The ego has landed
Manick Govinda reports on last weeks British Museum / Arts Council England conference ‘Engaging the Artists Voice: Museums, galleries and artists working in collaboration.’
This conference comes at an interesting moment of structural change. Two years ago the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the abolition of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), with its museum remit transferred to Arts Council England. The purpose of the conference was to promote collaborations between contemporary artists, historical collections, the museum and finally the public.
The day was packed with presentations by museum curators, educators and artists. A good audience of arts professionals, museum staff and artists indicated that there is a real interest in exploring these relationships. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, opened his keynote speech by reminding us why the Museum was originally built – to function as a great historical resource and to bring great human achievement to the public for its edification and enjoyment.
He made the point that since the eighteenth century the Museum has engaged with living artists who have asked questions about society and its structures. The English potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) who industrialised the craft of pottery was also a committed abolitionist, remembered for his anti-slavery medallion with the inscription 'Am I not a man and a brother?'
This spirit of objects being fundamental to expressing a social or historical voice, a narrative beyond words, is best exemplified by the British Museum in its display of works by contemporary artists such as Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) and Sui Jianguo. The most recent and most popular narrative of objects was that of Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an exhibition that challenged some of the museum's historical curators to the core. However, Ian Jenkins curator of the Greek and Roman Collection at the British Museum made an important point about the celebrity artist using the museum as his or her playground: "The ego has landed", Jenkins proclaimed, and curators are expected to fawn over the artist's presence and wishes.
This culture war could have been explored further, but it seemed that the organisers wanted to encourage more museum curators to engage the artist's voice in their work. The celebrity ego was further evidenced by Banksy's exhibition at Bristol City Museum, patronisingly described as a "mash-up", in which the artist like a hip hop sampler re-mixed and re-invented the historical with his signature street art aesthetic. He was given near total freedom, the only rule being that he was not allowed to "harm" any object. There is naturally an appetite for this kind of work – public queues for his display in Bristol were over four hours long. This is stadium rock meets contemporary art!
Bob and Roberta Smith, in the final panel debate of the conference, proclaimed that "the artist's role is to stick it to the institution." Museum curator Ian Jenkins rightfully retorted that the job of the institution should also be to stick it to the artist, recounting his passionate arguments with Perry who thought that Greek Art was posh white man's stuff.
Faisal Abdu’allah mentioned that having probably done over fifty socially engaged projects in his art career, he wonders if he feels like a social worker.
The least ego-driven project highlighted became the most charming for me at this conference. Not wishing to "mash-up" or “stick it to the museum” was Natalie Ryde, artist in residence at Kensington Palaces for six months. She happily talked about having a framework for her presence and commission, leading workshops in printmaking, getting school kids to design wallpapers and giving local people an insight into these historically decorative techniques. She also made new work, a small series of wallpapers which were displayed at the palace. Conventional in many ways, but actually refreshing to hear amongst all of this artist-as-political-activist posturing that was so prevalent in the presentations.
The most problematic, and explicitly direct model of museum and artistic collaboration came from American academic Janet Marstine, whose research focuses on artists and museum ethics. She proposed that the museum must shed its elitism, it must participate in restorative social justice and reconciliation with its local community for its relationship to exploitation and slavery. She highlighted this by citing Theaster Gates’ socially engaged performance intervention at Milwaukee Art Museum (2010). Couched in anti-consumer ideologue, she argued that the museum must be less materialistic, less object-based and more experiential. This fundamentally alters the purpose of the museum. The social work analogy was referred to again by a delegate, to which Janet Marstine responded, "Yes, museums should be social work spaces".
The disdain for great human achievement by a significant section of panelists, artists and delegates was, from my point of view, alarming. An artist delegate received a warm round of applause when he rounded against "great art", and said that all artists should be social workers, that the museum must embrace the vernacular, and that more ordinary stuff needs to be in museums: "We are all artists!" he said. Joseph Beuys has a lot to answer for.
I wish we could all have had a drink together to argue, disagree and discuss; space and opportunity for convivial debate was sadly lacking.
'Engaging the Artist’s Voice: Museums, galleries and artists working in collaboration' was at the British Museum, London, 29 June 2012.
Manick Govinda is Head of Artists Advisory Services at London-based Artsadmin, and a Board member of a-n. He researched and edited Future forecast: Curated space in November 2005 and directed the associated think tank. Formerly arts projects officer at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, his recent projects include the deciBel/Artsadmin Investment in Artists and Curators initiative with Arts Council England, the Artsadmin artists bursary scheme, talent scouting for NESTAs Creative Pioneers Programme and developing an action-research project with Creative Partnerships London East.
First published: a-n.co.uk July 2012
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