In the first of his monthly columns for Dezeen, V&A senior curator Kieran Long argues that today’s obsession with authorship and celebrity “leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world” and calls for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century.
Long, who was an architecture journalist before being appointed to curate design, architecture and digital at the V&A last year, points out that museums like the V&A focus on handmade, one-off objects at the expense of the mass-produced, anonymous objects that predominate in the real world. “The museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through,” he says.
Below he sets out “95 Theses” for contemporary curation, including provocative statements such as “Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do” and “Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics”.
Every morning, on the way to my office, I pass a sign that reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the building is always telling you to do something. The didactic, Victorian and Edwardian decoration asks you to pay attention to nature, to design and manufacture, to the provenance of objects, even where your food comes from. But this particular sign is deeply serious in its upper-case, gilded typeface. It can be seen only by V&A staff, and most often by the people who empty the bins in the service road at the back of the museum.
As a motivational slogan, it’s espresso-strength, but it also betrays an emphasis at the V&A on the handmade, the artisanal and the one-off that design institutions, the media and designers themselves share. An object that an artist’s or craftsperson’s hand has touched has far more chance of making it into the V&A’s collection than something mass-produced or anonymous.
In our China gallery, for very good institutional reasons, there are no contemporary, mass-produced objects. The twenty-first century is represented by artisanal glass and works of conceptual furniture design: the museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through. Dezeen has a similar emphasis: while the site is catholic in its tastes, the anonymous, the mass-produced and the semi-designed are suppressed in favour of the work of a fairly coherent group of designers.
There are all sorts of pretty reasonable explanations for this. The most banal is, of course, that star designers are click bait: celebrity matters, especially in the media. On the other hand, some might argue that designers’ work is simply better than the anonymous manufactured stuff that surrounds us. It’s easier to love the milled aluminium monocoque of Jonathan Ive’s Macbook than the awkward black plastic housing of a traffic light.
The emphasis on the authored leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world. In future months, I will use this column to try to broaden the conversation about what design is, to try to move beyond a myopic interest in what designers and architects do, toward understanding what their work tells us about the world we live in. The others writing here (Sam, Alexandra, Justin and Dan) are all much better at this than me: I’m looking forward to reading their work. read more
The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.
December 9, 2010 · Print This Article
Tomorrow students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will unveil four new exhibitions in the Sullivan Galleries, including Having and Being Had, a show that explores “the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums.” The latter exhibition also includes a website featuring Q&As on curatorial practice with Chicago curators, cultural practitioners, and me, whose ‘practice,’ such as it is, falls into neither category. All four shows look really interesting – an opening reception for them all will take place tomorrow evening, Friday, December 11, from 4:30-7:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th floor. Read on below for details on Having and Being Had, along with descriptions of the three other shows on view. All shows run through January 22nd (note that the galleries will be closed for the holidays from December 24 – January 2nd).
Having and Being Had
Having and Being Had stages a performance on the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums. As the title suggests, curators and audiences are as much authors of a legitimizing narrative as they are framed by it. The curators of this exhibition complicate our expectations of museum display by inviting the dynamic participation and active imaginings of the viewer. Having and Being Had invites audiences to reconsider the ways in which language, collections, object value, and display technique seduce audiences with illusions of access and objectivity. Art exhibitions educate and entertain, but do they also mislead and deceive the viewer? Having and Being Had exposes curatorial hierarchy, dismantles curatorial voice, and manipulates display space to engage audiences in the power of their own experiences. On display are the ethics of curatorial practice and the viewers’ imagination.
All the best,
This exhibition features new work by the artists and writers in Text Off the Page 2010, including collaborative projects, performances, installations, and language-based projects.
Featured artists: Shanita Bigelow, Troy Briggs, Annette Elliot, Sarah Jones, Nazafarin Lotfi, J.M. Lowe, Joel Parsons, David Scheier, Corkey Sinks, Jillian Soto, Hurmat Ul Ain, and Colin Winnette.
An evening of Readings/Performances in response to works in the exhibition will be held on Saturday, December 11 at 6:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries.
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The eight artists participating in the Video Installation course attempt to investigate, analyze, and confront various aspects of this practice by focusing on issues of separation and contact. Their work tackles formal questions emerging from constructing multichannel installation, as well as from the intersection of a single-channel, time-based medium with a given space and performed actions.
Featured artists: Emilie Crowe, Lindsay Denniberg, Marco Godoy, Mikey McPariane, Brianne Milder, MZL, Wang Ye-Feng, and Courtney Bird Ziegler.
Stories of Relativity
How do we relate to one another? The nine artists in this exhibition explore the complex nature of human connectivity, considering how time, identity, and interpersonal tensions shape our relationships and affect our interactions.
Featuring recent work by: Hope Esser, Jang soon Im, Je Je Je Jiyeon Lim, Zihan Loo, Cheryl Pope, Casilda Sanchez, Chryssa Tsampazi, Andrew Norman Wilson, and Wei-Hsuan Vicky Yen.
Curated by Amelia Love (MA 2013), Curatorial Assistant, Department of Exhibitions