Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is MFA's Tomb 10A fine art?

A highlight of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ “Secret of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC” show is its astonishing profusion of painted wooden models from the 3,000-year-old tomb – planters, brewers, men feeding cattle, women weaving, soldiers bearing shields, an armada of 58 ships.

“It’s animated. It’s fun. It’s colorful. But you can’t exactly say it’s fine art,” MFA curator Rita Freed said of the models during a press preview in October. “Their hands are sticks.”

I take Freed’s point. The carving is rough; the goal is quantity, and the depiction of action. The models offer an idealized, wide-ranging glimpse into Egyptian life. They were meant to be magic talismans that would serve the dead in the afterlife.

But that we’re still making this distinction between “fine art” and whatever this amazing stuff is in the Museum of Fine Arts is quite interesting.

Annals of MFA science.

“Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC,” Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Oct. 18, 2009, to May 16, 2010.

Photos by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yokelism update: Dangers of Provincialism

This essay is fourth part of the conversation I've been having with Boston Globe critic Sebastian Smee about covarage of living local artists. Read previous editions: one, two and three.
The chief danger of provincialism in New England today is that low self-esteem causes us to buy into an art world status quo that says we don’t, won’t ever matter. Is the art produced here as good as that made in, say, New York? Some of it, certainly. But on the whole no one debates that the scene could be stronger. So how does an art scene get better? Certainly local artists have to get better. But after that what are the roles of local curators, critics, etc. in this?

One could argue that a critic’s role is primarily to give consumer reports to the audience/readers. But I think there’s also the critic’s traditional role in shaping things. I don’t mean proscribing where art could go, as some argue Clement Greenberg did. But every review shapes things. It may not be telling people what to do outright but it is broadcasting a model of what the critic prefers. My question is how best to use that power, even while questioning the influence of any critic today.

The models I look to are Greenberg in the ‘40s (before and around AbEx hit circa 1947) and Christopher Knight in LA in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They championed the local good stuff and gave a kick in the pants to the rest of the scene. They had ambitions for their communities. So they paid attention to what art was being made in their communities, compared it to great stuff happening elsewhere, and challenged their communities to compete. This is what critics always do on an individual by individual basis. They just applied it to the community as a whole as well.

I wish more of the powers that be here shared that ambition for art made here, but I’ve not been asking for that in this particular conversation. We’re at an earlier more basic point where we still need to get local tastemakers to simply pay attention to art created in New England today.

What museums and newspapers decide to pay attention to is a statement of what they deem important. So if we’re interested in making the scene more interesting, we can encourage local art just by giving more space in our museums and newspapers to art made here today, and so signal that it’s important enough to deserve that space. I’m not calling for the press or museums to artificially inflate grades or to tell artists what sort of art to make (besides to keep pushing for better work). I’m not suggesting how to write about locals. I’ve made no comments on, say, the quality of coverage. I’m just asking for greater volume of coverage of locals. Because I have ambition for the New England scene, and it begins with people at all levels simply being more involved with art made here now.

The actions of many powerful art folks here demonstrate that they believe that New England artists aren’t good enough to merit that newspaper and institutional space. They’re mistaken. There are easily enough good artists in New England to fill an occasional spot in, say, the ICA’s Momentum program without any loss in the program’s quality. And there are a number of local artists of international stature who deserve retrospectives (see Nicholas Nixon), but most likely these exhibitions will be put together by museums elsewhere and may not even get shown here (see Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons).

People underestimate the importance of institutional (museums, press, etc.) attention in the careers of artists who become stars. Look at how NYC or LA showcases its homegrown talents, and how that helps incubate the artists’ art and careers, how it challenges artists to rise to a higher level, and then the institutions blossom as well. And compare that to the relationships between artists, museums and the press in New England.

I think my position may be a bit unclear because of the model of my New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. I don’t mean NEJAR to represent what all other publications should do. I’m not sure what the right balance is between coverage of local artists versus imports. (Or the right balance for museums to exhibit). Maybe half? Maybe 40 percent. These are just ballpark guesses. Suggestions?

Two-thirds of New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins’ “Best Museum Shows of 2009” list is New York events. Is that a good model: 2/3 local (i.e. New York) venues. Also 2/3 dead artists. And three of his four picks involving living artists feature mainly local (New York) artists. Is he so focused on New York because it’s the best, or because he’s provincial?

Certainly I’m guilty of playing up Krzysztof Wodiczko’s localness. Though that’s the primary reason the ICA and all the local press are paying attention to what he’s doing. And if one teaches here (at MIT) for nearly two decades I think that does give one some local ties. But I’m surely overreaching somewhat.

For me, some overreaching is a risk inherent in making an argument by presenting examples of the potential of the New England scene. One distinguishing characteristic of the Boston art scene is the transience of many of its artists. So sometimes I overreach in claiming people partly to provide evidence of what the scene could be if it was better at retaining the many talents who pass through here—mostly to study or teach—and then move on. Or, at least, better at taking advantage of what they bring to the scene while they’re here.

That said, NEJAR’s relentlessly, obsessively, gloriously narrow New England scope is admittedly partly an overreaction to the limited focus by others on art being made here.

I don’t think I miss much of the big international issues, because also I cover most major shows hereabouts and the institutional programming here is so cosmopolitan and generally top notch. But I don’t worry much about missing them because there’s already plenty of coverage elsewhere of the usual suspects roster of folks on the Circuit of auctions, fairs, biennials and New York.

Frankly I’m bored by the same old discussions about Damien Hirst or the money carnival in Miami that consume the mainstream media as well as the blogosphere. So I look for fresh stuff off the beaten path – here.

Yokelist Manifesto Number 1: Boston lacks alternative spaces?
Yokelism at the 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 2: Montreal case study.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 3: Hire locally.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 4: We need coverage of our living artists.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 5: We need local retrospectives.
Yokelism update: Coverage of our living artists: Sebastian Smee responds.
Yokelism update: Dangers of Provincialism.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mergel departure leaves ICA with one curator

I have a few more thoughts on Jen Mergel's move from the ICA to the MFA here at the Boston Phoenix, including:
Mergel’s departure from the ICA, where she’s worked since 2005, follows the departure of ICA chief curator Nicholas Baume in September to become director of New York’s Public Art Fund. This leaves the ICA with just one curator — assistant curator and former Boston Phoenix contributor Randi Hopkins, who joined the ICA last fall, as well as curatorial associate Bridget Hanson. The ICA’s curatorial staff has completely turned over since it moved into its new building in December 2006.
More here.

Mergel leaving ICA for MFA.

Mergel leaving ICA for MFA

Jen Mergel, associate curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, has been named the Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the museum announced today. Mergel, who is expected to begin work at the MFA in February, has worked at the ICA since 2005.

The Boston native fills the shoes of Cheryl Brutvan, who announced in July 2008 that she would be leaving the MFA, apparently without another job lined up. In January, she become curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Mergel's departure from the ICA follows the departure chief curator Nicholas Baume in September to become director of New York's Public Art Fund. Mergel would seem to have been next in line for Baume's job. Perhaps that job wasn’t available to her, but her move to the MFA suggests that Mergel sees a lot of potential at the venerable old museum, which has a reputation of not being, well, conducive to contemporary art but will have more space for Modern and contemporary art than the ICA when its renovation and expansion open perhaps at the end of next year. The release says, “Mergel will work with [Department of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs Chairman Edward] Saywell on the development, planning, and organization of the Museum’s new galleries in the Linde Family Wing, scheduled to open as the MFA’s center for contemporary art in June 2011.”

“The MFA is in a unique position to connect audiences to contemporary culture in the context of its world-class collections and scholarship as no other encyclopedic museum has before,” Mergel said in a prepared statement. “There is now unprecedented potential and commitment to build a program that allows visitors and students to rethink both contemporary and historical works as part of a broader, ongoing discourse. It is an honor to have the opportunity to work with such a phenomenal network of colleagues and patrons to develop the MFA’s bold new vision for contemporary art, and further enrich and expand Boston’s cultural landscape.”

Before joining the ICA, Mergel did curatorial work at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, helped with the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and was a curatorial fellow at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover. She received a bachelor of arts degree in visual and environmental studies from Harvard University and her master of arts degree at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture. The Boston native took courses at the MFA throughout grade school and high school. Following her studies at Harvard, she taught studio art courses there and, more recently, curatorial studies at Boston University.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seeking nominations for 2009 Art Awards

The 2009 New England Art Awards is a contest to honor the best art made here and exhibits organized here in 2009. And we are seeking nominations. From you, expert reader.

The aim of the awards, which are organized by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, is to promote a more exciting local art scene by encouraging and celebrating the work of artists and curators active in New England (except Yalies – see why below). Everyone is welcome to nominate. Winners will be chosen by (1) local active art journalists and (2) anyone else who wants to vote – and will be announced in terms of these two categories of voters.

So consider yourself invited to submit nominations here (and vote once the ballot of nominees is posted here in January). We’ve automated the nominating process this year – and our robots are standing by to receive your suggestions. You’re welcome to submit as many nominations as you like or to leave lots of blanks. Each nomination must be accompanied by a link to the show. This is to help us save time in confirming each nomination’s eligibility and in building the awards ballot. Nominations should be received by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 3, to be considered.

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research (at its sole, imperfect, capricious discretion) will prepare an awards ballot culled from all the nominations we receive. And in response to the many fine suggestions received after last year’s contest, we’re actually going to cull the nominees significantly. And we could use some help. If you’re interested in helping advise our culling, please e-mail us a brief note explaining why the awards would benefit from your expertise and/or point of view. We’re especially interested in help from people who have different views from us and so could help us fashion an awards ballot that is broadly representative of the best of our community.

The awards ballot will be posted here in January and voting will run for a week. (Deadlines will be posted here). Winners will be announced during our New England Art Awards Ball (which we aim to keep free and open to all) and here at The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research in (we think) early February. (Note: Details may change somewhat as this year’s contest shapes up.)

Please contact us with any questions, suggestions, complaints, dire warnings. And please submit nominations. (But remember nominations will only be accepted via the robot nomination form thingie.)

Some nomination rules:

For artist nominations:
Artists must reside in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire or Connecticut. And the art must have been exhibited in New England (in a gallery, on the street, online, published) in 2009. No Yalies will be accepted – as we believe that Yale is a suburb and satellite of New York and this is not the New York Art Awards. We will identify and banish Yalies at our sole, nutty discretion.

For curator nominations:
Exhibits must have been organized by a local institution or curator and must have been on view in New England in 2009. For example, “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts would qualify because it was organized by the MFA, but the great “R. Crumb’s Underground” show at MassArt would not qualify because it was organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Also, “Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand” at the ICA would qualify because even though it was organized (mostly) by an outside curator it was organized exclusively for the local museum.

The 2008 Boston Art Awards winners.
2008 Boston Art Awards photos.
The 2008 Boston Art Awards ballot.
Vote for the 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Seeking nominations for 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Planning the “2008 New England Art Awards”?