Thursday, November 20, 2008

Trade Secrets Report & Extras

Today posted my report from the Trade Secrets curating conference at the Banff Centre.

Like any report of such an information-swappin' event, there was a lot I left out. That's partly because I'm still processing it, I think.

Yet there was a whole sector of discussion at Trade Secrets around building museum collections that seems particularly relevant right now; I'm sorry I left it out. What makes this oft-dry topic particularly topical is that although the Art Gallery of Ontario's new reno has been generally well received architecturally there have been complaints of the gallery showing/acquiring weak works, particularly in its contemporary sections.

At the conference, New Museum chief curator Richard Flood, for one, encouraged the type of approach that won him and his colleagues raves at the Walker Art Center--to paraphrase, when you can't afford the works everyone wants, or of works in the central art historical narrative, look to the left or the right of that.

The Walker followed this dictum. So instead of chasing after lower-priced, lower-quality works from MoMA-collection, MoMA-endowment-level modernists like Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse, and Pollock, the Minneapolis-based institution focused on a quality collection of "alternative modernisms" in the form of "Japanese Gutai, Viennese Actionism, Italian Arte Povera, the international Fluxus movement" with artists including "Alighiero Boetti, Bruce Conner, David Hammons, Yves Klein, Marisa Merz, Hermann Nitsch, Nam June Paik, Hannah Wilke" and many others.

Also informative was an emphasis by some at the conference on successful regionalist collecting approaches. Sabine Breitwieser, for instance, built the hugely respected reputation of Vienna's Generali Foundation by showing and collecting Austrian artists like Valie Export, Rainer Ganahl, Peter Friedl, Ernst Caramelle, Peter Weibel, Dorit Margreiter and many others.

Breitwieser did note at one point the downside of popularizing regional art--namely, that auction prices start to rise to the extent that museums can no longer acquire the work!

Nonetheless, artist Ken Lum, responding to the discussion, observed wistfully that in Vienna, the curators "stuck up for their local artists" whereas in Canada there was almost a feeling of apologizing for them. Lum didn't extend this attitude solely to curators, far from it, noting that many north-of-the-49th artists seem resistant to the idea of being placed in a "Canadian collection" at a museum. The implication, he said, is that if work is designated to the "Canadian collection", it is of lower calibre than if it is deemed to be able to stand in the narrative of "the international collection." Subtle differences, to be sure, but ones that affect our perceptions of what should and shouldn't be collected using public funds.

Western Front exhibition director Candice Hopkins also touched on the positive power of regionalism during her closing remarks, when she summarized her learning that curating is best viewed as a function rather than a profession, and functions best, at times, in a context of the "ultralocal."

Worth thinking about, for certain, even as Gehry's building, and others across the country, dazzle.

Photo of White Columns director Matthew Higgs and Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal director Marc Mayer courtesy of the Banff Centre

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