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The Art of F***ure

One lesson I’ve learned in my short time at the Walker is there’s no such thing as failure. Artists explore. They experiment. They take risks. They take paths best (and often only) left to art history PhDs to decipher, let alone interpret. Artists don’t fail. Same goes for programmers, curators and designers. That’s why I’m […]

One lesson I’ve learned in my short time at the Walker is there’s no such thing as failure. Artists explore. They experiment. They take risks. They take paths best (and often only) left to art history PhDs to decipher, let alone interpret. Artists don’t fail. Same goes for programmers, curators and designers. That’s why I’m an immediate fan, sight unseen, of The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale, a documentary premiering Monday on HBO.

You can be forgiven for not knowing Connelly — he’s not in the Walker collection — but the synopsis from HBO describes the film as “the unusual story of the rise and fall of a major talent, along with Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, from the 1980s art world. Though he was extremely talented with a profitable collection of work, Chuck Connelly ended up alienating every collector and gallery owner he worked with. This 63-minute documentary follows the life of this brilliant yet enigmatic painter, who had great success as a young artist but who now sees his career fading.” The New York Times caught up with Connelly for an amusing, pre-premiere profile that ran over the weekend.

I don’t know why there’s such a stigma about owning up to or assessing one’s own work as a failure. Throughout my years in newspapers, I instigated many long conversations with colleagues about why this or that story didn’t work. Some of those stories were even mine. Some people don’t have the stomach for such flagellation, and some workplace cultures don’t leave room for it. I’ve worked for newspapers that turned the daily “critique” of that morning’s rag into a platform for editors to praise their own team’s work. Actual criticism was viewed as heresy.

The art world is even more insular and self-congratulatory. It’s easy to see why — there are more fragile and tightly wound egos, reputations to uphold and donors and collectors to mollify. I get it. But while this documentary seems to view Connelly’s so-called failings more off the canvas than on, I find it hard to imagine anyone in a creative pursuit not, at least privately, beating him/herself purple over self-perceived misfires.

This isn’t about emptying the hamper or awaiting any mea culpas. I just think a little more open-door intellectual candor would only make artists and their art — and the institutions that house them — better. And our audiences would take us more seriously when we, far more often and rightfully, claim success.

IMAGES: All by Chuck Connelly — Self Portrait (1995), Acid Rain (1998), Lesbians #1 (2006)

Embedded: Should critics be in the trenches?

“He just opened the conversation by saying, ‘When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?‘” That’s how Seattle artist Charlie Krafft said the city’s most prolific and long-serving freelance visual art critic, Matthew Kangas, started out a phonecall early in the artist’s career, just after he’d written a favorable […]

“He just opened the conversation by saying, ‘When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?‘”

That’s how Seattle artist Charlie Krafft said the city’s most prolific and long-serving freelance visual art critic, Matthew Kangas, started out a phonecall early in the artist’s career, just after he’d written a favorable review. In a fascinating and thoughtful piece, The Stranger looks into the ethics of art criticism, with Kangas at its core: When critics curate, what does it do to their credibility? Should critics own work by the artists they review, and should they ever accept–or ask for–art as “gifts” from artists? And, more nuanced, how close should critics get to the art and artists they so admire?

Stranger writer Jen Graves gives Kangas credit as a longtime booster of Seattle artists. His eight books, national reviews in publications like Sculpture and Art in America, and work as a freelance critic for the Seattle Times for 15 years have earned him esteem in the Northwest: “There’s no doubt about what he has done for the art community in Seattle; he stands alone in that area,” said one gallery owner.

But other contributions seemed more sketchy, like his curating: he currently has two shows up he’s curated. One includes three works he owns, although they’re labeled “Private collection,” and the other features 53 pieces from his private holdings. Graves’ blog post on what she thought was Kangas’ “error of judgment”–not disclosing ownership of works he promoted–generated a flurry of rumors that Kangas frequently asked for artwork before or after writing reviews. Nine artists went on record saying as much, including Krafft, who reluctantly gave the critic a piece. “It was an extortion,” he said. “He’s a character, and I appreciate him, but I think it’s predatory.”

Some of the artists thought the practice odd, but went along. Others refused, and saw no negative impact. None noted a quid pro quo: it didn’t seem to affect a review if they did or didn’t gift a work to Kangas. Kangas insists he doesn’t ask for or expect art. And that’s the way it should be, according to journalism ethicists and critics quoted in the article.

“Shaking down artists is never acceptable,” said Eleanor Heartney; The New York Times‘ Michael Kimmelman doesn’t collect at all, to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. His paper requires critics to submit a tally of acquisitions and sales of “exhibition quality” work to editors each year. Then there’s this great section on Jerry Saltz:

Jerry Saltz, Village Voice critic and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, collects only thrift-store paintings and ceramics (“the rule here is nothing over $10, no clowns, and no dogs”). He owns the work of a few artist friends, but doesn’t write about those artists.

“I find it appalling that a critic would ask an artist for a work of art–good review or bad,” Saltz wrote in an e-mail. “It’s as sick as an artist asking a critic for a review, good or bad. It’s more than tacky; it’s corrupt and clueless. You might as well advertise good reviews on Craigslist.”

Most interesting is, as Kriston Capps at Grammar.police comments, Graves’ consideration of outsider critics and those who are “embedded,” that is, “someone who is an art lover and expert first, and a journalist second”:

In the last 20 years, daily-newspaper editors have lost interest in critical reviews, asking writers for more trend pieces, profiles, and investigative reports. Last year, when Kangas wrote 20 reviews of regional exhibitions in the Seattle Times, the staff art critic Sheila Farr wrote only five, according to the paper’s online archives–she wrote other kinds of stories, such as a three-day series about Dale Chihuly, which she worked on with another reporter and a team of researchers. Given this disparity, Kangas can be seen as a friend to the art community in Seattle.

The emphasis on reporting instead of criticism, or in addition to criticism, has dragged critics into the same spotlight reporters work under, where lapses of judgment are firing offenses. Today, being embedded is looked at with suspicion, and being detached is more in vogue. Each position certainly has its merits. But the industry is still struggling to combine the two approaches in a way that keeps critics passionate, engaged, and knowledgeable, without allowing their biases to be, or to appear to be, personal or financial.

Kangas is a fascinating figure, an embedded critic who found himself in a field where detachment has become the norm and, for whatever reasons, never adjusted. Reportedly, he is as maddening to be around as he is endearing, as imposing as he is eccentric, and ultimately, he may be someone who compromised himself by his own habits.

Rate the Walker Shop, win Alessi home accessories!

Have you been to the Walker Shop? If so, how was your experience? The Shop is looking for visitor feedback–how’s the book selection? price? space layout?–and the carrot they’re dangling is a chance to win a home accessory from Italy’s Alessi. [Survey is now closed. Thanks to all who participated.]

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Have you been to the Walker Shop? If so, how was your experience?

The Shop is looking for visitor feedback–how’s the book selection? price? space layout?–and the carrot they’re dangling is a chance to win a home accessory from Italy’s Alessi.

[Survey is now closed. Thanks to all who participated.]

A year in the museoblogosphere…

A year ago this week, I made my first blog post for the Walker and wondered aloud what audiences want from a museum blog and how the medium could serve our various communication needs (I posted on the “museoblogosphere“–a neologism that, alas, hasn’t taken off–here, and the discussion was followed up by Eric here, here, […]

A year ago this week, I made my first blog post for the Walker and wondered aloud what audiences want from a museum blog and how the medium could serve our various communication needs (I posted on the “museoblogosphere“–a neologism that, alas, hasn’t taken off–here, and the discussion was followed up by Eric here, here, and here). Today there are around 60 museums blogging, according to Ideum, and the news stories about this trend have shifted from “Look, museums are blogging!” to broader discussions of challenges, opportunities and conflicts inherent in this kind of institutional channel for informal communications.

In a thorough and thoughtful piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, David Ng digs into the topic. “Museum blogs suffer from a kind of split-personality syndrome,” he writes. “Are they civic forums or glorified marketing tools? Should they humanize the museum or enforce an authoritative distance? Perhaps all of the above.” Offering no definitive answer, he cites challenges of blogs like the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Science Buzz and their discussions around allowing political content–commenters who opposed the use of human cadavers in the touring Body Worlds exhibit or refuted the theory of evolution in a display of T-Rex bones–in a scientific blog, for instance. (We had similar discussions when commenters questioned the use of live animals in our exhibition House of Oracels: A Huang Yong Ping retrospective; we opted for transparency and openness, but decided to close comments a month after the exhibition concluded.)

At this one-year anniversary, I want to revisit some of my early questions in hopes that some of our own concerns–lack of robust debate in the comments, intermittent posting by Walker staff, etc.–can be clarified. What do you, blog reader, like about our blogs and what would you like to see more of? Got a favorite post? A criticism? Lay it on us.

Dialing Restraint

Like our cellphone-based Art On Call audioguides, SFMOMA offers a dial-up interpretive guide for their Matthew Barney exhibition Drawing Restraint. Just dial 408.794.2844. Greg Allen, who encourages you to “immerse yourself in a vat of petroleum jelly” to heighten the experience, has more. While I’m at it, go here to download unofficial audio guides to […]

Like our cellphone-based Art On Call audioguides, SFMOMA offers a dial-up interpretive guide for their Matthew Barney exhibition Drawing Restraint. Just dial 408.794.2844. Greg Allen, who encourages you to “immerse yourself in a vat of petroleum jelly” to heighten the experience, has more.

While I’m at it, go here to download unofficial audio guides to MoMA.

Marketing vehicles.

Courtesy AGO The Art Gallery of Ontario will be using an unusual marketing vehicle when the Walker-organized show ANDY WARHOL SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962–1964 opens there next month–a pink-roofed hearse. Highlighting the macabre side of Warhol’s work (his electric chairs and car wrecks), the hearse will be driven by a Warhol-wigged driver who’ll […]

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Courtesy AGO

The Art Gallery of Ontario will be using an unusual marketing vehicle when the Walker-organized show ANDY WARHOL SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962–1964 opens there next month–a pink-roofed hearse. Highlighting the macabre side of Warhol’s work (his electric chairs and car wrecks), the hearse will be driven by a Warhol-wigged driver who’ll hand out AGO buttons at film festivals, jazz concerts, Pride parades, and street parties.

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Photo: Don Wester

Here at the Walker, our most successful mobile marketing tool was an ice cream truck we took to festivals and parks to raise awareness of our ongoing programs when the building was closed for renovation. Covered entirely with the identity of our Walker without Walls campaign, it made literal our headline “Art goes everywhere.” We handed out thousands of frozen treats, provided (like the truck graphics and rental) by Target.

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Marketing staffers Giselle Restrepo and Meara McIntyre. Photo: Adrienne Wiseman

Less glitzy, but by all indications effective, is our annual Taxi Breakfast. We invite cab drivers to drop by for free coffee and a boxed breakfast as a way to familiarize them with our location, and of course we load them up with a bag of Walker promotional goodies. We serve between 35 and 75 drivers every year.

Earlier: Frescoes in taxicabs.

Fresco Taxicab

As a museum marketing guy, I’ve gotta admire this campaign. Wien Nord Pilz’s prizewinning campaign for the Liechtenstein Museum included frescoes on the roof of the airport, in taxicabs, and on an umbrella. Via Fresh Creation.

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As a museum marketing guy, I’ve gotta admire this campaign. Wien Nord Pilz’s prizewinning campaign for the Liechtenstein Museum included frescoes on the roof of the airport, in taxicabs, and on an umbrella.

Via Fresh Creation.

On curiosity.

“Curiosity implies a certain immoderation, a certain necessary excess. That is precisely what makes it a passion: it is amoral and follows its own laws, which is why society insists on taming it in various ways.” –Helga Nowotny, “The Dilemma of Curiosity and Its Use“

“Curiosity implies a certain immoderation, a certain necessary excess. That is precisely what makes it a passion: it is amoral and follows its own laws, which is why society insists on taming it in various ways.”

–Helga Nowotny, “The Dilemma of Curiosity and Its Use

Think…

A post on Art.Blogging.LA about our “Think about honking if you <3 conceptual art” bumpersticker got me wondering: how did we come up with the idea? We created it as a giveaway in conjunction with our 1999 presentation of the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, but beyond that I don’t really know how […]

Version two of our popular bumpersticker

Version two of our popular bumpersticker

A post on Art.Blogging.LA about our “Think about honking if you <3 conceptual art” bumpersticker got me wondering: how did we come up with the idea? We created it as a giveaway in conjunction with our 1999 presentation of the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, but beyond that I don’t really know how it came to be or if we came up with the idea first. I turned to Scott Winter in our membership department:

I believe it came out of a conversation with John Capecci, when he worked in Development. We were looking for a gimmick for the Walker After Hours event that recognized the conceptual art exhibition we had opened in Gallery A. Somewhere between the 2 of us, it evolved. We then went on to think up some more, but we never pursued producing them.

Start Seeing Motherwells

If you can read this, you’re Chuck Close

My Other Car is a REAL Work of Art

Scott adds that the only way we could get the OK from our Registration department — the people charged with peeling them off of art they’d inevitably end up plastered on — was to make them removable.

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 Update: We’ve printed a new run of stickers.

 

The museoblogosphere.

Museum blogging is rapidly growing, but you’d hardly know it reading the New York Times‘ article on web use in the special Museums section today: the only blog listed is the Walker’s. No reBlog or Eye Level, Pulitzer Contemporary or the Katzen, or any of the handful of other art museums that are testing bloggy […]

Museum blogging is rapidly growing, but you’d hardly know it reading the New York Times‘ article on web use in the special Museums section today: the only blog listed is the Walker’s. No reBlog or Eye Level, Pulitzer Contemporary or the Katzen, or any of the handful of other art museums that are testing bloggy waters. But the article does reiterate what I think is an important point for all museums considering launching blogs–make an effort to resist the impulse to micromanage blog content. Aside from some common-sense blog rules–don’t bash other institutions, minimize expletive use, resist gossiping about co-workers, f.ex.–we at the Walker are given fairly wide berth to use blogs for what they are, an informal, human medium. And, thankfully, it comes straight from the top (Kathy Halbreich tells me this democratic approach is the lasting legacy of former New Media Director Steve Dietz). From the Times:

“We had to learn to relinquish our curatorial authority, to get noninstitutional voices,” said Kathy Halbreich, the director of the Walker. “The blog gives us a multiplicity of voices.”

Robin Dowden, who runs the Walker site, said that in addition to being educational, it helps promote a community. “In the beginning we were a bit afraid,” she said. “But one thing we realized is that our audiences are smart and they want to be engaged.” As a result, the Walker does not edit what bloggers contribute.

For more, check out Eric’s series The State of Museum Blogs or conference notes by Eric, Brent and Nate from Museums & the Web last week.

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