Archive for the Corporations and the failure of art Category

The promise of America is that nobody is born to lose, but who has never wondered, “Am I wasting my life?” We imagine escaping the mad scramble yet kick ourselves for lacking drive. Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement…. Failure conjures such vivid pictures of lost souls that it is hard to imagine a time, before the Civil War, when the word meant “breaking in business” — going broke. How did it become a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red? Why do we manage identity the way we run our businesses - by investment, risk, profit, and loss?
Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2006)

In American culture, the market is worshiped increasingly as an ideology rather than being seen for what it is—a natural product of human social evolution and a set of valuable tools through which we may shape a healthful and equitable society. It is under the spell of this ideology—this new religion—the we have fallen into complacency. Personal profit is no longer the means to an end but has become the end in itself. America’s traditional immigrant values of resourcefulness, thrift, prudence, and an abiding concern for family and community have been hijacked by a commercially driven, all-consuming self-interest that is rapidly making us sick.
– Peter C. Whybrow, M.D., American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (2005)

(Regarding what fed the Internet bubble that burst in the early 2000s): “You had a lot of novice investors who got into the market looking for easy money, without any regard to the fundamentals. These stocks were running on fumes.”
– Bernie Madoff, Washington Post, Jan 2, 2001.

On Tuesday, the Star Tribune announced, in a story titled “Upheaval continues at the MIA,” that yet another local arts leader, Stewart Turnquist, has resigned. Turnquist was particularly supportive of, and beloved by, the great mass of local visual artists. He was known for his calm demeanor, diplomatic nature, and ability to keep a program vibrant despite ongoing institutional attacks and growing lack of board support.

Here’s what Strib arts writer Mary Abbe had to say of this news:  “The departure of Turnquist, coordinator of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), signals continuing turmoil at the institute where management has been in upheaval the past five years. In that time, it has had three directors and lost at least seven curators and top administrators to other jobs, retirement or death… As word of his imminent departure leaked out Tuesday, artists worried that it signaled the end of the MAEP program, the state’s most prominent showcase for Minnesota talent.”

I came to know Stewart Turnquist well in my capacity as leader, between 2002 - 2005, of VACUM, a MN-based art critics association. He was instrumental in helping to set up a regular lecture series by our group at the MIA. A few years before I came to know Turnquist better, I described him thusly in a story about the organization he ran (the MAEP):

The meeting starts with opening comments by program coordinator Stewart Turnquist–a senior civil servant in this tumultuous democracy. He is a dapper and cheerful man–he reminds one of a favorite uncle–and has served as the program’s coordinator since early in 1977 (that is, for all but the program’s first year). “Hard to believe, but I’m your obedient servant,” Turnquist begins, after introducing the other members of the MAEP support staff (who are all employed by the MIA): program associate Randall, and program assistant Karen Harstad. He then launches into an hourlong, homespun slide-show recap of the past fiscal year–a state of the union address, or perhaps a state of the art.

In 2005, I wrote about an internal kerfuffle at the MIA — involving a prominent local corporation (which I dub the “Bullseye” corp) — that may have eventually helped lead to Turnquist’s ouster at the institute. At that time, Bullseye Corp had intervened in the scheduling of MAEP shows (the first time such a thing had ever occurred) — pushing back one MAEP show, and extending another — so as not to mess with the timing of a Bible Art show that BE Corp was financing. “What’s most strange,” I wrote, ”is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution.”

I’ll also add that, a few years ago just after I returned to MN after a short stint away, Turnquist confided in me the on-going struggle he was having to keep hostile fringe agents at the MIA (in particular, meddling board members) from attempting to reign in, or even dismantle, the one-of-a-kind artist-run exhibition program (the MAEP) that he had led for more than 30 years. I’m sure Stewart was not surprised at his fate at the hands of those who are now steering the big art ship. Still, I feel for this great and gentle local arts warrior, and I wish him well with this blessing:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

With the scattered attention span and the fickle and dimming memory of the Internet and its attendant (Alzheimer’s-striken) institutions, I was only mildly surprised to discover in recent weeks that some of the publications for which I’d written arts profiles, reviews, features, and other articles in the past ten years were rapidly expunging their online journalistic databases of recent writing by me.

Therefore, in order to preserve at least a small part of local (Minnesota) art history for purposes of research and novelty, I am building on this blog-page my own live-link personal online database of some of the more than 170 pieces of arts writing I’ve completed in the past decade-plus. (Note: To finish listing all the available story-links is going to take just a little bit of time, so please be patient and check back often.)

Another key participant–among the many participants–in the ongoing failure of art in America are art museums. Two very recent articles, one by my colleague Sharon L. Butler in American Prospect and one in the New York Times, reveal how modern American art museums are contributing the situation.

According to Butler, American art museums, like American consumers at large (emphasis on the large), have become enamored toward the trend toward super-sizing. She lists a number of national museum expansions that have, while sexy and alluring (to media at least), have actually alienated museums from core patrons and local arts communities.

Butler writes:

Often such plans result in oversized, over-designed new structures that veer away from an initial vision of intimacy that the museum founders envisioned between the patrons and the artwork. All too frequently, new museum space is not even used to display additional artwork, but rather to house cafés, gift shops, and administrative offices. Even when new construction does yield more exhibition space, the predominant hope of most museum directors is that the expansion will lure new donations by contemporary collectors. Work in storage tends to be viewed as unfashionable, irrelevant, or inferior. While new art may indeed come hither, it is less likely to sustain the museum’s original atmosphere and, therefore, the goodwill of long-standing patrons.

While intimacy and meditation may not be as sexy as dazzling new architecture, they may do more to deepen the relationship between the visual arts and the community at large. Professional baseball and football did not become wildly popular because big stadiums are inherently compelling, but because people learned to love the games as children when they played and watched them on lowly sandlots.

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, meanwhile, Jori Finkel reports on big art museum’s growing tendency to accept significant amounts of money from for-profit art galleries and art dealers. This is despite the fact that often these dealers and galleries have a large stake in certain artists’ careers, and they stand to benefit by any rise in the prices of these artists works (something that big museums often help contribute to).

Finkel writes:

…not everybody in the museum world is comfortable with the trend. Bruce Altshuler, director of the museum studies program at New York University, compared it to accepting money from a corporation to display its merchandise…

“There are two basic questions,” Mr. Altshuler said. “Was the decision to mount the exhibition made because of funding from someone with an economic interest in the show? And did that funding lead to the ceding of curatorial decision making or some influence on the choice of works in the exhibition?” He added that even if a show’s curator can confidently reply no to both questions, some damage might be done nonetheless. “There might not be any actual impropriety, but the goal is to avoid even the appearance of it,” he said.

Two years ago, I wrote about issues related to this on mnartists (a website of local arts information sponsored jointly by the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation). One article questioned whether it was wise for every major art institution in the Twin Cities to be seeking to expand at the same time, and compared the impulse to consumers driven to the point of agitated distraction by the endless marketing push of our culture. In another article, I reported on grumblings I’d been hearing at the time from folk who were working with the big local arts institute, which they said had become increasingly beholden, in its programming decisions, to certain major local corporate donors.

Here’s the crux of my ranty analysis of the situation ca. 2005 (edited slightly for updating purposes):

…what truly worried me this summer [of 2005] were the rumors that began to filter east about the inexplicably non-Minnesotan things occurring in certain arts spaces back home. For instance, the changeover of a show at a big and prominent exhibition space at a big and prominent local art institute was, in unprecedented fashion, postponed at the latest possible moment–despite the fact that the exhibition schedule is determined and contracted out months in advance—and shifted (read: suppressed) to the quiet summer scheduling slot. Then, when the announcement for the postponed show finally arrived it was contained in a plain white envelope. The relatively banal picture-card contained within, when revealed, depicted an image of the work by Davora Lindner—a topless marionette of (gasp!) undetermined and ambiguous sex.

Censorship is, of course, nothing new in the course of American and world history, and artists for centuries have been contending with varying degrees of control of their work from church, state, and patron. In America, censorship efforts often take on the most ludicrous sorts of contortions. This is because while our culture nominally prides itself on its adherence to tenets of free speech, the government actually gives only token backing for arts—partially, I suspect, to avoid coming into conflict with its own constitutional mandate for free speech when the inevitable calls for censorship come. So, in the end, politicians who feel it necessary to act as arbiters of taste and values in the arts that they don’t really support in the first place come off sounding, at best, self-servingly demagogic, and, at worst, misguidedly and idiotically out-of-touch.

The tax-exempt, nonprofit nongovernmental system that America has put in place to support the arts has worked to dampen the demagogic impulses of politicians. Art organizations of repute seek donors—individuals, private or public foundations, and businesses—who are willing to give them needed money for the honor of attaching their name to an artistic enterprise. When everything clicks, and money is gathered, artists and arts organizations are then free to present the work they desire, while the supporters gain status and repute by association with the arts. It’s a give-and-take that provides benefits to each side. And while you’d imagine that some people with money wouldn’t be able to help themselves from interfering with the art, for the most part the managers of artistic product generally are able to stave off the meddling influences of the moneyed interests, and all live happily ever after. The system generally works, and art happens.

I had known for some months before I left town—ever since I had been indirectly asked on behalf of a certain locally based mega-globo-corporation (let’s call it the “Bullseye” Corporation) to write a review on a work of Bible art it was sponsoring that a certain large local art institution was under increasing pressure by this particular moneyed interest (that also happened to be sponsoring the construction of several new wings to the institution). What’s most strange, of course, is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution. After all, the designer of a new wing just happened to be a chief designer for a line of products at the BE Corp…

Further, the run of the sponsored Bible art show in question, I later found out, had also been extended—to overlap the time frame that the show of racy marionettes was originally supposed to run. So I just don’t know. Has the need for money and sponsorship in the face of local institutional expansions and capital campaigns and shrinking foundation and lackluster state support left the boards of certain arts institutions increasingly willing to censor itself? I’m told too that the institution in question even recently established an internal curatorial oversight board to be sure than no offending art would see the light of day again in this particular exhibition program, as well as in the institute at large. Is big money suddenly that much of a censoring influence in Minnesota arts? (I’ve not even begun to consider or investigate—I can only imagine–the way that the big money is affecting the big glowy aluminum-mesh contemporary art center across town.) And if this is happening, is this a healthy direction for us to allow our arts institutions to take?

As to the obvious question–why the Bullseye Corp would even care to influence something they have no particular expertise in (i.e., art)—well, that’s anyone’s guess. Apparently, and you didn’t hear this from me, the big money wags at the Bullseye Corporation did not much want the sexually vague dolls overshadowing the Bible pictures at which they were (calculatedly) tossing so much of their trinkets-and-crap money. After all, there’s no room for sex in the Biblical circles that the Bullseye suddenly seemed intent on attracting, just as there is no room for sex apparently anywhere in the Bullseye Corp…

So what can we do about any of this? How can we overturn our state’s seeming increased reliance on the sanitizing lucre of corporate America and so avoid becoming beholden to the whims of ad hoc corporate oversight? For, be assured, Minnesotans–once this sort of dictatorial influence is fully put in place, it will be some time before ordinary people with ordinary moral codes will be able to supplant the corporate big-money influence over the future directions of the state’s art. There’s likely no turning back once we’ve let ourselves be led down this dingy-brick road.

And for those of you who shrug at a little censorship, ask yourself if you really want such decisions made by companies that don’t know art from ten-dollar trinkets manufactured in Malaysian sweat shops. If you think art already sucks as it is, just imagine the types of exhibitions the Bullseye starts arranging once it owns the Institute it’s buying up piecemeal. Consider the fallout that will occur across the country when talented, hip, and enterprising young people pondering a move to Minnesota begin to hear of the appallingly underhanded dominion and arbitrarily moralizing influence corporations are having on the (formerly) creative spirit of the state.