Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Links Roundup: Mayer's blog, Shearer's fame and more

It's been a while since I've done a links roundup, and there's some interesting commentary going on out there so... roundup it is!

Art Fag City beats north-of-the-49th blogs to the punch in noting National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer's new "blog". I put blog in quotation marks there because while it's set up like a blog—ie. for instantaneous, and possibly unreviewed-by-others writings—there's only two posts so far: "Art is Controversy," dated August 6, and "Diversity in the Arts" from March 15. (The latter is basically a reprint of an op-ed piece Mayer wrote for the Ottawa Citizen.) Overall, I share Art Fag City's sense of concern about this endeavour. While I'm all for museums being more innovative, direct and transparent with the public, and while I'm among the few (it seems) who appreciate Mayer's general tendency towards personal, off-the-cuff candour (chalk it up to some great quotes it generated for me in the pre-"excellence"-controversy era) I do think that in the case of a national museum head I'd prefer to a little more sober second thought integrated into communications, and potentially other areas. The Walrus profile that Chris Jones wrote on Mayer earlier this year made it clear that Mayer is willing to cede to advice of his on-staff experts in curating; I suggest that Mayer also cede to the advice of any on-staff experts that may exist in public relations and communications (and if none exist, hire one). Putting communications for the museum back in the hands of pros (or at least benefiting from their expertise in editing, media prep, etc.) would hopefully allow Mayer to get back to the job he was truly hired to do--and for which, at the MACM, he did seem to demonstrate some success--running a major museum! Somebody actually doing their job? That would be awesome.

There's quite a stream of comments (some invective-riffic) following View on Canadian Art's post about Steven Shearer representing Canada at next year's Venice Biennale. I'm pretty middle of the road about Shearer's work myself—sometimes it has an overwhelmingly cool-youngerish-dudish-art feel to me—but it's interesting to see the speculation people have thrown out there about the ethics of Canada's Venice-pick process. You can accuse the committee of biases, but what Venice pick isn't somewhat curatorially biased? To my (admittedly uninformed) mind, there can't be a whole lotta objectivity to this process. It's seems like the proof always has to be in the pavilion/pudding.

The annual Caribana-related show at the ROM continued to generate conflicting feelings among art writers this summer . Terence Dick at Akimbo and Fran Schechter at NOW (both critics I greatly respect) panned it, albeit with some guilty feelings, while RM Vaughan in the Globe (another critic I greatly respect) praised it as " a stationary, but certainly no less moving, parade." Of course, all this was of great interest to me seeing as how last August, I posted my critiques and concerns about this annual exhibition. This year, I was pleased to see some slight attempts to integrate music and costume in the exhibition (as I had suggested) but overall I still found the show to be a troubling disappointment, much as Dick and Schechter did. Do we need more artists of colour in our major museums? In our art schools? In our art publications? Hell to the yes! Is this exhibition the solution? I have to say, in terms of a major-museum context, it sure doesn't feel like it. In this context, the show still feels a lot like cheaply generated content that the museum can point to to say, "look, we're interested in the wider community"—without doing any substantive research on that community, and still creating major barriers to the wider community by charging $24 at the door. On a more specific note, I do think that Schechter's suggestions regarding integration of photography and other forms like street art are also worth heeding, and I have to say I admire independent curator Joan Butterfield's tenacity in attempting to counteract the whiteness-bias of the art world—to make this show happen, even if I personally don't like it, required huge amounts of effort and conviction on her part, I'm sure.

Often when I complain about rising museum admission fees in Canada (and declining free-access hours) people say, "Well what about the opera companies and the symphony? They charge hundreds of dollars a ticket." I want to do more research on this, but in the meanwhile I have to thank John Terauds at the Toronto Star for requesting that Canadian Opera Company resume its free outdoor concerts, which he says were ended four years ago due to a lost sponsorship. Ditto on his suggestion to get the TSO doing free concerts outdoors. I know arts access is a wider issue than galleries and museums; this reminds me, though, that we are losing access on many fronts, not just on one. And that, of course, we would all be better off if that access was restored.


andrew said...

Hey Leah,

Long-time listener, first-time caller, as it were. I share your concerns about museum prices and access. Interesting tidbit regarding the opera comparison: this year, the COC is instituting standing-room only rush tickets for TWELVE DOLLARS. Sure, you might argue that this sets up two classes of viewers — the sitters and the standers — but shit: twelve bucks is twelve bucks, y’know?

Keep up the good work.

Gabby said...

Hey Leah,

I don't know a ton about the Venice process either, but this new procedure through the National Gallery does seem a little suspect. My understanding was that, in the past, any gallery from across the country could propose an artist-curator-project combo, submit it and then the Canada Council would put together an anonymous (or anonymous-until-the-winner-was-announced) jury who would decide who to send to Venice. I'm sure there was lots of bias involved, but it did at least seem like small galleries and smaller artists had a shot at going. And it seemed to leave room for the jury to choose the right gallery and curator who could send the right artist at the right time, rather than just choosing a particular artist. This new process seems like the National Gallery sits down with their curator who proposes a few artists who a group of outside advisers then approve, which in my mind leaves less room for interesting or unexpected choices - for instance, would David Altmejd have made it to Venice if they had been using this new process?

At the same time, though, in the past the winning galleries/curators seem to have spent 80% of their prep time before the Biennale doing fundraising just to make the project happen. It doesn't look like that will be as much of a problem in the hands of the NGC, so maybe financially it's a benefit to have the big institution in charge.

Those are my two cents, anyways.

Stanzie Tooth said...

One other note on museum prices in comparison to the Opera Company/ Symphony. One great initiative by the Opera Company and Symphony was that they have greatly reduced pricing for people under 30 as an attempt to draw in new audiences. I think its really smart as they get younger audiences invested in these orgs and perhaps when they are older they will be invested enough to pay higher ticket prices.

What the ROM/AGO don't seem to understand that by making the their organizations accessible, (at least to younger audiences) they ingratiate themselves into the lifestyles of their patrons.

Leah Sandals said...

@andrew - Thanks for the tip! I'm open to all information on this front. You say "this year" so I'm guessing that means the cheap tix are a new initiative? Anyway, much appreciated.

@gabby - Thanks for explaining all the stuff I didn't understand about these arguments that have been going on. I wonder how other national pavilions for the Biennale are organized? I agree with you the incentive for this was probably financial, though the repercussions for lesser known artists are yet to be seen.

@stanzie - Thanks for bringing this issue to the fore. While I appreciate any attempt at expanding access, those young-people deals seem more, as you kind of suggest, like future audience development rather than "pure access" initiatives. The importance of having atleast some degree of free acess for all ages is that low-income people exist through all age groups!

andrew said...


Yup, the opera thing is new. Starts this September, I think.

And of course Stanzie is right: the TSO, the COC, the ballet — they all have these great youth access programs. 20 bucks for the opera. 12 for the symphony. It's totally a hook, and it really works. Now almost all classical music companies in Toronto, large and small, are doing something similar. I suppose it's really more of a great audience development/marketing thing than a public-access-to-art thing, since it really doesn't help, say, young families.

Leah Sandals said...

@andrew, cool-- thanks again for the tip on the opera tickets. Great to know for my arts access research file.

Yes, my point is while more access is always better than less, the assumption in pointing to these young-folks tix is that it's only under-30s who are struggling to pay the rent. My experience is that this is definitely *not* the case.

As U of T researchers report, income disparity is increasing rapidly in Toronto:

And earlier this month, StatsCan reported 139,000 full time jobs were shed across the country.

Low incomes have no age limit.