Friday, March 16, 2007

Matthew Gamber

Matthew Gamber’s show of dreamy photograms “This is (still) The Golden Age” at Gallery Kayafas is a trip down memory lane “TV Land”-style. Gamber, editor-in-chief of Boston's Big Red & Shiny and a professor at Savannah College of Art, exposed photographic paper by pressing it against a television screen, capturing sweet blurry black-and-white images of scenes from “Leave It to Beaver” (pictured at top), “Lawrence Welk” (at bottom), “The Price is Right,” and some televised George Bush speech. They look like memories as seen with a strum of a harp in soft-focus movie flashbacks. Or TV with your glasses off.

The press release says Gamber “is dealing with recollection and memory, cultural history, and sentimentality.” They don’t get me thinking much about such things, though, because Gamber does little to transform or comment on the images he appropriates. Instead these seem to be about simply reveling in nostalgia and pop culture kitsch – but too high arty to really have fun.

My favorite images here aren’t part of the TV rerun lineup (though they would make lovely advertisements). They're a pair of pictures of an Apple PowerBook computer (above). They show the back of the computer screen with its glowing Apple logo and light glittering across a keyboard – like the lights of downtown skyscrapers at night.

Matthew Gamber “This is (still) The Golden Age,” Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Feb. 10 to March 24, 2007.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Harriet Casdin-Silver

In 1968, Brookline artist Harriet Casdin-Silver attended a talk on holography by physicist Raoul van Ligten that would change her career.

“I had been at a meeting in Boston where the head of the optical department of American Optical spoke,” she told me a couple weeks ago. “This is a long time ago. He showed little four-by-five holograms with a laser, not with a light. You could barely see it. You had to twist and turn. I thought a three-dimensional medium would be a strong political force.”

Her idea was to use this alluring new medium to draw people into her political statements – in particular, feminist ones. So she visited American Optical Laboratories in Framingham.

“I went actually to borrow a laser, I wasn’t going to try to do holography. Very lovely Raoul van Ligten invited me in to do holography. When I first started, there were only a couple days during a week [that she could work there]. Then I couldn’t be there for six to eight weeks. They would call me to tell me when I could come. The lab was being used for science. Raoul had the heart of an artist. He’d done a lot of photography.”

So as van Ligten advanced up the company hierarchy, he arranged for her to have daily use of one lab. The legacy of that decision is evident in a small exhibit by the now 82-year-old Casdin-Silver at Gallery Naga through March 24. (Here’s my preview.) DeCordova Museum curator Nick Capasso trumpeted her as “America’s foremost art holographer” and “a pioneer of the art-and-technology movement of the second half of the twentieth century” when the museum mounted a retrospective of her work in 1998.

“A lot of people use light to get technical effects,” Casdin-Silver told me. “That was never my mission. My mission was to help women grow in every way – psychologically, sociologically, and in believe in themselves. And I taught too so I did reach a lot of women.”

The show includes a handful of holograms of curled up nude men and women from the early 1990s. (At top, “Kathryn of Orange” 1995.) They’re astonishing technically, the effect is something akin to hyper-realist sculpture, but these pieces don’t speak much beyond that. Casdin-Silver also presents four recent photographs – a nearly nude self-portrait (at left, “80+1,” 2007), a photo of an art historian friend seated naked and curled in on herself (at bottom, “Sarah,” 2006), and photos of her college-age granddaughter. The photos feel, well, flat.

“I had a yen to do something different. And then when my granddaughter offered to pose for me I decided to go this route,” she said. “I would not have asked her to pose nude. But when she offered I couldn’t resist. This image ["Rebecca," 2007] is what I want women to be: strong, solid, vivacious, she could handle anything.”

(Best awkward interview moment: What does a man say when an 82-year-old lady asks how beautiful are her photos of her naked college-age granddaughter?)

The new images were shot in her Fort Point studio. “Unfortunately that area is going condo. So after being there since 1985, I’m going to have to move next year. I may just quit," Casdin-Silver said. "But I can’t quit. My work keeps me going.”

Harriet Casadin-Silver, Gallery Naga, 67 Newbury St., Boston, March 2 to 24, 2007.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rand Corp. on creative economy, Boston

A report released by the shadowy Rand Corporation on Friday argues for greater collaboration among arts nonprofits to help them survive in what it sees as a tightening funding environment for the arts.

The report, “Arts and Culture in the Metropolis: Strategies for Sustainability,” is of local interest because Boston was one of the 11 cities – including Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Pittsburgh – the authors examined. The report’s primary aim was to make suggestions for how Philadelphia could develop greater support for the arts.

The authors from Rand, a government-funded nonprofit whose trustees have included Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul O’Neill, Michael Powell and Brent Scowcroft, provide little evidence for their claims, making it difficult to judge the merits of their prescriptions or even the extent of the problems they seek to address. And the 122-page document is as dry and boring as you’d expect such a report to be.

Boston led the communities studied with 5.78 "arts-presenting" organizations per 100,000 residents, based on year 2000 data. Minneapolis-St. Paul was the next closest with 4.38 per 100,000 residents, while the average was around 2.5 per 100,000. The authors said in Boston this corresponds to relatively high median family incomes ($64,538), percentage of adults with college degrees (34.4), and percentage of workforce in white-collar jobs (42.1).

The report looks favorably on Boston’s existing arts support structures, identifying the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events and the Arts and Business Council of Greater Boston, a private organization of business folks bent on fostering the arts, as the two major creative economy players in Boston. (Other significant local agencies like the Massachusetts Cultural Council or the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities are basically overlooked by the report.) But the authors note that funding for Boston’s arts, tourism and special events office is less than similar cultural affairs offices in four other cities, with Boston’s budgeted at $1.5 million in 2005 compared to Chicago at $17 million; Charlotte, $16.5 million; Baltimore, $4.7 million; and Phoenix, $2.4 million. (I’m relying on the Rand report for all the numbers in this essay.)

Looking at arts nonprofits generally, the report argues that “after three and a half decades of unprecedented growth, the nonprofit arts face an environment that threatens to stunt that growth and raises the prospect of future consolidation.”

The authors say government funding for the arts has become more volatile and corporations are shifting their arts donations from general operating support to funding for specific programs and projects. Foundations, the authors say, are also moving toward more project-specific donations to promote specific social goals. And, they say, there is increasing competition among arts organizations for individual private donations as a greater variety of leisure activities cause potential donors to be less attached to specific cultural organizations. The upshot, the authors say, is that arts nonprofits must do more work for the donations they receive, and those donations come with more restrictions on how they can be spent.

I’m focusing here on the most compelling part of the report – many of the authors’ findings and suggestions are of the “duh” variety. For example, the smarty-pants Rand folks say “cities that view the arts as a central element of their economic development strategies … have greater resources for the arts and fewer threats to those resources.” Who’d a thunk it?

The most interesting argument the authors make is:
that while arts organizations have typically undertaken fundraising on an individual basis, they could be better served by addressing the whole sector. The traditional approach of fundraising for individual organizations raises the transaction costs for both the organizations and the funders, the report found, and can put smaller establishments at a disadvantage.

“Traditionally, arts organizations have operated in a competitive zero-sum environment, in which one group's gain was another's loss,” [co-author Liz] Ondaatje said. “The cultural sector as a whole would benefit from a more collaborative approach.”
The authors prescribe more joint fundraising, marketing and cultural facility planning. They also recommend that arts groups share space and equipment and go in together to get group rates on health and liability insurance.

It’s an interesting proposal, but, again, the authors offer little evidence to support their conclusions or fixes so it’s difficult to judge their merits. The cost-side suggestions seem plainly beneficial, but their revenue-side suggestions raise questions. To name one: Group fund-raising seems like it might help secure more government and individual donations, but how would it address the problem of corporate and foundation donors who want to make project-specific donations that restrict how the money can be used?