I recently attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles. Before leaved, I asked my fellow alumni from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art whether any of them planned on attending. (MICA hosts a reception for its alumni at the conference.) One of the responses, from alum Raymond Majerski (Hoffberger 2003), was typical of the understandable frustration many job seeking MFAs feel towards the conference: “Hundreds of black-clothed people wringing their hands for two teaching jobs? I’ll pass.”

It is a perfectly common and reasonable response, especially when one considers the standard format for employers interviewing at CAA. You apply for the job, and they ask you to indicate on your cover letter “whether you plan on attending the College Art Association conference, as that is where we will be conducting interviews,” or something similar. It sounds innocent enough, until you think about it: it rougly translates as “Do you plan on paying your own airfare, lodging, and other costs, to attend a conference at which we may or may not choose to interview you?” Those of us with terminal degrees in art are seeking to sell our skills, and unfortunately, it’s a buyer’s market. Fair or not, it’s the way things are, for the same reason that you collect your paycheck after completing two weeks’ work, but you pay your rent before you spend a month living there.

It’s easy enough to become embittered by the process. I certainly felt a pang of resentment as I typed out those cover letters, saying at the time something to the effect of, “I am happy to travel to the College Art Association Conference for an interview scheduled well in advance, but will not otherwise be attending.” None of those applications resulted in an interview, and as I walked through the Interview Hall, seeing those same institutions conducting interviews with, what did Commodus say in Gladiator? “Which wiser, older man is to take my place?”  Certainly I felt some jealousy.

I made the decision to attend the conference even after I had become fairly certain that I wasn’t going to be interviewed there. There is a lot more to the conference than the job search. This was my third time attending, and I made the decision to attend based on the panel sessions I saw the last two times (New York 2007, Chicago 2010). The CAA panel sessions cover a wide range of topics pertinent to contemporary art, art history, career development for artists, pedagogy, and related topics. Some highlights:

We headed to “Perceptions and Assumptions: Whiteness,” hosted by the National Alliance of Artists from Historical Black Colleges and Universities. We came in partway through a presentation on “race movies,” which were basically films made by and for African Americans at a time when they were largely denied starring roles in mainstream (white) cinema. Because movie theaters were segregated at that time, at least in some areas, these movies were either shown in theaters catering specifically to black audiences, or in mainstream theaters at special midnight showings for black audiences, called “midnight rambles.” Midnight Rambles is also the title of a documentary film on the subject. The last presenter presented images from the exhibition, “Perceptions of Whiteness: New Works by the National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Both of these presentations were welcome exposures to pieces of visual culture of which I would have been otherwise unaware.

I headed over to see “Native American Surrealisms.” I had to find out the answer to a riddle inherent to the title of one of the presenters: “The Opposite of Snake.” It turns out, the opposite of snake is bird. Also, the opposite of one is ten, and the opposite of water is ice. These were the revelations of a narrative from the childhood of Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, as retold in this presentation by Mary Modeen from the University of Dundee. As I watched the presentation, I realized that I’d seen a piece of Durham’s recently, at the MCA Chicago. I hadn’t been previously familiar with Durham’s work, but his Self-Portrait (1986) is included in the exhibition “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.” Like all of his work, it displays an absurdist wit and a sharp-edged sense of humor. It’s included in the section “Gender Trouble,” perhaps because of the rainbow phallus captioned, “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful.” Like the kid said in Goonies, “That was my favorite part.”

I went to “What Makes a Competitive Candidate?” Unfortunately, I spent too much time at lunch, and missed the first presenter (Scott Contreras-Koterbay from East Tennessee State University), but from what I heard he had some good advice. I’m going to look him up and see if I can’t get a copy of his paper or notes. Dennis Y. Ichiyama from Purdue University talked about some of the challenges you’ll face once you get that full time job: useful, I’m sure, but one of those “let’s cross that bridge when we get to it” things for me. Linda Neely from Lander University was more straightforward to the topic, and gave some basic suggestions for job seekers. They were pretty common sense (have a good cover letter, etc.) but solid advice, especially for those just starting out their search. Lastly, Sam Yates, listed as an “independent artist” but actually a teacher with experience at a variety of institutions, gave his take. He gave some good, if also common sense, advice, like: Don’t get too chatty in your cover letter, and if you do, make sure your chat is accurate: for example, the disastrous cover letter, perhaps and perhaps not hypothetical, attributing things about Kentucky to Tennessee, and another mis-locating a university from Nashville to Knoxville. He also stressed how disastrous a single typo can be in a cover letter or resume. The Q&A session that followed revealed a lot about the hopes of the aspiring college art teachers who’ve come to the conference hoping for their first teaching job. “Is it really necessary to do an adjunct job before getting a full time job?” (The panelists agreed that yes, that’s usually the way it happens, but I know of exceptions.) “If a job specifies a minimum of a certain number of years of experience, is it even worth applying if you’re short of that?” (The panelists, Ichiyama in particular, were emphatic that you shouldn’t waste the selection committees time applying if you don’t meet the minimum qualifications, but again, I know of at least one case in which an applicant with only two years experience got hired for a job when the posting said you needed four.) “Aren’t adjunct jobs basically just word-of-mouth? Or can an unsolicited letter of interest work?” (The consensus was that yes, they were usually word of mouth, but Koterbay mentioned that he’d gotten his first adjunct job via an unsolicited letter of interest, and I myself got my first adjunct job by walking into the art department’s office, packet in hand, and asking to meet with the department head.)

My favorite panel session, though, was “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid.” This session was amazingly well-attended; people were standing or sitting against the walls, although predominantly because of an insipid tendency for audience members to sit in the seats on the outside of each row, forcing subsequent sitters to shuffle awkwardly past, a la Fight Club: “Now a question of etiquette as I pass: do I give you the crotch, or the ass?” Many professionals opt out of the ass-crotch dilemma and stand awkwardly in the back until their legs get tired, at which point those under 30 sit on the floor for “story time,” while those over 30 finally mutter “Excuse me” while grinding their nethers into the fashionably bespectacled faces of those who sat first but didn’t think to move to the middle of the row…or, perhaps, love the scent of art historian ass. This crowding at least spoke to the popularity of the topic…wait, museum labeling practices? No, not the popularity of the topic: the importance of giving your panel session a clever title.

Clever titles aside, though, the session was really good. “Space, Seam, Scenario: The Many Operations of the Museum Label,” presented by Laura H. Hollengreen, Georgia Institute of Technology, contrasted the National Gallery of Austria in Vienna with the Donald Judd museum in Marfa, Texas. In Vienna, each painting in a room has a wall label discussing a different aspect of that painting. So for example, one painting might have its provenance discussed (but nothing about technique, or subject matter, or artist’s biography), while the next might have an explanation of the life of the artist (but nothing about the other topics). On the other hand, in Judd’s museum, there is no wall text whatsoever, allowing the monolithic aluminum sculptures to speak for themselves against the silent backdrop of the desert. Both solutions were presented as viable antidotes to the formulaic “name, date, title, short paragraph about the work and the artist” format common to most museums.

Kim Beil, of University of California, Irvine, presented “Countercheck Your Crude Impressions”: Interpretive Texts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1872-1912. This was basically a description of this museum’s accompanying catalog and guidebook, the latter of which was presented as a narrative in which a Virgil-like friend guides the Dante-analog protagonist through the exhibition, explaining it all the way along. Elitist undertones (the protagonist had been to Europe and fraternized with the Queen’s gardeners!) belied the founding statement of the museum as a place for people of all classes to be improved by culture.

Things really started getting hot with Kate Green, University of Texas at Austin, discussing “Nazi Wall Text: The 1937 ‘Degenerate Art Show’.” For those unfamiliar with the exhibition, it presented the work of early Modernists alongside that of mental patients and “primitive” cultures, as evidence of its inferiority, foreignness, and Jewish and Communist influences, all of which the Nazis sought to contrast with the pure, Neoclassical, and oddly homoerotic Socialist Realism they championed in a simultaneous exhibition in an adjacent (and much more opulent) building. The Degenerate exhibition is infamous for the sloppy, propagandistic curation, which sought not to present the work in its best light, but in its worst. It’s easy to condemn the Nazis for co-opting art in service of their ideology, but, Green asks us, is this because we object to the intellectual dishonesty of their argument, or merely because we disagree with their premise of Aryan superiority and German nationalism? It’s a thought that gives me pause when I reflect on recent and powerful exhibitions with a strong message, such as “This Will Have Been: Art, Love, And Politics in the 1980s” at the MCA Chicago.

Leo G. Mazow, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville presented “‘Holy Rollers’ and the Dual Nature of Labeling, “ in the wake of some minor controversy following an exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s work. Benton depicted members of Pentecostal Christian churches, whom he (Benton) called “Holy Rollers,” a term now widely considered pejorative. In some accompanying text, Mazow failed to indicate that he was using Benton’s preferred term for his subjects, despite the negative connotations now (and perhaps then) associated with it. Mazow was adequately contrite, and the audience laughed sympathetically at the appropriate moments. It functioned for me largely as anecdotal evidence for the importance of being careful with one’s choice of words, particularly when dealing collectively with a population who could be offended by those words.

Last, and most salient to my interests, was Jennifer Tyburczy of Rice University, discussing “Warning: Explicit Display in Museums.” She gave numerous examples of the kind of “you might not like what you see” cautionary signage which often accompanies exhibitions or otherwise potentially offensive subject matter. The presentations’ point, or at least what I got out of it, was this: Cautionary signage does indeed allow parents to steer clear of a Mapplethorpe exhibition when they’re not ready to explain to their children in tow what fisting is. “You see Timmy and Sally, sometimes when two people love each other very much…” But, at the same time, it validates that viewer’s conception of that artwork as offensive. In the case of Mapplethorpe, this may not be much of a problem. But when the Old Master’s nude paintings of women carry no warning labels (despite John Berger’s analysis of their problematic history in Ways of Seeing, as well as the Guerilla Girls’ campaign re: the same), but an exhibition including images of transgendered nudes does, then the museum implicitly agrees that (or at least fails to question why) a nude non-transgendered women is inoffensive to a reasonable person, but a nude transgendered man or woman may be offensive to a reasonable person. Ditto a photograph of two men kissing, or of two women kissing. Similarly, if a religious icon carries no warning that it may be offensive to atheists, but a piece critiquing religion does carry a warning label, then the religious point of view is upheld as normative or at least meriting special consideration. These issues should come to mind when, in the future, we see exhibitions that carry warning labels, and also when we see those that don’t…and we might ask why, or why not.

These panel sessions were the main reason Steph and I attended the conference, but they weren’t the only reason. The conference was a great excuse to get out of Chicago during the winter (the weather in LA was great), and to put real life on hold for a few days. It was also a great chance to check out the art scene in a new city. On Thursday, we checked out the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ “Naked Hollywood: Weegee In Los Angeles,” and “Kenneth Anger: Icons.” Steph’s a big Weegee fan; I’d never heard of him.

After a pretty brisk circuit of the museum, we headed down to the Westin Bonaventure hotel for a reception for alumni of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Meeting up with old friends is another, often-neglected aspect of CAA. Faculty member Barry Nemett was there, and he remembered me and my work, which was cool, and I met some people who turned out to be friends of friends in that pleasant, “what a small world it is” kind of way. We also ran into Jenny Kendler, a Chicago artist whose work we’ve curated as part of the Chicago Artist’s Coalition BOLT residency (and who hosts our portfolio websites through her company, Other People’s Pixels). The next night we headed over to the Velaslavasay Panorama, for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumni reception. Steph and Jenny both got their MFAs from SAIC, so they were there, as was our friend Oli Rodriguez. Then, as a very pleasant surprise, we ran into our friend Conrad Freiburg (BFA SAIC 2000), and a fellow Hoffberger MFA who had gone to SAIC for undergrad, Katherine Rohrbacher.

Saturday we visited Conrad’s studio, he played us some tunes on his ukulele, and got some burritos, then headed out to see the art openings in Culver City and Santa Monica. We hear a lot about LA’s art scene, as being the sort of parallel equal to New York, consigning Chicago to a bronze medal third place, at least in terms of reputation. In practice, what we saw seemed fine, equal maybe to a good night in Chicago, but nothing to be intimidated by. Blum & Poe was showing “Requiem For The Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha,” a lot of monumental, resource-intensive looking sculptures. Carter & Citizen, friends of Conrad’s, were showing my favorite work of the night: “Dmitry Strakovsky: The Way We Tell Stories That Tell The Way.” Due to some zoning restrictions regarding the side of the street they were on, they were also the only gallery able to serve alcoholic beverages, so while everybody else was handing out grape juice and peanuts, they had beer. Luis de Jesus, the one LA gallery whose name I was familiar with, was showing “Tilt Shift LA: New Queer Perspectives on The Western Edge,” a group show that was very solid, albeit appearing (at least superficially, to me) to have been made by artists who happen to identify as queer, rather than of artworks specifically addressing queerness. The last gallery we hit, Honor Fraser, was showing large monochromatic paintings by Rosson Crow, “Ballyhoo Hullabaloo Haboob.” As we were leaving, Conrad pointed out to me that Dustin Hoffman was standing in the window of the gallery, talking to someone. I turned, looked, and realized that seeing him standing there, a celebrity, but in an art gallery, was the perfect ending to my trip to LA.

The next, 101st College Art Association Conference will take place in New York, from Wednesday, February 13th to Saturday, February 16th, 2013. I plan on attending…interviews or no. I hope to see you there.