Why, hello there! This here is the beginning of my art blog. I don’t really expect anyone to read this, but we all need a mouthpiece these days, don’t we?
If you actually are reading this, most likely you already know me, but just in case you don’t, a bit about me: I just graduated from Tufts with a masters in art history and museum studies. I am an aspiring museum professional and curator, with particular interests in modern and contemporary art and museum history and theory.
Why an art blog? Because now that the chaos and non-stop work of grad school is over, and I am (at least temporarily) unemployed (expect updates on my employment status within weeks *fingers crossed*), I plan to make myself keep reading about, seeing, and perhaps making art. Without the built-in forum that comes with classmates, colleagues and coworkers, I plan to use this blog to articulate my thoughts on what I read, see and make.
Down to business: I was particularly inspired to start this blog today because I read this morning about a series of exhibitions that I felt the need to comment on. The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is a contemporary art museum in Connecticut that I have not yet visited but have always respected and been interested in (particularly since they gave Fred Wilson an award and exhibition, and I am a big Wilson devotee. I shook his hand last year! A highlight of my life thus far, to be sure). The Aldrich announced on e-flux a set of programs collectively called united states,
a series of solo exhibitions and artist’s projects that approach both the nature of the United States as a country and “united states” as the alliance of separate forms, entities, or conditions of being.
They go on to list the artists in the program:
united states includes solo exhibitions by Pedro Barbeito, Jonathan Brand, Brody Condon, Brad Kahlhamer, Brian Knep, Erik Parker, and Hank Willis Thomas, as well as singular projects by Jane Benson, Alison Crocetta, Celeste Fichter, Erika Harrsch, Nina Katchadourian, Matthew Northridge, Risa Puno, John Stoney, Sui Jianguo, Frances Trombly, Rosemary Williams, and Jenny Yurshansky.
Did you notice what I noticed? Well, yes, Hank Willis Thomas and Nina Katchadourian are involved, and they are both fantastic. But beyond that: the solo exhibitions are all men. Women artists are only given “singular projects,” most of which are by women. I was so perturbed, that before I had the idea to start this blog, I wrote a message to the museum’s staff to try to articulate my reaction:
I am a young museum professional on a curatorial track. I was very interested to read about the series of exhibitions, united states. It looks like a fascinating line-up of artists and projects – Hank Willis Thomas and Nina Katchadourian are particular favorites. I was, however, slightly disturbed by the fact that all seven of the solo exhibitions are going to men, and women are only represented in the individual projects. I am certainly not making a plea for forced tokenism, only awareness. Many prominent female artists are making significant work on this subject, as you acknowledge by including their work as “projects.” It seems an oversight, then, to have given their work such unequal status in comparison to male artists, to have not deemed any of those female artists worthy of a solo exhibition along with their male counterparts. I hope this is a discrepancy you may be more aware of and work to counteract in the future.
I hope my message indicates that I do not see this as malicious or purposeful sexism or discrimination. I assume that they just happened to pick all male artists for the solo exhibitions, and perhaps only realized too late, if at all, that all the artists they picked happened to be men, not women. This would be fine, except that 0 women out of 7 artists seems like a pretty abysmal ratio, particularly when they seemed to take other kinds of diversity–ethnic, racial, geographic–into consideration. This series of exhibitions will make up the bulk of the museum’s programming until February. I think in this day and age 7 months in a contemporary art museum’s exhibition cycle is a bit long to go without a significant female voice, but I’m sure it happens all the time (come to think of it, the museum where I’ve been working has not had a female solo show in the last year). All the more reason museum professionals need to work to be aware of these programming discrepancies, particularly before the schedule is set.
This comes on the heels of another interesting gender issue. Over the last year I have been assisting with a group exhibition that will include both historic (going back to the late-19th century) and contemporary artists. The curator has been hyper-aware of the relative dearth of female artists, and without resorting to tokenism, has conscientiously worked to get the ratio up to 1 in 4, and to give the work of the female artists some prominence. Given his consideration, it then seems a little silly to me that a female artist being included in the show should object to the fact that the title of the exhibition, which comes from a novella of the same name, includes the word “Man.” The context of the title and the show itself make clear that in this case “man” is a synonym for “mankind” or “humankind,” not “male person or persons;” the species, not the gender. Is it problematic that we categorize our entire species by a gender that makes up only half its population? Of course it is. But I believe it is more important to change our attitudes than to change our language. Of course language is a powerful indicator of societal and cultural norms, but words only have the power we give them. If we accept “man” as an archaic but still valid shorthand for “the human race,” I don’t believe we should have any problem with it.
But obviously there are people who disagree! Do you agree with the female artist about the use of “man?” Do you think I’m overreacting to the all-male programming at the Aldrich? I want to hear from you, oh notional reader!
I got a long, considerate, and somewhat satisfactory answer from the Exhibitions Director at the Aldrich. It’s nice to get such a thoughtful response! I thought I’d just get dismissed into the hate-mail pile. I won’t quote the whole thing, but here’s the meat of it:
In the context of the entire ‘united states’ semester of exhibitions we
consider the solo shows and projects of equal importance. As we met with
artists and invited their participation, and reviewed proposals from the
open call, we made decisions in collaboration with the artists –
including gallery space assignment, number of works to be exhibited,
duration of exhibition, and allocation of funds – based on what was
required to realize their vision.
As a result, the ‘united states’ semester includes a variety of
presentation formats (including single and multi-day performances,
outdoor installations, interventions, ephemeral work, videos, and more
traditional gallery shows) and a range of durations: some solo shows are
up longer than others, and some projects, such as Nina Katchadourian, are
on view longer than solo shows. The Pedro Barbeito, Jonathan Brand, and
Hank Willis Thomas shows are on view for less than three months, while
the projects by Alison Crocetta, Celeste Fichter, Erika Harrsch, Frances
Trombly, and Jenny Yursansky will run through the entire six-month
semester. These decisions were made based on the specific needs of the
works to be exhibited within the context of the series, and also in
response to more practical considerations of overall museum schedule and
the need to accommodate additional exhibitions during the semester. Also,
some singular artist projects were more expensive to produce than solo
shows, so allocation of funding was also made based on the needs of the
work and not on whether it was a ‘solo show’ or an ‘artist project’.
This is a pretty satisfactory answer, though if the two types of programs are really meant to be on equal footing, they might reconsider their branding, as in this brochure. Size does tend to connote relative importance.