally though, I did not find the intellectual stimulation I was craving–at the panels anyway. I have been finding it in the books I’ve been reading and the exhibitions I attended while there (MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction, Guggenheim’s Splendid Playground  on the Japanese post-war movement Gutai, and Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library). Stay tuned this week for reviews on all of the above!

Email or Username. Password.

You know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted when I see this screen:

Screen shot 2013-01-26 at 9.48.24 AM

Oh dear.

My personal life has kicked up a tick and so I’ve been busy. But I also have this weird block.

When you work full-time in a museum, of course it limits the amount of time you can spend going to other museums, galleries, exhibitions, lectures, et cetera. But still, I have been doing all those things. I’d say I’ve been pretty active in that regard, as much as is possible. But I never think to write about these things, the way I do when I’m in New York. What’s different? No, it’s not that when I’m in New York I’m on vacation, and have more free time (though maybe it’s those things a little bit).

I’m in Maine. And the Maine art scene, though active, is quite regionally focused. Maine artists are Maine artists. The nationally-recognized artists we love and love to show (from Wyeth, Homer, Hopper and Wegman, to Katherine Bradford and Lois Dodd) all come to Maine.

This presents a challenge to me, as I want this blog to address both a general audience, and a more mainstream contemporary (read: New York-based) art world. I fear being seen as provincial, though I’m guessing it’s more my own prejudices (read: snobbery) holding me back, than the ones I perceive in my audience.

There is also a more justified fear: the Maine art world is SMALL. There is the very real possibility that, in being as honestly critical as I would like to be, I could offend someone I run into at every event, and could need to work with. I know that if I was really involved in the New York art scene, that would still be the case. I just imagine New York artsters (yeah, I just made that up – deal with it) to have thicker skins; perhaps because I imagine them criticizing each other, publicly and privately, all the time. Maine art criticism tends to be pretty “Ra! Ra!” It also seems to be judged on a different standard than the mainstream art world; it’s just generally a more conservative market (in terms of media, content, etc.).

I suppose this rant is my way of alerting you, my readers, and myself, to the fact that I will attempt to write more about what I’m seeing and doing here. Time and energy for writing is still a factor; but another block is that my posts have tended towards the fully formed exhibition review. I need to kick myself into a more casual, brief, observational/informative style.

I also hesitate to write about what’s going on at my own museum, for fear that it would seem promotional or that I might reveal something I’m not supposed to. But, it is also high time I start to share some of my own curatorial work, now that I’m actually getting to do some! More on that later

What I Actually Saw in New York, part 2; plus bonus quickie reviews

My only other art encounter this week, after this one, was a trip to MoMA with a friend, though we didn’t actually see much. I spent more time in the gift shop, looking at books and at cleverly-designed but completely unnecessary kitchen utensils. We did hang out in Martha Rosler’s garage sale for awhile, perusing used clothes and tchotchkes. The artist was there, sorting items in a partitioned-off “back room,” occasionally coming out to give a price or talk to the MoMA assistants, making sardonic comments (“Are you the artist? “Unfortunately.”) My friend picked up a book designed as a gag-gift for single ladies in the ’70s (“Love is finding a man who doesn’t live with his mother”), and was also eyeing a set of someone’s psychiatry notebooks, already filled in with notes (is that ethical?). Our picture was taken and I’ll keep my eye out for it on the flickr.

In addition to that and our gift shop adventures, we went through a show of avant-garde photography from the collection. Then we were pretty much pooped and went for coffee. I had a bit more time that afternoon and considered going the Met, but I just couldn’t bring myself. I have guilt about not going out to see art as much as possible when I’m in New York, but sometimes I’m just art-ed out. Also, most of the shows I want to see will still be up when I’m home in December (though the holiday crowds may make me regret not taking advantage sooner): in addition to some of the ones listed here, the Picasso Black & White show was highly recommended to me, as were some shows at PS1.

I find in addition to a break from looking at art, I am enjoying a break from looking at screens, and am trying to read as much as possible. I’ve just finished Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan, which was much better than her last novel, Commencement, even though that one was about my alma mater; The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (on audio), which was about as different from Harry Potter as you can get, though it did still grip me; and Food Rules by Michael Pollan, in a new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman who I absolutely adore. I am currently reading Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, which I find compelling, though I’m annoyed that it took literally 100 pages to deliver twins: it was a dramatic birth, but the author kept inserting tangents just to keep his captive audience waiting and on edge–kind of manipulative. In my more academic moments, I’m also reading The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, by a former professor of mine, Kevin Quashie.

I saw Lincoln, which I highly recommend (great acting, and anyone who’s anyone is in it), and which may inspire me to pick up Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book that it is partially based on; the movie made me realize how fascinating that history is–even the non-cinematized version–and how much of it I don’t know, despite my having some great American history teachers. I’m coming to realize I enjoy non-fiction more than I used to or more than I assumed I did, and so perhaps I should read more of it.

And I saw the play Dead Accounts, starring Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes, a sort-of dark comedy. Butz, a Broadway star, was fantastic as always. Holmes’ acting was stilted: I don’t think she’s great to begin with, and she’s clearly not used to making stage-acting seem natural. The play itself had its moments and its… not moments. It had some great comedic dialogue, but the overall message was heavy-handed and black-and-white and simply untrue, juxtaposing Manhattan’s singular obsession with money with all that is good and pure in Cincinnati, Ohio–’cause nothing bad has ever happened there.

Feel free to leave me your book, or art, or movie, or anything recommendations in the comments section! In the words of Eddie Izzard, “I am not a priest, you may talk to me.”

More posts, soon, promise! And a little taste.

I know I have been a delinquent blogger. I have many new posts in the works, and will have much more time to work on them in the next few days/week. In the meantime, life is happening. More on that soon, too!

So here’s a little taste, an article that my parents alerted me to about curating as a growing, international profession. I’ve only just read it, and don’t have much to comment on–there’s nothing extremely revelatory about it, from my perspective. I guess I feel about it the way I felt years ago about New York Times “exposés” about teenage behavior, like “hook-up culture”–tell me something I don’t know! Coming from the group on which they’re reporting, it hardly seems newsworthy; if you wanted to know, you coulda just asked me!

Of course people from outside said group would not feel this way–I know my perspective is privileged. Nonetheless, the article doesn’t seem to probe very deeply or provide much insight, though of course to do so would have to be a much more extended research project. The article can’t even really settle on its focus: is it about how more and more people are choosing curator as a profession? (if so, where are the statistics to back this up?) Is it about how much more international curating is, either because of how much curators have to travel, or the diversity of places that curators come from, places that have now become more relevant to the global contemporary art world? (I wrote a bit about this in a previous post.) Is it just about this one particular curator’s training program/conference, or the growing popularity of events like it? The article touches on all these things briefly without expanding on their connections or significances.

So I guess I had something to say about the article after all! Posting about it helped me process my thoughts on it–which is really the point of all this!

What do you think?

Brief Hiatus

I may not post as frequently – or at all – in the next week, as I am on vacation, and I am recalling that one of the best things about vacation is no longer being tied to the umbilical cord that is my laptop.

A Friday Quickie

Hey there, readers! Not sure I’ll have time for a full post today, between shopping, baking and packing (vacation in Vermont), so here’s a quickie for ya – an interesting report I suggest you read by a New York activist group called W.A.G.E., Working Artists and the Greater Economy, about a survey they conducted about what New York artists get paid, if they get paid at all, by non-profits where they exhibit. An interesting issue.

And an interesting take on that issue – a letter sent to MoMA by filmmaker Hollis Frampton.