OCCUPY ARTS ADMINISTRATION
HOW TO SHADOW CURATE IN RURAL SCOTLAND
A book review of ARTocracy – rule of art OR governance of or by art?: Art, Informal Space, and Social Consequence: A Curatorial HandBook in Collaborative Practice, edited by Nuno Sacremento and Claudia Zeiske. (June 2012)
Despite a remarkable wave of creative resistance to business-as-usual from Wall Street and Tahrir Square, to 53rd Street where stands the Museum of Modern, there nevertheless remains one edifice still to be challenged. Categorical assumptions and pedagogical orthodoxies dominate this field, and yet it is responsible for turning-out hundreds of largely self-effacing cultural operators who make possible the day-to-day operations of ‘serious’ Culture. Among other things they are also responsible for the public appreciation of art, regardless if it is framed as conventional, relational, experimental, or outright transgressive. Artist Maureen Connor describes this overlooked force as the invisible labour that services elite institutions, often at the expense of their own artistic practice and edification. Why then has something so profoundly elemental to the cultural life of society been spared an occupation, let alone a focused critique? Why is it that the very machinery reproducing the 1% art world not been dismantled and re-imagined? Why is this critical cultural space bereft of serious theoretical attention? Perhaps it is because the world of the arts administrator –the force in question here- appears so unassuming and so utterly ubiquitous that it is merely overlooked, much like certain service providers –street cleaners, curry deliverers, cargo handlers, even page-turners at a concert– invisibly carry on unnoticed. But when these dead do awaken, then what?
The real world of arts administrators is not pretty. Drearily tasked with reproducing the art world’s professional mien the hidden army of cultural managers consists of ‘executive’ directors working art spaces so miniscule that she or he must also answer the telephones and email, as well as carry out the rubbish. It is home to behind-the-scenes fundraisers and event planners putting their own art careers on hold in order to earn a living helping other artists exhibit their work. We should also list the armies of interns and volunteers drawn from surrounding communities and soulfully in search of deeper meaning, the installers and food handlers and guards, and of course the curators, no, not the stars of the global art scene seated first class to Venice or Miami, but rather those unheralded minions manacled to their cubicles in small towns and large, too busy to even glimpse an economy air seat because the next grant deadline, installation crisis, or technology meltdown looms around the corner. Yes, the subliminal troops of the art world keeping the local kunsthal clean, the not-for-profit gallery groomed, the residency programs programmed, and the community art spaces bills paid more or less on-time, this precarious 99% is poised for an unprecedented rebellion.
The critical curiosity stirred by Occupy Wall Street is nowhere to be found in the world of contemporary arts management. If you don’t believe me, start by searching for articles, essays, or teaching materials not conspicuously deferential to corporate modes of business management. End the crushing weight of student debt, indeed by all means, however, what if the debt amassed is also an ideological burden placed upon the shoulders of a future generation of museum staffers by those too timorous to challenge the power of Hugo Boss, Saatchi, BP, or Sotheby’s? Becoming a professional shill for public relations-greedy oil companies or cigarette manufactures has got to have some opponents, and indeed I note here two small intellectual oasis in this pedagogical wasteland: Derrick Chong’s pithy primer Arts Management (Routledge 2nd edition 2010), and Pierre Guillet De Monthwoux’s provocative treatise The Art Firm: Aesthetic Management and Metaphysical Marketing (Stanford Business Books, 2004). If the first book is a singular example of how to simultaneously present critical analysis while still providing a useful information to students, then the second, which admittedly is aimed at the MBA crowd and not the aspiring arts administrator, reveals through its sheer eccentricity just how uninspired the discipline of arts management has been and still remains. To these two let me add Artocracy.
Although published a year prior to OWS independent curator Claudia Zeiske and artist and academic Nuno Sacremento have produced a compact ‘handbook’ for arts administrators with a big title: ARTocracy: Art, Informal Space, and Social Consequence: A Curatorial HandBook in Collaborative Practice. Diligently focusing on rural cultural initiatives in Europe, Artocracy offers some alternative views on managing art in the provinces that just might be applicable to the city centers as well. Sacremento and Zeiske’s began their experiment at Deveron Arts, a small cultural venue located in the rural town of Huntly in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. According to the handbook the people of Huntly are not very partial to contemporary visual and plastic art. As architect and critic Paul Shepeard puts it in his foreword, ‘once there was people’s culture in saloons and brass bands – then “protest” culture – then an ironic art that was all critique and nothing more “what use is that?”’ Still, the handbook shows Huntliens quite active in other ways including participating in sports, gardening, listening to fiddle music, dancing, and of course playing the bagpipes. And perhaps it is telling that among the first visualizations we encounter in the book is that of a road-killed rabbit. What kind of sign is this? Is it meant as a warning?
In fact photographs of flattened fauna happens to be among Deveron Arts first research projects, carried out by artist David Blyth in 1995, except that appearing early in the pages of the Artocracy handbook I read the dead hare not as a reference to Joseph Beuys, but as a caution to sophisticated urbanites that cosmopolitan assumptions about art and culture should be kept in check. However, it is one of the shortcomings of Artocracy that such potentially bold assertions (if I am reading it correctly) are not followed-through as wholeheartedly as they might have been. Instead, all too soon the authors turn to focus on how to wed the needs of Huntly’s local ‘community’ to the logic of the global art world. It’s a perfectly fair turn to take of course, but isn’t it in those odd encounters where rural life and ‘worldly’ outlook collide that untapped sites for critical intervention reside?
That drawback aside there still is much useful information for the novice arts administrator in this concise compendium. For example, clever visualizations of how the pair carried out their cultural mission abound including pie charts and flow charts and graphic diagrams mapping funding sources, stakeholders, curatorial methodologies, learning mechanisms, and marketing models. This uber-display of managerial functions is clearly not aimed at the seasoned arts administrators, but is most likely intended for those artists, academics, and independent curators who, not unlike Sacremento and Zeiske, find themselves in charge of exhibition venues despite little or no professional training operating institutions. I would go so far as to call this handbook an attempt at demystifying the field of cultural management, of making it transparent and accessible to the 99%. It is this kind of visual occupation of a professional discipline that is only mountable by those who stumble into its parameters from elsewhere. And with that in mind, Sacremento and Zeiske offer up a pair of engaging cultural concepts for others to work with. The first innovation goes by the name ‘the town is the venue’. The second has the mysterious handle of ‘shadow curator’.
Borrowed by Nuno Sacremento from the Commonwealth model of a Shadow Cabinet or Shadow Minister, the Shadow Curator (which was also the topic of his PhD in Museum Studies) is meant to function like an institution’s internalized interrogator. Ensconced within a given administration the Shadow Curator is nevertheless charged with officially representing a contrary point of view. The concept is further elaborated upon in Artocracy by way of Chantel Mouffe’s anti-dialectical model of political agonism in which a discourse of respectful disagreement replaces a Marxist concept of class antagonism. Thus the Shadow Curator is ‘not a competitive position – not wanting to take curator’s place – but to be like the loyal opposition in a political party or government.’ (18) Setting aside the author’s fashionable nod to Mouffe’s utopianism, which is already withering in the wake of the financial crisis and its x-ray illumination of society’s concrete polarities, Artocracy’s Shadow Curator remains an engaging idea. For while it is prudent to question how someone embedded within an organization, including within its financial structure, can also generate genuine criticism of that same organization, I would say that this experiment seems justified as a good-faith attempt to reshape basic institutional hierarchies from within.
That said it is disappointing that there is no transcript showing precisely what kind of exchanges actually took place between the curator and her shadow other. What we do find instead are a few superimposed purple memos injecting mild doubts about the book’s official narrative such as ‘What does the town think of this?’ or ‘How deeply are artists supposed to engage with communities in short residencies?’ But this gambit to incorporate a bit of critical ‘shadowing’ in the handbook’s very layout is never fully realized, and disappears all too soon after a few pages. Artocracy, tells us about this shadow curatorial process, but it does not give us the chance to witness it for ourselves, and that seems like a lost opportunity.
The concluding section of the book functions like a literature review. It contains an annotated bibliography, a glossary of terms, and two reprinted essays on the theory of community art practice, one by American critic and activist Lucy R. Lippard, the other by European writer and curator Nina Möntman. The bibliography and other resources are limited by the lack of thoroughgoing research into they key topics addressed in the book, such as the history of social practice in art and cultural activism, as well as alternative forms of arts organizing and so forth, and yet it offers a starting point for additional research and discussion. Meanwhile Lippard and Möntman’s contributions primarily address the question of who makes up a specific community, for example the inhabitants of a place called Huntly, but they also seek to answer ‘what does the artist do with that knowledge, if anything?’ Lippard is long associated with breaking down barriers between art and life, artists and non-artists, and thus part of a process that complicates familiar patterns of cultural organizing. Möntman’s investigations on the other hand focus on institutional critique, and tend to eschew notions of community as an uncritical category that is external to any rigorous research in advance art practices. She favorably cites Miwon Kwon’s well-known call for artists to establish ‘experimental communities’, as opposed to intervening in seemingly organic ones. (167) Both of these reprinted essays are now several years old, and curiously, the positions of Lippard and Möntman or Kwon that once occupied opposite sides of a spectrum now appear far less contradictory. With the advent of social media, OWS, and the Arab Spring ideas of participation have fully entered the world of high culture. Museums now clamor to include ‘communities’ in their programming, effectively side-stepping the question of just how community should be defined. Add to this the irony that it is corporate sponsors who no longer feel comfortable funding elite culture without some attempt at pleasing a broader popular constituency. Its as though institutional critique and community arts have not so much merged with each other, as they have become superimposed within the same space and time.
So just how does one train a new generation of arts administrators to think differently, critically, even anti-institutionally when so much of their professional education is oriented towards the global art world and its corporate sponsors? These fundamental changes require not only developing new methodologies of working and teaching arts administration, but they demand a basic transformation in the language of cultural management itself. I recommend Artocracy therefore to those who are just beginning to tackle these issues because there is much to learn from here, as well as plenty to disagree with. Meanwhile let’s begin contemplating the overdue task of occupying arts management from the bottom up.