Last night’s panel was the second installment in a three-part lecture series concluding next Thursday, 4 November 2010. This final presentation will explore the relationship between museums and living artists. The panel will feature Pittsburgh photographer Duane Michals.
While the entire presentation was illuminating, offering insight into the many people involved in exhibition production, perhaps the most fascinating idea came early in the conversation. The idea dealt with the role of the art museum as storyteller. And this idea in itself is not new. Certainly, museums, which make the sometimes inaccessible and otherwise untold open to the widest audience possible, are always storytelling, educating, interpreting. Yet, it was Director Zelevansky’s addition of the tacit adjective ‘revisionist’ that was thrilling. So, by this implication, the Carnegie Art Museum has indicated that it is willing to both advance and alter (by means of expansion) the traditional art historical narrative.
What does this mean, you ask?
Art history (as an academic focus, especially) generally offers a very linear interpretation of the art world and its many currents. This “story of art,” found in every survey book (whether chronologically broad or limited) has a tendency to flatten complexities. Once petrified by too-frequent telling, the story becomes solid but incomplete, ultimately offering a limited perspective. With the same tale retold for generations, the heterogenic intricacies of every period (along with many significant, if under-recognized artists) are lost, perhaps forever. Moreover, in the traditional story of art, certain artistic agendas are advanced above others. Frequently, these long-standing inclusions still appear because of antiquated selection criteria. A perfect example is the history of art that largely omitted women painters and sculptors. This old-garde version of art history is still being mended by today’s revisionists, and sadly, there is still a kind of segregation of women artists from the broader historical timeline.
Yet, this notion that art museums can rewrite art history, even perhaps undo past wrongs, is exciting, forward-thinking, hopeful.
In 1996, when I worked the phones as an intern in the National Gallery’s (NGA) then 20th Century Department, I realized that there was a great deal of hatred leveled against large institutions by artists themselves. One artist repeatedly phoned the department from the guard’s desk downstairs and railed against me because I was unable to connect him with a curator. “Why,” he asked, “do you only ever show dead artists? So many of us are living and making things now.” He seemed to press the receiver closer to his lips. “Your museum,” he continued somewhat ominously, “is as dead as your artists are.”
His anger, of course, stemmed from the fact that he felt ignored by the mainstream. And it wasn’t entirely true that we featured only dead artists. We had many works by living artists, but I understood his point. To him, these artists were not a vital part of the culture of the now, of 1996 or the nineties at all. Those artists had already achieved notoriety. NGA was, in his eyes, merely repeating sins of omission, looking backward, repeating what was already known. When I naively suggested he try at one of the local galleries, he slammed the receiver into the cradle. This was not what he wanted to hear, and I had not meant to be condescending, only helpful. I felt for him. At the time, I was an artist, too, struggling to find a place for my work.
Did I think that the NGA was the appropriate place for him? No. The NGA was tasked with offering retrospective looks at art—art on which we had the appropriate amount of time for reflection. Do we truly know something’s value immediately? Sometimes we do, but more often, it takes a careful backwards gaze to understand a definitive artistic moment and properly assess its value to the story of us, as people or as the dominant sentiment of national culture.
Still, many artists see larger institutions as part of the problem with the art world. The museums, they insist, have it all wrong. It’s so one-sided, focusing on those people who have ‘made’ it, those who have already enjoyed plenty of attention in their greatest periods of productivity. So, what, these forgotten or ignored artists ask, are we any less representative of our time than those who have been taken up by the art historical narrative?
It’s a question that artist Paul Thek likely asked in his later years of productivity, when he, too, felt forgotten. Carnegie Museum Director Lynn Zelevansky--who made the initial indication that she intends to make the Carnegie a place that expands the traditional narrative, pushing its conventional boundaries, figuring out how some artists are relegated to the margins while others are largely celebrated—has worked to redress Thek’s previously unacknowledged plea. Her retrospective, co-curated with the Whitney’s Elizabeth Sussman, is titled Paul Thek: Diver, and is currently on display at the Whitney and coming to Carnegie Museum of Art in 2011.