Today is the opening of the 76th Whitney Biennial. There are about 50 artists participating from various American cities. Approximately 100 miles southwest of New York City is a small town called Haverford in Pennsylvania. This locale was the last stop of the five city, traveling exhibition titled, The People’s Biennial. When art enters institutions and commercial galleries, its essence changes. These nuances in context was examined through a series of panel discussions and dialogue that was held at the University of Pennyslvania’a Institute of Contemporary Art this past weekend, in tandem with the exhibition at Haverford College.
Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffman co-curated this exhibition and challenged themselves by curating from hundreds of lesser known artists by way of open calls in each region. This practice idyllically presents an unbiased cross-section of artists who are not necessarily considered to be the next diversified asset, rather a diversified point of view. One of the most unique aspects of this exhibition is the surveying of artists in areas where a market place for commercial consumption is marginal–Portland, Oregon; Rapid City, South Dakota; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Haverford, Pennsylvania. Experiencing the work in these cities and towns is a disarming and humbling experience. The pretense is non-existent. In a way, the title of the exhibition is self-reflexive, in that it is not just about the work but, the people who create it.
The panelists on Saturday, February 25 included Tom Finkelpearl, Executive Director of the Queens Museum; J. Morgan Puett, Artist and Co-Founder of Mildred’s Lane; Andrew Suggs, Executive Director of Vox Populi; Astria Suparak, Director and Curator of Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery; Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time; and Transformazium an art collective with Leslie Stem, Caledonia Curry, Ruthie Stringer and Dana Bishop-Root. Each of them had an opportunity to talk about how their work through their respective affiliations relate to the exhibition and its deviation from the standards from today’s curatorial practice:
Tom Finkelpearl engaged the audience with statistical information about Queens, as the most diverse borough of New York City. He talked about the challenges and triumphs of being an atypical museum in a ethnic rich community that presents language, education, economical and generational barriers. His team is comprised of community organizers who function as ambassadors of the museum to create highly relevant programs and community services that the immediate residents can develop a genuine interest and participate in. For instance, the five-year project originated by Tania Bruggera titled, Immigrant Movement International functions as a cross-national space for various ethnic groups including, but are not limited to, Ecuadorian, Dominican, Mexican, Chinese, South Asian, and Korean. The bureau in Corona, Queens provides a platform based on purpose that allows people to share their experiences to strengthen existing ones and initiate new ones.
J. Morgan Puett took a more organic approach to presenting her and Mark Dion’s living art project called Mildred’s Lane. She expressed the underpinnings of the desire and the manifestation of this magical place like she was reading from a book of prose punctuated by a slideshow of the various settings, activities, and people who temporarily inhabit this space. To Puett and Dion, it is important as artists to realize a world outside academia and be allowed to create work in a different environment that ameliorates the senses. They have coined, workstyles, a revival of the wholesomeness in art-making, buttressed by domesticity, through pedagogical means. This conceptual space is “in the form of a new contemporary art complex(ity).” In the early 1900s, Mildred’s Lane was a homestead set in approximately 100 acres, located by the Delaware River, today it is now an amorphic, fluid artist colony that emphasizes “the culture of being an artist.”
Andrew Suggs opened his presentation with a slide of words that described the commercial art world and ended with a similar slide of words that nearly proscribed its dogma. There are certainly lines between the two worlds, however not all lines are equal, some are solid, bold and dotted. The shifts in thinking and level of access to culture further motivates the public to search for truth and definition. In 2010, Vox Populi, the member-based artist collective in Philadelphia, participated in No Soul for Sale, also referred to as, Festival of Independents at the Tate Modern in London, UK. Suggs, called attention to the ambiguity in the relationship between the political roles and motives of the organizers and the payment and absence of financial gain by the artists. He did not lean towards one or the other, but merely remarked about the nuances of each side.
Astria Suparak and Jon Rubin’s “stadium-worthy” attended exhibition, entitled, WHATEVER IT TAKES: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions was a clever spectacle and thought-provoking social case study. The familiarity of Pittsburgh Steelers fans to the subject drew a record-breaking crowd for the Miller Gallery. Football season was in full effect and the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl, it could not have been a more timely exhibition. The dichotomy between sports fans and art fans are not disparate, they glorify objects, adorn their spaces, hang pictures on walls, and re-enact scenes of their favorite moments. These similarities go a level deeper for sports fans because this social event transcends gender, race and generation. Their fervor is attributable to channeling hope through a team amidst the economic loss and years of struggle of a city.
Nato Thompson was energetic as usual. He pointed out how problematic the word “art” has become. He asked a rhetorical question “what does art mean?” and he answered, “who cares?” The fact is, the world is changing and that “art” is becoming more and more academic with the rise of MFAs and PhDs in Studio Art. The word art no longer applies, when the world is becoming self-aware and understands that social engagement is reappearing as a zenith in the way society understands and communicates through images and action. He mentioned that Leo Burnett as the maker and not Richard Prince. The execution, use and application is taking the lead in transforming the world as opposed to the useless nature of aesthetics.
Transformazium is an art collective based in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, an impoverished area just outside the city limits of Pittsburgh that is predominantly African-American. In 2008, after the location for their exhibition fell through they found and purchased an abandoned and fire-damaged church filled with structural debris. Through autonomous fundraising they were able to raise money to sustain some of their projects, but not all. Their homework on “deconstruction” paid off. With the help of a construction specialist, they were able to determine what part of the building would be safe and reusable. They were able to sell a portion of those materials to cover some of the renovation expenses. This space functions as a sustainable model for the community, creating jobs, skills, and a collaborative environment through art.
From the panelists above, it is apparent that curating and cultural programming has taken on a revival of socially engaged art. Alan Moore, one of the founding members of ABC No Rio and member of Collaborative Projects (Colab), wrote a book titled, Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City that goes in detail about art collectives as early as 1969 that include, Guerrilla Art Action Group, Art & Language, Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, Collaborative Projects, Political Art Documentation/Distribution, and Group Material.
People’s Conference Participating Artists:
Caleb Belden, Mary Bordeaux, Ally Drozd, Judge Evans, Portland Community Court, Laura Deutch, Gary Freitas, Jorge Figueroa, Sylvia Gray, the Elsewhere Collaborative, Jim Grosbach, Nicole Harvieux, Warren Hatch, Jake Herman, Maiza Hixson, David Hoelzinger, Howard Kleger, Cymantha Diaz Liakos, Ellen Lesperance, Jonathan Lindsay, Dennis Newell, Bob Newland, Raymond Mariani, Alan Massey, Jim McMillan, Jennifer McCormick, Beatrice Moore, The Mutant Pinata Show, Joseph Perez, Bernie Peterson, Bruce Price, David Rosenak, JJ Ross, Andrew Sgarlet, Robert Smith-Shabazz, Rudy Speerschneider, Andrea Sweet, James Wallner, Presley H. Ward, and Paul Wilson
This exhibition was produced by Independent Curators International and its final rotation:
January 27-March 2
Sharpless Auditorium, KINSC
370 Lancaster Avenue
Haverford, PA 19041