“Language is forced on art,” quipped the artist Rachel Harrison to an audience member during the Q&A session of this event. “We’re just throwing words at art all the time. Is that really best for art? Is that really good for art? Does that make art happy? It might. It employs a lot of people.” Such is Harrison’s self-consciously funny and cynicism-free outlook for giving titles to her works. That outlook is also a good way to understand her art practice over the last twenty years. I lost track of how many times I chuckled to myself during this hour-long talk.
Based in New York, the six-year-old advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has supported a single issue: payment to artists working with nonprofit organizations in visual art. Three months ago W.A.G.E. launched a voluntary certification program for institutions that wish to publicly signal their commitment to compensating artists for their work in exhibitions and for speaking engagements and writing, among other things. The group also debuted a fee calculator that establishes a minimum wage, so to speak, for creative labor, as well as a progressively scaled payment schedule based on an institution’s annual operating expenses.
Carter Ratcliff, art critic, author, and lecturer, spoke at the New Museum on “Fads in Art.” His diagnosis, delivered in a dryly clinical manner, depicted a horrendous condition with tinges of sin, damnation, and guilt. Art faddism is like a “junkie addiction” in which neurotic need meshes with the market forces of our consumer society, he said. Stressing neurosis as explanatory structure, he touched only briefly on economics that encourage such phenomena.
“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
“It was a look of horror … or a smile,” said Scott Rothkopf, curator of the exhibition Jeff Koons and moderator of a panel discussion called “The Koons Effect Part 1,” regarding the responses he received when telling others of his research for a retrospective on the artist. Artists were interested in Koons, to his surprise, and he noted that Pierre Huyghe is fascinated by the “story that didn’t get made,” and Andrea Fraser enjoys Koonsian economics. Tino Sehgal finds Rabbit (1986) to be an iconic work, the curator continued, and Kara Walker responds to the advertisements for art magazines from 1988–89. For this panel, Rothkopf invited four American artists to discuss what Koons’s work means to them and how it has affected contemporary art.
For artists, the solo exhibition reigns supreme. For curators, it’s the group show. From major events such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and Whitney Biennial to curator-driven institutions like the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, Witte de With in Rotterdam, and MoMA PS1 in New York, the authorial curator’s name has typically transcended the artworks on view (or so the story goes). While the art-publishing industry ceaselessly cranks out new books on curatorial issues—nearly always an edited, multiauthored tome—few critical studies have considered the theory and practice of showing the work of a single artist, which is perhaps the bread and butter of art museums worldwide.
“In fifty to one hundred years,” Brian Droitcour said during his lecture on “Vernacular Criticism” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, “the exhibition review might become a sonnet.” The arts of literature and theater were certainly on his mind, as he began his talk by reciting two of his cheeky Yelp reviews on venerated New York art institutions—the Frick Collection and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—from memory for a full auditorium.
At the end of the first chapter of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, the New York–based art critic and editor Ben Davis writes that a “theory of class might provide the missing center of the debate about art.” Indeed, the use, value, and status of art—especially in relation to politics and economics—have been the subject of a constantly flailing conversation since the Occupy moment, since the Great Recession, since the Bush years, since the rise of the biennial, since the Culture Wars, since Reagan, since Conceptual art, since Duchamp—okay, you get the point. It’s exactly this kind of exasperating, roundabout conversation that Davis wants to displace, and his new book does exactly that with resounding success.
For the final panel of the Museum as Hub Conference, called “Institutions after Art,” the moderator, Taraneh Fazeli, education associate at the New Museum, wanted to explore institutional programming, alliances, content, context, and power dynamics, not just the status of structures that support artists. The Museum as Hub has supported exhibitions as a coproducer. What else can noncuratorial departments, independent groups, and nonprofit organizations do?
“Networked Institutions/Institutionalized Networks” sought to shed light on the dynamics of collaboration among institutions—now considered a common way of working in the art and museum worlds—that may have become obscured. Should networks increase an individual’s productivity? Is a network altruistic? Can schemata such as Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s famous diagram of the evolution of modern art, the research-based work of Mark Lombardi, and the politically oriented wall drawings of Dan Perjovschi be considered networks?