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)
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Posted by Leah Sandals at 5:18 PM