An interview with the curator:
the emotional issue of
exhibition relevance in the art museum

Date: Fri, 12 Jul 1996 13:56:37 -0400 (EDT)
From: "G. Klages" <>
X-Sender: gklages@ccshst01
Subject: Re: Interview with Gregory Klages, An interview with Gregory Klages, freelance curator, Staff Writer for Id Magazine (Ontario) and Promotion Coordinator for the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Guelph, Ontario. Mr. Klages views are not necessarily those of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.
In-Reply-To: <>

GK: On Fri, 5 Jul 1996 wrote:

> Here is a leading question: to whom are the activities of the arts
> administrator and curator most important? I do have a specific reason for
> asking this question, having myself been a curator, so I might as well be
> up front about it. I believe that the curator is selecting artists to show
> and presenting didactic material not for the benefit of the general public
> but for the benefit of that closed circle which is his peers.
> This is a common criticism of art museum management. Relevance to the
> public is particularly pressing now with decreasing public funds.

I don't believe, frankly, that curators or arts administrators
are "preaching to the converted", if I may liberally re-work your

You assert that these arts-types are consciously addressing
their peers only, and that the audience has been fallen by the wayside. I
am more inclined to think that society's relation to visual art has
declined as visual art itself became more introspective. The Moderns
(let's say since 1850's) had the challenge of adjusting to the demands
placed upon visual art by the introduction of photographic technology.
Visual artists had to re-define what the characteristics of their
practice were and what was left as a goal specifically for their
enterprise (I am thinking particularly of painting here). For the general
public these considerations seemed to veer progressively farther and
farther from anything to do with the 'public' life and deeper and deeper
into specialized concerns.

The Pop artists re-introduced imagery that was familiar to the
general public, even if the philosophy was still firmly grounded in the
foundations of Modernism. It took another decade for the arts to come
back to the public in the form of social conscience, ie: feminist art of
the '70's, underground art in Eastern Europe.

With that clarified, I re-address your question. The public is
still mostly caught in the ideas of the nineteenth century; the narrow
notion of art for art's sake or for decorative purposes. Put most simply,
most people understand art as pure expression (read: as having only
personal value and with a meaning which is inaccessible) or as something
with pictorial skill (read: nice to look at or having taken obvious
effort and time to depict something realistically). Curators and arts
administrators are on the whole educated enough about art history to
realize that artists' practice is far, far beyond these concerns anymore.
They, in reality, are trapped...especially when presenting contemporary work.

Historical work is relatively easy. Didactic panels, lectures,
and good tour guides can make those exhibitions quite fruitful. The
viewer has to be willing to objectively perceive works though, to try to
step outside of their own experience and perceive from the point of view
of the creator. That's where I think good educational materials come into

Contemporary work is more difficult. Educating viewers (and let's
be honest, it is education) not only involves the information about what
an artist is trying to do, but first needs the audience to understand how
ANY artist got to this point. It is a tough job that demands for
arts-personnel to really forget much of what they've learned and to step
back from the work as well.

In closing, no, I still don't believe that arts-personnel have
deemed the general viewer outside their interest. Every show has
weaknesses, and every curator a special interest, but exhibitions and
more importantly galleries' success depend on publics. Regardless of the
guarantee of funding, each gallery serves a public and must respond to
their needs...for every high-brow, theory-investigating gallery/curator,
there are equal or more galleries/curators hanging shows that don't even
do justice to the lowest common denominator.

We don't ask nuclear physicists to make their work more
accessible to us. We don't ask for Alzheimers researchers to slow down so we
can collectively catch up to the latest discoveries in genetic research.
I find it lamentable that the common understanding of art is that it's
value is as an escape or pressure valve. Sure, it can be used that way,
but it is also essential as a ground in which philosophic challenges can
be levelled, social criticism can be aired and where disenfranchised
voices have presence. Audiences all too readily forget that contemporary
artists live in the same cities, eat the same foods and read the same
newspapers as the audience does. Artists all too readily get dismissed as
freaks and self-obsessed navel-gazers when what they really are are
thinkers who haven't been as lulled by the bureaucratic
concerns of the technostructure.

HF: ...Yes, it is a generalisation to say that exhibition relevance is a problem for art museums, and one does find exceptions: the MMFA produced very popular shows on Leonardo, Picasso, the Impressionists; the AGO exhibited the Barnes collection. But in large part, art museums do not mount exhibitions because they are popular. It is not in their mandate to be popular and indeed, they are protected from having to be popular by subsidy. In other words, they have no real incentive to understand the larger marketplace or to provide it with what it demands.... that is, until very recently with the squeeze on funding. Art museums are expanding gift shops, holding more art classes and workshops, ETC....

But who are the art museum's biggest customers -- the customers that museum staff keep in mind when producing exhibitions? The museum's biggest customer, from whom it derives the greatest revenue, is government . The second largest source of revenue comes from sponsors and donors. The latest Art Gallery of Ontario Newsletter is complete with photos of Sheila Copps (Federal Minister of Heritge) and an AT&T President with the gallery director, and another of a Sprint Canada VP shaking hands again with the director.

And if the curator or other staff members do not wish to cater to these customers, likely they are forced out: witness last year's purge at the AGO. At least two long-time curators left. Reports indicate that the curators had ivory tower syndrome and disliked the influence of commerce at the gallery.

At present, I find little democracy in the art museums (except that we all pay for a large part of them through taxes). The career of the art museum director or curator is about empire building, not democracy.

In response to your comments on: 1) the public "still mostly caught in the ideas of the 19th century"; and 2) curators "in reality, are trapped... expecially when presenting contemporary work."

It is wrong to blame the public for their tastes or for not attending museums because the artist "had the challenge of adjusting to the demands placed upon visual art by the introduction of photographic technology" --ie. abstraction... The public (read marketplace) is what it is. The museum canNOT change the marketplace towards an enjoyment of difficult art -- perhaps tolerate or be numb to it, but you cannot change the marketplace. Witness the backlash to the NGC purchase of Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman. In a free and open market, the public, the marketplace, shapes you (but the museum is not yet in the open market). If you fight it, you are out of business in a hurry. The arrogance and condescension inherent in much of art museum educatin programs is something most of us cannot afford. Consider what exactly and why you are attempting to teach the "public".

Curators are not trapped between the public and the artist. For every Jana Sterbak creating meat dresses, for example, there are ten or more artists creating accessible landscapes, or consumable, functional objects that are extremely popular. The curator chooses to exhibit the meat dress because he believes the rest is mental pablum. If he were to match his exhibition schedule to the profile of his marketplace, it would consist of 90% accessible art, and 10% difficult art. In the very near future, however, this may be a typical exhibition schedule, and the title of the curator may change to Production Manager -- given the increasing need for revenues from all segments of the art market.

On Tue, 16 Jul 1996 wrote:

> It is wrong to blame the public for their tastes or for not attending
> museums because the artist "had the challenge of adjusting to the demands
> placed upon visual art by the introduction of photographic technology" --
> ie. abstraction. The public (read marketplace) is what it is. The museum
> canNOT change the marketplace towards an enjoyment of difficult art --
> perhaps tolerate or be numb to it, but you cannot change the marketplace.

When mentioning the challenge of photography for visual arts I was
actually thinking of something far ahead of abstraction: Impressionism.
If you doubt the relationship between the incursion of the camera and the
development of the Impressionist style read C. Baudelaire's review of the
Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography. Why I found this error
on your part amusing is that of the shows you cite as examples of good
programming: Picasso, the Impressionists and the works in the Barnes
collection, all come from this 'challenging' era of visual art.

I argue that the market cannot be depended on to teach people visual
literacy simply because the market gains nothing from educated viewers.
Of course audiences loved to see the Barnes collection, but for all they
understood about the objects they were looking at those Renoirs and
Modigliani's might as well have been microchips. Understanding the
development of symbolic visual language is just as marketworthy as
learning any other history. This is why we don't clamour to privatize schools.

Although your assessment of the current funding shortages for
cultural enterprises appears quite solid at first glance, your conflation
of liberal political terminology and conservative economics leaves a lot
of sense to be desired.

Using criteria of value that could have been lifted straight from Adam
Smith, you assess that our nation's cultural institutions should vie for
market share in the same way as any other means of production. Not only
do you ignore the influence of Keynesian economic theory on Canada's
cultural policies over the last 40 years, but you assume that your model
is the best one for everyone concerned.

To justify your motion to democratize cultural programming by making
exhibitions and supplementary programs more accessible you qualify
market interest as the best arbiter of quality of programming.
Particularly interesting was your omission of how current funding
shortfalls came about so suddenly when the programming policies of most
galleries have remained the same for about 10 - 15 years. As well, your
assertion of lack of audience interest depends on the most
noteworthy of controversies and ignores the comprehensive
studies which completely contradict any notion of the arts losing
viability or public interest.

As an alternative to your economically oriented dismissal of most
contemporary cultural programming I ask you to consider what the federal
government's interest in funding culture might be, and how their
policies might affect the development of culture in Canada.

I will cover this issue later, but first let me clarify some of the
things I have already mentioned here:
1) In late 1993 the Canada Council of the Arts published a very
useful primer relating fundamental facts concerning Canada's Cultural
Sector. Entitled "Culture: A Political Priority", the document relates
the dynamic growth of culture within the country's economy.
As an antidote to your perception of a needy and out of touch
arts community I offer the following figures from this primer. Between
1984 and 1993 federal expenditures on the arts decreased 2.5% while the
numbers of people employed in the cultural sector doubled. Between 1982
and 1990, annual family expenditures on cultural items increased 63%
(average expenditures on works of art increased 71%). Finally, the
federal expenditure of $2.9 billion a year towards the cultural sector
brings in $17 billion to the Canadian economy, but only $650 million goes
directly to the federal gov't (in the form of taxes, etc.).
These figures speak of a vibrant, vital and profitable cultural
sector which helps to fuel our economy. Compared to other 'vital'
industries which the feds heavily subsidize (agriculture, fisheries and
forestry), culture is the only sector which has experienced any growth
since the mid-80's.

2) You cite the controversies over the NGC's purchase of Voice of Fire
and their exhibition of Sterbak's Vanitas: Meat Dress for An Albino
Anorexic as signification of the disparity between public interest and
art gallery programming. This is simply untrue.
There certainly was controversy around the NGC's policies in the
late 80's/early 90's. All of these depended on biased media coverage and
poor gallery PR. None of them had to do with 'elitist' bias or indulgent
exhibition policy.

Public outcry regarding Voice of Fire centred on the fact of the
price and that the artist was American. Although there certainly was
confusion and hostility towards the collection of abstract art, no other
acquisitions of similar objects had raised outcry, so that cannot be the
primary problem. Why I find your latching onto VoF troublesome is that
you should already know that the NGC has separate budgets for
acquisitions, one for Canadian work and the other for international
works. Our collecting of domestic art never suffered for Barnett Newman.
Additionally, one might add that the work had particular signifigance to
Canada in that it was created specifically for the American pavilion at
Expo 67 in Montreal.

You make a similar error in regards to Jana Sterbak's
work. The controversy there was in the 'waste' of taxpayers funds on
rotting meat which could have fed those without. Diana Nemiroff, curator
of contemporary exhibitions at the NGC at the time, clarified to the
press that the meat was paid for by private donation. This doesn't make
for good copy in the likes of the Toronto Sun though. For it is media
like the Sun which fuel these controversies through misinformation,
spin-doctoring and uneven reporting.

Patrons might find the work confusing, troubling, intriguing,
perplexing and even exasperating, but that is why the gallery exists...
as an educational environment wherein dialogue and research can take place.
The market encourages development which contributes to and verifies its
ethics and needs, at their best, culture offers an alternative to the
reductive parameters of market value.

To return to the issue at hand though...
As a follow-up to this document I will present a brief history of our
federal cultural policy. This document would be far too lengthy if I
included it here.

If you will allow me a certain degree of trust, I will assert
that our federal government's interest in funding culture has been
propelled by motives contrary to the mandate of many cultural institutions.
Through systematically engineering dependency on federal funding the
government was able to more closely control policy within the cultural
sector. This fitted the needs of the time, specifically Trudeau's vision
of a centralized, unified nation. Unfortunately, now we have the coffers
growing thin and the political vision fracturing at the seams. No longer
is culture regarded by gov't as a political asset and hence the funding
has been cut. The loss of funding has nothing to do with quality of
programming and everything to do with political expediency.

This brings us back to the issue of arts administrators and curators, and
their perception of and interest in general audiences. Frankly, I regard
the institutions of visual arts display in this country as resources, not
as industries producing commodities. Education is the service these
institutions specialize in, as well as being entrusted with preserving
and researching our cultural heritage. If we demand that the lowest
common denominator be the final arbiter of what is of educational merit
to our society then we will always be fighting a rearguard action against
mediocrity. I admit that galleries must work harder to engage their
publics in challenging discussion and rousing perception, in fact I
eagerly try to encourage that myself. I refuse, though, to succumb to the
notion that such extreme populism as was evidenced by the Barnes
extravaganza is the way to make culture pivotal to Canadian living.

Back to the Bank