Museum curators and directors lead privileged lives. While salaries are not what they’d be in the for-profit sector, the perks are great. The work is intellectually stimulating, and the people you meet are often accomplished and interesting. We may travel the world economy class, but we are able to see things no ordinary tourist does. It’s not a lark, though; we are working.
In mid-October, I went to London with a group of museum supporters, the curators of the upcoming Carnegie International, and Sarah Nichols, CMA’s former curator of decorative arts. The main event was the Frieze Art Fair, but the trip also included visits to private collections and museums, meetings with artists, and—as these trips always do—amazing meals. This was the beginning of an intense immersion in contemporary art that, for me, lasted over two weeks.
From London I flew with my husband to Istanbul, my first time in that remarkable city where five times a day the call to prayers echoes through the streets as it has for centuries, imparting a haunting timelessness. I spent most of my time, however, looking at contemporary art in the Istanbul Biennial. At art fairs, galleries from all over sell their wares, providing opportunities to see a lot at one time; there is no order or theme. In contrast, like the Carnegie International, a biennial or triennial should be a coherent statement that imparts insights into what some influential and potentially influential artists are doing today and why. The 2011 Istanbul Biennial (curated by a Brazilian and a German living in the United States) occupies two large warehouses, and we spent most of two days going through this highly structured, cohesive, challenging, and, some would say, overly didactic show.
From Istanbul we went to Venice for the Biennale, which in its lack of coherence was the opposite of the Istanbul exhibition. It occupies the main pavilion of the Giardini, the park that also houses many of the exhibition’s nationally organized pavilions, and the Arsenale, an enormously long former arsenal off the Grand Canal. There are projects and national pavilions all over the city. It always takes at least three days to feel you’ve seen the Venice Biennale, and even then you know you’ve missed a lot.
From Venice we went to Paris for a day. The FIAC Art Fair was on, but I couldn’t face it. I was on overload, and knew my brain wouldn’t take it in. Instead I met with the director and curator at Cité de l’Architecture et Patrimoine to discuss their architectural cast collection in relation to ours and saw the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne. (I’ve had a long involvement with the artist and wrote for the catalogue.)
The “overload” factor can make museum people sound jaded. It’s exhausting to see so much in a short time, and once exhausted, you become less tolerant of the failures and foibles of your colleagues. I suspect that this is particularly endemic to the contemporary field because there is so much production to consider.
I came home tired, crabby, but also nourished by what I had seen—failures included. Even before I was back, the International curators and I had begun to argue the pros and cons of the shows and fairs via email. On October 27, back in Pittsburgh, we shared early insights from our travels at a public program, What Are Museums For? It was difficult—especially in our collectively jet-lagged states—to capture in 45 minutes what those trips are like. Wonderful moments are discovering an artist whose work truly speaks to you, rediscovering an established artist who has been overlooked in recent decades. For me, however, trying to understand all that you’ve seen—the possibility of making sense of our world—is where the greatest fascination and satisfaction lies.
Until next month,