Monday, July 23, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About MOCA

Patting herself on the back in a way that would make a Cirque du Soleil contortionist jealous, CultureGrrl's Lee Rosenbaum declares herself clairvoyanter than thou in one of the more obnoxious commentaries I've read about the upheaval at MOCA. Responding to an op-ed by Roberta Smith in which she outlines how MOCA should move forward, Rosenbaum rubs The New York Times art critic's nose in it:
Face it, Roberta. What you say ought to happen won't. On this call, you (and the other proponents of Deitch's appointment) were wrong.

I made the right call, more than two years ago.
The problem with Rosenbaum's declaration, however, is that she (Lee) is actually wrong. She did not make "the right call." Yes, she objected to Jeffrey Deitch's appointment (in two posts that revealed her bias via their shared headline: "Dealer-to-Director"), but she objected back then for reasons that have not actually been directly tied to the current upheaval or even proven to have come true at all.
In fact, most of the "I told you so" chest-thumping about MOCA I've read online has fallen into this same pattern: "If you had only listened to me back then, when I told you how appalling it was that they would let a *gasp* art dealer become director...I warned you of a) the potential for conflicts of interest... b) the potential for financial shenanigans... c) the risks of letting the fox into the hen house...and, well, as you can plainly see...I was right...look at how 1) he can't raise money; 2) he's vaingloriously taking over the curatorial mission; 3) he's not supporting the vision we associate with MOCA; 4) he's lowering the standards... 5) he's smitten with celebrities....."
You'll notice a clear reconciliation problem between those two lists, though.
The closest Lee has come to being right two years ago was, as Roberta pointed out, when the "'Art in the Streets' exhibition...included several artists whom Mr. Deitch had represented as an art dealer — at-best a sloppy-looking overlap between his former role as a dealer and his current one as a custodian of a public institution." But it would seem a stretch to suggest that one overlap is directly responsible for the museum's current crisis. Is anyone claiming that? If so, why not clearly? Lee?
Indeed, in the absence of any significant consistency between her predictions two years ago and the reality facing MOCA today, Rosenbaum's subsequent engagement in a bit of a mind-reading seems particularly unwarranted:
[Smith] concludes her piece by helpfully providing a laundry list of things that the floundering director must now do (and not do) to set things right: "stop organizing exhibitions---in part to create more of a firewall between his new job and his previous identity [as a commercial dealer], ...hone his fundraising skills and hire and cultivate curators, including...a new chief curator---which of course will take money" (resources which, of course, Deitch has been insufficiently able to raise and his board has been insufficiently willing to provide).

Roberta's action plan is truly "a kind of mission impossible": Deitch must suddenly and miraculously transform himself into someone he is not and has no desire and/or aptitude to be. [emphasis mine]
Rosenbaum cannot seriously claim access to Deitch's desires or aptitude (unless she's hiding some former training as a high-school guidance counselor...or, as any teenager can tell you, even then...). Deitch is a man who has reinvented himself successfully again and again. I think it's fair at this point to say he is not off to a stellar start, but Rosenbaum offers no evidence of the objections she listed two years ago (that Deitch would problematically privilege his inner circle and their interests, and that he would maintain some degree of financial interest in his gallery and its art) as the cause of the museum's current problems. If she can produce such evidence, then I'll agree she was right two years ago.
What she really seems to be talking about when she talks about MOCA is her own bias against art dealers becoming museum directors because of apparently uncontrollable desires to engage in conflicts of interest. It's an offensive position.

UPDATE: In the comments, Lee Rosenbaum rightly points out that I failed to discuss a distinct objection/prediction she had made two years ago. Lee notes that indeed she had written:
The main reason why hiring Deitch to direct LA MOCA seems like a bad idea is that it's another wild fling for a museum that urgently needed to sober up. LA MOCA got into trouble and almost went under because of its deviation from time-honored museum management practices. It's now hitched its star for someone known for throwing financial caution to the winds when an attractive project beckons. Good for him. Not good for MOCA....

MOCA can't afford to take another flyer. It needed a serious, seasoned museum professional, without commercial baggage and with a proven track record of keeping the proper balance between exciting programming and a balanced budget. The risks to its operations and reputation from its eccentric choice are too high.
I apologize for not being more thorough in discussing her original post, but I don't actually agree that even this objection/prediction validates Lee's position that she made "the right call" two years ago. In short, my position (as noted in the comments) is that the current upheaval (including the artists resigning from the board and the overall sense that Deitch has failed) is directly related to the decision to let Paul Schimmel go. While I agree that was a horrendous mistake, only someone who predicted that Deitch would not fulfill his responsibilities, as Robert Smith phrased it, to "encourage and cultivate curators much the way an art dealer encourages and cultivates artists" can stake claim to having made "the right call" in my opinion.

Indeed, the notion of financial recklessness being involved here is countered by facts supplied in Eli Broad's op-ed in The Los Angeles Times:
It took some time to get the right team in place. MOCA now has a strong chief operating officer in Michael Harrison and a good development operation. And with the recent personnel changes, Deitch and the board expect the team to work together more effectively. By demonstrating that MOCA has a prudent financial and exhibition plan, the museum is expected to attract an even greater number of members, trustees and donors.

MOCA's endowment is now pushing $20 million; next year its budget is $14.3 million, and in 2011, attendance was more than 400,000 — 2 1/2 times what it was when the budget was $24 million.

A Few Thoughts on Debating Guns

Within hours of the news that early last Friday morning  a gunman had killed 12 people and injured dozens of other at a cinema outside Denver, there were pleas across the Internet for us not to, once again, turn the latest tragedy into a referendum on our gun laws. Before noon on Friday, a post had gone up on the major right-wing blog Red State, asking everyone to "Shut Up. (Please): Sometimes mass murder is just mass murder - and that's horrible enough."
That’s the [...] message I have for the folks who are using last night’s massacre at an Aurora, Colorado cineplex as an excuse to fuel their hatred of political opponents, to push pet issues like gun control, or simply to babble stupidly.
But the Redstate writer protested in vain. The calls for more gun control were quick, pre-existing hatred was quickly prompted by the usual suspects and as expected flared [read the comments], and, well, stupid babbling is the norm in response to any situation, so that's hard to tease out from any other day, but...if you feel you've seen this film before, you're not alone.
In fact, we're so accustomed to this scenario in the US, that one of leading parody magazines, The Onion, dared to "go there" the very same day of the shooting [h/t wf]: 
Americans across the nation confirmed today that, unfortunately, due to their extreme familiarity with the type of tragedy that occurred in a Colorado movie theater last night, they sadly know exactly how the events following the horrific shooting of 12 people will unfold.
While admitting they "absolutely hate" the fact they have this knowledge, the nation's 300 million citizens told reporters they can pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held.

Additionally, sources nationwide took no pleasure in confirming that some sort of video recording, written material, or disturbing photographs made by the shooter will be surfacing in about an hour or two. [...]
Read the whole thing. Unless, that is you've been watching TV or reading about the shooting in the other news channels, in which case you've already confirmed for yourself how precisely correct The Onion got it. 
Of all the hot-button issues in American (like gay marriage, abortion, separation of church and state, etc.), I have less clarity about how I feel about gun control than any other. I'm not so sure my stance on those other issues would get approval from God almighty, but I've done my homework and reflected on each and feel comfortable with the strong positions I've taken. When it comes to guns, though, I find it much tougher to decide. 
Most male members of my family own guns, and despite all the anecdotes about the "real danger" of guns (i.e., family members being killed through carelessness), knock on wood, they're all super careful and responsible about them. As an adult decision made by someone who is kind and thoughtful (I would describe each of them that way, yes), their choice to own a gun seems to be something I don't have much right to weigh in about. I wouldn't stand for them telling me I can't own a work of art they objected to, even if they were convinced it was dangerous (for my soul, or society, or whatever) or any other choice I legally and maturely make.
But I disagree that it's wrong for us to re-engage in a debate about gun control in the wake of a tragedy, because that would suggest we can't take into account such tragedies when crafting the legislation that regulates guns. That is like saying we can't consider the 30-car pile ups caused by a reckless, speeding driver when setting a speed limit on a treacherous stretch of highway. Extenuating circumstances and worse case scenarios should definitely be part of the equation, even though I would argue we keep their extreme rarity front and center in any debate.
I also disagree that we shouldn't re-engage in a debate about gun control in general, because that suggests that we either don't have a gun problem in this country or that the only problem is too much regulation. I would agree with the actor Jason Alexander (who caused a stir on Twitter with what stands as one of the most rational discussions about gun control in the US I've ever read), who wrote "this is not the time for reasonable people, on both sides of this issue, to be silent." At the very least, can we debate the value of a clear distinction between recreational firearms (including hunting weapons) and military firearms? The killer used, among other weapons, an AR-15 rifle (a firearm correctly termed "an assault weapon") on Friday. All the weapons he purchased legally and reportedly with ease. Alexander wrote:
These weapons are military weapons. They belong in accountable hands, controlled hands and trained hands. They should not be in the hands of private citizens to be used against police, neighborhood intruders or people who don't agree with you. These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. They are not the same as handguns to help homeowners protect themselves from intruders. They are not the same as hunting rifles or sporting rifles. These weapons are designed for harm and death on big scales.
The popular notion in the US that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is one of the more disingenuous platitudes we perpetuate, in my opinion, if for no other reason than the inescapable fact that people without military weapons can kill far fewer people in a public cinema than people with them can. The type of gun itself is unquestionably part of the killing equation. Assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons are designed to kill people, efficiently, so it's utter nonsense to suggest they don't do what they were designed to do.
Why they're available to the general public, legally and easily, then, would seem to be something reasonable people should be able to calmly discuss. 
Offered up as arguments for why they should be legally available are ideas such as:
  • You can't step on the constitution at any cost 
  • Problems of definitions: "Wouldn't any weapon be considered an assault weapon if it is being used even in self-defense against another individual?" 
  • "Some guns aren't used for home defense or hunting. They are just owned because people like collecting guns." 
  • "United States citizens should not be banned from owning assault weapons, because we never know when the war is going to tread on our home soil." 
  • and even "People who fear guns are mentally ill."
On the other side of the debate, each argument boils down to one idea: 
  • "Citizens in the United States should be banned from possessing assault weapons because they are too dangerous" 
With all due respect to those who support legal access to assault weapons by citizens, to my mind, that last idea is more convincing. It's the reason I'm comfortable with the government regulating nuclear materials, materials for making explosives, etc. etc. Those things are too dangerous in untrained hands or unstable/criminal minds for us to let the average citizen easily acquire them. Their potential for inflicting mass death and injury is too great. I'm terribly sorry for the people who just like collecting guns. I'm sure you're all really swell, but.... 
Actually, I'm not sure you are, and that's another big part of this equation. No one had any clue apparently what the killer here was planning, despite how many weapons and military accoutrements he had shipped to his tiny apartment. Had he not had a semi-automatic rifle, many more people would likely have escaped unharmed than did during his rampage. For that reason alone, I'm comfortable with two classifications of guns (and yes, I expect the definitions to be contentious, but at least it's a start): recreational (which law-abiding citizens can own with a background check and a permit) and military grade (which your average citizen is more than welcome to use upon signing up for the armed services).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eyes vs. Ears

In a fun article about what it feels like to place a $119.9 million bid at auction (yes, I'll definitely have to live that one vicariously for the time being), ArtNews editor and publisher Milton Esterow quotes competing views on what's behind the confidence it takes to lay out that much dosh for a work of art:
One or two generations ago, [Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art department,Charles] Moffett said, collectors were different. “The mantra then was, ‘I know what I like.’ They made purchases that in many instances they would come to regret. The new collectors are well advised and not making the mistakes of previous generations."

Thomas Gibson, the London dealer, has a different view. “The majority of collectors in contemporary and modern art tend to go for easily recognizable things,” he said. “Say you have the only Mantegna in private hands. To many people it’s just an old painting. It has no financial power on the wall. They buy with their ears, not with their eyes.”

Don’t tell that to [Amy] Cappellazzo [chair of postwar and contemporary development at Christie’s]. “The market is extremely savvy and smart,” she said. “When you have a smart marketplace it forces everyone to be better at what they do. Buyers are buying with all their senses, and eyes are chief among them.”
Forgive me as I savor a moment the image in my head of buyers licking, sniffing, and rubbing their hands over a $100 million dollar painting to ensure it's worth parting with that much money... :-)
Seriously, though, I do have to wonder about the notion that buyers (and I'm sure Amy chooses that word very carefully, rather than "collectors"), who I would agree are extremely savvy nowadays, became so chiefly via their eyes. If that were the case, there wouldn't seem to be as many consultants as we see taking even very well known collectors around. Yes, even the most seasoned collector may simply enjoy the dialog they have with their consultants, but that too points to "ears" being chief among the senses employed in making their decisions. And the amount of time it requires to go around and see enough, in order to develop confidence in one's eye, seems incompatible with the amount of time it must require to actually earn enough to be able to spend $100 million on a work. So I do wonder....
But let's not lose sight (pun intended) of why we need to hope Amy is right. In what I believe is his first column for L Magazine, AFC's always-excellent Will Brand reminds us why "looking at" versus simply "hearing about" art is critical in determining importance:
Contemporary art's holy grail is the irreducible artwork, the painting that can't be described or transmitted, only experienced in the flesh. The art theorist Rosalind Krauss described this as art's "will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse." The rule of thumb, for most of the art world, seems to be that if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone, it's probably derivative.
In my humble opinion, importance in contemporary art, as I've noted before, can be measured by how influential it is among other artists. Derivative art rarely is influential (in fact, by definition it's been influenced), and so one could conclude from that, if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone it's probably not important. I would extrapolate from that to suggest that if the only reason you're considering buying a work of art is that someone talked you into it, you're probably making a mistake you'll regret. No matter how many hundreds of millions someone else is apparently willing to pay for it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Opening Tonight! "Painting Is History" @ Winkleman Gallery and Julie Evans in the Curatorial Research Lab

Painting Is History
Featuring work by Charles Browning, The Chadwicks, David Fertig, Joe Fig, Valerie Hegarty, and Steve Mumford
July 11 - August 10, 2012
Winkleman Gallery is pleased to present “Painting Is History,” a group exhibition featuring work by Charles Browning, The Chadwicks, David Fertig, Joe Fig, Valerie Hegarty and Steve Mumford. The show was co-curated by Jay Grimm and Edward Winkleman. While the practices of these artists vary greatly, they are united by their interest in the traditional use of painting to record history. For much of art history, painting occupied a central role in the formation of shared memory. The pictures of historical events became the way in which they were remembered and commemorated. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the academies of Europe placed history painting at the pinnacle of artistic achievement privileging the mode above all others.

Of course, this idea no longer holds. Film and digital media are the primary means of recording history, and painting is considered suspect by many observers for the very reason of its former function in this regard. Indeed, to be a contemporary painter is to often reject the past or to forget it altogether—to paint without memory. And yet, there are contemporary artists who are intrigued by possibilities within painting for recording and imagining human affairs. This show presents a small group of artists who explore this possibility.

Charles Browning’s work often riffs on the overblown allegories and idealizations common to 18th and 19th Century painting, suggesting that beauty is but a commodity and that the painter is simply producing items that are consumed in much the same way as any other luxury goods. Despite this critical take on the act of painting, it is obvious from the quality of his work that he takes the craft seriously. The tension between the overt beauty of his paintings and their underlying critique of inflated notions of decoration drives his art. In Necessary Arrangement (It’s Only Torture If They Are Human), Browning depicts an artist at work, painting from life a scene of brutal torture. A man is pinned to the ground, arms apart, posed as if being crucified while dogs tear at his flesh. Despite this violence, other figures, Native and African Americans, stand around, seemingly unaware of the horrible scene before then, and the painter himself is smiling. These figures reference the American colonial painters penchant for inserting native and enslaved peoples into their works to signal that the scene is in the new world, but the focus remains on the affairs of the Europeans, and these figures are marginalized and passive. However, the twist here is that the man on the ground appears to be white. The painter is seemingly at work on a crucifixion; the ‘necessary arrangement’ is that he needs a model to accurately depict Christ’s suffering. Thus, the tableau mocks the grandiosity of much religious painting and at the same time, turns the tables, allowing the powerless natives to witness, but not be subjected to, humiliation.

The Chadwicks are a fictitious family, once prominent in colonial America and in England, whose tremendous wealth and influence is dissipated, but who live as recluses in the shells of their former grandeur. The Chadwicks were voracious art collectors and thought deeply about the manner in which paintings create a fictive space. The editors of the Chadwick Family Papers, Jimbo Blachly and Lytle Shaw, have on many occasions presented different aspects of the family's collection to the public. In so doing, they have often explored the 17th Century Dutch genre painting tradition and argue that this movement undermined the Grand Manner and punctured the pretentions of history painters. Their inclusion in this show serves as a reminder that even at the time of their production, many intelligent viewers were questioning the assumptions that painted pictures could really manage the heavy expectations expected of them.

The paintings of David Fertig, by contrast, seem to embrace the idea that paintings of historical events can resonate. He takes as his subjects the military activities of the Napoleonic era, referring to original source material to get a sense of the uniforms and equipment of the day. Despite this attention to detail, his works are not meticulous renderings, but rather his paint handling is informed by the New York School, with a slashing approach to paint application and surface. Beneath it all lies a pulsing enthusiasm for the ability of paintings to convey an appreciation of the weight of history.

Joe Fig’s work has always focused on the actual creation of art. His earlier work consisted of detailed sculptures that meticulously recreated, in miniature, the studios of well-known artists. More recently, he has returned to canvas painting, keeping his attention on artist’s activities. In a manner that is at once slightly ironic and deeply touching, Fig depicts painters at work in a way that calls attention to the fictions they create, and also to the waning influence that figurative art experienced in the late 19th Century. In Study for Napolean 1814, Fig depicts the painter Messonier at work en plein air next to an image of the famous general astride a horse. Messonier was acclaimed for his images of Napolean and he was probably one of the last figurative history painters to enjoy such prestige. However, Napolean died when the artist was only 6 years old. Fig’s painting thus, does not depict an actual event, but rather an imaginary one, showing the painter creating his own fiction. And indeed the image of Napolean on a horse does not synch up spatially with the image of Messonier, as if the artist has been superimposed upon his own painting. Fig here skillfully makes the point that any history contains more than a little fiction, no matter how convincingly rendered.

Blurring painting and sculpture, Valerie Hegarty makes reproductions of well-known historical paintings which she then dramatically alters so that they look as if they are disintegrating. In George 4, Hegarty takes Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of Washington and causes it to melt, turning the President’s stoic expression into a frown. The tremendous critical reception to Hegarty’s recent work has interpreted it as a warning against imperial hubris or as a reminder that nothing, not even art lasts forever. She is included in this show to illustrate that trompe-l’oeil can be harnessed in many different ways. While Gilbert Stuart’s goal was to create an enduring image of a great leader, Hegarty points out that matter how much symbolism the viewer may attach to the painting, it is only an image.

Steve Mumford has in many ways embraced the traditional role of the history painter, but in a manner that is entirely contemporary and relevant. He has made several trips to Iraq and was embedded with U.S. soldiers during combat missions in 2004. Mumford made on-the-spot observations in watercolor and pencil, working them up into larger oils in the studio. The monumental Battle in Baquba depicts a confrontation between American motorized troops and distant adversaries. Smoke, explosions and the gestures of the soldiers in the foreground convey both the excitement and horror of war. Mumford’s painting records the moment without idealization: the damaged, dusty landscape barely seems worth fighting for and the threat to the troops, while obvious, seems difficult to locate. Unlike earlier history painters who attempted to attach notions of nobility and purpose to their scenes, focusing on generals at key moments in deciding battles, Mumford harnesses the power of painting to a different purpose, acknowledging the thrill of battle but also its banality. While his work exhibits a fierce loyalty to the participants in the Iraq war, Mumford maintains an impartiality, a faithfulness to the actual events. In this way, he seems to affirm, rather than question painting’s ability to create an accurate historical document.
Image above: Valerie Hegarty, George Washington Melted 4, 2011, canvas, stretcher, acrylic paint, gel medium, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York.

And in the Curatorial Research Lab

Julie Evans 
Organized by Jennifer McGregor 
July 11 - August 10, 2012

As an extension of Julie Evans' current project  (part of the exhibition Tending Toward the Untamed: Artists Respond to the Wild Garden), Wave Hill Director of Arts & Senior Curator Jennifer McGregor has worked with Evans to present a series of new work and a wall drawing in the Curatorial Reseach Lab. Evans' recent works are painted mylar constructions that address her ongoing interests in both process and perception. They combine the materiality and surface occupations of abstraction with the spatial illusions of figurative representation.
Using layered processes that move from the incidental to the intentional, Evans cuts out countless shapes from chance, gravitational accumulations of pooled color, and re-assemble them into unknowable mash-up forms that resemble animal, mineral and vegetable combined. While the cut pieces themselves are abstract and indistinct - they contain within them almost photographic references to parts of a whole, which allude to light, weight, and scale. Seamed together they become figurative and totemic - as body, as growth. They take on the tension of a strong familiarity that remains vague and elusive. 
Pours and sprays create disembodied, brushless surfaces that play off the very hand-made qualities associated with the cutting, trimming and seaming together of parts, just as the details within play off the overall heft of their resulting singular, floating, presence.
Julie Evans is a visual artist from New York City, currently based in Hudson, NY. Her paintings and drawings have been exhibited extensively in both the US and abroad. Her most recent exhibition, Cowdust - a collaboration of works done in India with the traditional miniature painter Ajay Sharma - was shown at Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea and was reviewed in both ARTFORUM and Art in America. Other recent exhibitions include group shows at Danese Gallery, Brattleboro Museum of Art, Lesley Heller Workspace, The Weatherspoon Art Museum, Daniel Weinberg Gallery, and McKenzie Fine Art. Her work has been reviewed in The New York Times, ARTFORUM, Art on Paper, Flash Art, Art In America, TimeOut New York, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to India, as well as residency fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross, Millay, and Tamarind Institute. Her work is included in over 200 international public and private collections, including The Rubin Museum of Art, US Art in Embassies Program, Microsoft, Progressive Corporation, JP Morgan-Chase, and Pfizer Inc. An installation of Evans' new work is currently on view at Wave Hill's Glyndor Gallery in the Bronx.
Jennifer McGregor is the Director of Arts & Senior Curator at Wave Hill, 28-acre public garden and cultural center in the Bronx, presenting artworks in the galleries and on the grounds that engage the public in a dialogue with nature, culture and site. Tending Toward the Untamed: Artists Respond to the Wild Garden (which includes the work of Julie Evans) is on view from April 3 to August 19, 2012. She has worked with hundreds of artists from emerging to established to create new work and develop specific projects. As Director of the New York City Percent for Art Program from 1983-1990, she implemented the program guidelines and supervised sixty public art projects. In 1990, she founded McGregor Consulting to work nationally on public art commissions, exhibitions, and planning projects. With Renee Piechocki she recently developed a public art strategy for the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.
For more information contact Ed Winkleman at 212.643.3152 or

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Search of a More Nuanced Discussion about the Changes at MOCA | Open Thread

In case you missed it, super collector and philanthropist Eli Broad penned an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, discussing the recent firing* of MOCA's chief curator Paul Schimmel and MOCA's future. You can count me among the people surprised that Mr. Broad (who not only has his own museum/s and is no longer a voting member of MOCA's board, but rather a "life trustee") became the voice of "putting the record straight" about the changes, rather than Jeffrey Deitch, who Broad claims "[the museum's] new beginning is now firmly in the hands of." But then again, perhaps it's an act of charity on Broad's part, as his op-ed has widely made him a target of scorn, and, well, Mr. Deitch has had more than his fair share of that since taking over as director at MOCA.
Now I suspect I may need to enter the Witness Relocation Program for pointing this out, but Mr. Broad does raise a few points that I've felt were missing in most of the online chatter I've read about the firing. Don't get me wrong; I think MOCA is a lesser museum for having lost Mr. Schimmel, but I do strongly feel that any rational assessment of the firing must take into account the practical financial issues in play here.
An attempt at a rational assessment has been offered by the Los Angeles Times' excellent arts journalist and critic Christopher Knight, who rightly (in my humble opinion) points out that "A museum is not a company. Corporate policy doesn't function well there." Mr. Knight begins with a very helpful summary:
If you're confused by the convulsive goings-on at the internationally admired Museum of Contemporary Art, which culminated in the June 25 firing of the illustrious chief curator instrumental in putting the museum on the map, don't be. It's not that complicated.

In fact it's quite simple — as easy as one, two, three:
  1. In 2008, MOCA was operating a stellar art program on a dysfunctional business plan. When the U.S. economy tanked, the museum careened into a ditch.
  2. In 2010, MOCA announced the unprecedented decision to put an accomplished businessman, one who built his career in art, in the director's chair, charged with fixing the broken business side. The reins were handed to a successful New York gallery owner with virtually no experience running a large nonprofit.
  3. By 2012, the new director had made little progress in repairing the museum's dysfunctional business plan, but he was far along in dismantling the once-stellar art program. Dumping the chief curator ignited an explosion.
But Mr. Knight leaves his readers assuming the solution to the dysfunctional business plan is for the museum's trustees to donate more money. In fact, he offers the somewhat misleading calculation that, because MOCA's "board of trustees has a combined net worth far in excess of $21 billion," the museum shouldn't have any financial troubles.
This gets to the heart of what, from the beginning of the online response to this story, has been bugging me though. It's not as if all $21 billion of their trustees' net worth should be at MOCA's disposal (that would bankrupt all its trustees). Indeed, what each trustee can or should put toward financing the museum, any museum, will vary per trustee and the other philanthropic commitments they have. Moreover, trustees donate according to a shared sense of purpose but also according to personal satisfaction that their money is doing "good." And "good" is so subjective it not only varies trustee to trustee, but I suspect (and no one is discussing this either) city to city. Indeed, different metropolises have very different cultural values and as such can support (or not support) very different types of museums. Despite the heroic efforts of Mr. Schimmel and his like-minded colleagues, it's  possible that LA simply can't sustain a museum with the program they envisioned. (Yes, I know, that sounds like New York snobbery, and perhaps it is, but it's also simply possible, so can we at least get the notion out there and talk about it?)
Indeed, a museum that can't produce their envisioned program on just the money they collect from ticket sales and/or other sources needs to either get more trustees or encourage the ones they have to donate more. The museum can't just ignore reality when that isn't happening. Mr. Knight rightly notes that MOCA's business plan was dysfunctional, but doesn't offer suggestions on how MOCA could get out of that situation other than to imply the current trustees should put up ever more money. I suspect that if that were ever going to be easy in Los Angeles, it would have happened before, or at least after Eli Broad rescued the museum with his $30 million hail Mary pass in 2008 (and did anyone really expect Broad to not want some influence in how that much money got spent?).
So what am I saying? That MOCA is now right to shift directions, having given the internationally admired program a good shot, but having not found the local funding to sustain it? Well, that's obviously not my call. I'm just tired of cringing when I read that a museum should not have to operate according to a corporate mind-set, as if that declaration in and of itself can produce operating funds. If the trustees were not chipping in enough to fund it and the series of past and present directors (let's not lay all the blame at Deitch's feet) were not able to get more trustees or wring more money out of the current ones, well, I'm sorry, but simply saying that a non-profit should get to play by different rules isn't going to pay the electric bills. A workable, practical solution is needed. And no one seems to be offering one. Well, Broad and Deitch think they are, but...ick.
Consider this an open thread on, yes I'll go there, whether LA can sustain a world-class curatorially innovative museum, and if so how? And by "how" I mean what are the practical specifics? Where will the money come from?
*Although the museum has insisted, and Mr. Broad also wrote, that Schimmel "resigned," the very argument that Broad puts forward in his op-ed all but confirms he was fired,  imo.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Post-Independence Day Reflections on the Lingering Legacy of US Slavery

On one hand, I guess I understand the impulse of this rather astonishing effort by Tea Party activists...
A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country's founders being slave owners.

According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."

"The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed, to everybody -- not all equally instantly -- and it was their progress that we need to look at," Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.
If it were not for the assertion that the criticism was "made-up," I could almost buy the argument that it's time for us to focus more on the progress our founders enabled to eventually take place. After all, we can't linger in the past forever if we're sincere about perfecting our union. 
But we dare not forget the truth of our past, lest we lose our true selves entirely in the process.
It's not without its critics, of course, but I for one was convinced by Toni Morrison's argument in Playing in the Dark that the racism that permitted slavery played a central role in defining our national character (at least as recorded in American literature). The so-called national bravery we read so much about, that enabled us to boldly pioneer new frontiers, for example, came in part through a projection of our fear of real freedom onto slaves. From The New York Times review:
The black "shadow" has, paradoxically, allowed white culture to face its fear of freedom, Ms. Morrison continues. Though Pilgrim, colonist, immigrant and refugee embraced America for its promise of freedom, they were nevertheless terrified at the prospect of becoming failures and outcasts, engulfed by a boundless, untamable nature. It was not surprising, then, that writers explored American identity in the most anxiety-ridden genre of literature -- the romance. There they could fill in the romance's "power of blackness," as Melville called it, with the figure of the slave, whose lack of freedom and whose blackness confirmed his contrast to the master. Africanism, the culture's construction of black slavery, stood, therefore, not only for the "not-free" but also for the "not-me."
But more concretely than metaphors, wanting to maintain the economic advantage of slavery loomed very large among the founders' practical rationales for breaking away from England. In fact, a little-known retort to the Declaration of Independence by John Lind, a British pamphleteer, rubs our nose in this less-than-flattering motivation:
[T]itled "Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress", [the retort was] written in the same snarky tone as an attack ad.

But like most attack ads, it also contained a few facts that the rebels didn't want to face. You remember the part where the Declaration says King George (quote) "has incited domestic insurrections among us..."?

John Lind points out that what the rebels were really upset about was that the King had "offered freedom to the slaves."

(QUOTE) "Is it for them to say that it is tyranny to bid a slave be free?"
Lind goes on to mock the founders for writing noble words stating, "all men are created equal" and asserting "Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and then in the same document, complaining about the King for encouraging the slaves to rise up.

"Is it for them to complain of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings? of the offer of reinstating that equality, which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all?"
Again, I understand the desire to move on reflected by the Tea Party activists' attempts to whitewash our history, but even there, one underlying implication is that as a nation that we're not strong enough to handle the truth. As an American, I reject that implication.
Yes, our history is complicated. Yes, in parts it's hideous and unforgivable. But it's all part of what made us who we are. And we can't be truly proud of who we are unless we're honest about the times we failed and then made amends.
There's a man of African descent living in the White House. We are unquestionably perfecting the union. As a Progressive, I believe we can stand to do so more quickly. As an American, though, I accept that as much work as there is still to do, we can only celebrate who we are meaningfully if we acknowledge it honestly.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Call For Proposals : Monument to Cold War Victory

Despite what you might think if you listened to some of Mitt Romney's advisers, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America has long been over. And, in case you didn't know, technically the US actually won! 
Wahoo!!!... USA...USA...USA!!!!
Perhaps not surprisingly though (given that there was a 42-year gap between the end of the Korean war and the dedication of the national Korean War Memorial, for one example), we still have no national monument to herald this momentous vanquishing of what President Reagan had called the "Evil Empire." Granted, some folks around here are rather liberal with the use of that term, but still...if you defeat an "evil empire" it would seem to be nationally noteworthy. And besides, monuments can help at least one artist get a potentially lucrative commission and/or at least fame and glory.
And so I am very pleased to direct the attention of you artists out there (anywhere) to the following (real) call for proposals: 


The Committee for Tacit History is issuing a call for proposals for a Monument to Cold War Victory, an open-call competition for a public monument commemorating the outcome of the Cold War. Artists from around the world are encouraged to submit proposals by November 1, 2012.
Monument to Cold War Victory is a conceptual project by the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, taking the form of an open-call, international competition for a public, commemorative work of art. For over two decades, public signifiers of the Cold War, such as the Berlin Wall, have been framed in terms of destruction and kitsch. A monument created at the moment of its own destruction, the Wall encapsulates the continuing geopolitical imagination of the conflict as linear, continuous, binary, and terminal: the culmination of a now-historicized narrative of competing empires. But while the impact of half a century of sustained ideological conflict still reverberates through all forms of public and private experience—from Middle Eastern geographies of containment to the narrative structures of Hollywood—it has yet to be acknowledged through a public and monumental work of art. The Cold War, the longest and most influential conflict of the twentieth century, has no publicly commissioned commemoration in the United States.
This project examines the enduring genre of war monuments, memorials, and institutionally framed and commissioned artworks. How might the legacy of the Cold War, in all its complex material, social, and cultural forms, be visually articulated? In what ways might the notion of “victory,” implicit in all retroactive commemorations of conflict, be interpreted? Can the traditional, formal structure of the monument, and the historical revisionism endemic to that form, be redefined?
Artists are invited to participate in this project by submitting a proposal for a public monument commemorating the outcome of the Cold War by November 1, 2012. All submissions must be made through the website: Submissions should include: a one-page narrative text on your proposed work and its relationship to the legacy of the Cold War, the notion of “victory,” and its reevaluation (if any) of the monument form; a visual schema in the form of three images; and an artist CV. A select number of finalists will be awarded a stipend and the opportunity to further develop their proposal for an institutional exhibition. The submitter of the winning proposal will be awarded a cash prize, and their concept will be implemented and installed in a publicly accessible location, to be determined, in the United States.
Monument to Cold War Victory will be juried by a distinguished panel of cultural and intellectual figures, including Vito Acconci, Susan Buck-Morss, Boris Groys, Vitaly Komar, Viktor Misiano, and Nato Thompson.
For further information, contact curator Stamatina Gregory,
This project is initiated by The Committee for Tacit History, an international curatorial collective and research body dedicated to furthering interdisciplinary, practice-based investigations in history and visual culture.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


how's about a little joy?