Thursday, November 19, 2009

Intangible Gets Tangible Over New Museum Controversy

An interesting but tepid panel discussion held at the Fashion Institute of Technology took a surprising (yet somehow predictable) left turn during the Q&A session. The ostensible subject of the symposium, titled 'Intangible', was to explore the diverse marketplace realities of so-called ephemeral art, mainly related to performance and media art since the 1960s. Seated on the panel was dealer/impressario Jeffrey Deitch; prickly artist/educator Clifford Owens; the assistant curator to media & performance art at MoMA Cara Starke; and the passionate, ever-classy advisor/curator Thea Westreich. The discussion was moderated, sort of, by educator and writer Martha Schwendener, who also teaches at the FIT; the event was organized by MA candidates in the school's Art Market: Principles and Practices program.

So, the conversation went hither and yon, with several anecdotes about (and impersonations of) Vito Acconci and frank accounts and case studies from Mr. Deitch and Ms. Starke. Actual $ numbers were revealed and some peeks behind the curtain were offered (though nothing revelatory to those in the know, I'm certain). Mr. Owens established a cautious and enticingly antagonistic tone at the outset ("I'm surprised I was asked to be here. I'm going to see how this conversation develops"). Ms. Schwendener held the reins rather slackly, at one point allowing an impatient irruption from an audience member to fully derail the conversation (whom Mr. Owens derailed in turn by amusingly banging his head into his microphone). This individual blathered on about how the internet makes everyone an artist because every 10-year old with a cellphone can upload a funny video to YouTube, which is a sadly linear and startingly low standard of qualifications for this particular career choice, unless you're Ryan Trecartin, but maybe he had a point. Everyone
is an artist now, whereby the "hell of images" has merged with "the hell of other people." Beuys=0; America's Funniest Home Videos=1.

Aside from this, the discourse was quite reasonable and entertaining, even though no aspirant performance artist was going to walk out of that room with a new business plan in mind.

Then the shit hit the fan. During the Q&A, someone inevitably brought up the case of the New Museum, despite it being a case of conspicuously NONephemeral market-object propagation. A crackle of energy, a whiff of ozone, and the tone of the room changed instantly. (I've only had the occasion to witness this particular debate online; this was my first face-to-face encounter with the polarizing rancor ensuing in its wake, affected by those close to the controversy). I only had a dinky skee-ball pencil to write with; I'll summarize.

Jeffrey Deitch (portrait not by Phong Bui)

Mr. Deitch became immediately testy--as an adviser & curator for the Joannou collection I imagine he has been at the defensive center of the controversy for some time. I've never seen him lose his cool--his whole demeanor is one of measured, mannered impishness. Mr. Owens wasn't very cool about it either, declaring more than once "I don't make art for collectors" and like comments, and loudly shuffling his luggage and jacket as though preparing to storm out of the auditorium while Deitch was speaking (he also made several salient points during the ON-TOPIC part of the symposium, so my apologies for short shrifting him here). Ms. Westreich exuberantly broke down the whole situation for everyone. The following excerpts are liberally paraphrased; there was a lot of heat coming off the stage here.

Deitch: "I don't see what's wrong with exhibiting a pre-eminent collection of modern art by one of the world's greatest collectors, and least self-serving individuals, works selected by Jeff Koons, the most radical artist of the past 25 years...(turning to an agitated Owens) You disagree with me."

Westreich: "The answer is in the history of art. No museum can exist without committed artists and collectors. The New Museum is an exhibiting, not collecting, museum... (she carries on about the realities of patronage and museum boards, exceptional only in the coinage of the wonderful word "Vomiticious!")... It's HISTORY, folks, if we don't like it, then we have to change it, as a consensus."


"The underground happens out here (gestures with hands) and the good ideas will eventually be recognized and co-opted...the edges move to the center and meanwhile there's more edges and more young people emerge with ideas that will change the way we look at and think about art. This is the history of the museum. This is the history of culture!"

: (to an audience member) "That's where it comes down to taste, and choice. The New Museum is not the same institution. You could go and support White Columns, if that's more your choice in programming."

"It's not about the market, it's about patronage. Patronage is crucial to the support of living artists. I hope Dakkis feels the same way about collecting your work as he does about the other works in his collection.. ..the NEA's budget is next to nothing, financial support for the arts in this country is nothing. The REAL tragedy here is the paucity of support for public art institutions."

"I don't make art for collectors."

"No, you don't make art to be sold, you make art to answer certain questions...but you show in your gallery, [that gallery nurtures and sells your work]. Your richness does not become MY richness without a system of support and exhibition. Patronage preserves that history."

(something to the effect of) "Let's preserve the history of the New Museum as a non-institutional institution, one that was critical in supporting under-represented artists like myself." (lots of head-nodding in the audience here).

"Everything that you're talking about, Dakkis started the same way. I started the same way, making art and writing, I decided the best way to serve the arts was as a dealer. Dakkis did lots of things, and decided his best way to serve was as a patron. There's a lot of people speaking here without being informed. Dakkis wanted to be involved in the same way (to be a part of the art dialogue). He buys work from emerging artists and unheard of artists and supports their careers. He's not doing it as speculation."

"Do we have time for one more question?"

"No, because it's late! I'm DONE!" (stalks out briskly, with Deitch not far behind).


No, not much was added to the debate in this exchange, but I hope the FIT team makes the full video recording of the session available soon, if only to correct my gross paraphrasing and to witness the passion and vigor of this impromptu argument, which the participants were clearly unprepared to speak about--but which clearly had been weighing on their minds. Maybe it's just me, but everyone seemed like they were dying to bring this up. Perhaps the NuMu should hold a symposium (or town hall meeting, the way folks are carrying on you'd think the future of health care reform was at stake) to allow for a good ritual public airing of views. It might reduce the levels of hostility between those in the inner circle, and educate the shoulder-shrugging bemusement of most of us who are on the outside and choose to let history decide the rightness, wrongness, or quality of the show.
The only interesting, and true, and contrived, act of resistance would be on the part of one of Joannau's selected artists, who might refuse to participate in the show on ethical grounds. Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants? And an almost certain solo show for said 'outsider' artist, alas..

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