Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why the AGO and the ROM are starting to look alike: Out in today's Star

Some people I think feel it's a little tightassish to be calling some exhibitions "a ROM-appropriate show" and others "an AGO-appropriate show." But I know that I felt confused at first when I saw the AGO showcasing King Tut and the ROM showing stuff like Shanghai Kaleidoscope soon after their respective reopenings. They seemed to be crossing over into each others' traditional territory, basically.

Recently, the Toronto Star asked me to take a closer look at the way these "crossovers" have developed. The results are out in today's paper. An excerpt:

[U of T museum studies professor Lynne] Teather identifies three factors on the local level that have caused mandates to overlap at the city’s top museums: the museum directors’ priorities; increasing desires to connect with Toronto’s diverse communities; and daunting post-reno financial constraints.

Conversations with AGO and ROM reps bear out Teather’s observations — with some interesting twists.

Francisco Alvarez, managing director of the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, says William Thorsell’s recent tenure as CEO beefed up the ICC — and, by extension, the museum’s shows of contemporary art.

“Thorsell thought that with a very contemporary architecture (Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal) we were promising considerations of contemporary issues,” Alvarez explains. Although the ICC was born in 1989, it was only in 2007 that it earned a dedicated staffer, space and board. The result, Alvarez argues, are art exhibitions that have an anthropological edge, with the Perjovschi show pointing to Romanian history and the Anatsui exhibition being supplemented by a panel on Africa’s natural resources.

Elizabeth Smith, executive director of curatorial affairs at the AGO, says its big, surcharged exhibitions aim “to vary the program with the idea of reaching as broad an audience as possible. In the case of Maharaja, the idea was to appeal to the South Asian community as well as a more mainstream public.” Smith notes smaller, general-admission AGO exhibitions have different criteria, like in-house curator preferences and collections. For example, the recent survey of artist Julian Schnabel emerged from AGO curator David Moos’ interests.

Later, Alvarez mentions that the ROM passed over the Tut show in part because they weren't allowed to add any curatorial material or artifacts for a Toronto showing. That explained a hell of a lot, given that when I went to see Tut at the AGO, I was baffled as to why there was no information on the "artists/artisans" who created these objects, or much information about the materials of the objects, the way they were made, and where they were found--stuff I might expect in a more art-contextualized show. (Or hell, maybe just contextualized show, period.)

While this article naturally only scratches the surface of why these programs have evolved in the way they have, I also appreciated Alvarez and Smith's generosity in speaking to the point of "art vs. artifact--is there any difference anymore?" Their reponses made me consider more than ever is the way cultural context can affect these definitions. When we look at the history of Western "art," there's many objects (sculptures, paintings, what have you) that were created to fulfill a specific purpose--like teach the masses about Catholic-church doctrine, or glorify the papacy or royalty.

And yet, when you ask people what an artifact is, they often say it's an object with a purpose or utility--something distinct from art, which is a "pure" personal expression of the artist. In that case, though, many "treasures of Western art" should be classified as artifacts to my mind, seeing as how they were basically advertising or tools for propaganda (or, to be less dogmatic, "education"). Or, we could say, they were used for religious or "tribal" purposes of their day--not unlike many of the non-European masks, vases and architectural details we see classified elsewhere as "artifacts."

Anyhoo, I know all those divisions are pretty null anyways. As Teather explained, museums tend to use a "specimen" approach these days--where all objects (and even nonobjects) are regarded as tools with which to tell a story or impart information--whether you want to classify that information or story as artistic or not.

(Detail image of El Anatsui's work from the Toronto Star)


Ingrid Mida said...

I'm glad you wrote about this topic. I've been wondering about that issue for months. I couldn't bring myself to go to the AGO when the King Tut exhibition was up. It felt blasphemous....

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks Ingrid! I felt part of the value of Tut was lost in that the storytelling aspect of the craftspeople wasn't really there. Maybe there isn't much known about the craftspeople, but I still would have liked to know more.

Did you see Stephen Colbert's segment on visiting the Tut show when it was in New York? HILARIOUS. Can't find clip online (I think it's still up for US viewers bot not for Canucks) but it was awesome.

Anonymous said...

Vancouver Art Gallery - small space, progressive exhibitions.

AGO - impressive space, commercial shows. A big plastic sculpture of an Egyptian boy king in front of the gallery.

ROM - nice building, occasionally good shows.

MOCCA - great space, touring shows.

Power Plant - airy, impressive space - exhibitions borrowed from this and that biennial a year or two before the Power Plant exhibitions are mounted/

Toronto should forget about architectural image and stress the art.

Liebeskind just completed a design of a Las Vegas shopping mall that looks, well, like the ROM. There goes the "world class" theory. I would be more interested in seeing the contents rather than the shell.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Anonymous,

Thanks for the comments and comparison.

I agree I want to see the content considered as seriously as the architecture at our museums.

I also want to see public access and engagement fundraised for and focused on in a way that is also just as prioritized as the buildings/renos were... but that's another article!

Also interesting point about Las Vegas... will have to check that one out. Here's a link for those who this is new to as well: