Jessica Labatte’s just-closed exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art marked the 100th artist featured in the MCA’s long-running “12 x 12″ series, which focuses exclusively on emerging Chicago artists. The series, which was launched in the Fall of 2001, has been going strong for almost a decade now (for more on the history of the 12 x 12 series, see here) . Even a cursory glance at the MCA’s 12 x 12 archive makes it clear that it has showcased some of the best young artistic talents currently working in Chicago (some of the best, but certainly not all of them). Indeed, at times it almost seems like a 12 x 12 show is an inevitability for any Chicago artist who hangs around long enough, though I know that there are plenty of artists still waiting patiently for their 1/12th slice of the MCA pie. After all, who doesn’t want a Museum exhibition on their resume?
And that’s the problem that I have with the 12 x 12 series as a whole. It’s too much about giving every artist their turn, and not nearly enough about ambition, innovation, and critical expansion of an artist’s practice (and an audience’s understanding of it). I’ll be even more blunt: 12 x 12 shows rarely feel special. The work by artists that is exhibited in this smallish gallery off the MCA’s main entryway is no better, and more often than not it’s significantly less good, than the work that that same artist has shown at a local gallery. Take Labatte’s exhibition. I’m a fan of Labatte’s work, and have written positively about it elsewhere. But her MCA show was a bit of a letdown. The exhibition consisted of two large-scale photographs, one of which was exhibited in her recent gallery show at Golden and another large-scale work that to my knowledge hasn’t been exhibited before. Mostly, however, the show was comprised of a large series of smaller-scale photographs that were, in essence, variations on a single idea. Significantly, selections from this same body of work were displayed concurrently at GOLDEN’s solo booth at NADA Miami Beach.
I saw Labatte’s MCA show last weekend, and since then I’ve been trying to parse through why I was so underwhelmed by it – and why I’m not all that surprised at the fact that I was. I don’t think the disappointing aspects of Labatte’s show are due as much to the work itself (which was fine, if not, in my opinion, some of her best). Instead, I think Labatte’s show exemplifies a growing failure on the MCA’s part to think big when it comes to showcasing local artists.
The 12 x 12 series has grown programmatically automated in spirit. It’s as if the MCA believes they need to do little else than place their institutional stamp of approval on the groundwork that Chicago’s gallerists and indie cultural producers have already laid. I have no idea what kind of budget each 12 x 12 project receives but I’ll bet it’s pretty small. This is fitting and often necessary for a Museum project series – up to a point. But in my opinion a museum show by a local artist whose work — let’s be honest — is already well-known to the local art community should be a step beyond the normal gallery fare. A Museum show–even a smaller-scale project-type show–should strive to be ambitious in some way, a knock-your-socks off occasion for the artist to create something that would not otherwise be possible without the museum’s support. I think an important correlary to this last idea is that a 12 x 12 artist should be given the institutional freedom to make a project that is not necessarily the kind of thing that their dealer would want to show (i.e., not easily sellable to collectors).
A brochure prepared for every 12 x 12 exhibition would be another step in the right direction. Take the beautifully produced 3-fold brochures for the Hammer Museum’s Project series as an example. The Hammer’s brochures are produced cheaply. They contain full-color illustrations of the artist’s work and, most importantly, each one includes an engaging critical essay written by a museum curator, another artist, or a well-known writer or cultural figure. So not only do Hammer Projects artists get a show, with a curatorial mandate to “think big,” but they get something that lives on afterwards – an essay written about their work that helps expand critical awareness of their practice. I think the MCA should be doing this too. What if the MCA were to invite emerging, local-area writers and curators to occasionally pen brochure essays for its 12 x 12 artists? Not only would the artist receive lengthy critical assessment of their work, our local writers (many of whom also fall into the “emerging” category) would receive the obvious benefits (and honorarium) of having their work published by a museum. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
If budget is an issue, I think the MCA should cut down on the number of 12 x 12s it does each year (12 is already far too many, in my opinion). Why not do 6 x 6 and up the budget for each show? That way, each exhibition can be more ambitious in scope, include an accompanying brochure/essay, and have more of a lasting impact on the artist and the museum’s audience.
I’m not sure if I would have written these comments at all if an MCA staffperson hadn’t called me at home one evening several weeks ago, shortly before Labatte’s exhibition opened. The staff person asked me if I would be interested in writing about Labatte’s show and/or the fact that it also marked the 100th artist in the 12 x 12 series. So, you know, here you have it, here’s what I think. The MCA staff person was extremely nice and I always welcome such calls, but I couldn’t help thinking that, to a certain extent, the Museum was asking me and other local arts writers to do their interpretive work for them. Those little wall labels provided for each show, which are invariably written in bland museum-ese and which seem to boil every artist’s concerns down to the same three or four issues, are not sufficient. In many ways they do a disservice to artists who have worked so hard to “earn” their MCA slot and are justifiably thrilled at the opportunity to exhibit in one of the country’s top contemporary art institutions.
The MCA needs to do more to make this opportunity count. 100 shows and almost 10 years is long enough to prove the Institution’s commitment to emerging local artists. Now, I think it’s time for the MCA to expand that commitment into something more lasting and meaningful by taking a long look at how they allocate their resources and at what they, and more importantly what their artists, truly want and need from a 12 x 12 exhibition.