In Terms Of

Toward a Strategic Regionalism

This essay is the second of four that reviews a recent conference at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Read the first, third, and fourth texts.

Choosing Your Neighbors
Friday, April 12, 2013
Museum as Hub Conference
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New Museum Theater, New York

According to Annie Fletcher, curator at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, the professor Irit Rogoff once wrote that “you can’t have a position without a location.” A location, Fletcher explained further, can be psychic, historical, and sexual. Despite this expanded denotation, geography and its larger concept, proximity, nevertheless remains a perceived obstacle that needs to be overcome.

The second panel for the Museum as Hub Conference, “Choosing Your Neighbors,” aimed to cover partnerships among institutions from across the globe and to address concerns of provincialism. Its moderator, Lauren Cornell, curator of digital projects at the New Museum, is particularly interested in developing an international focus, since she is organizing the museum’s next triennial exhibition, which showcases the work of younger artists from around the world. Looking beyond New York is crucial, of course, but so is paying attention to what’s going on in her own backyard.

The panelists, from left: Anne Ellegood, Tobias Ostrander, Hyunjin Kim, Annie Fletcher, and Lauren Cornell (photograph by Christopher Howard)

Tobias Ostrander, chief curator for the Miami Art Museum in Florida since 2011, had come across the phrase “strategic regionalism” somewhere, maybe in an Artforum roundtable. And through recent conversations about “Choosing Your Neighbors” with Cornell, the phrase kept coming back. The reference, it turns out, originated from the historian and theorist Kenneth Frampton’s essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” which appeared in Hal Foster’s classic compilation The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, published in 1983. Befitting the panel’s topic, the term was later described as:

A type of recent architecture that engaged its particular geographical and cultural circumstances in deliberate, subtle, and vaguely politicized ways. In making this engagement, critical regionalist architecture was said to eschew both the placeless homogeneity of much mainstream modernism and the superficial historicism of so much postmodern work.1

Having trouble completing one sentence before beginning the next, Ostrander was clearly excited about having nuanced conversations about “localities” and “specificities,” about “cultural affinities” and “similarities,” with a particular interest in a notion of place that is not geographically bounded. He wanted to “use the specificities of place in creative ways” and to “use regionalism to hone in on a kind of specificity that will then open up cultural and political agencies.” Um, okay.

Despite his rapid-fire, head-spinning jargon, Ostrander did offer a few concrete observations, noticing a trend over the past ten years in which art professionals have become weary of their homogenized globetrotting lifestyle and are now willing to settle down (and presumably in places other than New York and London, the panel’s unstated bogeymen). In addition, he witnessed collaborations taking place between cultural workers in Mexico, where he worked for eleven years, and those in Columbia. Both countries share a language, a colonial history, and similar economies, he said. Bogota has already experienced violence related to the drug trade that now envelops Mexico, so it’s easier for South American artists to explain or illustrate this context and have it be understood by Central Americans. Further, Ostrander’s Japanese colleague recently told him it was once important to bring in “international” (i.e., American) curators to her country, but she now looks regionally, collaborating with colleagues in China, Korea, and Indonesia. During his time in Mexico, Ostrander concluded that “the US feels free … to curate the world.” Perhaps that power has faded since the end of the Bush years.

Pondering his particular museum role, Ostrander rhetorically asked questions such as: How can the institution facilitate exchange? What will exhibitions and programming be? How will they be paid for? How can Miami help institutions in the Caribbean Basin whose infrastructures are weak or not yet in place? This line of thought indicated not a profound existential museological crisis but rather a professional paralysis caused by theory PTSD that cripples the ability to accomplish day-to-day work. What exactly has Ostrander been doing at the Miami Art Museum since being hired?

Anne Ellegood, senior curator for the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, gave an overview of her institution’s first official city biennial, which took place in 2012 as a fruitful yet complicated collaboration with the smaller nonprofit space LA><ART. The idea of doing a biennial, which she admitted to have initially opposed, “seemed kind of perverse” and was “even provincial.” Ann Philbin, the Hammer’s director since 1998, has strongly encouraged a focus on Angeleno artists. Because the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art was avoiding the locals, Ellegood claimed, her institution also reinvigorated its Hammer Projects series—but it also wanted to make a more substantial contribution that recognized the region’s wealth of artists, innumerable sites of cultural production, and abundance of art schools. Artists are making work about LA, though Ellegood was wary to entertain the standard reductive dichotomies of heaven and hell, and sunshine and noir. She brought up another example of productive exchange: the Getty Foundation’s second iteration of Pacific Standard Time, slated for 2017, will engage the region’s relationship to Latin America.

Ostrander asked Ellegood her if a biennial forces artistic production. She denied that a biennial can make or break a career but, pondering the future of the event, wondered “Are there enough artists? Are there enough curators?” Apparently there’s not enough of the latter. Budding curators take note: because the Hammer doesn’t have the staff to do the next iteration, it must hire outsiders.

Representing the Van Abbemuseum, Fletcher discussed institutional lending policies initiated by its director, Charles Esche, who called its permanent collection “provincial” to shake things up. For two years the museum’s halted its program of temporary exhibitions to examine its holdings and explore what it means to be a museum. According to Fletcher, the results of the self-study that had scrutinized the “politics of collecting and the collecting of politics” determined that the museum lent its artworks “passively,” that is to say, objects were sent to museums in northern Europe or to those with an existing robust infrastructure. To initiate “active lending,” the Van Abbe changed its scope. Esche accordingly sought partnerships with curators, activists, and others in the Middle East, to cite one example. A Palestinian group wanted to borrow the museum’s prized Pablo Picasso painting, Buste de Femme (1943), because it may never have a chance to show a work by this modern master. Insurance, transport, and humidity controls were all factors to consider, but how could the Dutch museum, Fletcher wondered, lend a painting to “a country that is not allowed exist”?

East Asia is national and political despite the recentness of the nation-state, perhaps because of longstanding cultural homogeneity, remarked the soft-spoken Hyunjin Kim, chief curator for the Ilmin Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea, and a panelist on “How Do You Feel (about Institutions)?”. Her region has generational and historical issues spanning hundreds of years, though “the notion of tradition is a very new one,” she said, meaning from modern times.

Shared affinities, politics, and cultural histories are not always bound by geography, said Cornell. In particular she liked Ostrander’s idea of “negotiating equitable exchanges versus curating the world.” Ostrander feels pressure at his museum to “perform a certain institutionality,” meaning to accept touring shows organized by other museums. Doing so would not only create standardized museum programming but also promote administrative colonialism. He claimed to be witnessing a strong interest and push from scholars researching art from the Caribbean—and the Caribbean Basin in particular—and is consequently worried about the problem of American validation of Latin American art. Unfortunately Ostrander neither identified the troublemakers nor elaborated this alleged history of larger institutions and better-known scholars cannibalizing the work of smaller institutions. He has found the centralized power structure in Miami to be undesirable, an opinion that contradicts his earlier desire to have Miami institutions help others in the region. Overall, Ostrander’s evasiveness to accept responsibility as a leader and an authority to be thorny, to say the least. What’s wrong with a curator asserting his or her agency and expertise?

Cornell observed that her panelists all come from museums, whereas speakers on the first panel displayed a wider range of backgrounds, from self-made organizations to established museums. Smaller institutions are “bound to their place,” she lamented, but Fletcher reminded everyone that institutions of different sizes do different things. Even though the Van Abbe is a collecting museum, it’s a relatively small institution in small town whose progressive ideas are rippling internationally. For her, it’s important to resist “the urge to immediately display.”

An audience member asked about museums neglecting digital space in favor of physical locations. Ellegood mentioned that website statistics for the Hammer indicate that internet visitors outnumber museum visitors—no surprise there. “I don’t have an answer,” she said, “but I think it’s a challenge for all museums.” A question about the digital realm made me realize how the panelists rarely touched on email, social media, live streaming, video conferencing, and other forms of internet-based telecommunications—technologies that are integral for connecting with institutional neighbors near and far. In fact, Cornell talked about building an audience not through social media but through transparency and stating institutional positions to create “meaningful exchanges that grow.” In the audience, Sarah Rifky said that her institution, Beirut, gets thousands of likes on Facebook but only ten visitors to the physical edifice. “It’s not that I want those thousand people at my space, either,” she interposed. Thinking about neighbors, Rifky distinguished between people sharing a space, such as an apartment building or a neighborhood coffee shop, and those sharing interests and beliefs. You want to get along with former group but not necessarily as best friends. Hers is an important point, not only for art museums but also for any discussion of gentrification, institutional or otherwise.

Ellegood brought up what I feel is the major challenge for regionalism: insecurity that stems from a perceived lack of status. She asked, “Why does this term ‘provincial’ have to have so many negative connotations to it?” Why is it not hip, she continued, to work on a project with a local artist for an international biennial? The problem is likely created through pressure from directors, board members, trustees, donors, and funders to reaffirm the canon and reinforce contemporary art’s status quo. How else can these provincial social climbers keep up with the Joneses?

Southern Californian museums, Ellegood revealed, regularly meet and plan for their communities together. The Hammer began collecting only six years ago, looking internationally but focusing on artists in Los Angeles. She asked, “What can we do that’s specific to us?” It’s important not to duplicate Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she affirmed, as well as other institutions in her region. A major goal for cultural workers at art institutions, then, is to educate their leaders regarding the importance of provincial pride and confidence.

In Terms Of count: 11.

1. Keith L. Eggener, “Placing Resistance: A Critique of Critical Regionalism,” in Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition, ed. Vincent Canizaro (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 395.


Natasha Marie Llorens, a curator and writer based in New York and a doctoral student in art history at Columbia University, has written a critical analysis of the full conference for Six Degrees, the New Museum’s blog, called “Museum as Hub: Comparing Fictions.”


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