Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Curmudgeons Often Make the Best Collectors

Marfa, Kassel, Rozel Point, and now Hobart, Tasmania?

If the description in Cristina Ruiz's Art Newspaper article about the nearly complete Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) is any indication, travelling to the bottom of the world may soon become a major art pilgrimage. Here's but a small snippet of the article:

David Walsh is not like most collectors. For starters he does not seem to care what people think of him or his museum. Here are his views on the potential benefits Mona will have to local business: “We don’t know whether I’m going to make any difference to the economy and I must say I don’t particularly care. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, I don’t give a shit.”

The 48-year old Tasmanian, who made his money by developing complex gaming systems, describes himself as a “full-on secularist”. “Mona is my temple to secularism,” he adds, explaining that he is interested in “talking about what we are”, in other words what makes humans human. “People fucking, people dying, the sorts of things that are the most fun to talk about.”

The first of many surprises for visitors will be the building itself. When you approach Mona from the ground, it is nowhere to be seen. Visitors to Moorilla, Walsh’s six-acre estate overlooking the River Derwent, will see a glass-fronted restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff, eight pavilions offering luxury accommodation, a vineyard and a brewery but no sign of a major museum building. The entrance is a small pod-like structure leading to an elevator and a staircase which winds its way underground.

What awaits you inside is both spectacular and completely unexpected. Mona is huge, with around 6,000 sq. m of display space over three floors. Because it has been excavated out of a cliff, the architect Nonda Katsalidis of the Melbourne firm Fender Katsalidis had to remove around 60,000 tonnes of earth and sandstone, before building could begin. The result is breath-taking. One wall of the museum is the sandstone cliff. From there the architect has built out towards the river using steel and concrete.

While most galleries greet the public with a ticket or information desk, the first thing visitors to Mona will encounter is a bar in the foyer. Drinks will not be allowed inside the galleries but Walsh says he likes the idea of “visitors revisiting the art with an accumulating alcoholic insight”.

All museum viewing should be prefaced with cocktails, in my humble opinion. But it's not Walsh's unconventional attitude toward the museum experience that captivated me most about this profile, but rather how it dovetailed with a conversation I had had the other day about being a curmudgeon with an artist who self-identified as one. I aspire to be a curmudgeon I had told her, so I was curious why she admitted to being one herself (her disposition validated her self-assessment).

It's not that I want to be sour, she noted, but it's very important to me that I respond honestly in all situations. Yes! I responded...that's it. Attempting to be honest in all situations makes one appear to be curmudgeonly. But there are few things more important to aspire to, although it's very exhausting, we agreed.

Mind you, I don't flatter myself by assuming I've reached any layer of true curmudgeon-ness as of yet. My job description tends to require a degree of all-around obsequiousness (call it "diplomacy" if you prefer). But I'm watching and learning, and hopefully one day I'll figure out how to balance the two.

But more than just living in total honesty (the ultimate achievment for any human in my opinion), curmudgeon-ness seems to also go hand-in-hand with breathtakingly original collections. Mind you, being a curmudgeon, to my mind, doesn't mean you're not a nice person to people who return the favor by being honest with you. It simply means you have no time for fools and are focused like a laser beam on what it is you're doing. In the collecting fields, that would cover legendary collectors like Albert C. Barnes or even Herb Vogel.

But why does being a curmudgeon seem to be a common prerequisite for building a fabulous collection? Stick with me on this one...it's all fairly clear in my head, but that doesn't mean I'll easily be able to set it down in words.

What makes a collection most exciting is its singularity. That requires that the collector truly doesn't care what other collectors think about their acquisitions; he or she is collecting to meet only his/her own standards. Friends or competing collectors who don't approve of certain choices can take a long walk off a short pier.

More than that, though, it requires an obsessive commitment that the collection be a reflection of one's tastes. Because one's taste is defined by more than simply the art one collects, any presentation of the collection attempting to reflect those tastes may not be limited to just what we'd now consider "fine art." Barnes famously and formally installed his Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in among African sculpture, as well as decorative arts and metalwork.

Walsh too seems to be interested in connecting the dots historically and aesthetically:

The art on show will cover three main areas. There will be the antiquities Walsh first started buying 20 years ago—his collection includes seven Egyptian mummies, ten Roman mosaics, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and thousands of Greek coins.

Then there are the Australian modernists: Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. His collection in this field is “extraordinary”, says Mark Fraser, former head of Sotheby’s Australia who has worked for Walsh since 2007 as director of his art operations. It includes Nolan’s monumental work Snake, 1970-72, made up of 1,620 individual panels which will cover a 45-metre curving wall in Mona that has been designed specially for the work.

Finally there is the international contemporary art which Walsh has been buying for around ten years. He now owns some 300 works, many of them large-scale. More have been commissioned for the opening of Mona. These include a new version of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. The machine, which simulates the human digestive process, creates excrement which is apparently indistinguishable from the real thing. It will be the first version of the work which Delvoye has sold to a museum.

The other characteristic of curmudgeons (in addition to not caring what other people think) is to have very strong opinions about why other people have it all wrong. Walsh passes the test here too:

Walsh’s changing tastes will of course dictate what goes on show at Mona. He is keen to stress there will be no formal curatorship. “I believe most curation is bullshit…curators tie together a bunch of stuff they can get their hands on then create the most abstruse and obtuse reality and, in the end, fill an exhibition up with a few things that are slightly connected and the upshot is that about 30% of the art is just there to fill space.”

Mona will do things differently. Works from every period and style will be juxtaposed in ways you are unlikely to see elsewhere. A Roman-period mummy will be displayed alongside “a fairly dynamic video work which hopefully will recontextualise it,” says Fraser. The underlying theme, will be artistic motivation. “No one makes art for art’s sake,” says Walsh. “There are only two reasons to create art: to get laid or defy death.”

I'd quibble that there are only two "serious" reasons to make create art, but that not all art has to be serious. Jesters still have an important place within the overall dialog, speaking truth to power and disarming those clinging too tightly to certain heavy ideas to see how they're being dragged under...but at this point I'm splitting hairs.

A few years back I stirred up a hornets nest by writing that the ultimate motivation within the art world was getting laid. Just because people disagreed with me (74 comments worth) didn't change my mind about that, though. Walsh seems to agree (meaning, perhaps I'm more a curmudgeon that I give myself credit for):

“The point is we’re looking at all art as being contemporary,” says [Mark Fraser, former head of Sotheby’s Australia who has worked for Walsh since 2007 as director of his art operations]. “It’s all survived to this day. It was all made for some interesting reason. We’d like to talk about why people are creative and why they make art. Is it as Darwin might have argued that art was a fitness marker, it basically made us sexy? I think David would argue that artists get more sex than the rest of the population.”

So is Walsh building a museum to get laid? “Absolutely, it’s a blatant case of ‘come upstairs and look at my etchings’ or in my case, downstairs,” he says.

Again, totally honest.

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha- got a chuckle out of this post today,thanks.
I would argue that getting laid is just another attempt at defying death, even if that may be a more subconscious motivation.
I missed out on your the ultimate motivation within the art world was getting laid. post, but seriously, how can anyone survive art school and doubt that, especially women?
Lately I have been noting to myself that stable, well-balanced people will likely never make a big impact on the world, because it takes that " being a little off"
as a motivator to keep up the drive to do whatever it is you feel compelled to do in order to make an impact on the world.
Whether that is being a curmudgeon, or just obsessive-compulsive, or whatever... it just takes something a little unbalanced or irritating inside of you that is more important to keep working against that anything anyone else may think about you.

The other characteristic of curmudgeons (in addition to not caring what other people think) is to have very strong opinions about why other people have it all wrong.
I love this sentence, it reminds me of how I described all the Dutch people I grew up around, LOL!


-Saskia

7/21/2010 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger RACHEL WOLFE said...

Saskia said basically everything I had on my mind in response to this reading!

Haha...still chuckling. Curmudgeon is a hilarious word and to be honest, I couldn't agree more. Is that the distinctive difference? A curmudgeon believes everyone else is wrong?

What if they just believed they were so right, and didn't care what anyone else thought at all? What is that called then?

7/21/2010 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...

“visitors revisiting the art with an accumulating alcoholic insight”.

"art ... made us sexy? I think David would argue that artists get more sex than the rest of the population.”

"I don’t particularly care. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, I don’t give a shit.”

“People fucking, people dying, the sorts of things that are the most fun to talk about.”

I drink to all that!!!


Carlos

7/21/2010 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous demarkus said...

Nice post, thanks! The notion of a gallery being a social+sexy place ain't nuthin new though, Watteau summarized things beautifully in Gersaint's sign board. I'm on board for trying to make sense of what it means to be human. A more than occasional drink is alright too.

7/21/2010 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Zipthwung said...

Megalomaiacle James bond complex- happens to a lot of people. I have a job and get laid- no time to make art or even look at art, cant seem to find a balance, tried a long time- vut hopefully I can get laid-off sooner than late.

Join the flippin' crowd as far as curmudgeon shit goes. Nothing special there.

7/22/2010 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Dalen said...

I love this post - I so enjoy reading about interesting collectors and artists. Also think a drink should be a prerequisite for viewing art; it eases the mind out of linear thought.

Regards,
Dalen

7/22/2010 07:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

Freud said that artists become artists for fame, fortune and beautiful lovers. Power of all kinds is erotic. Creativity is a form of power.

7/23/2010 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous GAm said...

a voice in the wilderness ...
humanity only acts in order to get laid? Accepting that premise seems to restrict human action as one sidely selfish. It doesn't seem to accommodate a rational of why people bother to raise kids.

I think people are both self centered and socially magnanimous at the same time. Sex as the driving force of humanity seems to overlook the prior force of food. The first things babies learn to do si cry for food, not sex. And with respect to Freud's oedipus concept, people seek out the foods that they grew up with and limit in more ways their horizons to being able to satisfy those zones.

Even the museum doesn't offer orgies and the means to satisfy sex and death wants. They offer food ... a bar is the first thing you see when you enter - what welcomes you, they offer artisan wines and beers, a museum of culinary tastes. Not of diversity and sexual pleasures. Even the stated aim of the curatorialship is to inspire social interaction, love it or hate it, you'll have something to discuss. You don't need that if all you want is sex. But talk and food go mouth and mouth. (yes yes social intercourse and the other intercourse share many commonalities. But to say sex is the driving force of the human endeavour is to ignore a whole lot of other stuff inbetween sex and death. The social expression of humanity isn't simply to get more sex, but is driving force in itself.

I really hesitate to accept the idea that sex and death are all that drive our impulses.

It really is a gorgeous looking museum. There seems to be a trend towards the new rich (geeks and nerds if you will) becoming patrons of the arts and placing on the periphery the infrastructure to produce and celebrate the arts. (Im thinking of another example in Fogo Island, New Foundland where Ms Zita Cobb has set up an arts foundation and facility.) What happens when the patrons are not centralized? What happens when the consumption of the arts is placed on the periphery and not just creation of it? Wonder if that will change our perception of the arts?

yeah, I still think you can make a better case for food as the driving force of humanity, and that that leads to our socialization (as a better means for acquiring and consuming food,) not sex - sex seems to individualize us ... a nice synergy between the two I think.

7/23/2010 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

crap, that sounds curmudgeonous!

7/23/2010 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave need's to add a Brothel , Hotel and a Five Star Resturaunt to his Museum and I would never leave.

Cheerio !

7/23/2010 06:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

gorgeous chalets and wonderful resto are there "already", see his sites .pdf on the amenities

7/24/2010 10:34:00 AM  

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