Curatorial Practice and Cultural Production

CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND CULTURAL PRODUCTION

“CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND CULTURAL PRODUCTION” is one section of a multipart essay I’m writing called “The Economics of Ephemerality” which examines the relationship between performance and visual art from a variety of perspectives including economics, curatorial practice and cultural ecology.

PREFACE

Since I’ve started writing these essays I’ve gotten feedback and comments that I sound hostile, or that I’m petty, that I’m unnecessarily focusing on the negative or that I’m in some way antagonistic to visual arts. This is simply not true – I appreciate visual art. But I love performance. I have been attending and making dance and theater (and music) since I was in elementary school, I have devoted my life to the study, practice and support of the performing arts. For whatever reason static visual art – paintings, sculpture – has never really affected me in the way performance has. It is only in theater, and later in dance, that I have experienced true aesthetic arrest, where I have been profoundly moved, enlightened, entertained and transformed. I have followed a path from the known, traditional modes of performance into realms of experimentation and the avant-garde; I have developed a passion for work that interrogates itself, its forms and the culture at large. I value the visual artists that venture into performance because of the questions they ask and challenges they raise, the way they can push performing artists to innovate, grow and change.

But as visual art performance moves collectively from the anti-mimetic frameworks of the 50s-80s and more fully into the realm of performance rooted in dance and theater, I’m deeply troubled by the lack of curiosity and respect that is being demonstrated. You can’t really understand Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism without knowing at least a little about the history of representation in visual art, the impact of photography and the shift from craft in painting the world as it is as opposed to the world as you see it. By the same token it is impossible to fully understand Judson or the French Conceptualists or Sarah Michelson without knowing about ballet, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and George Balanchine. You can’t really appreciate Richard Maxwell or The Wooster Group without knowing some history of American Theater, the origins of psychological realism and its rejection by the avant-garde over the course of the 20th century.

To truly appreciate and understand dance and theater you have to learn at least a little history, you need to learn about how these forms are made, why they do what they do and what makes the work succeed or fail, whether traditional or experimental. There is a significant and important difference between Richard Maxwell’s “non-acting” style and actual bad acting. There is a significant and important difference between Jerome Bel’s use of non-dancers in his work and artists who just don’t know how to dance. Dance and theater artists dedicate their lives to developing their craft and learning how to make what they make while continually moving their investigations forward.

One of the real issues here is that the development of craft in the performing arts requires labor – labor that can’t be outsourced. The visual arts sector as a whole has come to reject craft; and it has come to reject labor as well. Major artists outsource the production of their artworks to fabricators and craftsmen and apprentices whose skills are considered subservient to the intellect and imagination of the artist. Museums specifically propagate and support that structure. Within that structure and philosophy is an implicit devaluation of the work of the performing artist whose forms demand embodiment, presence, time and subjectivity; forms that resist, or at the very least interrogate, objectification by reminding us that it takes work, labor, craft and skill to perform.

I am not hostile to visual arts as a field and certainly not to visual artists individually. Performance in the art world such as the most recent Whitney Biennial or Ralph Lemon’s platform at MoMA are good insofar as they expose a wider audience to investigative forms or dance and theater, leveraging the museum’s intellectual infrastructure to contextualize the work historically and aesthetically. Still, one is compelled to investigate why dance in the museum and why now? One must ask why do dance and theater so value the attention of the museums and what is the trade-off for the attention and visibility?

Unless we interrogate and question the museum’s motives and long term strategies, until we really look at the economics of cultural production and the frameworks through which value is being created around dance – and performance generally – the performing arts sector risks being subsumed by a visual arts world that is fundamentally a market-based system about creating value around objects, a system that is voracious as it constantly seeks novelty and new markets to exploit.

Thus I am called to advocate for those theater and dance artists – my colleagues – who have dedicated their lives, as I have, to the performing arts; and when necessary call attention to the conditions in which their work is developed and evaluated.

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For most of September and into October my job as a performance curator took me across the country from PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, OR to The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival to a dance platform in Minneapolis to the Headlands Arts Center in San Francisco.

As I traveled I talked to fellow performance curators from various types of venues, from visual arts institutions to multidisciplinary contemporary arts centers to festivals and performance spaces. I talked to artists, writers, producers and audiences about a wide range of issues and ideas, and quite a bit specifically about the economic issues of performing arts versus visual arts. My discoveries were not necessarily shocking, but rather confirmation of an unspoken but very real truth about significant cultural differences and structural economic disparity – not necessarily in the way artists are compensated, but in institutional funding and project support. One of the issues that frequently came up was a knowledge gap about what a performance curator does, what presenting performance entails and how this differs from curatorial practice in the visual arts. This essay will explore differences in curatorial practice and cultural production, but only lightly touch on economics, which will be covered in more detail in a subsequent essay.

I want to begin by saying that curating performance as a profession is a relatively recent development. This is more complicated than can possibly be described here, but it really only dates back to the 70’s at best. My discussions with performing arts presenters of that generation reveal an incredible and exciting narrative that someone ought to write or undertake as an oral history project: David White, Mark Russell, Mark Murphy, Philip Bither and some key others started at a handful of institutions and built a field where very little previously existed. Artist-run organizations like DTW, PS122 and On The Boards in Seattle grew up out of a fertile cultural moment, mostly funded by the NEA and have become institutions in their own right. As I said, this is a fantastic untold story that someone should write – but not me and not now. When the field began there was no formal training, there were no graduate programs – these curators combined a passion for experimental dance or avant-garde theater with, frequently, a countercultural bent and entrepreneurial savvy to build an infrastructure that would eventually turn into American Contemporary Performance.

On the other hand, the role of the curator in the visual arts has a long history. The word “curator” itself originated as a position in the church and comes from the Latin: “one who cares, from cūrāre to care for, from cūra care.” (h/t to Caleb Hammons for kicking the knowledge!).  This will become significant later, but for now, suffice it to say that this long history has led to a well-established and well-funded infrastructure for educating, training and employing visual arts curators. Nearly every college and university in America has an Art History major; there are countless curatorial graduate programs (just look at the website for the College Art Association!) not to mention organizations like ICI, ISCP and their ilk.

As far as I know there is not a single undergraduate program on curating (or studying) contemporary performance and only one program for advanced study in the field – The Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance, founded two years ago at Wesleyan by Sam Miller.

In a previous article I mentioned how I met with an associate curator at Art21.org – well, I don’t think I mentioned the organization at that time, but that’s who it was. Anyway, I was talking about the importance of dramaturgy in performance and he said, snidely, “Visual arts has dramaturgs, they’re called curators.” At the time I just thought he was being a snobby and condescending but over time I’ve come to realize that he was accidentally but accurately pointing out one of the major differences between performance curators and visual arts curators – and one of the major problems of visual arts institutions and curators moving into performance without any real knowledge of the field. My previous post on the Performa Event was framed in a way to suggest some of the things that performance curators look at and for, but there is much more to it than that.

Writing is a central activity of visual arts curating. Visual Arts curators develop the concept of the exhibit; they write the wall texts and the catalogue copy – from what I understand they design the exhibition through object placement and directing the path through which the observer is meant to move. I’ve been told that visual arts exhibits can take two and three years to organize with a lot of time spent researching and writing, developing contextual materials and theoretical frameworks for why a given artist is significant and why the objects have value. I would imagine there is also a fair amount of logistical work on identifying the objects to be displayed, arranging for loans from collections when necessary, etc. But still, the thoughtful procurement and arrangement of objects is very different than working with live people and art that has yet to be created.

As opposed to visual arts curators, performance curators rarely have time to develop a writing practice and there are pragmatic reasons for this. One is that curating time-based art forms takes time. I’ve been on studio visits with visual arts curators and they take maybe an hour, tops. You have the meeting, you look at the work, you listen to the pitch and if you like it, you agree to include them in the exhibit and don’t usually have to do too much until the artist makes the work and shows up to install.

Performance curators have to actually see the work – which usually takes at least two hours. Actually, we have to see A LOT of work, because we need to see all the various developments in the field – who is doing what, who is exploring what, who is collaborating with whom, etc. etc. It’s not like we can go out gallery hopping and see the work of dozens of artists in a weekend. Curating performance requires seeing a lot of performance, which takes a lot of time. If we’re really, really working hard we can see 7-10 shows a week, plus maybe drop into a few rehearsals or workshops, which already adds up to close to 40 hours a week – and that’s just research, not including time spent in meetings or doing administrative tasks.

Once you’ve seen a project and agreed to commission or present an artist, the work really begins. A good curator, even with a solid support team, is still very much a producer. You have lots of conversations with the artist trying to figure out what the project really is; you have to tease out how to implement what they’re imagining. You may have to help assemble a team of collaborators which means working with MORE artists – lighting designers, sound designers, set designer, costumers – each of whom is an artist in their own right, each of whom has an opinion and is an expert in their field. If you are working on a project of any scale you have to help find developmental residencies and raise money – performers need to get paid for rehearsals, not just performances! You have to find commissioning partners, you have to develop budgets and manage them, you have to help the project grow and evolve in a million different ways and consider countless variables – and you have to work with people, lots of people, to get it done. And that’s just building the show.

Once the show is built and you want to present it, you have to feed and house and care for the performers. You have to load the show in – the lighting, sound, set, effects, costumes, etc. And nothing ever works as planned and even though you have tech directors and production managers everything has to be constantly re-negotiated and tweaked and fixed at the last minute because a part is missing, the European designer specified a type of wallboard that doesn’t exist in the States, the choreographer is demanding a stuffed deer of a certain height and the only one available is in Pennsylvania and will cost $1500 to have the guy drive it to the city in his pick-up but you’re already over budget. And so on. And so on.

You have to massage egos and nurture and care for sensitive artists who are putting their bodies, souls and reputations on the line and are freaking out because they’ve spent two years and all their money to make a show that will be performed for four nights and then, possibly, probably, vanish. You have to worry about the marketing and the PR and if anybody’s coming and a thousand other concerns just to make the art happen. AND if you are curating at an institution or for a festival, you are probably doing this for upwards of a dozen projects at any given time, all in different stages of development with different needs, timelines, budgets and personalities. You do the math – it’s very time and labor intensive.

So who has time to write? Its not that performance curators don’t think about the dramaturgical elements of a given work or consider bigger ideas when assembling a season of performances – we do. We talk about it all the time, it is central to our job and our conversations and our practice, but we are so busy doing curating we have very little time to write about it. Let’s face it – the only reason I have been able to write about my field on Culturebot is because I have had, essentially, two full-time jobs, working 80+ hours a week for nearly ten years, trying to document, analyze and contextualize performance, at no small expense to my personal life, health and bank account. But I digress.

The point is that there is a significant difference between the bodies of knowledge required to curate performance and visual art, they require different practical knowledge but more significantly they actually require different ways of seeing. And because of the different contexts from which these curatorial roles originated, they have deeply different practices. This is problematic for both sectors.

I’m the first to admit that Contemporary Performance needs to develop a practice and body of contextual writing akin to that which exists in the visual arts world. That’s why I started Culturebot. If this work is to be seen as having value unto itself, a body of literature needs to exist both inside and outside of academia so as to provide points of entry for audience and to adumbrate the connections between the performed event and the world outside the theater.  Dramaturgy in conventional narrative theater and dance, particularly in the States, usually takes the form of historical program notes. But as contemporary performance continues to become more and more widely presented, as non-narrative forms of time-based art permeate the cultural landscape, the worlds of dance and theater must develop a parallel writing practice. Given the exigencies of curating performance, either a new dramaturgical position must be introduced to the production process or the curator role must change to allow for a writing practice. Otherwise it will be visual arts curators who will end up developing the frameworks for evaluating performance, they will write the historical record, they will design the structure for assigning value and they will do some from a perspective that favors their biases. And, frankly, that would be a tragedy.

This may sound alarmist, but I don’t think it is. At the Performa Event Jenny Schlenzka clearly asserted that she finds dance interesting because it allows curators to “re-envision the format of the exhibition”. This was a welcome revelation insofar as it clarifies why dance is interesting to visual arts curators – not for any inherent value of the form but rather its ability to support the museum’s process of reinvention. I will go into this in greater depth in a subsequent post – but this points to an important distinction between supporting a form and using it as object. Whether we’re talking about Creative Time’s utilization of Classical Theater of Harlem’s Waiting for Godot in Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans” or Tino Seghal’s “Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000)” at the New Museum’s “After Nature” exhibition or any number of other works, what we see is the visual arts world re-purposing discrete works of performance or appropriating the formal concerns of performance disciplines and using them for other ends, while simultaneously and implicitly rejecting that these forms have value unto themselves for what they are.

This is not mere conjecture – from what I’ve heard from colleagues across the country, the visual arts institutions, i.e. museums, and visual arts curators have had little idea of what they were getting themselves into when they venture into presenting performance. They are loath to seek advice from practitioners in the field – curators, producers, etc. – while at the same time being unprepared for what it takes. My understanding is that they are, generally, not interested in learning how we look at performance and even less interested in how we produce it.

I think that this, from an article in the Guardian on the opening of The Tanks at Tate Modern, substantiates my assertion:

The desire for live encounters, by both artists and audiences, was partly a reaction to the economic and political climate, said Dercon. Artists and audiences were expressing a disillusion with the impersonal systems that dominate modern life, and reaching for the human encounter.

“I’m not going to talk about politicians and banks, but we are completely surrounded by systems that do things to us and at us. Performance proposes a new form of interconnectivity.”

The desire to focus work without physical form, that cannot straightforwardly be bought and sold, may also express a wider dissatisfaction among the art world for the vagaries of the art market and the extreme commercialisation of art before the financial crash of 2008.

According to Catherine Wood, Tate’s curator of contemporary art and performance, “there is a desire for community among artists, and a desire to get away from the dominant news story about art, which is ‘Damien Hirst sells for £50m'”.

Serota added: “At a time of austerity, people are rethinking their values and looking at art that doesn’t straightforwardly have a market … Artists want to make work that engages directly with audiences and is not so susceptible to commercial development.”

To me this reads as if these curators have never actually been to a performance before or have no idea of what dance and theater do, have been and actually are. In what bizarre universe are curators in 2012 suggesting that “performance proposes a new form of interconnectivity?” How is this new? What the hell do you think we’ve been doing over here in the performing arts world for the past 50 years? The origins and implications of the visual arts’ current infatuation with austerity and non-commodifiable non-object ephemeral art will be explored more fully in a subsequent post. But for now suffice it to say that the article quoted above is representative of visual arts curators’ inability to see the performing arts as a form unto itself, with a history and value that exists independently of visual arts markets and contexts.

Before I go any further I want to say that when I started writing the multi-part essay of which this article is a part, I knew I would need help, so I enlisted a research assistant, Buck Wanner, to conduct follow-up fact-finding interviews with various people I spoke to. He also courageously dug deep into Guidestar to find relevant 990’s and collate financial data that will be included in a subsequent article.

Since much of the information in these articles came out of casual conversations and, because I am not a journalist, in most cases I will not cite sources. While I trust that the information I received is factual, I do not want to destabilize working relationships between my colleagues. Once I’ve published this series in its entirety, I hope that a paid journalist or academic with the support of an institution will take this up to either confirm or refute my assertions with resources and rigor that are unavailable to me.

From what I can gather, the museums’ level of unpreparedness seems to manifest in various ways from construction of performance facilities to a lack of producing expertise to an inflexible administrative infrastructure that problematizes even the most basic things. That being said, the level of responsiveness varies greatly from institution to institution and curator to curator.

On the construction front, I was talking to a performance curator from California who works for a major museum of modern art that has just begun to build a new performance space. He says he has had to fight tooth and nail to be at the table during the planning and is facing constant challenges in trying to achieve a design that is actually good for presenting performance. Everything from the placement of the lighting booth to the implementation of flexible seating systems has been a challenge.

I was in conversation with a colleague who attended the opening of The Tanks at Tate Modern and spoke with one of the curators who subsequently left for greener pastures. The curator reportedly said that the entire project was fraught with problems and she readily admitted that they had no idea how hard it would be to build a performance space, much less program and manage one.

I’ve also heard from someone who interviewed for but did not get the gig at the Whitney– thus this is much more speculative – that the design for the Whitney’s new performance space is very similar to the space at The New Museum, which is problematic to say the least, given its inadequate lighting system, limited playing space and so on.

And of course Marina Abramovic’s Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art is at once oxymoronic and absurd, not to mention designed to look like a traditional theater from the 19th Century.

The performance space of the future is actually a rich area of investigation and imagination and will probably be imagined not by visual arts institutions or even, necessarily, theaters, but rather by technologists, gamers and artists exploring networked performance and telepresence; intuitive, gestural or organic interfaces, augmented reality and transmedia hybrid environments. So there is something quaint and tragic about museums building performance spaces that are neither adequate for the current needs of the field nor scalable for the future. Form the outside one speculates if this is the museum hedging its bets for when the performance trend fades and they can return to using “performance spaces” as lecture halls…. but moving on….

As I mentioned previously, the role of the performance curator in a performing arts institution includes not only selecting artists and developing projects, but serving as a kind of executive producer – overseeing implementation, presentation, fundraising and more. It is a heavy lift and one that, from what I hear, visual arts curators aren’t usually prepared for. One very successful artist who works frequently in both visual art and theater contexts has told me of numerous occasions where he has been invited to make work for a gallery who are surprised to learn that he will need to rehearse and pay his performers and actually load in the technical aspects of the show. And this is where individual attitude and institutional culture make a significant difference.

Everyone I have spoken to has had great things to say about Jay Sanders and his work at the Whitney Biennial. Reports are that he – and the rest of the Whitney team – were open and helpful, worked with them and gave a lot of support in numerous ways including administratively. I am told that The Whitney acted like a true commissioner and worked with the artists to help them realize their visions.  That being said, I am told that in general the museum was very much surprised by the cost of things like lighting, dance floor, seating risers, performer fees and administrative costs. I’m told that visual arts commissions never figure in administrative costs, so these commissions didn’t figure that in either. This speaks to systemic cultural differences that we will address a bit later.

I’m also told that little things – like being allowed to have water for dancers in the performance space – became challenges because museums are big institutions with a lot of levels to work through. Obviously they’re nervous about water being near expensive art objects, but at the same time, dancers can’t be expected to die of thirst and exhaustion. So just a simple permission like that became a big administrative process. Or, for instance, one artist chose to use flash paper and burn a cutout image at the end of his performance. Even in a regular performance space that would have been a challenge, but due to the proximity to the art objects and administrative caution, the artist had to get a sizable insurance policy that had a significant impact on their financial bottom line. Still, they worked it out, it all went well and the financial impact of the insurance was deemed a worthwhile investment because of the success of the project and the opportunity to work with the Whitney.

On the other hand, I’m told that MoMA has a much different attitude which is basically, “Here is the budget, make what you can with it,” and that the administrative hurdles to provide even the most basic support make the Whitney’s challenges pale in comparison. Once again things like water, etc. –basic things that are second nature and standard operating procedure to a performing arts presenter – are massive stumbling blocks.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that MoMA’s attitude towards performance is nothing new. I’m told that they will invite European conceptual choreographers to PS1 to present their lecture performance work but rarely their choreography, a privilege for which the artists are only sporadically and inconsistently paid. A curator from a major arts & technology center told me that Klaus and Jenny invited him to a meeting to talk about collaborating but were startlingly ignorant of what it takes to mount that kind of ambitious technological performance and completely unprepared to support it financially or logistically.

And I return to the entire problem of presenting dance in the Atrium at MoMA. From my perspective as an audience member and producer, it looks like a really horrible place to perform. I defer to the artists on this. But as I said before, they keep referring to it as “public” space when it isn’t since you have to pay $25 to get in the museum. It has no lighting to speak of and obstructive traffic patterns, not to mention the constant murmur of the echoing ambient crowd noise emanating from multiple levels. In this way the dance seem to be little more than another exhibit, a moving object to be observed in passing between galleries. Time-based art like dance actually requires time and attention – that’s the point. Placing dance and performance in a transitional space is consistent with Jenny’s assertion that she finds dance interesting because it allows curators to “re-envision the format of the exhibition.” It would seem that she has little interest in actually paying attention to the work or learning to see dance, rather she just needs something new to bring people into the museum.

I think there is value in bringing dance to a wider audience through MoMA and I appreciate the efforts they are making on some level, but to me it seems a disservice to only offer 30 minute presentations in an atrium space rather than commission a full-scale work (from a self-identified choreographer) that actually occupies and activates the museum. I also think it is interesting that they are so supportive largely of Judson era and Judson-inspired artists and French Conceptualism –  practices that not only interrogate more traditional ideas of the form, but also fit more neatly in the visual arts rubric.

Not to digress too much, but when performance curators commission work or invite artists to perform they usually have knowledge of the work and full awareness of what to expect. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d rather jam hot pokers in my eyes than have to sit through one of Ann Liv Young’s performances, but if you invite someone to your space then you damn well better let them do their thing. Klaus Biesenbach shutting off the lights on Ann Liv at PS1 is a perfect example of being unprepared. If you curate someone, you should know what to expect and you can’t shut it down just because it freaks you out. Unless someone is actually getting hurt or setting fire to the building, you kind of just have to let the artist do their thing. That’s what performance is about sometimes – duration, affront, confounding expectations, challenging social constructs and accepted behaviors. If you’re not ready for the mess, don’t start cooking.

So with these differences in curatorial practice, differing skill sets, knowledge bases and contexts, why aren’t visual arts museums hiring performance curators who actually know performance? It would be one thing if we were still in an era where “visual art performance” was so clearly defined as anti-theater. But now visual artists are directly engaging with dance and theater practices and curators are actively reaching out to choreographers – and sometimes theater artists – to bring their work into the museum. So what’s the deal?

Let’s look at The New Museum for instance. My colleague Travis Chamberlain started working there in September 2007 as the Public Programs Coordinator.

[Full disclosure: I have been a friend of Travis since 2002 when we worked together at Performance Space 122. I deliberately did NOT speak to him for the past few months as I’ve been working on this article so that he will have plausible deniability. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect any recent interaction or conversation between us.]

Since Travis started there he has quietly, steadily and doggedly built an exceptional performance program that, frankly, is generally better and more innovative than those of other museums. He has developed and curated the RE:NEW RE:PLAY residency series that has supported presented work by Jack Ferver, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Young Jean Lee, Jonah Bokaer, Nick Hallett and Lewis Forever, not to mention the extraordinarily influential Keith Hennessy performance that activated and engaged an entire community of young, queer performance makers. He has invited Movement Research into residency to support a whole trove of young dancers and choreographers, connecting them to Judson in a participatory way that is not happening anywhere else in the city.

He has curated the New Museum Presents showcase series, presenting Martha Colburn, Improv Everywhere, Tony Orrico, Narcissister, Kalup Linzy, Dynasty Handbag, Adam Matta, Big Dance Theater, Degenerate Art Ensemble and more.

Travis has actually created a program that engages with and reflects the performance ecology as it is right now, and he does this work with a very strong conceptual underpinning. From what I understand from conversations we’ve had over the years, the RE:NEW RE:PLAY series is about modeling a kind of engagement with artists that museums as institutions of education and research can uniquely offer performing artists and audiences. It places a heightened emphasis on the contextualization of process and production; it supports the creation of new work; generates an open and evolving structure for interdisciplinary discourse (and interdisciplinary audience development); it is both practice-driven and idea-driven, leveraging the strengths of the museum environment to counteract the presenting world’s frequent “premiere-driven” emphasis. Travis’ work as a curator resonates with me personally insofar as it resonates with my ideas on horizontalism by presenting process as public research with the “audience” participating as “research assistants” and, in a sense, co-creators and “embedded critics”. This open, participatory process is innovative regardless of discipline – visual art, dance, theater, or something else entirely.

But Travis is still, five years later, not technically a curator. It isn’t that he’s not doing the work – he is. It isn’t that he’s not thinking about the big ideas or actively innovating the museum – he is. So you’d think that, as an institution, if you had a staff member who was doing exceptional, innovative work that is without peer in the field, you would recognize that person and maybe publicize what he’s been doing and how it differs from other museums. But the New Museum hasn’t and isn’t. Why is that? Well, I am going to speculate that inasmuch as it is about professionalization and qualification, it is ultimately about money. Not salary, but the role a curator plays in determining the value of art.

The origin and evolution of the role of the curator in the art market is a huge topic, one that I’ve just begun researching in a process that is going to take so long I will have to return to it later in more depth. That being said, in a wonderful incidence of serendipity, a recent edition of The New Yorker featured an article by Rachel Cohen entitled “Priceless: How Art Became Commerce” [subscription required] about the partnership between acclaimed art expert Bernard Berenson and influential art dealer Joseph Duveen. It is a fascinating, insightful read and provides a tantalizing glimpse into a very specific moment in time where the relationships between taste, class, aesthetics, art and business were antagonistically negotiated and tendentiously revealed. It also gave me a starting point in the discussion of  who is deemed to have the refinement, knowledge and expertise to assess value.

Suffice it to say that while the role of the contemporary curator in visual arts may be multivalent and complex, one function is certainly the assessment and assignment of value. Since, post-photography, the value of the visual art object is no longer predicated on craft or verisimilitude, some other framework for the determination of value is required. A visual art object rarely, if ever, has any value unto itself beyond the cost of materials and, maybe, the artist’s labor. Its value is entirely predicated on how it is presented in the marketplace, the context that has been created for it and the ideas it is said to embody. Since there is rarely an objective standard by which to ascertain value, an expert with a “trained eye” is required to determine an art object’s authenticity (not authorship, but authenticity in the vaguer sense of legitimacy as thing-in-itself), its aesthetic value, its novelty and its impact on the field at large. This object also, by the marketplace definition of value, should be if not unique at least limited in quantity and difficult to obtain – it must be scarce. Scarcity exists both as material condition – there is only one object – and aesthetic value: this artist is the only person who can make this special object that is better than and unlike all other objects.

That expert evaluator is the Curator and, like all things pertaining to the creation and distribution of wealth, that evaluator must be highly credentialed to insure the buyer is not screwed, that their speculative investment is most likely to increase in value over time; hence the development of an enormous educational infrastructure to train curators in the assessment and evaluation of art objects. Through extensive education and training curators are taught to imagine or identify new conceptual marketplaces, cultivate producers (artists), commission product (art objects) and then create a value structure that reinforces their determinations. It is, in a way, a kind of beautiful, pristine conceptual art project itself; a sort of experiment in omnipotent capitalist market design, not unlike derivatives.

Of course the whole thing is largely specious, as demonstrated in this hilarious video from The Colbert Report:

However, this is why visual arts curators are required to have advanced degrees, preferably several; why they have such a strong writing practice and why the best curatorial positions are hard to obtain. They are gatekeepers, market designers and value creators; they are, actually, not too terribly different than program officers at foundations who develop frameworks for the distribution of capital and vet applicants to determine who merits funding and who does not.  The difference is that foundations have clearly stated philanthropic missions and guidelines; they have clearly stated goals and program structures that are designed to create very specific outcomes. Museums, on the other hand, tend to be rather vague about all of that.

I return, once again, to Skramstad. No doubt the contemporary museum as institution of education and research has great potential to develop programs for the public good. No doubt there are those both within and without the system that dream of the museum as a place of ideas, a place consistent with the word’s origin from the Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion) – a place or temple dedicated to the Muses, a building set apart for study and the arts. But from here, from the outside, it seems that the current visual arts world as reflected in most popular museums, has a rather more crass and commercial instinct, one based on commodity and the display of expensive objects.

I want to reiterate – this is an exploration for me and I’m not writing for visual arts people who already know this. I’m writing for performing arts people and other audiences for whom this might be new information.

To me it seems that museum galleries are designed to be indistinguishable from high-end boutiques, the act of wandering a museum gazing at art is not significantly different than walking through Banana Republic – the clean lines, the white walls, the pristine objects. And this is why the museums are in crisis. How do you entice the public to pay an admission fee to come look at your objects when they can go to the mall and do it for free? And in the mall they can actually afford to buy the things they see. Jenny Schlenzka said as much in the Performa event. She stated clearly that museums were in crisis, she was concerned that audiences no longer seemed to be truly engaging with the work on the walls of the galleries and referenced Charlotte Klonk’s Spaces of Experience as a starting point for a discussion on exhibit design. What is the role of the exhibition, Schlenzka mused, in this new world? Schlenzka referred to “the dematerialization of labor” – certainly problematic in an institution that is so reflexively hostile to labor – but I would suggest (and will explore in a future post) that it is actually the dematerialization of wealth that is causing the crisis in the museums.

So as I see it, the museums are in crisis over the failure of meaning of the exhibition form and the problems of materiality in the Information Age and Knowledge Economy. They turn to the ephemeral arts of dance, theater and performance for answers which would seem to present an extraordinary opportunity to actually meet artists where they are. This seems like an exceptional opportunity to develop knowledge-sharing and collaborative frameworks where artists of different disciplines and expertise could come together in mutual respect to learn of each other’s practices and passions.

Unfortunately, from here, between Performa and MoMA, it seems like the visual arts world is coming to the table with a sense of entitlement and a lack of curiosity in dance and theater writ large, but only in those aspects that fit neatly into the existing museum/visual arts rubric. The resistance to adopting best practices of performance curating and presenting, the resistance to even reaching out to performance curators and producers, suggests a wider indifference to the ecology that supports the creation of new contemporary performance.

But here’s the thing: it takes many years – sometimes decades – for artists like Ralph Lemon and Sarah Michelson to develop their choreographic practice and mastery. That development happened in a supportive but underfunded ecosystem.  To build a full-scale project with Ralph or Sarah at this point in their careers now can take up to four years, hundreds of thousands of dollars and many, many co-commissioners. This is a massive investment of time, labor and money, not just by the artists, but by the sector collectively. It takes a village to grow an artist and it takes a village to build substantial work.

So its great that MoMA is supporting 30 minute works by choreographers presented in an atrium. But put MoMA’s budget next to Danspace Project’s budget and it is like a whale next to a minnow. Yet it is Danspace Project and Movement Research and NYLA and PS122 that are supporting, nurturing and building the next generation of great choreographers and theater artists.

Tino Sehgal was brilliant enough to game the system, but not everyone can be or wants to be a Tino Sehgal. Even Ralph Lemon, in the Performa Event, stated how he looked forward to the day when people would “collect” the work of choreographers. But when the museums figure out how to “collect” this work and profit from it – will the artists ever seeing a dime of that money? Will any of those resources “trickle down” to the Danspace Projects of the world, the fecund ecosystem required to grow choreographers and performance makers? Or will it remain an undernourished, struggling garden whose best crops will be harvested by the larger, more well funded visual arts museums?

This is what I plan to explore in greater detail and with numbers in two subsequent essays currently in process entitled “The Economics of Ephemerality” and “Museums and the Crisis of Materiality.”

I hope you will keep reading and join the discussion.

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