Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Something Profound and Something Box Office: The New AGA and the Local Arts Community BY SPECIAL GUEST CORRESPONDENT BLAIR BRENNAN

Edmonton artist and arts administrator, Blair Brennan, examines the new Art Gallery of Alberta and its relationship with local artists.

A recent Edmonton Journal article about newcomers to Edmonton, suggests that a visual arts community can “act as a surrogate family”. It is clear that this is meant as a positive attribute. I admit that the arts community is family–like but it is often a dysfunctional family overrun with petty jealousies, professional rivalry and deep resentment. It is a complex dynamic but Gore Vidal’s aphorism “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little” goes a long way to explaining the situation. Jealousy and insecurity are built into the creative life of many visual artists and major arts events, like the recent festivities surrounding the grand opening of the new Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), can bring out the worst in our large, odd extended family. I have no concrete evidence, just an awareness based on experience and somewhat verified by post-opening conversations, that local artists are anxious about their place in the new regime.

Apprehensive artists may rightly see the new AGA as a symbol of the changing position of the art gallery and museum in our culture. It has been a long trajectory (some would call it a descent) and much was altered when Thomas Hoving, Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) from 1967 to 1977, invented the museum blockbuster – large, popular, expensive exhibitions with aggressive marketing and museum gift shop tie-ins and product sales that often paid for the shows. In his book Making the Mummies Dance, Hoving tells us that he demanded that the Met curators provide shows that possessed “both a scholarly basis and a public appeal, something profound and something box office.” This philosophy may have allowed contemporary galleries and museums to compete for viewers and update an image that, again to quote Hoving on the Met, was “elitist, stiff, gray and slightly moribund”. Hoving’s legacy is, however, not entirely positive. Even the least sceptical viewer would be forced to acknowledge that the Met’s blockbuster shows helped paved the way for the new featured display in Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Crime & Punishment -- the 1968 Volkswagen Beetle once owned by infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, “the car into which he lured his victims and in which he killed many of them…” (as recently reported by the Washington Post).

The role of the museum and art gallery has changed in the 21st century. The AGA is responding to that changing role and has, for some time now, been engaged in its own image update. The new AGA website proclaims that “The Art Gallery of Alberta is a centre of excellence for the visual arts in Western Canada, connecting people, art and ideas.” An itemized list seems the best way to describe the steps that the new AGA has taken to become that centre of excellence:

Name change – Change the name from the Edmonton Art Gallery to the Art Gallery of Alberta. The name change affirms the AGA’s position as, not just a “centre of excellence for the visual arts” but rather, Alberta’s and Western Canada’s premiere centre for the visual arts. With this seemingly simple change, no other public art gallery in the region can touch the AGA for prestige and credibility – not the small artist run centres, not institutionally affiliated galleries and not the larger public galleries in Calgary, perhaps the biggest competition in this area.

New building – Create interest in an architectural competition; generate more media attention with the announcement of the competition winner; and, perhaps the most difficult part, sustain public interest throughout the building process.

Gala opening(s) and a period of free public access – Invite your friends and supporters to see the new digs, once construction is complete. Invite the public but give them only a taste. Make the membership price reasonable and close to the cost of three or four visits. Make public access for this grand opening period free but for a limited time. It doesn’t matter if this limitation is a sham. All hype is manufactured and nothing makes PR people salivate like the words “supplies are limited”.

Educational tours – Tour the public through the Gallery. Use skilled educators to discuss the art and be sure to spin some yarn about how the windows represent the plan of the city while the aluminum ribbon symbolizes the river elegantly flowing through this grid of streets and avenues. Make no mistake, these stories are essential for building that all important future audience. (I still get warm fuzzy feelings about the Jack Shadbolt mural that used to adorn the international airport and the replica petroglyphs on the outside of the Royal Alberta Museum because of similar tales presented during elementary school visits.)

“You CAN please everybody” exhibition programming – Make inaugural shows diverse and crowd pleasing. If you like pretty pastel pictures of ballerinas in gold leaf frames, they’ve got Degas. If you like photographs of famous people, they’ve got Karsh. If you think it is important to create relationships with nationally important fellow institutions, they’ve got Goya from the National Gallery. If you like avant-garde work that incorporates new technologies and bridges the gap between audio and visual with a strong sense of narrative tension, they’ve got Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

Promotion – Do NOT let any of the above go unnoticed by the press. This is the most important feature, second only to finding the money for all of this. Every new development and small success (especially those involving corporate partners) must be covered by the press. This will include articles by various reviewers and columnists, television coverage, pieces in national arts press, cover stories in local arts magazines, etc. You need as much media as possible or nothing else matters.

With so much done by the book (though it seems like a book written by Hoving or another museum or art gallery public relations expert) it seems almost pedestrian to mention the lack of local artists in the inaugural exhibition programming. In response, AGA staff would, no doubt, point to Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s tenuous connection to the city and province (both attended the University of Alberta and, before becoming international art stars, lived and worked briefly in Edmonton and then Lethbridge). The AGA might also point to “TIMELAND”, the upcoming 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, as a conspicuously Alberta-centric exhibition.

Much about the AGA’s relationship with local artists will be revealed with upcoming exhibition programming. However, token inclusion will not dispel Alberta artists’ collective anxiety attack. This is merely a small part of a bigger issue. Like the institutions that show their work, contemporary artists struggle with relevance to a larger community and commitment to aesthetic ideals – their own version of “box office” versus “profound”. If jealousy and insecurity are the result of competition, the new AGA is a reminder to artists that, at least with regard to “box office”, competition has grown exponentially.

The highest priority for the AGA is getting people through the door. This challenge is intensified because the AGA struggles with a legacy of irrelevance to the larger community. An expensive and distinctive new building, combined with please-everyone exhibition programming, is a brash announcement that the AGA is the place to go -- a sound investment for the public’s entertainment dollars in the same league as the Winspear Centre, the Tyrell Museum, Rexal Place, the Citadel and similar institutions.

This will be of little comfort to local artists. The AGA wants to get people in the gallery and artists want their work seen but this doesn’t necessarily put the gallery and the artist on the same side. Out of financial necessity, institutions like the AGA are in danger of becoming part of the “rapidly evolving world of commercial museum entertainment attractions” rather than “serious museums”, again, to quote the Washington Post on the most extreme example of this dichotomy, Ted Bundy’s car in the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. If the message of the new AGA is “We’re Open for business!” many local artists see an ominous footnote: don’t call us unless you can help with that business; “profound” might be good, but don’t expect your work to be shown here unless you’re bringing “something box office”.

Bio: Blair Brennan has been involved with various art galleries and the local arts community in Edmonton for over twenty years. He has held various board, committee, volunteer and paid staff positions. He has served on a number of arts juries and has curated/facilitated exhibitions of Edmonton artists. Brennan has contributed writing to various Canadian arts and cultural publications (Artichoke, Border Crossings, C -- International Contemporary Art, Cameo, RACAR and Mix) and was recently invited to contribute a piece to Visible Language (vol. 42.1) a journal published by the Rhode Island School of Design.


Anonymous said...

Painful and, probably, true.

Thank you for the illumination.

Mary Joyce said...

I am delighted that we have a gallery everyone wants to be in. That Edmonton is excited by art and by a public place to experience it seems all good to me. If there is another way than by having a buzz around the doings and happenings in a gallery to get and sustain attention to art in this 21st century western culture, I would like to know what it is. For decades we have been producing art here in the face of a great collective yawn. Now there is a change; why knock it?

I could quibble about many related issues: about the choice against Zaha Hadid's design; about the abrupt firings of EAG/AGA directors and curators who gave wonderful service and endeared themselves to local artists before they were ushered out; about the childrens' studios still being in the basement, about aluminum over titanium...It would not be because I loved the bunker EAG.

Visual art is a form of philosophy. Discussion about life is an endangered species today; clearly there is an element of hunger for this vital element of humanity out there. Seems to me our job as artists is to elaborate the discussion, to provide our ideas through our work, to welcome the spotlight brought to what we do. I am aware that this interpretation of the AGA's success in drawing crowds could be thought idealist by cynical or elitist minds who want to keep their philosophical
outlook private. All the same I insist upon it, aware as I am of the history of ideas in art, and of the astounding tendency for situations to turn inside-out.

As far as jealousy/competitiveness goes in our extended art family, for me the only solution is to "Just keep working" to paraphrase Patterson Ewan's advice to student artists. And just keep the discussions going.

June 2, 2010 MJ

Mykel said...


You clearly have good insights on the things you write here about. But I'm at a loss on the substance of your criticism on Brennan's piece.

You're asking: "why knock it" without providing alternatives that will further the issues raised. To be quiet because there's a new big box that may, to some, represent progress, is not enough.

The new AGA is not, and cannot be, the solution to the issues raised. You seem to be saying, it's better now than it used to be, so don't complain.

That is mediocre to say the least. Access, one of Brennan's point raised, or the lack thereof, are valid concerns. What value is a gallery to the community, if it's not accessible to the wider public? It becomes elitist. And I will tell you that the only artistic value for arts that's elitist is when it goes up in flames.

Would it really hurt the AGA to have programs around local artists that features their works, and allow, for free, members of the community to see these works? I could be dreaming.

agnieszka said...

Thanks for your comments Blair. It is often very difficult for artists to carry on a frank discussion about a large and influential institution. And yet, unless we do so, we fall further into the dysfunctional family category - as you called us. Such families tend to sweep conflict and pain neatly under the carpet.

In my view there is no problem with the AGA attracting the broader public with large shows of Degas ballerinas. But for goodness sake, it is a big building and one that is hardly packed on most days. There is no reason why we can't have the big shows and support a thriving local community. And I don't mean this just as a side kick. The AGA can create a vibrant space where artists of various stripes, ages and levels of experience are welcome to exhibit, meet and discuss ideas.

This isn't just an issue of philosophy of the gallery, it is also a matter of emotional IQ. The AGA has something of a hospitality deficit. With the right approach, the "your" in "Your AGA" can begin to include not just the public throngs, but also local artists.