Category Archives: Art Galleries

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The Value of an Idea

This week, you may have seen a banana taped to well… something. These funny yellow interventions have been popping up across walls (both material, and digital), and other surfaces all week. This is because of the one used in Maurizio Cattelan’s piece “Comedian” at Miami’s Art Basel, which sold for $120,000.

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I’ve scrolled through some interesting conversations about this banana, but I generally try to stay away from digital debate, so I hadn’t said too much about it – until the kids started complaining. One of the young folks in my life is an emerging artist, she was super annoyed about the price the work fetched, given the minimal amount of technical skill used by the artist to make it – specifically relative to the amount of work she puts into her art. At that moment… I realized that, finally… all my years of arts based education had prepared me for a real life situation!!! And… what’s more, I thought if any of you were struggling to explain to your art-aware students why a banana taped to a wall means so much to so many people, I could possibly help.

Let’s start with meaning, this peice isn’t really about a banana. It’s about an idea. This type of work is called conceptual art, which is a practice in which the artist is using the materiality of the piece to draw our attention to an idea. The idea IS the art – the materials just help the artist explain it.

Conceptual art emerged with post-structuralism, which asks us to re-think our relationships to concepts and ideas. The theory goes like this:  some basic structural knowledge is necessary for us to understand any concept be it supposedly simple (like say, a banana) or complex (like say, economics). Banana is just a word, it could mean anything really, but in our culture, we know what a banana is (usually yellow, sometimes brown, fruit, grows in hot climates, etc.), and what it isn’t (a car, a skateboard, a color, a hat). A post-structural approach asks us to be mindful of the structures that allow our common understandings. BECAUSE a banana could be (and has been) a car, a skateboard, a color, and a hat – and many other things. We borrow and use parts of things to build a scaffolding that holds up meaning in our society - if I tell you this link leads to a picture of a banana car, you already have an idea what that looks like because you know what both a banana and a car “are”. Post-structuralists, like conceptual artists, are asking us to think about that “are” – they draw our attention to things that we take for granted, and ask us to examine them.

So what sort of things does a banana taped to a wall make us think more deeply about? What scaffolding is it using? For me, there’s three main reference points of banana in my life: banana as food commodity, banana as comedic foil, & banana as weapon in Donkey Kong. These reference points are of course individual, so there’s as many of them as there are people, but they’re also cultural: there are shared ideas about what bananas are and what they do that many people agree on.

When I’m looking at this work, I wonder if Cattelan is using the complex issues of the global trade of the banana to comment on commercialization in the art world? Conceptual art is, in many ways, a response to the commerciality of other forms of visual art, because it generally eschews collection, display, and aesthetic value (the purchasers of the piece in this case will get a certificate that allows them permission to mount it, using direction and specifications written by the artist). For example, this work had to be taken down before the end of the show, because of fears of damage. Thinking along these lines, leads us to wonder about the banana as perishable. Is Cattelan asking us to think about the ways that art traditions change over time, their depreciation and appreciation, and their relationships with (or apart from, due to conservation) lifecycles?

The banana was also famously used (by comedians), as a sight gag. It would be tossed, and someone would slip. That slip was not usually understated. Most often it’s an epic fall that causes the unfortunate person to land on their bottom – a reframing of their world if you will, to a new horizontal perspective. This reference has such a strong place in collective memory that it has been built into the fabric of contemporary culture through video games. Donkey Kong hasn’t had his own game since around 2014 (for Nintendo DS), but tossing a banana peel to foil your enemy is an classic element of the iconic game Mario Cart. When you toss a banana in game, you cause your opponent to slip up. If done correctly, this causes the player to lose standing, thereby reframing the in-game world. Is Cattelan demanding us to look at art through a reframing, a new viewpoint, as if we had slipped on the peel? Or is he saving us from slipping, because it’s taped to the wall? Is he asking us to see the absurdity in the piece, and apply it to other works as well?

I could go on wondering, and we haven’t even got to the duct tape yet, but I think I’ve made my point… It doesn’t matter exactly what Cattelan wanted to direct our attention to, because we have paid attention to the work, and brought ourselves to it. We’ve used it to explore ideas. Although this work is clearly complex, with many interesting ideas inside, it makes sense to focus in on the role of comedians, who hold up a mirror to society and ask us to laugh at what we see.

I wish we had one at the museum! If we did, I’d ask students what they know about bananas, (or duct tape) and let their responses lead us into interesting rabbit holes, complex ideas, and deeply personal stories. The upshot is, I’m planning to do that with the other art that’s here anyways.

P.S. Earlier in this post I made a joke here about my educational background, and it’s an easy joke to make, low hanging fruit really – but in actual fact, I  believe that university training, especially in the arts, is a really valuable skillset that has prepared me to navigate the complexities of life (both professional and personal) in important ways. I’m a huge advocate of educational opportunities that speak to the needs of the whole person, which I feel like art approaches better than a lot of other disciplines.

P.P.S. You should know that David Datuna (another conceptual artist) ate the banana as a performance piece, and brilliantly described it as putting a question mark, after Cattelan’s question mark. Also, Cattelan has worked in with duct tape before.

P.P.P.S. $120,000 may be a lot for a banana (we could keep talking about the comoditiy trade and global poervty here) but it’s not a lot for a contemporary piece from an important artist like Cattelan who had another work recently blow up in pop culture. Many works sold for millions at Art Basel Miami this year.

Open Mind – Outsider Art

For those of you coming to the museum this spring we’ve got an interesting exhibit on deck. It’s a photography show, the art of Vivian Maier. I’m not well versed enough in photography to be able to speak to this work in a more meaningful way than Glenbow has already used… here’s what our team has to say about it:

“Vivian Maier’s life has proven to be one of the most enduring and fascinating art world narratives of the last decade. The story of this Chicago-based nanny who pursued photography in her spare time inspired an Oscar-nominated documentary film and several books. Through her furtive pastime, Maier eventually amassed more than 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and more than 120,000 negatives, which she shared with virtually no one in her lifetime.”

I’ll admit, I’m not particularly interested in the content of this show (she says before it opens, then usually falls in love). BUT… I am absolutely fascinated with the legal and ethical complexities of outsider art - particularly pieces where the maker has died.

For me, Maier’s work implies an important question – what is art?

While she was alive, most of Maier’s photographs were undeveloped. Not much is known about her, but there are a few important details that can help us approach thinking about her work. It seems that she was not well resourced. Shortly before she passed away, she was depending on the help of the now-grown children she once looked after, for financial support. Those who she worked for also suggest that she was an extreme collector, sometimes in possession of stacks and stacks of newspapers (I’m not sure how to take this, doesn’t it make her sound like an archetypical hoarder? Almost too perfectly so). Likewise, her previous employers and their networks give conflicting accounts of her personality – some indicate she was like a “real life Mary Poppins” while others say she was frightening and abusive. The case I’m trying to make here is that she was vulnerable in complex ways, and I wonder if her photographs should be considered “art” or an expression of her struggles. To put it another way, I wonder about her intention.

What does it mean to make art? Is it a universal human expression? Or a western construct with particular modalities and frameworks? Does the maker’s intention matter?

Another person who has been made into an outsider artist posthumously is Henry Darger. His vulnerability was much less opaque, raised in an institution, escaped at sixteen, living on the verge of abject poverty, and attending Catholic mass up to five times daily, Darger clearly lived with hardship. Upon his death, his landlords discovered his work: 15 145 page volumes of a piece entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with hundreds of illustrations in watercolor collage. They had his entire apartment preserved, and unbeknownst to him, Darger has become one of America’s most important outsider artists.

Darger’s life in particular gives me pause – what right have we to his work? Neither he, not Maier seemed to have intention to share their productivity with the world. Was this because they didn’t have access to art world connections? Because they were too impoverished to spare resources towards promotion? Because they lacked self-confidence that their work would be valued or understood? Or because they weren’t making art, they were in fact making something else. What if that something else was deeply personal? What if they never intended to share it (indeed, they clearly didn’t).

I have debated and discussed the ethical concerns I have with this type of outsider art in a sort of green eggs and ham style for many years now, and not come to many solid conclusions.  Much greater minds than mine have puzzled over the financial questions of this work, which adds still more layers of complexity to consideration. In the case of Meier, possession of the negative isn’t the same as holding copyright, and courts have long discussed who owns the rights to share and sell her work.

One thing I do know: I and many others have gotten a lot of enjoyment from outsider art (perhaps not to the degree that John Maloof, the primary dealer of Maier’s works who purchased them at auction for a pittance, does). Both of them have inspired several films. Darger’s work is set to music by the band Vivian Girls, named for his central protagonists, and can be seen in video games, comic books, literature, and poetry. In the spring, I imagine many Calgarians will benefit from Maier’s work as well, maybe finding beauty, inspiration, or self reflection in the photographs.

As I’m looking, I’ll wonder whether our enjoyment is justification for what I think, is probably, a kind of theft. She didn’t share this with the world, it was taken, without her permission, and shared. But I’ll also wonder whether the dead should have more rights than the living, and whether maybe she would have shared it if she had the chance.

You might be wondering if it’s appropriate of me to be asking these questions, considering my place at the museum. I think asking questions like this about art makes our experiences with it more rich. I think we owe it to our mission as museums to ask important questions, and to engage ourselves fully and complexly while we look. To enjoy, and to ask ourselves about our enjoyment, what allows us to experience it? What privileges, what paradigms, what laws, what actions… So far from dreading the arrival of this new exhibit which stirs complex feelings in me  - I can’t wait till it’s here.

 

Holiday Season

If you’re like me, you get a bit wound up about the “holiday season” and its modern cultural implications. In the museum/heritage field, I think its perhaps more common to obsess over ritual, belief, tradition, and preservation of these things. Our everyday thoughts are concerned with the story and the symbols of our culture. I guess I’m concerned that when we do something ritual (from brushing our teeth, to putting up a holiday tree), I know why, and I can confirm in my heart that I believe in its rightness. When mom is hard at work baking cookies I’m not much help, staring with wonder and excitement into the gingerbread, but still asking “why”?

So, in answer to that very important question – the Tate offers giant slugs. Because meaning is what you make it, and we’ve all got a hand in making the traditions, rituals, and beliefs that we pass on – whatever we want those to be!

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When you visit… But Museums Are Boring!?

One of the best parts of being in Museum School is that moment at the end of the week when we do our “closing ceremony” and we talk about all the things that students experienced, saw, felt, and learned to enjoy here. There’s always so many insightful comments from young people and adults, and it’s a wonderful moment for me.

Usually the discussion is pretty diverse; even though it’s the same programs, artifacts, and building, every week these young minds interpret things in their own way and fascinating perspectives always emerge.

However, there is one topic that does often come up. It sounds like this:

“When I first came here I thought it was going to be boring”

Parents always howl when they hear this… I think it’s one of those moments where one person says what a lot of others were thinking.

Now, I know, that by the end of museum school, even if you’re an adult volunteer (and maybe only spent the day), you are going to see museums in a new light. You’re going to know what I know: that this is a sacred space, and it is challenging, rewarding, and sublimely beautiful.

But I can admit, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Museum School is a special place. We work hard to make sure that students grow to see the museum, and in turn themselves, in new ways. We want you to keep having special experiences here, but we know that it’s not always easy.

Museums require a skill set, just like most public spaces. Sure anyone can blunder through a shopping mall, but there’s a difference between the person who spends 20 minutes there, and the person who spends 6 hours. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you spend 6 hours in every museum, but at the very least, I’d like to help you get what you want, find the deals, and always know where the closest washroom is before you go (I’m still using the mall metaphor here, I’m sure you can find the washroom).

You’ve built part of your skill set to enjoy and get the most out of your museum experience while at Museum School. But next time you come it’ll be without the support and scaffolding of the program. So I’ve put together a few notes to help you remember what you already know, and make the most of your next museum adventure:

Your visit probably starts before you come; your visit to the museum will be a bit more interesting if you look at what’s on display, and learn a bit about what you want to see. Knowing things like to social context of the period, or even the textbook definitions of some of the techniques or influences will make your experience much more rewarding.

Don’t try to see everything; just don’t set yourself up for that kind of failure! Most museums take several visits to see the whole collection, and even small museums may take awhile to really appreciate and know. This connects to the previous point. When you walk in, know what you’re most interested to see, and don’t worry about visiting too much in one day.

Remember, it’s quality over quantity; museums generally keep 10% of their collection on view at any one time. They don’t even let you see all of it -never mind expect that you’re going to try to on one visit! Aim to have an engaging experience with a few galleries or pieces. (This is a pro tip if you’re visiting a museum on vacation. You still get to tick it off your bucket list, but you don’t need to pressure yourself into spending the whole day at the Met and missing the DIA Dirt Room or the Cyclone at Coney).

Don’t be intimidated. Art is for everyone. There is no wrong way appreciate a work of art (our security guards might want me to mention, at a distance of about 30 cm… but other than that… no wrong way!) Whatever you see in a piece is what is there. And that’s enough sometimes. Of course, the more you know about the history, connections, artist, genre etc. etc. etc. the more rich the work becomes.. but there is more than enough meaning in most pieces to just appreciate for its own sake. When my mom and I go to a gallery together, we look for the works that have animals in them. You might appreciate colors, or trees… no wrong way.

And lastly… (yes I’ve saved the best…) Challenge yourself. Look deeply at something that doesn’t appeal to you. Pull out that phone and research something or someone you know nothing about. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Look inside yourself and ask “how do I really feel?” (eep!)

Challenges make our experiences more memorable. As we do our closing ceremony in Museum School usually we will teach the students how to use the singing bowl. They’ve gotten used to hearing us use it when we’d like their attention, and then it’s their turn to command the bowl (and our attention) when we close. But there’s a specific way to use it, and the combination of trying something new and being in front of a group of peers makes the task seem much more challenging that it really is. But in doing that, we help the students remember the experience, and everything they’ve said in our closing circle.

Some remember it so well, that they come racing home and ask you to take them to a museum.

Importance in Art

Sometimes a piece of art just movies you.

One day, when I was prowling around Art of Asia, no doubt looking for a young person to question and harass into deeper thought ;) I spotted a really beautiful sculpture. Actually, I had just left a student who was sketching a lion, which I mistakenly called a dog, and was laughed at. It happens.

So I’m walking my way from this Liog, trying to regain my composure, and I spot it. Before I tell you what it is… let me read the label. Fool me twice eh?

I don’t know what it was, but something just drew me to it. Let me tell you about what I saw.

The sculpture was a small figure, almost cherub like, with wide swirls of hair like pasta. Despite its size, it looked strong; legs apart, sturdy, with one arm outstretched. Clearly it’s very old. Showing signs of wear and deterioration over time. It’s a human like form, but there’s something otherworldly about it too. A body made for a specific purpose, in perfect proportion, to stand and hold that one arm up. Like much of the Glenbow’s Art of Asia collection, the contours of the body have a round fullness to them and a distinctive feel and tone, much different from the realism of Roman sculpture of the same era.

Turns out, it’s a Dwarf, an attendant, from Nepal, and made some time in the 10th century. And, it turns out, it’s missing someone.

This dwarf is one of a pair.

The other one lives at the LA County Museum (wonderful! Go if you can!)

I wonder if they miss each other.

This is an interesting piece of art. It’s got a significance culturally, historically, and socially as well. It says a lot about the world we live in, as well as our institutions, and our culture, that we can come to own important objects such as this one and display them so far from their home.

But objects also have personal significance. This one drew me in, now I’ve written about it, and it takes on a new importance to me and everyone who reads this (hi mom!)

But, maybe they have an importance specifically their own.

Does it matter that they are apart?

Is that yearning for lost love that I see on the Dwarf’s face? (As I write this, someone in Nepal is shivering with disgust at my cultural blunders).

But we in museums must weigh importance.

How much value can we create out of one Dwarf? The answer needs to be: more than it would garner anywhere else. There are so many other important places for this dwarf to be, (maybe not with its partner…I get that wood is probably not capable of love but you never know) but maybe in other places, where other people might need it too.

Bus since it is here, we work hard to make sure that the young people in Museum School really, really see it.

P.S. Here’s a link to see the Dwarf at LACMA… The moment when I found it was a very good one. Have a look at this link, then come in to the museum for your own moment.

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Collaboration is key.

School Programs 2013-007656I have been doing a bit of reading about the interaction between classroom teachers and museum educators when designing school programs.  Turns out there isn’t any, or at least, there is very little.  So, what can be done?  To me, it seems like a no-brainer.  Ask the people who use the museum what they want from the museum.

The Noguchi Museum in New York has a really interesting take on this.  They formed a Think Tank made up of teachers and museum educators to explore the  the question, “What does success look like for a school tour at an art museum?”  The group met five times over the 2012/2013 school year and published their findings which were in the form of suggestions for those “booking, participating in, offering, and leading art museum tours for school groups.”(Noguchi Museum, 2012/13 Teacher Think Tank).

This is where it gets really interesting.  When I looked at the document and then looked at the way school programs are offered and presented in 2013/14  it turns out the museum acted on all of the suggestions.  They immediately changed old policy.  Cool.

What do you think?

 

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Art Museum Education

I took a workshop from Mike Murawski while at a Project Zero Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. It was focussed on multidisciplinary viewing of art – movement, sound, journaling, etc. We worked with a Jackson Pollock work for over an hour – and we could have doubled that! I think the blog that he moderates really addresses the style of learning we love – slow down, look deeply, form your own meaning. It is aimed at museum educators but really, we are all in the same boat.

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Art Museum Teaching
www.artmuseumteaching.com