Two Friday’s ago the Texas Biennial hosted a Curator’s Meeting in Austin. The event, supported by the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Linda Pace Foundation, sought to bring together curators and other arts professionals from around the state. It was held at and co-hosted by Arthouse, the organization which had just decided that its curator was the most expendable member of its organization.
The irony of this was not lost on the attendees. Arthouse executive director Sue Graze was on the program to open the meeting. Graze welcomed attendees and then thanked everyone for their support. An awkward silence followed. She then said she was available if anyone had any questions about recent events, and then, as far as I could tell, disappeared into her office for the rest of the afternoon.
From altering when and how Michele Handelman’s work was presented at Arthouse, to pimping out Graham Hudson’s installation to Warner Music Group during SXSW, to eliminating the position of curator/associate director for “budgetary reasons” which also conveniently eliminated Elizabeth Dunbar, the curator who brought in Handelman and Hudson and who objected to Arthouse’s handling of their work, watching Arthouse has been like watching an ethics/PR train wreck in slow motion.
But in spite of the meeting’s surreal context, the curator’s meeting was a lively, friendly affair that brought together dozens of people from across the state, everyone from Patrick Kelly of the small non-profit Old Jail Art Center in Albany, to Christina Rees of TCU’s Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, to Alison de Lima Green of the MFAH. A number of organizations made brief presentations about what they did and their programming. Texas Biennial curator (and attorney) Virginia Rutledge kept things moving, cordially cutting people off when they went too long. Everyone was good humored about the whole thing and it was nice to put faces with names and see what curators and venues were up to.
Los Angles Times art critic David Pagel led the following panel discussion on “Contemporary Art and Audiences.” Laid back, smart and unpretentious, Pagel is the kind of guy that gives critics a good name. He offered up the following in the discussion of programming and audiences, saying, “I don’t think that any art that’s interesting is elitist.”
Aimee Chang, Manager of Public Programs at the Blanton made a good point when she talked about expanding the dialogue around art to the ideas behind the work. The general consensus was that trying to pander to people to bring them in the door doesn’t work. I think it was Kate Bonansinga, Director of UT El Paso’s Rubin Center, who took the “if you build it they will come” tack: that basically good programming itself is what brings people in.
The following “Programming Texas” discussion gave a sideways glance to a couple elephants in the room. Attendees talked about how free curators are to program as well as the role of boards and the degree to which they influence programing. (According to some, factions of the Arthouse board bear much of the blame for what has happened with the organization.)
Christina Rees wished money, i.e. the control that that it can give the people who donate it, could be taken out of the equation. Rees acknowledged that there were things she probably couldn’t show at TCU but advocated using alternative and unconventional spaces to present those kinds of works. She cited as an example the one-weekend-only Modern Ruin show she and Thomas Feulmer put on in a never-occupied Washington Mutual bank building slated for demolition.
Artist Patrick Kelley, curator of the Old Jail Art Center, agreed that board considerations impacted the kinds of work he could show. As for audiences being offended by work, he joked that it was helpful to have a second floor in your exhibition space: “Anybody over 50 won’t go upstairs.”
Artist Noah Simblist wondered if Texas had an allergy to certain politics – sexual, racial, labor-based, environmental – and if that allergy had something to do with the public of Texas and the state’s reputation for conservatism or the boards or the people who work in Texas institutions.
Diane Barber, Diverseworks co-executive director and visual arts curator, spoke up and said there were institutions [like Houston’s Diverseworks] that had spent their entire history trying to do something about that. Barber said there had been times in the past when the organization’s board had expressed fear about doing a particular show in a particular way and Diverseworks “had to remind our board why we are here.” She cautioned younger and smaller organizations that those conversations within the staff and with the board were inevitable as their organizations aged and grew, but “at some point you have to say, well, dammit, why are we here? If the mission is going to change then let’s change the mission and if not then let’s do what we’re here to do.”
Judy Deaton, Chief Curator at The Grace Museum in Abilene pointed out that all those “someones” people seemed to be worried about offending often didn’t exist. She said her board had always been supportive. She added, however, that maybe she hadn’t pushed the envelope that far.
A former Californian in the room raised some hackles when she suggested that the kinds of things that happened with the Handelman video would not have happened in LA. Someone in front of me rather tersely remarked that it could happen anywhere, and cited the “Sensation” controversy at the Brooklyn Museum as an example.
Terri Thornton, artist and curator of education at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, concurred and said “Everyplace is the same and everyplace is different.” She urged that the danger was in trying to anticipate negative responses. “You have to move forward idealistically and assume that your programming is going to be accepted and deal with it if it is not. To try to anticipate reaction means that you are going to create the phantom teenager that can’t see the show. It’s a way to not have one person’s or a few peoples’ points of view challenged by what’s put out there.”
Hills Snyder, artist and director of Sala Diaz, remarked that the phrase “artist-run space” had been around a long time but he preferred “artist-walk space” and said the only complaint Sala Diaz had received about their programming was from the Church of Scientology. “Reverend Ethan Acres set up a mud-wrestling unit in the front yard and wrestled the devil for the soul of John Travolta.” He added that Sala Diaz had a board and donors that wouldn’t dream of trying to influence programming and that wasn’t an accident. But he acknowledged that their small scale made that easier to pull off.
Alison de Lima Greene, the MFAH’s curator of Contemporary Art & Special Projects, suggested that “It’s a two-way street and we can learn from our board as well.” Offering a recent example, she said that the reason the MFAH’s Core Program now provides health insurance to its residents is because of a board member’s generosity. Greene also pointed out that money was necessary and wasn’t the problem in itself. Adding, “You have to be careful about obligations that may be attached to certain donations, and institutions and individuals should only make commitments with a real understanding on both sides. This process is about opening doors, not closing them.”
Chang said that “ideally an executive director builds a board that supports the vision of that director who then is driving the institution. Ideally it’s a ship going in the same direction.”
Dana Friis-Hansen, a museum world veteran who spent the last nine years as executive director of the Austin Museum of Art later remarked that with given the multi-year terms for members on many boards, shifting boards can be “like moving a cruise ship.” To which Barber comically added “without the fun!”
The Austin-American Statesman’s Jeanne Claire van Ryzin made an astute observation about arts organization boards in Austin. (As one the few remaining full-time arts critics in the country van Ryzin is about as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. In an earlier death-o’-journalism discussion, she wryly remarked, “I try not to think about the fact that I have no colleagues.”) In the thick of the board discussions, she reminded everyone that “In Austin, we don’t have generations of philanthropic families” and that “a lot of the progressive arts and lot of the progressive spaces are fairly new. Boards are new, board members are new to being board members, institutions are growing super rapidly. Much of what’s going on is kind of due to rapid growth. There are more spaces now than ever before…there is higher public profile for the arts than ever before…you have a larger percentage of the population going out and seeing the arts than, say, fifteen years ago.”
The meeting was a good idea as well as a timely one. From my point of view, it seemed collegial and productive and like something that should be done again. Hopefully there will be an Arthouse curator present at the next one.