Sunday, May 29, 2016

Robert Lynch and Americans for the Arts

I was only vaguely aware of Americans for the Arts until Robert Lynch, President and CEO of for the last 30 years came to speak in Santa Fe a short while ago … and people want to know what you can do with a BA in English from Amherst!

Robert Lynch and Sophia Loren

In the middle of its 6th decade Americans for the Arts, in their own words, “Our mission is to serve, advance, and lead the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. Connecting your best ideas and leaders from the arts, communities, and business, together we can work to ensure that every American has access to the transformative power of the arts.”

Americans for the Arts launched the New Community Visions Initiative last year.  It is a two-year program to explore the future of local arts in America and the role of community-based arts in enabling organizations, funders, cultural institutions, and artists in shaping that future.  This fits in very well with the effort that Estevan Rael-Gálvez and his group under the auspices of the Mayor, Javier Gonzalez, and the City Arts Commission is making to map culture in Santa Fe.  I wrote about this a few weeks ago.

The evening was sponsored by the National Endowment and came to Santa Fe through Creative Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission and New Mexico Arts.  My wife being on the Arts Commission we had seats reserved in the sold out auditorium.

It is easy to sum up Lynch’s talk: the purpose of his organization is to convince the world that ART IS IMPORTANT.   They work to help communities understand the importance of the arts in culture with an emphasis on encouraging using the arts in the schools.

Robert Lynch turns out to be a wonderful lecturer and the audience stayed totally with him.  I can easily tune out when I am sitting in a talk but Lynch kept me interested.  He clearly had a “stump speech” but it was not read but spoken from a true belief in what the arts can do for society.  They have done the statistics and it shows that it represents 704 billion dollars a year and makes up 4.7 percent of the U.S. Economy!  Also, I have known for sometime that the disciplines in the arts can be helpful to children’s school grades but I did not know that they are important in crime reduction as well.

Mr. Lynch confirmed something that I had long suspected but never heard articulated by a professional, the main reason people don’t contribute to the arts is because they are never asked.  I remember the first Mrs. Henry Ford II after her divorce from the auto magnate moved to Los Angeles.  She complained to me that she had been “out there” for some time and nobody from the Los Angeles County Museum had been in touch with her!

Lynch’s first trip to Santa Fe was in 1974 so he is well acquainted with our town. He spoke of the great cultural resources here, through our residents, and spoke of the contributions that Robert Redford has made and that he has worked on projects with Americans for the Arts often in the past.

Robert Lynch & Robert Redford

Someone asked Lynch how technology was affecting the arts and I had the impression that the questioner expected a negative answer but Lynch without missing a beat said it is enhancing the arts and the example he gave which we could all relate to was the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live from the Met” series which many of us enjoy at our very own Lensic Performing Arts Center.  It keeps us in classical music all winter long until the Santa Fe Opera is here live in July and August.

Lynch had a wonderful turn of phrase.  We all know that promotion is vital for arts organizations and he defined that marketing as “the creative framing of the truth! 

How wonderful that there is such an organization as American for the Arts that can proselytize for what many of us believe is so vital to life!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dismantling an Exhibition

Stories about exhibition installation are written fairly often but rarely about dismantling them.

For the last 10 months the Ralph T. Coe Foundation has had an exhibition representing about 10% of the collection legacy left by the late curator and director Ted Coe.  As a matter of fact, I wrote about it when “Connoisseurship and Good Pie” was installed at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, but the closing of a show is a sadder event and, therefore, usually ignored.

Taking it down sounds so easy but logistically it is not.  You cannot just turn up throw 200 works of art into your car and drive back to the Foundation.  It takes a lot of planning so that it is done in as orderly and timely manner as possible.  When an exhibition comes down a new one inevitably goes up so as welcome as you may have been, the institution now wants you out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Installation tool box for installation crew for the next show
and the table with soft wrap for packing up

If you do not have a large staff at your institution, it is helpful to have lined up some volunteers and, in this case, I was one of them.  Someone has to head the operation and keep track of everyone involved in the process in order to avoid errors.  In this case it was the Coe’s Curator and Executive Director, Bruce Bernstein, with the help of Assistant Curator, Bess Murphy.

Shortly before D-day that is de-installation day I received the following lengthy memo from Dr. Bernstein:  [my commentary appears between brackets in blue]

“Wheelwright De-Install
Everyone is working in teams: our objective is to safely finish taking all of the collections to the Coe Foundation on Thursday [Altogether the Coe teamp totaled 6).  Please do not deviate from planning without consulting Bruce.  The plan is designed to control object movement and tracking.  Please keep your hands clean, no dangling jewelry, no sharp edges.  Pencil only [On the theory that pencil can be erased should it accidentally get on an object].  Please remember we are handling irreplaceable art objects.  Work carefully and methodically to avoid problems.  Wheelwright will remove Plexiglas  [The objects were shown with plexi sheets in front of the cases].  We have catalog information with an image on small labels.  Place labels in cases with objects.  Some objects have mounts, consult only Bruce or Bess about which mounts return to the Foundation [The Museum had supplied some of their own blocks and mounts which we could not take with us].  We will try to mark which mounts return to Foundation.  There are several large objects; these will be last moved.  We will work in exhibition order, starting in the introduction and moving clockwise; if there is a question about which case is next, ask Bruce or Bess.

Volunteer John Whitman and President of the Coe, Rachel Wixom
watch Bruce Bernstein and Bess Murphy wrapping a larger object

Move your table close to the case.  [Packing had to be done on a flat surface on which to place the wrapping to be used] Place the object on the table. Soft wrap the piece.  Any questions about packing, ask Bruce.  (We will review packing before we begin) [Soft wrap means not using a box or crate but just tissue and soft non-abrasive materials].  On the outside of the wrapping place the sticker [which was placed in the case earlier] with the proper catalog information.  If there is a mount with the object: write the object number on a small white sticker and stick to it to the bottom of the base of the mount.  The mounts can be packed with their object –same, putting the mounts in first!  But ideally we will put the mounts to the side and move them in a single box.  For security and to not let things sit in the sun, we will pack a truck’s worth and then load the truck.  As you carry a tray out the door, Gerald [Yours truly] will check the piece off the inventory.  Place the tray on the truck deck. Gerald is inventory control [The catering trays with their wrapped art begin to be assembled at the door].

At the Coe Foundation we will unload the truck.  Since we have a limited number of trays they need to be unloaded and the wrapped objects placed on the waiting carts and tables. 
Return to Wheelwright, repeat.”

Rachel Wixom, watching over the first truck-load of art
before its departure for the Foundation

These rules gave a structure to those who had not done or had been directed differently elsewhere.   As we went along we found little things that still needed to be improvised but it all went amazingly smoothly as we worked around the museum staff that was removing the plexi fronts to the cases and getting ready for the next show by removing painted wooden blocks from the cases and piling them together so that they could be used as needed for the next round.

Of course, when all the art arrived at the Coe Foundation it had to be unwrapped.  As I sat there beginning to un-twirl tissue from the objects, a visiting curator walked in and said, “It’s like Christmas, isn’t it”.  Yes, that was exactly the feeling each piece of tissue that was removed revealed a treasure that had come home again.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Vigée Le Brun

Once again I am coming rather late to the party since when this is published the exhibition, “Vigée Le Brun:Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” will have closed at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.   There is, however, an additional venue from June to September at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The independent curator for the exhibition, who is not affiliated with a museum but rather with the trade, Joseph Baillio, is an old friend of ours.  He has a house in Santa Fe but we have hardly seen him here as he has toiled over the show for over three years.  His interest in the artist, however, has been for far longer than that.

Though we know he struggled with his Louvre publishers to make a proper catalog and not a picture book, which usually sells better.  He prevailed and they had to reprint the hefty result three times when the show was on at the Grand Palais in Paris.  New York, Paris and Ottawa all have varying catalogs not just because of language but also because different paintings were included.  The main reason for this is that the Russians refused to lend to the show in the United States, I presume on account of restitution issues.  Also, there were other paintings that were lent here and in Canada that did not go to Paris!

Vigée painted over 600 portraits during her career and the Metropolitan exhibition has 80 of them, which is not bad considering what it takes to get a loan these day both from public institutions and private collectors. Neither want to be without their treasures for too long.

Contrary to popular belief there have been important women artists in the past.  Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was one of the most popular portraitists of her time.  She painted the important people at court.  In 1774 at 19 she was admitted to the Academy of Saint-Luc, the guild for Master Painters and Sculptors.  Just four years later she became official painter to her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and in 1783 she was accepted as a member of the Royal Academy.

In 1785 Louis XVI commissioned an official portrait of the Queen and her children, which was unveiled at the Salon of 1787 before it was hung at Versailles.  The King had instructed that the painting be full length and full size resulting, of course, in the monumental tour de force of the official portrait.

Vigée, however, had the ability to look into the soul of her sitters, not just paint their likenesses.  For instance, in this painting of her daughter “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” circa 1786 lent from a private collection.  Haven’t we all see our children or those of our family look contemplatively at themselves?  Here the reflected portrait of Julie seems to be staring back at the viewer!

When the French Revolution came Vigée’s association with the court made France a perilous place for her and she moved first to Rome, then Austria and Russia where she was welcomed by the aristocracy.  In Rome in 1791, she painted a portrait I handled at one time, that of  Countess Anna Potocka.  Vigée tells an oft-repeated story in her “Souvenirs” (memoirs) about Potocka: “She came to see me with her husband and as soon as he had left, she told me quite coolly: ‘This is my third husband; but I believe I’ll take back the first one, who suits me better, though he is a drunk.’”  Left out of the story is the fact that her first husband had died a decade earlier!

I will end with a painting not by Vigée but by Alexis-Joseph Pérignon (1806-1882) and shown after the subjects’ deaths.  It is based on another story in Vigée’s “Souvenir”.  It seems the pregnant artist missed a session with the Queen because of illness and arrived at Versailles the following day instead.  While the Queen had other plans she allowed Vigée to stay, the flustered artist opened her paint box and her brushes fell to the floor.  As she began to scoop them up the Queen stopped her and said,  “‘Never mind, never mind,’ said the Queen, and despite my protests she insisted on gathering them all up herself.“

Vigée was the first woman artist to achieve international acclaim in her own time and yet this was her first retrospective in France and only the second exhibition devoted to her work in modern times.  Ottawa is lovely in the summer so do go see the show.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Student Curators

Last year about this time I wrote about Young Curators at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.

Frankly, I thought I was not going to repeat myself.  Then witnessing the transformation in the Coe Student Curators from naïve kids who in some cases had never been to a museum before to enthusiastic learners was so wonderful.

The students this year came from both the Academy of Technology and the Classics (ATC)  and the Santa Fe Indian School.  There were six, 4 from the latter and 2 from the former.  Thanks to our assistant curator, Bess Murphy, who is in charge of the program, they melded together as one through the administration of food and laughter.  We were lucky to have a repeat student from last year, Oscar Loya, who could help give the students confidence.  Added this year was the opportunity that the students had the chance to visit three Santa Fe Museums and not just have an exhibition shown to them but could see exhibitions in process and learn what goes on behind the scenes.  They even created a design for promotional tee-shirts and learned how to silk screen it.

Heaven Talachy, Nambe Pueblo

Oscar Loya

They learned why walls in a museum had different colors and got to pick their own for the exhibition.  They saw for themselves the difference between putting white letters on a grey background or black letters on the same background made it easier or harder to read.  They learned that those of us who are older have a harder time reading one than the other.

They were given the entire Ralph T. Coe collection to choose from, which includes pieces from the orient, 17th century bronzes and German sculpture, but is mainly indigenous art from around the world with the emphasis on Native American.  Interestingly, not every Native American in the group necessarily picked objects from their own culture.

They first had to agree on a title for this diverse group of objects and then write collaboratively an over arching label. They decided on, “Culture Exchange:  The Unspoken Truth”.  They wrote, “We as curators, wanted  to combine the different parts of the world: its culture, its history”.   Herewith, their collaborative Label with the names of all our student curators.

They picked objects from different tribes in the U.S. as well as a wood and lime pigment Pig Charm from New Guinea, a French Art Nouveau screen and even a lacquer box from Japan.  Then they were given the Coe Foundation data sheets on the objects they had picked as well as access to the Coe Library and, of course, with their computers they could search the internet.

The mixture of cultures makes it very difficult to pick favorites, but also makes this small gallery show more exciting.  I happen to love boomerangs and when we were in Australia it was one of the few souvenirs we brought back.  Then when we started collecting Native American art we acquired a “Rabbit Stick” which is a non returning boomerang for short range kill while the Coe boomerang is also non returning but for longer range.  Shante Toledo, Navajo wrote after her explanation, “I’ve never seen an actual boomerang and it was interesting to find out it was used as a weapon for hunting.”   This is evidence of how we can use works of art to teach about culture and much more.

A very striking object is this wood and pigment early 20th century Antelope Mask from the Congo in Central Africa.  According to Oscar Loya, who chose the object, eating the antelope flesh would cleanse one from evil.  Oscar writes, “For me, the antelope represents freedom because it can graze wherever it wants in the open places it calls home… When you are free, you are able to understand what you need in your life, and thus able to cleanse negative things out.”  That is refreshing!

Elizabeth Lukee, Acoma Pueblo/ Navajo chose a Quill Box by Rose Kimewon, Ottawa, Canada. made with birchbark, natural and dyed porcupine quills, sweetgrass and thread. These boxes are used by the East Coast and Plains tribes.  Elizabeth writes, “The complex detail on the box is amazing and very difficult for me to begin to comprehend.”

I especially like what Danielle Cata said about the Quilled Eagle Box from the Great Lakes, she kept it simple, “I selected this item because it reminded me of the Eagle dances that we have in Ohkay Owingeh.  The eagle reminds of how the eagle dancers imitate the bird flying.”  Simple observation is sometimes the most profound.

We assume that just because we are of a certain ethnicity we must know all about that culture but it just isn’t so.   This experience offered the students a different perspective on their lives, as well a chance to learn about their own culture and other avenues that may be open to them.  For the Coe Foundation the students helped us demonstrate the diversity of the collection and, most importantly, how it could be used to make a difference.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Met Breuer

The new “wing” of the Metropolitan Museum which was built originally as the Whitney Museum by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) in 1966 has been recently branded as the Met Breuer. When the Whitney decided to build their new landmark building on Gansevoort Street in lower Manhattan a deal was made so that the Met could lease their abandoned space for its modern and contemporary art programs. It is rather strange, therefore, that their first exhibition is basically an Old Master show with some established modern artists at the end. 

In the 1970’s I was asked to testify before congress and my lawyer gave me the following advice.  He said, when asked a question reply, “Thank you so much for asking me that question and then say whatever it is that you wanted to say in the first place”.  I found this to be great advice for my entire life. I feel that must have been what happened here, the curators were asked to prepare a contemporary exhibition and said, we’d be delighted to and then did the show they always wanted to which in this case is, “Unfinished Thoughts Left Visible”.  As an exhibition it wanders all over the place with just too many points to make. The two main themes of the exhibition are paintings that were left unfinished because the artist, for whatever reason, put them aside, and those that were “unfinished” on purpose.  I would claim that in that case they were finished …  but if you are like me and just want to see wonderful pictures and sculptures, it is a fine show!

After I had been looking around for a while, I hear someone call out, “Gerry” and was somewhat startled since during the second half of my life I have been known as Gerald.  Sure enough it was an old friend, Michael Conforti, recently retired director of the Clark Art Institute, who I have known since both our early days in the art world.  He proceeded to say, “I can’t get over the fact that I am at the Whitney” and I realized I had felt the same way.  It is somewhat disorienting when you expect to see a section of Edward Hoppers around the next corner and it is something totally different.  It’s a bit like walking into your own home and seeing a huge spiral staircase and marble floors in front of you!  It took some getting used to and the fact that Leonard Lauder a major donor to the Whitney was one of the main funders for this show didn’t make it any easier.

The idea of unfinished works of art is not a new one but I cannot remember one with as wide a range of some 500 years.  In some cases such as with Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) “Saint Barbara” from Antwerp of 1437 it is totally obvious that the picture had not been finished, while the “Vision of St. John” by El Greco (1540-1614)  from the Metropolitan Museum I have been staring at for years and never thought of it as unfinished. My fault?.  The latter is for an altar in a hospital outside Toledo that the art historians believe was cut at the top after damage and they speak of the unfinished sky and the figures floating. At least they admit that it adds to the “mesmerizing quality”, since El Greco is all about atmosphere …

A personal favorite in the show is a bronze relief of St. Jerome done in the 1570’s by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (Siena 1439-1501) and lent by the National Gallery in Washington D.C.   It is pointed out here, and it is clear, that some areas have been highly finished and others left in a rough state.  This is referred to as “non finite aesthetic in sculpture”.

Then there is a small Frans Hals (1582-1666) called “The Smoker” (1523-25) from the Met.  I gather from the label that it is included here because Hals used a rough style of painting which forces one to look from a distance to get its full impact.  I believe that in today’s terms we might say that is what gives it wall power.

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) may have left more unfinished paintings than any other well- known artist.  “Sun Setting over a Lake”, lent by the Tate, is one that is extremely unfinished, showing many of the abstract qualities that were so admired by artists like Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler.  What is not mentioned in the label is that Turner liked to finish his paintings while they were on exhibition finding that they sold better that way… another very contemporary notion.

 One of my favorite artists is Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) besides being a leading member of the Vienna Secession he was the most popular portraitist in Vienna.   His “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III” 1917-18, lent by the Lewis Collection, is of a woman who had committed suicide after being spurned by her lover.  Having produced two portraits that the family did not care for, Klimt himself died before finishing this, the third.

My final image for this Missive is by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and even though he is a 20th century artist, he has been referred to as an Old Master.  The artist is represented by a work from the Museum of Modern Art, “The Charnel House” 1944-45. Picasso referred to it as the “massacre” and when you look at the dates and think of the Spanish Civil War followed by World War II and the holocaust, the picture is not surprising.  Picasso used charcoal to draw his picture and only after he had finished applied paint.  He considered the picture finished enough to donate it to The National Association of Veterans of the Resistance in 1946 but asked for it back again in the same year, ostensibly to make changes.  He kept the painting in his studio until 1954 when he sold it to an American collector having made hardly any changes at all.

There are some more contemporary images in the show but the Met Breuer does not live up to its hype for being the contemporary art showcase for the Met.  Upon reflection I am very happy about that since we have a number of museums in town already fulfilling that function.