Artist researching the archive; autodidact or academic?
Curating The University: Research, Collections and Curators. Talk delivered as part of a panel discussion with Ana Paula Cohen, independent curator, editor and writer, Valerie Connor freelance writer on art, culture and policy and lecturer at DIT and MAVIS/IADT, Catherine Morris, Cultural Coordinator, Trinity College Dublin & National Library of Ireland, Matt Packer, Curator of Exhibitions & Projects, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, Amanda Ralph, artist, MAVIS/IADT lecturer, chaired by Maeve Connolly writer and IADT lecturer. 11 Feb 2011.
In 1995, as part of an MFA at the University of Arizona, I’d been enrolled in a New Genre class, the final outcome of which was a group event on the steps of the Center for Creative Photography.
The CCP is an archive and research center on the university campus that holds over fifty archives of the great North American photographers of the 20th-century such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Richard Avedon, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand and Edward Weston.
The venue must have been chosen because of the likelihood of attracting a passing audience, the researchers and visitors to the CCP. Our activities however drew a less than appreciative response – a complaint resulting in the event being immediately closed down; either some form or nudity, or the breast-feeding of a dead chicken, had caused offence to a member of the public.
The students’ feeling was this was a form of unnecessary censorship – an artwork being enacted outside a cultural institution on a university campus located within walking distance of downtown Tucson. The State of Arizona, mostly the metropolitan area around Phoenix may not have voted Democrat since Harry Truman’s election in 1948, but on the steps of the CCP you were more likely to encounter a Birkenstock-wearing, vegetarian who volunteered at the local, public-access, community TV station than prudish Victorian sensibility. The question was why Terry Pitts, the then Director of the Center for Creative Photography would so easily give in to a public complaint and close down an art happening outside his mausoleum of modernist photography?
What’s not always apparent to the visiting researcher or the non-resident graduate student is how the daily management of an institution can be impacted both by an initial, poorly thought-out rationale for a center existing on a university campus, and for the vested interests around the canon of the discipline, still alive and calling shots through their presence on the board:
Described in a 2003 article in the Tucson Weekly:
"Tensions" is an understated description of the bruising battle that has raged between the center and the UA in recent years. Placed under the authority of the library ever since its founding by Ansel Adams and then-UA president John Schaefer, the center began chafing under the arrangement after Carla Stoffle arrived as dean of libraries, and exerted more control over the center than previous deans did.
The noted photography critic A.D Coleman describes the CCP’s management chain of command, on his blog Photocritic International:
That chain includes Carla J. Stoffle, Dean of Libraries and the Center for Creative Photography at the the University of Arizona-Tucson (the CCP’s Director reports to her); the CCP’s Board of Fellows, which includes John P. Schaefer, co-founder with Ansel Adams of the CCP when Schaefer ran the university; and the Ansel Adams Trust, on whose board Schaefer also sits, along with managing trustee William Turnage and Los Angeles attorney David H. Vena. Having all these hands on the tiller, in itself, explains why CCP directors don’t last long. That condition gets aggravated by the fact that, as one former staffer (who prefers to remain anonymous) described to me these various influences on the Center, “It’s a real nest of vipers.”
Responding to the students, who for the most part were oblivious to the larger currents within which their project swam, Andy Polk, the then Director of the School of Art emailed a couple of day later asking if I’d represent the student body on a panel being convened to discuss censorship. Struck by the wording of the email, I wrote back, “sure I’d represent the student body”.
The panel from left to right consists of Andy Polk, then Director of the School of Art, Dr. Maurice J. Sevigny who was then and is currently the Dean of The College of Fine Arts, Terry Pitts, the then Director of the Center for Creative Photography, the well-loved Peter Bermingham, Director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art who died suddenly in 1999, Joyan Saunders artist and lecturer running the New Genre department and I who had been pall beared, using the Museums freight elevator, to the discussion in a black coffin.
The fact the forum was convened in the Art Museum; that a member of the panel discussion could show up wearing nothing more than body-paint without causing a stir, underpins the realities at play – the Art Museum has the autonomy and responsibility for its own actions that the Center for Creative Photography does not.
I said earlier that the rational for the CCP being within a University campus was not originally well thought out; in a 1975 letter the University President John Schaefer had reassured Ansel Adams that the "affiliation ... with the Library is more a political expedient than a rational ultimate setting."
What he hadn’t reckoned with is a force more clearly outlined in a more recent letter to Provost Sypherd in which Carla Stoffle, Dean of Libraries argues her case to keep the Center under her command, she warns that without the Center the UA's library rankings would drop from 27th nationwide to around 40th. Though not spelt out, it’s clear this might also impact the University rankings, currently at RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity) receiving more than $500 million US dollars annually in research funding.
Terry Pitts has since been fired, along with a few subsequent directors brave enough to take on the post though, Carla Stoffle is still the Dean of Libraries with the CCP under her charge.
That seems like a long preamble, but for those not familiar with the complex workings of large (38,000 students) research university, I did want to outline the non-neutral territory that university archives and museums work within.
What’s interesting in the background of the slide, apart from the fact that we’ve moved the site of contestation, from the living history of modernist photography to the more distant and hence less contested, thirteenth century, are the paintings, part of a group of 26 panels that form the “Retablo of the Cathedral of the Ciudad Rodrigo,” that once adorned a church in Spain. These works are part of a gift to the Art Museum in 1944 by the Kress Foundation.
The European art collection of Samuel Kress, founder of the dime store chain, was dispensed wholesale to big and small museums alike; the only requirement was that they had to be in states where there were Kress stores.
I’m going to move more quickly now, but I want to draw your attention to two ideas – the financial underpinnings of a museums collection and the gap between self-starter collector to academic scholarship.
For the former it’s been said ‘to be a giver, you have to be a taker’ and like many philanthropic donations from Samuel Kress to Bill Gates these collections were made by generating profits in worlds devoid of art, dedicated to ‘hard cash and shrewd business’. Regarding the latter idea, Kress never arrived at liking art for its own sake, he was an appraiser of the commodity. But though he valued that commodity in a professional manner, committing significant resources to the storage and restoration of works and got personally involved in the arrangement of his works in museums, he didn’t have a sense of scholarship about his collection. A quote from a 1953 Life magazine article indicates how he negotiated that:
A special curator was installed in Kress’s apartment to compile books on the collection and to be always on hand to help Kress out of a sticky moment when he might be asked about one of his artworks. Kress always ducked such questions by parrying with a hasty call to the curator: “Get out the books.”
An exhibition that was important during my first year at graduate school was Fred Wilson’s 1992 “Mining the Museum” exhibition at Baltimore’s Maryland Historical Society.
Viewing the back listings of exhibitions at the Historical Society of that time, it reads pretty much as you’d expect; Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, The Art of Ship-Model making, Penny Toys.
However, the earlier “Baltimore’s Cast-Iron Architecture and Ornamental Ironwork” reads as somewhat prescient now.
This well known image from “Mining the Museum” exhibition of Wilson's display of slave shackles and elaborate silver tea goblets together in the same display case.
For the work "Cabinetmaking 1820-1960, selections from the Maryland Historical Society", Wilson selected several of the fine examples of plantation furniture curated at the Baltimore museum, then arranged these chairs around a slave whipping post that was used until the 1950s, and stashed in the museum’s basement in 1963.
The idea for the show came from Lisa Corrin, a curator at the newly founded Museum of Contemporary Arts, who initiated the collaboration between Wilson and the Historical Society, and this explains the incongruity of it appearing in the list of standard historical exhibitions mentioned earlier.
Wilson had been creating “mock museums” but this was the first time he had the opportunity to use an actual museum and its real acquisition history.
What is interesting is Wilson’s work method in what has been described by Kathleen Goncharov as “not just criticism, but thoughtful critique”.
It may seem that someone like Hans Haacke has been doing work like this for years, but what’s key to Wilson’s Baltimore project, is that he focused on excavating and recovering a specific history, American racial history, from a specific range of existing materials;
“A western art museum is something I’m familiar with, that’s one level of understanding that I already have. Working in the Historical Society in Baltimore, it was important for me to understand Baltimore a bit, at least absorb people’s feelings about their world in order for me to make a piece that fit within that place.” … “Part of the problem with ethnographic museums in general is that these things are put on view without the culture or the people who made them. There’s very little sensitivity around that and I didn’t want to be a part of that. So I really avoid ethnographic collections.”
Wilson describes the way in which he gains access to a museum;
“I never contact museums to do a project. They have to want me there because what I do is so different from what a normal curator would do. Often it’s about the institution and one never knows what I’m going to bring up. So they have to really want me there.”
This finally brings me to where I want to go with this talk – the artist as researcher and whether they can legitimately present themselves as academic or whether it’s preferable for them to disguise themselves more peripherally as a kind of autodidact.
An example is a work I’m currently making based at the Centre for Irish Studies as the National Gallery of Ireland. I’m not based there as an artist. I’ve gained access as an art lecturer (not specifying studio art lecturer or art history lecturer) based on my proposal to research the provenance of a particular painting, and that was my original intention. However the restrictions on photocopying the material has unexpectedly generated a new work:
“As I can’t photograph the documents and am wary of trying to navigate the red tape involved in getting permission to photocopy, and the subsequent permission to use the photocopy images, I realise I’m restricted to using the tools of the laptop keyboard and trackpad, Microsoft Word for Mac and the fonts that came with the original the operating system in order to recreate the documents.
All of a sudden I’m engrossed, engrossed beyond the content and beliefs of the time and the human stories bound up in ownership, inheritance and theft of art, the celebrity status of the musician who is the subject of the portrait, and questions around institutions, class and nationalism embedded in the material; I’m engrossed following the original writer’s process, forging their signature, trying to recreate their notepaper, following the archivists process using the method material culture study and realising how this beginning is going to determine the outcome of the project.”
© Amanda Ralph