“The best art speaks for itself,” someone stated at a recent public discussion about Boston Creates. My immediate internal response was yes, but art also prompts, at times even goads, us to speak or write. I concede that art is, of course, first about one’s sensorial experience of it, and there is much to be gained from this act alone. Yet there is also much to gain from speaking, reading and writing about art as an intellectual and social–even civic–activity. In fact, these activities are vital for an active and dynamic arts ecosystem that becomes through a system that supports not only art making and exhibition but also discussion. These are not new ideas, just ones that often seem to be sidelined and taken for granted as part of an undercurrent of work by educators, curators, and arts writers.
Greater Boston’s arts ecosystem is the focus of Boston Creates—a plan which outlines goals, strategies and tactics that among other things advocates for an increase in access, communication across the City’s siloed communities, risk taking and a diversification of platforms for the arts to thrive and for people to find personal value in creative experiences. Both art writing and art making demand risk that we can only hope will be met by an environment of respect and informed honesty.
In Boston we are fortunate to have platforms—blogs, online and print publications, and radio programs—that focus on the arts. Some of these materials can be categorized as promotional material (press releases or surface reviews), others as arts advocacy or behind-the-scenes coverage, and still others as important forums for broad and varied reflections on art. All of these are important, but I elect here to focus specifically on art criticism—not to be confused with snarky or negative commentary—and to state plainly that we could use more of it. Art criticism, as proposed here, is writing that offers a sophisticated assessment of art and the experience of it, placing the work within a frame of reference that is informative and thoughtful. Art criticism is valuable in that it provides regular readers with language and background information to be repurposed as tools to articulate readers/viewers’ own judgments of art. But where does art criticism or public forums about the arts fit into the arts ecosystem in Greater Boston? What role does it play and what are the City’s particular challenges and needs in regards to such platforms?
These questions are not novel or even new to Big Red & Shiny. In 2012, former BR&S editor and founding contributor, Christian Holland published the short essay “Why We Write,” quoting the Boston Globe’s Cate McQuaid’s valuation of art criticism as an important part of the arts ecosystem. The essay also expounds on the then-limitations of the mostly commercial coverage of McQuaid and the museum-only coverage of the Globe’s Sebastian Smee. In 2013, BR&S Managing Editor Brian Christopher Glaser shared curator Renny Pritikin’s “Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene.” On Pritikin’s list of recommendations is “sophisticated, open-minded art writers and journalists to document, discuss, and promote new art ideas,” and publications that support their work. The same year, Jason Turgeon shared a crowd-sourced map of Greater Boston’s arts ecosystem—a work in progress and in need of updates, but also worth a look.
The frustrations of 2012 were exacerbated earlier this summer when the Boston Globe announced changes to its art reporting that would reduce coverage of small exhibitions and gallery shows. The news led to an eruption of unhappy responses that Globe staff members sought to allay by assuring the public that art coverage will continue. Great, but coverage of what? What venues and artworks deserving of attention will be ignored–not just on occasion, but continuously? And how does this impact the environment in which artists in the area are working? Reactions to the Globe’s changes clearly showed the desire for more diverse coverage of shows; art and exhibitions are clearly made to be seen, and the critical documentation of a broader range of shows can build momentum and collaboration in a city of Boston’s size. The limitations of art criticism though are tied to its murky, continuously evolving role, which, is further complicated by the limited funding available for arts publications—including digital ones—for arts writers, and, of course, for artists in general. Furthermore, the Boston area’s universities and large cultural institutions do much to fuel the conversation about the arts in general, but these discussions are too often insular and not broadly advertised. And while these discussions touch on all aspects of art, they do really produce or circulate art criticism, per se. Frankly, it’s not their job, and it is beneficial to have arts writers that move through these circles but are stationed outside of them. Thus universities do not fill the gaps in coverage of the arts being created and shown across the city.
Let’s think back a bit, in order to consider moving forward. The rise and solidification of art criticism in the eighteenth century and its popular dissemination historically was a symbol of the democratization of the field, a shifting of power away from the monarchy and the allowance of new critical voices to emerge and debate the higher purpose of art and issues of talent and taste. As the field has expanded and diversified in pace with art making since the 1960s, there has been much debate about best practices, the goals, and value to various stakeholders (artists, collectors, arts professionals, academics, and viewing publics). There has also been debate about the stakeholders: which critics or publications actually serve whom? The critic traditionally has been a practiced commentator on art; in the best instances, a person who offers digestible and insightful treatises that respond to and collectively shape the circulation and reception of art. But as technology and the market have changed, the platforms available for forums on art have dramatically transformed as well, marking a seeming rise in coverage that has coincided with dwindling support of art writing and a questioning of the quality of the content and the form this commentary should take. James Elkins's What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003) is still a shadow looming over the field.
More interesting for this discussion, however, are the responses to this “crisis” a decade later. Marek Bartelik (former president of AICA International, art critic-historian-poet) rightly points out in "'Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?'" that these days “the informed insider has been largely replaced by a fast-moving, semi-professional, often freelance, critic-curator-art agent (sometimes also an artist), who pursues a career that might or might not last longer than a few years…” How does this impact art writing? Anecdotally, it increases the voices, while decreasing the time available to develop a voice. Simultaneously, while wearing many hats (albeit of the same color or brand) may enhance one’s toolkit, it can also create poor (in the financial sense), sleep-deprived, and schizophrenic arts professionals who are looking at a lot and seeing very little. It increases content, but the scope is often limited. The system does not support sustainability and often encourages hyperactive attention to the pageantry of the rotating roll call of who’s who.
Reactions to the spectacle that we all have witnessed and that Bartelik overtly states, also has led to a multitude of publications with unique agendas, foci, and publics—some smaller and more focused than others. The global “crisis” of the fragmentary field of criticism (fragmentary by nature as criticism’s audience is obviously more engaged with the writing that connects directly to the people and institutions with which the audience engages) continues to be de-centered as regional-focused platforms emerge. In continuing to problematize the “crisis” of criticism and to advocate its continued significance, let’s consider the challenges the market has presented to artists as well. As Bartelik's pithy remark makes plain in the aforementioned text, “While the global population of artists increases, their conditions often worsen. Artists, like the rest of the population, might be divided between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.” To a degree, Boston Creates is trying to address this problem in a meaningful way. But its tactics have yet to include criticism as a necessary part of an arts ecosystem (at least to my knowledge). If no one experiences, documents, or critically responds to the work being produced, what’s the point?
In researching broadly, and continuing to think specifically about what art criticism means to Bostonians, I found several treasures relevant to prevailing discussions around art and its criticism in our city. I’m choosing to share reflections on “The Role of the Art Critic,” as it provides perspective on how this contested role continues to change with art and the rest of life.
“The Role of the Art Critic,” published in Canadian Art in 2014 by Toronto-based critic Alison Cooley, includes a selection of 10 questions from a survey that the journal originally published in 1966. The questions touch on the basics: Is art criticism necessary? Who is its audience? How can one qualify good criticism–what is its content and tone? What is its ultimate purpose? Cooley printed not only a selection of these questions in the 2014 publication, but also contemporary responses from arts administrators, curators, editors, critics and artists. The feedback on the craft and consumption of criticism range from the artist who admits only reading reviews of his own work to a critic and curator who states that criticism should share “a singular experience,” while “grounding (context, history, etc.) and transporting.” Another critic-curator admits, “I still don’t know who I am writing for…” And then there are reflections on the distinction between publicity and criticism itself. All of these questions seem a good check for anyone engaged in the art field, and worthy of discussion for the few platforms in the area that offer arts criticism regularly. It seems inevitable (and advantageous) that the answers would vary.
As James McAnally and Sarrita Hunn, co-founders of Temporary Art Review, assert they decided to respond to work that is likely not appealing to the “mainstream audience, but that cultivates a public conversation around work [they]find valuable: There is value even when “Criticism…performs more like a condensed conversation in a small room, which still has power, but not an expansive audience.” This perspective could be applied to many scenarios and settings in the region, and the sharing of texts across these small rooms could form a house that could ultimately be more inclusionary than the limited number of publications now allows. In other words, I am not advocating elitism or exclusivity, but arguing that we need a system that supports enough strong-voiced, thoughtful critics to cover an expansive selection of the arts being produced and shown in the city. I too champion the accessibility of visual arts but also believe strongly that risks are worth talking about even when they “flop,” even when executed in a scrappy venue, even when there may only be a small audience who cares. This is where judgment should kick in, and when we should hope for critics with distinct interests and voices. Sometimes beneath the polish or in an unexpected venue, we find something that excites us and encourages us to look more deeply…to ponder…and then, perhaps even to speak, to write, to read, and to look again.
So what do Bostonians have to gain by providing and cultivating critical dialogue on art making in our City, and perhaps even the surrounding region? The Creative Plan asserts that “Together, we can build/shape/define Boston’s creative future.” But how can we do this without critical words that respond to the art produced? What role does art criticism play in supporting the arts in the City? It is and will be part of the infrastructure, but how should it be supported? How might it address participation barriers and support the off-centered work being done in the City?
Earlier this summer, Lisa Crossman sat on the grounds of the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts with Boston-based independent curator Pedro Alonzo. Alonzo is the Guest Curator for the Trustees Art and The Landscape initiative, which begins its program with Sam Durant’s The Meeting House at the Old Manse and Jeppe Hein’s A New End at the World’s End.
Alonzo’s served as an adjunct curator for other notable institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Alonzo’s an expert on street art and has curated such public arts projects as Open Source in Philadelphia. He’s now an adjunct curator at the Dallas Contemporary.
In this conversation, Alonzo reflects on his past work and gives us a glimpse of the first two Art and The Landscape projects for the Trustees.
Lisa Crossman: Before we discuss your work with the Trustees, I thought it would be good to start off by talking about your curatorial work in general and your decision to remain an independent curator.
Pedro Alonzo: Sure. Early on I was very uncomfortable with the idea of being a curator and fought against it.
LC: Any particular reason?
PA: I was in college in Monterrey, Mexico, and I didn’t feel qualified to be a curator or even to think about being a curator. A museum of contemporary art [MARCO] had just opened and there were a lot of curators coming through like Dan Cameron and Walter Hopps. It was actually Walter Hopps, Victor Zamudio-Taylor (Ultra Baroque), and Peter Doroshenko who encouraged me to be in the arts. Victor very actively encouraged me, and he told me to do the summer internship at the MoMA. Walter wrote my letter of recommendation.
LC: That’s amazing.
PA: Yea – I wish I could find that letter.
LC: Ha! That’s one you should definitely keep.
PA: Right?! But I still didn’t feel qualified. As a student, I had worked for Arte Actual Mexicano, an art gallery in Monterrey. I was a token English speaker who would take American and European dealers and curators around. After MoMA, Peter Doroshenko asked me to curate a show for the university museum that he was running in Milwaukee called the Institute of Visual Arts (inova) [at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee]. And I was like, “no, I can’t curate something.” He said, “no, really you can curate something.” So I finally said, “well, okay, but don’t call me the curator.”
But then I did several shows. And I remember at an opening of Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition at The Renaissance Society, Madeline Grynsztejn–this must have been 1998–introduced me to two museum patrons as the Curator, Pedro Alonzo. I thought, oh my god, if she thinks I’m a curator, then I’m definitely a curator. That was when I embraced the title.
But I still felt self-conscious and awkward about it. You know I didn’t study art history. But regardless, I had started curating. And I became one of the adjunct curators at inova. Peter [Doroshenko, the Director] had a great program with Marilu Knode [Chief Curator] and a group of adjunct curators.
LC: Were you bringing in artists from Latin America?
PA: Exactly. And it created a really rich discussion. And the cool thing about Milwaukee is that no one has an agenda. It’s not like when you’re in New York, or even here in Boston. There was very little going on there. It made it close and tight.
LC: Is there a show that you did with inova that stands out as being particularly memorable?
PA: When I did the show with Marcos Ramírez “Erre”–his show opened with Pierre Huyghe–I met the woman who would become my wife.
LC: Well, that is certainly memorable.
PA: Yea – it is. She came out for Pierre and ended up with Pedro.
LC: When did your interest in street art begin?
PA: It began in San Diego. I had a book distribution company from 1996-2007. I had started to distribute Yoshitomo Nara’s books published by the Tokyo-based publisher Little More. And then Takashi Murakami got wind of it and wanted me to distribute his books. I came at street art through Little More who published some of the first monographs on street artists. When I received the books, I looked at them. Even though I didn’t know who these artists were, their books sold really well. The museums sold through them like crazy. I found that to be really strange. But it was clear to me that I had a prejudice. I looked at street art and thought, this isn’t really art, but it sells well. And then I challenged myself and asked, why isn’t this art? I mean if anything can be art…It made me really think, why not this?
So I went out and started to meet the artists. The first ones I met were the FAILE guys. And then I met Ryan McGinness and Shepard Fairey…
LC: So let’s fast forward to the Shepard Fairey show at the ICA. That was the first street art project you worked on here in Boston, right?
PA: Yes, but I had already done a big street art exhibition in England [September 27, 2006-January 7, 2007]. It was the first international show. We had artists from all over the world. It was called Spank the Monkey. [laughter] I didn’t put the title on it.
LC: Well, I won’t forget that title.
PA: No one forgets that title [laughing]. Banksy was in it. Peter Doroshenko, the director of the museum [the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art], came up with the title. It was the first museum show for a lot of these artists. And they all [twenty artists total] hated the title.
LC: What were some of the challenges that you encountered in trying to translate their work from the street to the museum and also in making them feel comfortable?
PA: There’s a lot of nuance. First of all, it wasn’t strictly a street art show. The whole idea was that I didn’t want to create a ghetto. We wanted a dialogue with contemporary art. What we decided to do was kind of like Ultra Baroque, coming up with a theme that would encompass these artists, but looking at it from a different perspective. The idea was to look at artists with a multidisciplinary practice who were making work in the studio, in the street, but also t-shirts, prints, and products that lent the show to a bigger conversation. Takashi Murakami’s Louis Vuitton bags were in the show, for instance.
LC: So you were thinking about artists who were circulating their work in a broader network than the conventional art circuit?
PA: Yes. And it made sense as part of the show to have a robust outdoor component and to really integrate it into the fabric of the city.
The head of the subway system for the City of Newcastle, charged with graffiti control, came to see me on the first day. I was like, oh my god, I have to deal with this on my first day. And the guy was like “hey, great to meet you, I’m so excited about your show. It’s going to be awesome.”
And, I was like, “hold on, hold on, why are you excited and happy about this? This makes no sense.” The guy basically said that he had been cleaning up crap for twenty years, and that he had learned to appreciate street art and graffiti, and that we were bringing the heroes–the best of the best: Os Gemeos, Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, FAILE. “Not only do I like what you’re doing, [he said], but it will help my budget.”
He said that because every wall that they [the artists] painted would be a sanctioned work and would not require cleaning. So he gave us access to any walls we wanted in the subway stations. It was nuts. There was crazy dialogue. These guys were so excited. They were up all night painting and then they’d go to the Museum and work, and then they’d be up all night painting. It was great!
But what was interesting was that pretty much everyone ignored the premise and the presence of everyone in the show except for the street artists. Even though it was probably the largest work David Shrigley has ever made–a huge banner on the side of the Museum–most people only paid attention to the street artists.
The variety was important, but what happened was that the street art world attacked it, asking how dare I put street art in a museum. And then the art establishment attacked it because how dare I put street art in a museum. There was this resentment that I had coopted the artists. And there were a lot of questions about whether this art that was made outside should be brought inside. And at the time, the term street art didn’t even exist. No one knew what to call it. I referred to it as urban art, and it was about its proximity to youth culture. One of the things that I thought was really interesting about it was the importance within the art world of an artist like Dan Graham who references youth culture but is not part of it. But if you look at Shepard Fairey, he helped define youth culture in the 1990s. I mean McGinnesss at the time, his aesthetic is what every surf brand wanted on its t-shirts and clothing. So boom–all these surf and skate brands had McGinness-inspired designs even though they wouldn’t credit him.
LC: How did you respond to the questioning of your showing street art in the museum? Or did it just fuel you to do more?
PA: It made me want to do more. I learned a lot. It made me want to be tighter with what I was saying. It made me want to do it better. There were some things that worked really well like making work outside. People loved seeing it. That’s the one thing that no one criticized…wait, some people said, well, it’s legal so it doesn’t count–as if saying that if the artist isn’t in danger of being arrested it isn’t valid. There were a lot of ridiculous preconceptions, and it was about battling those on both sides. But then there was the populace. It broke [attendance] records. People went to see it. People loved it. People were excited about it.
But what did I learn? I learned not to worry about what the media thought and to just do it and to be true to the artists and their intentions.
LC: Then with Shepard’s show at the ICA in 2009, what did you do differently that you saw as a success?
PA: With Shepard, I knew that we absolutely had to have outdoor work–a lot of it. We stayed away from making outdoor work indoor. Shepard has a robust studio practice that most people don’t know about it. Works on canvas and prints mostly were inside and his other work outside.
The goal with Shepard was to show the breadth of his work. Most people thought, oh, that’s the dude who did the sticker with André the Giant or oh, that’s the dude who did Obama. And I wanted to fill in the material between those bookends. That breadth was important for me to exhibit and to show it in the way that you would show any of his peers and to not distinguish him as a street artist.
His show marked a really interesting transformation because, by the time we got around to that show, there was no question that street art was an art form and that it could be in a museum.
LC: What has influenced your decision to remain an adjunct curator? How have you been able to get so many gigs?
PA: I think the dynamics of being an adjunct curator are pretty much the same. I kind of think of it as the best of both worlds.
I think the reason why I’m able to do independent and adjunct work is because I’m working outside of what a lot of my colleagues are doing. So it provides a lot of opportunity. And I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I really look at what others are doing and wonder why would I want to do what everyone else is doing in a different way with an art historical nuance. I’m interested in breaking out of molds.
LC: Which brings me to the next question. You’re working with the Trustees, which breaks from your focus on urban environments. You’re now focused on a very different type of space that is relatively undeveloped and more remote. The Trustees maintain unique sites and want to engage with not only conservation and the natural environment of these sites, but also their history and the social context of each place.
How has your work with street art shaped your approach to these sites? And would you tell me about your process for thinking about what work or artist should be selected for each site?
PA: Basically I’m responding to the sites. The Trustees gave me a series of sites, I went to visit them and brought my family–my kids, my wife, my parents, visiting friends and relatives–and we walked around and talked about each one and figured it out. I wanted to see where my kids would go, and to find out what my wife likes or doesn’t like about the sites, and that gives me a broader sense of what the site is about. I thought about what distinguishes each site and about the unique attributes of each site.
LC: How many sites did you look at? I know that there are two projects in the works now.
PA: I looked at six sites. And then I wrote down what I thought was unique and interesting about each site. Some are primarily summer sites and others are year round. Others are about natural beauty, still, others are about history, and some are about both. I mean it’s hard to think sitting here, at the Old Manse, that this site is all about history, but it is. It’s beautiful, but it’s really about history. So those attributes are what led me to pick the artists.
LC: There’s a lot of engagement with community planned for the Old Manse. How does the initiative’s interest in community influence your selection of artists? How do you weigh your consideration of international artists against local artists?
PA: This is a national historic landmark. Few artists have had access to sites of this historical relevance, particularly in this country. In Europe it’s different, but here it’s rare. I had to work with someone I could trust and I knew would be thoughtful and could work within an affluent community, answer the complicated questions that would arise. I needed someone who would face the issues, confront them, and deal with them. That’s why I thought of Sam [Durant]. He’s the one who came up with the idea of race. His project is really about responding to the site.The project here at Old Manse is outward looking and addresses big issues that are confronting our society at a historic location that’s very beautiful.
World’s End also has a lot of historical relevance. It was one of the original sites considered for the United Nations, and the grounds were designed by Frederick Olmsted. There’s a lot of history there for sure, but the history, in my opinion, is totally overshadowed by the beauty of the site. It’s a magnificent site on the South Shore. How do you compete with that? How do you have an impact within that environment? So you need someone who can make an impact under those conditions in that environment.
So with Jeppe [Hein], his piece is about presence and peace of mind. It’s a mirrored pavilion. It’s a thoughtful piece. I almost see it like going to yoga or meditating.
LC: So Hein’s piece is intended more for individual reflection whereas the one at Old Manse is about collective awareness?
PA: Yes – Jeppe's work is about individual wellness whereas Sam’s is about society–healing society, or at least opening a discussion. So they are very different, which is what I like about them.
LC: You mentioned an affluent audience, but I wonder if you have hopes to diversify the audience and a plan for how you might do this.
PA: Well the programming will definitely do this, and we’re working to get a variety of people out here as an integral part of it. We are collaborating with several organizations to get the public to the sites. We’re really trying to mix up the audience and to have a more balanced discussion. The thing about having the discussion here is that this is where a lot of the discussions led to the ideas that defined this country and the nation’s sense of self. We can’t have a dinner and have the discussions within the Old Manse, but we can have it next door. We’re going to have it between where the political revolution started and where the intellectual one began.
LC: To conclude, what’s next? It’s a multiyear project, but what does this mean? Are there other sites in the works?
PA: Yes, we will continue the program. Stay tuned.
As a fleeting signpost between the past and the present, The Uncanny Home of Our Imagination experiments with the home as concept and lived material space in which taste, anxiety and desire are (re)discovered, internalized and projected. The “uncanny” is employed to expose the Surrealist underpinnings of many of the selected works, while orienting the concept in the digital age. The “uncanny valley”–a term used to denote discomfort with a range of robots or animated figures that are recognized as almost, but not quite human–is a useful reference in that it captures a class of likeness that is disturbing. Masahiro Mori knowingly observed in 1970 that people’s comfort with the synthetically human increases as its likeness increases up to a certain point, which is followed by a quick shift to a negative response for that which falls within the “uncanny valley.”1 His observations, like Freud’s exposition on the uncanny (1919),2 underscore the slipperiness of the uncanny as a quality or feeling of revulsion aroused in response to something which is familiar, but slightly off. Many of the objects in the show, like the arrangement of them, touch on the uncanny without falling into the valley. It is humor, perhaps, that keeps the viewer safe.
This interview is part of the “Boston Common” series that highlights the people and institutions that shape Boston and New England’s culture sector. It features a discussion of Voorhies’s new role as the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director of the Carpenter Center at Harvard University, programming at the Carpenter Center, and its place in the Greater Boston arts scene. This interview was edited for clarity.
Lisa Crossman: How would you explain the Carpenter Center to someone who’s never heard of it?
James Voorhies: The Carpenter Center is an incredible building designed by Le Corbusier, completed in 1963 to become Harvard’s Visual Arts Center. Here, students from many different disciplines would study to sharpen their sensory awareness of the visual world. The University founders of the program had rather visionary goals. Students experimented with materials, color theory, study of typography, design, ceramics, photography, cinema and much more. Harvard wanted a unique program in the arts that would teach visual literacy. And they wanted an innovative building equal to their ideas. As you know, it’s the only building by Le Corbusier in North America. He thought it would be his entrée into a North American market, but passed away in 1965, shortly after it opened.
Today the Carpenter Center houses the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), an undergraduate program in the visual arts. There are studio courses in painting, sculpture, film, photography, as well as other courses in theoretical studies and contemporary art. It’s a liberal arts education that prioritizes making alongside thinking. The academic activities occupy a major part of the building. But it is also the site of public exhibitions and programs that I oversee. It has a beautiful cinema where students view films as part of their studies. The cinema and offices are on Level 0, which is also home to the Harvard Film Archive. The Carpenter Center is many things at once, and a little challenging to quickly summarize.
LC: The building presents specific opportunities, but also perhaps obstacles. Would you describe the challenges and opportunities of working in this building first, and then explain how these connect to various facets of the programs it houses?
JV: The building is kind of a beautiful problem. It’s not an easy architecture to understand or navigate. Even from the first encounter: where to enter? Up the ramp or down the steps? Questions about the building occupy every single discussion we have about programs, installations and exhibitions. It’s this hovering, omnipresent thing that we contend with each day. But it’s a fascinating experience to work here and deal with the vast open spaces, the walls of windows, and questions that come up. I’ve been here almost two years, and I’m still learning what the building can do and the potential it has for programs and exhibitions. I’m learning how to situate audiences in spaces so they’re more comfortable, trying to introduce an informality in programs that encourage them to visit repeatedly like we did this summer with the Summer Summits on the terrace. I’ve worked on how to move visitors into and through the building more easily, between different exhibition spaces with new design identity and wayfinding. I’ve also intentionally encouraged people from other disciplines and fields to visit the Carpenter Center. The performance last fall with Keith Fullterton Whitman as part of Damon Krukowski’s exhibition on an Ezra Pound recording in the Woodberry Poetry Room is one instance.
But the architecture certainly presents challenges to artists who need, rightly so, to stake a particular claim to the space so their work isn’t lost within the architecture. Shahryar Nashat’s current exhibition Skins and Stand-ins is a perfect example. In the many phone calls after Shahryar’s site visit leading up to his exhibition this fall, we considered numerous options for how best to present his video and sculptures. It was important that the architecture wasn’t just a space where his work would reside, but a space that spoke to a unified atmosphere, an environment that he as an artist could take ownership. We went through different scenarios, including covering the floor with a kind of linoleum or dance floor material. That was too expensive. Then he came up with an option—influenced by creativity and economics—to place translucent magenta filters on the large floor-to-ceiling windows. It feels so right in here because when visitors enter Level 1, they know something is different, they are disoriented in the best of ways and their eyes and bodies respond to this perplexing environment. So the architecture becomes momentarily Shahryar’s in a way. That’s important. Physically and sensuously, one sees and feels the unified character of his exhibition.
LC: How does the building itself relate to your invitation to artists?
JV: While I appreciate many kinds of art, I often respond to artists who work across mediums and are inspired by critical questions, often making atmospheric conditions that might combine video, sculpture, and performance all in one work. Often these artists work spatially and the building, especially Level 1, encourages collaborations with these artists. Last year we launched the new program with a solo exhibition by Berlin-based artist Simon Fujiwara, who was initially trained as an architect. Simon couldn’t make a research trip before his exhibition. But even from a distance—through (many!) electronic exchanges of photographs and floor plans—it was clear he had a distinctive sense of the space. When he finally arrived for installation, he of course reconfigured many things, but he knew what he wanted and how to work with the objects, videos and installation in relation to how spectators would encounter the works and engage with them spatially—immersively. That’s so important because the arrangement of objects in a space is part of communicating the concept of artworks, thinking about sightlines and how spectators approach the work. I love that part of putting together exhibitions, the seductive and subtle way arrangement in relation to architecture impacts an experience without spectators even knowing it.
While the architecture influences exhibition making, it’s definitely not the only factor. We currently have a gorgeous exhibition of work by Lorraine O’Grady installed on Level 3 in the Sert Gallery. Eighty-one years old and a native of Boston, this is Lorraine’s first solo exhibition in the area. Our spaces are too modest in scale to mount major solo exhibitions, so I put together a precise selection of work that introduces her practice while focusing on her use of the diptych as a strategic means for critiquing the social forces affecting racial inequality and gender identity. I thought this would be a way to both present work and demonstrate to students how a practice is informed not by a singular medium but by important questions and critical thinking. So the difference between the two exhibition spaces provides nice opportunities for working differently with artists.
LC: You taught art history and also founded Bureau for Open Culture , a nomadic curatorial and publishing platform. How has your past professional experience informed your work here so far?
JV: Yes. As a curatorial practice, Bureau for Open Culture functioned in appearance as an institution. We made exhibitions; we made publications; we engaged audiences with objects and time-based activities—events. But, in actuality, something I increasing realized as years progressed was that Bureau for Open Culture was a kind of performance of institution, promising all those things an institution provides but not completely delivering what one expects, something else. By doing so, we played with expanding the potential of how an institution engages with audiences and builds communities, inhabiting institution to critically reflect on institution and its potential in connecting with people and working with artists.
A good example is a project called I Am Searching for Field Character. We made this project at MASS MoCA. Bureau for Open Culture, which included my boyfriend Nate Padavick, who designed everything, and our collaborator Cassandra Troyan, who is a writer and artist, and many, many others who stepped in to work with us. Nate, Cassandra, and I were in residence for almost four months at MASS MoCA, working out of a small building on the museum’s campus. It was called Building 9 and originally stored the small transistors made by Sprague Electric (the industry that occupied MASS MoCA before it was a museum). We were invited by curator Susan Cross to be part of the exhibition she made called The Workers [May 29, 2011–Apr 14, 2012], which included works by contemporary artists with different perspectives on labor, generally speaking.
During the course of the exhibition, Bureau for Open Culture did many things. We collaborated with artists to run a goods market; hosted residencies with visiting artists and a landscape architect; made short-run exhibitions and organized performances. We used the space as a studio and workshop. We operated a beer garden as a form of economy (although we made no money) and to think about the service industry within the cultural economy. The beer garden was a beer garden, open Thursday to Saturday for the summer months. The beer garden was also a bit of a thorn to MASS MoCA because it challenged what was possible at the museum in terms of licenses, food permits (we sold soft pretzels)—questions about how visitors without paying entry could reach us behind the museum (everything Bureau for Open Culture did was free, while entrance to the museum cost). The beer garden was a means to reflect on the role of consumerism in relation to the value consumer points, or more obvious consumer experiences have for bringing people together; it was kind of a gateway to our programming. It was a net. I’m interested in how we consume experiences that move between or overlap with consumption of commercial goods and, one might say, culture. It’s all meshed up today into one total consumer experience at museums. So important questions for me are how to inhabit these known and appealing quantities—a beer garden, coffee bar, a bookshop—and turn them into advantages for the institution to connect with audiences in meaningful ways.
I’ve been interested for a while in questions around modes of consumption at art institutions, especially in relation to building audiences and how consumer activity can add to an institution’s program. I’m super excited about a new program at CCVA that we will launch at the end of February. It’s called Consumer Research Center/. It’s an initiative that intends to perform and reflect upon consumerist outlets as points of sociability in 21st-century arts organizations and think about the hybridization of cultural, social and economic activities characterizing our lives and work today. The first iteration is Consumer Research Center/bookshop, a collaboration with Motto Books in Berlin.
LC: So how does it work?
JV: We will open a bookshop on Level 3 in the Sert Gallery area, overlooking the terrace. It will have regular hours just like the gallery. The bookshop will be a bookshop with amazing titles by artists, writers and institutions from around the world, many unavailable anywhere in Boston and possibly even the East Coast. The bookshop, like a beer garden, will be a net. It will without a doubt stop people passing by the doors on Level 3 who might otherwise keep walking. It’s a gateway for introducing our program. CRC/bookshop will also be a place for events, performances and talks with visiting artists and writers, filmmakers, scholars and our colleagues in departments around Harvard and at arts and academic institutions in the area. Consumer Research Center/ will become an integral part of the identity of the Carpenter Center.
LC: Your role as both a curator and the Director of the Carpenter Center demands a layered way of having to speak about the institution, to be critical of it and promote it, and to be conscious of how you’re weaving this narrative for multiple audiences. How do you do this?
JV: I enjoy working with artists in many different capacities, whether presenting existing work, creating a publication, solving problems, or commissioning a new installation or project. At the Carpenter Center we want all our audiences—including students, nearby residents, those visiting occasionally for a program, and even those viewing online from a distance—to leave with more than they entered. I hope the programs and exhibitions we present balance both rigor and approachability, permeability. They can be entertaining, while asking more questions than they answer. We place a lot of value on our relationships with artists and tend to work repeatedly with some, such as Martin Beck and Fernanda Fragateiro who have made many visits to Harvard. This makes sense to me because there remains so much to know and discover even after audiences encounter a singular work or hear a public talk. Fernanda is a great example. We showed her work in the Modernist Ideologies exhibition last spring, and she later returned to do a program connected with a course in the Materials Lab at the Harvard Art Museums. The Museums ended up acquiring a work related to that visit. And she will return again this spring to research for a future project with me at the Carpenter Center.
LC: I think that’s a nice aspect of your programming. It’s intriguing to see a continued dialogue with an artist.
JV: Yes. Fernanda is one example. Martin Beck is another. The program you mention is called Institution (Building). It’s something I conceived shortly after I started working at CCVA. Institution (Building) is a biennial invitation to an artist to be here on an intermittent basis over the course of two years to reflect on the history, pedagogical initiatives, the modernist architecture—whatever they’re attracted to. Martin is the first artist, and it’s been the most incredible experience because he has delved into the archive, looking at different modes of exhibition displays and academic goals that were originally set for the Visual Arts Center. I have learned so much from Martin by his pointing my attention in certain directions and through long conversations about the character of this deeply complex building and program. Martin’s time with us will conclude around July 2016. We’re currently thinking about the next artist to invite to the Institution (Building) program.
LC: Have you been part of the discussions about the role of art in Greater Boston, the role of artists, and how the city can support the arts that Julie Burros has initiated?
JV: No. I would really like to be involved. I think it’s tricky for many cities. Even the fact that the arts have to “function” is problematic in my mind. Everything actually functions, of course, but I am weary of the instrumentalization of the arts because it is the appearance of uncertainty and confusion that allows art to be art. So once it begins to function more concretely with a defined outcome, well, it begins to look more like design, or social work, or something else. Art is having a difficult time as art anyway.
LC: I actually worry about this as well. I see the value of embedding artists in city government, for instances. I think it’s an interesting idea and could be an asset, but then I worry that the side effect of this is that most people still will not value artists for actually producing work for the purpose of looking and thinking. There’s something very valuable in the moment of pause and aesthetic contemplation that happens when you look at art.
JV: Do you think education programs are changing because of institutions like city governments and others that are placing greater onus on art to be something else?
LC: That’s a good question. I think art education programs are also in a state of crisis (especially as costs of programs soar). I’ve been thinking about the panel discussion on art education that I read in Artforum and about Luis Camnitzer’s comments on art education when he spoke here in October. He was commenting that art education should not be just about craft; art making is thinking and that is important to everyone in a liberal arts education sense. We all benefit from thinking, reading and discussing broadly, being problem solvers, practicing creativity, etc. This is tied to the embedding of artists in that it recognizes and supports artists as key individuals who think expansively, critically and creatively. These skills are crucial to art making and education, and are important skills for everyone.
JV: Absolutely. The program here was actually built with the expectation of the acts of making and thinking as integral parts of being an artist. That’s part of my attraction to the artists we work with. Not all of them, but most of them, would define their practice not through a single medium, but a strong conceptual inquiry.
LC: This brings me back to the archive and its significance at the Carpenter Center. The archive has an added presence here. What is your interest in the archive generally and thoughts on its role here?
JV: The photos of activities and exhibitions in the early days reveal an astounding creativity to display and a wonderful thinking through of ways to use the architecture. And photography was used for both exhibition and as a learning tool to discuss things like light, composition and communication. Martin has pointed our attention to this history many times, and we actually open an exhibition by him in late January as a welcome back to students and faculty. His exhibition is called A Social Question and is based on a 1973 exhibit titled The Social Question: A Photographic Record 1895–1910 that included a selection of photographs from the Social Ethics Collection collected by Francis Greenwood Peabody, founder of the Social Ethics Department at Harvard. The photographs were a learning tool to introduce students and visitors to all sorts of social questions around labor reform and immigration—topics that remain incredibly urgent today.
LC: So what does this rich history mean to the contemporary moment?
JV: I think as this building and program continued to define itself in the 1960s, faculty, students, and staff undertook informal social activities like coffee hour on Level 1. There are stories about coffee and smoking in the lobby. That sounds nice. It’s an institution behaving not how an institution is supposed to behave. We could use more of that activity. Unfortunately, I think as time progressed from the early days, when they really knew how to use this building, into the 1990s, a formality set in where exhibitions took on much more complex, self-conscious, staid layouts like a white cube.
One learns from history how to live in the present moment, if one is paying any attention. I look at photographs and films of students and faculty in this building in the 1960s and 1970s and the beautiful informality, messy and creative approaches they applied, nestling into the space, socially and exhibition-wise, and I see how the archive can teach us a lot about how to be more informal and free. It can teach us to be open in our circulation and inhabitation of this architecture, whether Le Corbusier wanted it that way or not.