Whenever several institutional curators get together to talk about regional art
and curating it, the discussion nearly always turns out the same (a discussion
of familiar institutional minutiae and curatorial preferences)... so I avoid them.
Well, except when I sit on them like I did in 2008
or 2003 for Core Sample with Michael Darling (then still at MoCA),
Elizabeth Brown (The Henry), Randy Gragg (then at the Oregonian), Jane Beebe
(PDX Contemporary) and myself. The point I made for this panel (by getting up from the genial
table and walking with the mic) was that Portland was in a state of change and
upheaval and any show that didn't address that energy wasn't relevant. It wasn't
a brilliant statement, simply a true one that in hindsight has been validated
on an international and local level time and again. It remains accurate because Portland persists as
an artist destination and lately the art schools have all upped their games
producing a glut of home grown MFA grads in addition to the emigrants. I moved
here 12 years ago on April 1 1999 with the specific idea that a lot of changes
were about to occur and a vague sense that I might be useful. In 2000 I became
a curator and critic and the
rest is history
Generally there is no incentive for Northwest institutions to do an excellent
(therefore potentially redefining) regional survey as doing so only makes the
next one tougher and positions the institution as too crucial in deciding area
hierarchies (a political can of worms with every gallerist, artist and collector
lobbying like mad). Also, the curators who assemble these shows are generally
not trying to establish themselves as bleeding edge practitioners in contemporary
art (many active artists in Portland are). Instead, most institutions shoot
for a survey that draws a decent audience promotes a little good will and ingratiates
itself amongst a broad array of patrons artists and other creatures of culture
(critics being the vultures?). In other words the shows are about the institution's
position in the region, not the state of cutting edge contemporary art in the region.
Hence, nearly every institution has some sort of survey to preside over and
the way it is done says a lot more about the institution than the artists it
ultimately shows. No institutional survey in the Northwest is a truly crucial
barometer of achievement here, the solo shows tend to matter more. Even Whitney
biennialers aren't terribly rare. Thus, I'll get excited when only when someone gets a solo show
at the Whitney, or better yet the Hayward
Artists often don't understand institutional politics but regional survey's
leave curators vulnerable like nothing else and though Ive done them myself
I've always had a completely free hand. That never happens for curators at major
institutions. Still, I understand the trepidation... as all curators have
to walk a line between intuition, patrons (funding), the artist pool and an
overall awareness of the world and overall critical climate. Also, one can never
get beyond the regional discussion, the real trick is moving through it to reveal
the hopes, fears and insecurities highlighted by surveying your own back yard.
Curatorially you can be Custer or Crazy Horse (or one of their soldiers).. you
can be a bellwether or a bulwark. You can be an agent of change, it's messenger
or the butler at the door running interference. It is that simple and regional
surveys are great at making where you stand clear.
Locally, the smarter artists, curators, critics and are mostly unwilling to
define Northwest art (beyond the fact that we know our environs are important)
and because the art world is international (we do live in an instant information
age) the criterion by which everything is judged will always be international,
even if the checks written by patrons are primarily local. Thus, institutional
surveys of the regional are always tinted by the patronage of that institution,
which can lead to schizms.
The problem is a place like Portland draws new artists from around the world
to its environs and those same artists have inherently international careers
and aspirations. They work and live in Portland for the lifestyle and comradereie
of their peers and probably don't care that much about local institutions unless
they are recent MFA's trying to build a career. If Portland artists sell their
work they often do so through dealers elsewhere. Yet there is a sense that area
institutions rely too much on mostly conservative Northwest galleries as a barometer
Thus, the question of regionalism is a red herring. The real discussion centers
around the institutions and patronage... what does an institutional survey of
a region say about the institutional priorities and plumbing of the area? The
surveys also reveal the strengths and failures of curators like nothing else.
For example, how aware is that institution of it's various audiences and expectations?
Is it capable of having a multilayered, self relflexive and philosophical discussion
with that audience?
Here are the 10 main ways regional shows fail or should I say, refuse to
detonate in the art going public's consciousness:
1) Overhung. It is something which anonymizes and marginalizes the individual
artists as extras in the institution's larger movie. No institution in the Pacific
Northwest is so awesome that it can do this effectively (like the Whitney often
does). Too many artists says, we arent very confident about this work,
to the viewer. Sometimes there is a lot of ground to cover but with so many
regional surveys in the Northwest we don't have that problem.
2) Artists past their prime. Sure 1 or 2 elder sages is a very good thing but
dont pick artists that are no longer at the top of their game. Instead, give
them retrospectives if they are so important that we must revist them and
witness their decline in agonizing detail. I prefer people who just get better.
3) Artists that have been over shown already and or do not have new work specifically
for the survey exhibition.
4) A general lack of excitement or anticipation over what might happen when
these artists show up and play in a room together. Certain artists capture people's
attention, they are at the top of their game and people either love them or
hate them. Lack of polarized or at least strong response means the artist is
safe (pay attention to critics, we keep track of this way better than most institutional
curators do). Some artists have simply found their level already and curators
need to make certain the show isn't defined similarly. A little trust in the
right artist can yield huge results.
5) Avoid stereotypes or use them in an intellectually curious way that explores
why a stereotype exists and if the phenomena has some validity as a trend.
6) Institutionally following a process rather than developing a
sense of who are the most relevant artists doing work that activates a discussion
of our times. A good curator has people they can listen to, a great curator
has an eye and an innate sense of when an artist is onto something that goes
way beyond their hermetic studio practice and goals. Note, all work is not studio
based so this requires something akin to telepathy... so good luck if you dont
have that skill and try plan B and listen to good people. A sucessful show always
has a few wild cards that surprise us all.
7) Being seen as choosing artists based on what gallery and or collector collects
the work. Seattle has a lot of good collectors but they dont really dig around
their own scene that well. Portland artists focus more on collectors and dealers
outside of Portland so you can't look locally here either. All curators know
artitsts and it is important to get outside that wheelhouse when doing a big
regional survey. Still quality matters... if your old college roommate is a great
artist in their prime that is perfect for the show, don't avoid them, just ask
yourself... are they really that good? Quality is king and critical acuity paired
with trust and daring are the jewels in the crown.
8) A general tendency to tone down the works by disparate artists in a group
show rather than try to exacerbate their differences and unique talents. For
example choosing off white works by 15 artists generally means a curator is
guilty of this. I call it decorator curation and any formal criteria can lead
to this, color, shape, material even the age of the artists will produce surprising
connections that might make a show look out of date... unless of course that
is what you are going for.
9) Curate the show with a predetermined philosophical argument rather than the
exploration of the questions at hand. Instead start by looking for the relevant
questions, ask which artists are relevant to that discussion then question your
findings and artists that are outside your wheelhouse so far. Some artists embody
certain ideas as community leaders, but I always question whether it's too
obvious or not to use them. Using the same defacto environmental or minimalist
artist in 15 different surveys is a slow painful kind of death for that artist.
10) Not enough time. New work requires time and installation art is frequently site specific. 6 months is a bare minimum but 12 is more ideal. 8 month is likely the most any show will allow.
Before we go any further here is some historical background for the regional surveys,
in general they no longer are crucial for a serious art career and are more social
events than anything.
The most influential, IE successful institutional regional surveys in the past
decade or so have been:
One of the stars of the 1999 Oregon Biennial Heidi Schwegler's Body Transformed, 1998 (photo Bill Bachhuber) Still probably her best piece.
1999 Oregon Biennial, curated by Katherine
. It infuriated people by putting what one viewer described as garbage
art (I call it installation and post minimalism) next to Lucinda Parker's
paintings, and introduced Portland to brash worldly contemporary art by Heidi
Schwegler, Jacqueline Ehlis, Sean Healy, Brendan Cleneghen, Nan Curtis, Storm
Tharp (all before their prime) etc. It took a lot of chances and the curator
recruited artists rather than merely waiting for them to apply. Kanjo who is
now at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was less defined by the patrons
than by her own very sharp set of eyes with a similarly worldly outlook. She
blended it with historical artists like Tom Cramer and Lucinda Parker. The show
reset institutional expectations in Portland and revealed schisms. Kanjo left
PAM within a year but somehow that show had elevated Schwegler, Ehlis, Healy,
Clenaghen and Cramer as top tier stars in the galleries. This set the precedent
for the biennial as the kingmaker in the scene... something which is problematic
and probably why Bruce Guenther sought to get PAM out of the Oregon Biennial
business. I agree, large museums should NOT be the primary talent scouts in
their environs. Even The Greater New York show doesnt do that. The Oregon Biennial
certainly became both a political headache and necessity, a ladder for aspiring
artists. In fact, I wasn't that thrilled with this 1999 show. Looking back a
lot of the work was underdeveloped, but then again people still talk about this
one. One can't argue with results,
2001 Pacific Northwest Annual, Curated by Sue
at the Belleview Art Museum. In a brand new Steven Holl Building it
was handsome international looking show that featured Melody Owen and Matthew
Picton among others. It had stunning craft but it was very reflexively done...
not apologetic or overly fetished. The idea always had to be just as strong
or stronger than the workmanship. I really liked this show, very well executed
in all manner but it did have a lot of artists in it. It was a brand new building
BAM Biennial Clay Thowdown
jurors: Bif Brigman, collector (Seattle, WA); Stefano
Catalani, Director of Curatorial Affairs/Artistic Director, Bellevue Arts Museum
(Bellevue, WA); Akio Takamori, artist (Seattle, WA) and Namita Wiggers, Curator,
Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, OR). It wins points for taking a specific
theme and exhaustively adressing it with energy and a sense of discovery. Similarly
I think Blue Sky could do a photography biennial. There is definitely something
to be gained in limiting the show criteria and a clay thowdown is a great idea
as it sets up a potential series of themed shows. Wood, Glass, Metal, Paper? It's
influential for being good and showing a way through the grab bag, yard sale style
Overall these successful shows usually take place when something is in the
air and the institution wants to get a whiff of it because of a new building,
institutional re imagining or a restless curator who wants to make a mark rather
than milk a local group show for a cheap blockbuster and attendance bump.
OK but not defining institutional surveys:
2004 Building-wise Northwest Biennial juried by Illya and Elena Kabakov at the
Tacoma Art Museum. Actually, the Kabakov's didnt act as jurors, since everyone
who applied got in. Yet, because everything was on the theme of celebrating the
new building for the Tacoma Art Museum it kind of worked. It was too full, but
kinda crazy and fun. It showed that curatorial selections dont always help. Attendance
for the opening was huge of course. It perhaps did define The Tacoma Art Museum's
relationship to it's audience... saying please please please come. This can be
done once... but TAM has done similar only less open, less focused and less crazy
, curated by Jennifer Gately clearly was designed to please
the new audience in Portland and bridge an audience for the Jubitz Center for
Modern and Contemporary Art, which opened the year before. It calculatedly chose
good artists from every major social clique in Portland from Lucinda Parker and
Bill Will to Pat Boas and David Eckard to Jesse Hayward, Matthew Picton, Chandra
Bocci and Anna Fidler. Bocci and Hayward got the most attention because they created
excellent new pieces in a show with a lot of nice work we had seen already in
solo shows. It didn't break the ice so much as acknowledge artists who had really
helped change Portland's expectations already. The opening was a massive affair,
perhaps the biggest I've ever seen in the Northwest. It was a response to an enormous
# of large scale non institutional warehouse shows from 2001-2005 (which now take
place in alternative spaces programmed monthly rather than one off shows so in
a way they have institutionalized as well).
Contemporary Art Awards
, curated by Jennifer Gately with image jurying by
James Rondeau. This replaced the Oregon Biennial and started with a bang with
well installed and impressive work by Dan Attoe and Marie Watt then degenerated
into a dark warren of cramped installations and sometimes so so work by the other
artists. Only Cat Clifford was a surprise in the list and since she had the least
impressive work, the show lacked that thrill of discovery. Still, Attoe's work
was very Northwest with it's forests, a pornographic neon sign and sullen kids
but was at the same time the most international of any artist in the show. Attoe
was not relying on his materials so much as fashioning them into silver bullets
capable of killing any in the Twilight films furry denizens. It was a reflexive
moment and gave us hope that the CNAA's would be a Turner Prize for the Northwest.
Maybe it was not completely satisfying but it signaled a potentially internationally
relevant check mark that made no apologies for liking Douglas Fir trees a lot
(3 of the 5 artists used Doug Fir). Still, in Portland the show was widely pulverized
for picking 4 Washington artists out of 5 when Portland has hotter scene. Honestly,
Attoe is really a Portlander who teaches at PSU and merely lives in Washougal
just across the river. At least the show produced what were essentially 5 solo shows.
2010 Portland Biennial, curator Cris Moss at Disjecta. It was an aspirational
biennial by a large alt-space without a staff curator to hone its program into
a coherent series of shows. It included most every artist who had been getting
attention in Portland for the past 2 years (One person asked me if they just gave
anyone a review in 2009 a slot, no but ha!). Much of the work had been seen recently
(and displayed better) so it robbed the show of its sense of discovery (there
are plenty of less discovered artists who deserved a break) and using multiple
locations made it even more diffuse, like a big party. It makes sense as an institution
trying hard to prove its worth to the community but like the 2006 Oregon Biennial
an institution can only do that kind of show once without diminishing returns.
I'd argue local curators don't provide the international exposure the truly ambitious
members of the scene scene craves either (anything that provides studio visits from outsiders is a win win). Still, it is a good exercise, especially
if it improves. This version was done on too tight a timeframe and was too diffuse to be anything more than a social event with little critical discussion of anything because the work had already been discussed.
Unsatisfying Institutional Survey Shows:
2001 Oregon Biennial, curated by Bruce Guenther. It wasnt that there wasn't good
work in it (Mark Smith, Hildur Bjarnadottir, Melody Owen for example)... just
too many past their prime old school Portland painters at a time when Portland
was being overrun with interesting installation and video work. It was overstuffed
as well. The show more reflected the Portland Art Museum gearing up to build dedicated
spaces for its modern and contemporary collection (which has a lot of painting
and sculpture) than Portland in 2001. By 2003
the Oregon Biennial
got better but had the same problems.
2003 Baja to Vancouver. Good work and good artists but the curators tended
to pick work that was consistently sullen and melancholy, which is odd because
the West Coast is the capitol of optimism for the entire planet. By ignoring
this very basic truth it felt like a bunch of outsiders trying to find gloom
in the nicest place on earth. Had they included both optimism and pessimism
this would have been a success. A curatorial exercise in caprice that still
was worth seeing.
2009 Northwest Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Curated By Rock Hushka and
Alison de Lima Greene . There was some good work in here )Jack Daws Linda Hutchins)
but there was so much of it that those who made the trip from Seattle and Portland
felt a little underwhelmed. This is the show that let every area curator know
that over stuffing a regional survey to get as many people as possible at the
opening is no longer going to be tolerated.
2011 Contemporary Northwest art Awards, Curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson. Jen
Graves at the Stranger and I have publicly stated we wont review this show.
It isn't badly hung like many overstuffed shows it simply looks like something
from 20 years ago. One question that gets tossed around was did Bruce Guenther
choose this show with BLM as a sock curator?... answer is a definitive NO. She
was given free reigns and that means she will have a very public series of shows
that will show us a lot about her as a curator. She is actually more intelligent
than her predecessor but has been out of the curatorial game and never in a
place as dynamic as Portland's scene so this response to her first shows isn't
a surprise. Even trustees who collect contemporary art have expressed dislike
for this CNAA show and Portlanders are generally a pretty polite bunch. Let's
watch and see how this develops. I like how self-possessed this new curator
is and Im interested in the whole programmatic arc ultimately. There is a bridge
to be built to a new generation of collectors who have skepticism about PAM's
interest in contemporary art. I know Brian, Bruce and Bonnie well enough to
know they want to change that situation.
The most memorable shows take chances and the curators seem to have free reign,
curiosity, time and a good eye. A strong contemporary survey can't come from
a curator who doesn't roll up their sleeves and find out who is ready to take
it to the next level... simply finding one's level doesn't play well in cities
where the art scene is already very dynamic. Contemporary thought is not a particle...
it is a wave and needs to be treated as such. The best artists are like surfers
on that wave and a good survey mirrors that idea... letting each one catch their
own particular wave and not crowd them out... wipe outs can be spectacular and
In most memorable surveys there is no nominating committee and the process
puts a lot of faith in a very good eye and keen intellect of the curator who
is unafraid to play strong artist off of strong artist with fresh new work.
The institution itself has to be receptive and the curator has to be skilled
enough to make the institution curiously poetic about the present. Im not a
big fan of bringing in outside jurors unless they actually get a hand in creating
the final show but pairing a local guide with an outside eye can create the
outside attention artists require today. Who that curator is really matters...
a conservative curator like James Rondeau (who simply juried images for the
first CNAA's, with no studio visits) didn't really add to the process. Whereas
getting Hans Ulrich Obrist or Lauri Firstenberg into NW studios would be great
but they wont just want to be a token name.
Here are some very successful models:
SECA awards at SFMOMA: a list of nominators choose artists and they get studio
visits. It has a great track record of finding the stars of tomorrow.
Greater New York: PS1 (as Part of MoMA) wields incredible power with this show
but like the SECA awards it has a great track record for finding the next big
thing. New York has an interest in being the art Capital of the world. They
aren't any longer and this show was created after that happened.
Turner Prize: a highly anticipated occurrence. The general public really gets
into the contest aspect of who will win and a lot of betting takes place. I
suspect that no institution in the Northwest has the balls to make their survey
into a contest but they are missing an opportunity to create intense public
discussions and engagement. Sometimes the Turner Prize really matters but at
other times (and lately) it's more like American Idol and its better to be a
finalist and not win the whole shebang.
The Whitney Biennial: Ok successful is maybe not the right word... infamous
is better. It was protested by The Ten and the Irascibles. Things are too career
oriented to do that now so the show tends to take chances and toss a lot out
there. Some of it sticks. Portland has had 6 artists in the last 5 iterations,
some have been the breakout stars of the show and the Whitney hasnt really done
that exhaustive a look at Portland (of our elite 25 they have been in the studios
of perhaps only 10 and there are a tons of young artists worth getting a look
that always missed).
Overall, the goals of artists like, creating a reflexive sense of inquiry into
our times through work that goes beyond its studio... should inform NW surveys
and reveal both our lumber and gold-rush past along with our ideals for sustainability,
technology, livability and design in the present. Doing so embodies the challenges
and failings of our age.
I'm still waiting for a regional survey that confidently steps up and explores
that which is just beginning to accrue awareness in our culture... with special
attention to our immediate environs. That would be the best possible outcome.
A survey that is personally engaged with the best thinking in the region and presents
it unapologetically in an undiluted fashion. As someone who has curated this sort
of thing time and again I don't think it is really the curators that fail in the
task... but the institutional will that seems suspect. Don't be shy, demand it...
Ive found all area institutions like to hear a clear response. What will the next
few surveys look like?... i.e. TAM's next NW Biennial, 2012 Portland Biennial, the 2013
This is part II of PORT's regional art survey discussion here is Part I