The artist’s studios participating in the Brooklyn Muesum’s GO are now closed. If things go according to plan the voters, energized by their role as curators, will carefully think over what they saw and what they learned in talking to the artists about their work and make considered nominations of who they think should be part of a museum show. How effective using voter participation as a mechanism to get the community into artists’ studios is debatable. The few participating artists I talked to did not see a torrent of visitors. I would guess that the artists who have participated in neighborhood-wide open studio projects saw fewer visitors, likely stemming from the entire borough being in play at the same time; instead of seeing people head out to a single destination, they may have stayed in their own back yard.[i] Artists also mentioned that many of their visitors were not voting (or were somehow unaware that there was voting), they were just there for the art. If GO is really seen as an experiment[ii] then we should look forward to seeing if it is implemented again what tweaks or changes to the system might work, and we can judge what art winds up on the museum wall. But I think the real determination lies not in what comes into the museum for GO, but in pointing to what should be coming out of the Brooklyn museum next.
Right now voting is on, and nominations are piling up, but what is notable is that the process is very opaque. The ten artists with the most nominations are probably not going to be made public[iii], and so they next time we hear much about this it will probably be when the museum starts promoting the exhibition. In the meantime, once nominations are decided on the curators will head out to meet the artists, and essentially have to pick completed work out of studios for the exhibition.[iv] The scope of the exhibition is still undisclosed and probably open to change depending on what they find. These works could be added to a show already being worked on, or stuck into a side corridor as part of the museum’s Raw/ Cooked[v] series. This opacity seems designed to protect the museum from charges that GO is nothing more than a popularity contest, and giving the curators the final word would also keep them from winding up with an Artprize-like fiasco. But the question is then why bother to have voting at all? After considering rules the voting comes off as a more of a publicity stunt; popular vote and elitist selection are mutually exclusive. Votes by the community “curators” are merely suggestions to the real curators and they are not really accountable within this process.[vi] If the community was interested enough in the art being made around them to eschew the nominations process then it stands to reason that they don’t need official enticements to get out to see it. In my previous essay Don’t Vote, I pointed out that registering as an artist or to vote offers the Brooklyn Museum a treasure trove of personal data they can use to try and boost attendance and membership. I should be clear that while I have no knowledge that this will happen, it seems likely. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing depending on how it’s handled[vii], but the funny thing about asking for community participation is that the community, and perhaps especially the community of art lovers in Brooklyn, will know when they’re only being paid in lip service and the double talk. If you’re going to ask for community involvement you better be prepared for the community to be really involved and to meet them with your best effort. If you just wind up trying to sell them stuff you’re going to alienate them and find it harder to get them in your doors. If you ask their opinion, you can’t turn around and ignore it.
And that’s my big problem with GO; the Brooklyn Museum only barely took the first step. Everyone wants the Brooklyn Museum to thrive, and the museum itself deserves a ton of credit for putting the weekend together, building the digital infrastructure, and taking the risk to extend a hand to the community in a way that just doesn’t happen with MoMA, The Guggenheim, the Whitney, or the Met. And the Brooklyn Museum can’t really compete with those institutions, but it is the home museum for the borough with the largest concentration of artists on the planet. The community they are reaching out to is the one that is going to help shape the future of contemporary art more than any other and that points the way forward, but it is not necessarily an easy or well worn path.
My advice to the Brooklyn Museum and its curators is to reach out to artists and engage with them directly. It doesn’t mean some sort of public approval by proxy of an uncountable vote; every neighborhood that has an open studio weekend should see an involvement with their contemporary curators[viii] and that involvement should be publicized on social media. Instead of just having the community direct the curators with a clumsy map drawn by nomination, get them out to work in the ebb and flow of those studio weekends and have them start drawing their own map. Perhaps they’ll find some good art that wouldn’t be popular enough to draw a nomination. The process should lead to more contemporary exhibitions drawn from the community, rather than just the rosters of Chelsea galleries. Combine the concepts behind Open House with Raw/Cooked and stake out the messy territory of championing the artists within your community.[ix] This is a much tougher business than canonization, but one that I would argue the Brooklyn Museum is uniquely suited to position itself for. Going further, get these artists into the museum. If you are going to try flogging membership packages, perhaps try offering a disappearing animal, the artist’s rate membership.[x] Build up a lecture series based on local issues and invite the artists you’ve met and engaged with to be part of the conversation on the stage, not just from the audience. This poses another problem that offers another opportunity: if there are too many artists to keep track of and engage with (and there probably are; there are more artists than you can shake a stick at in Brooklyn) then also reach out to under-employed[xi] curators and writers are living here as well, and they can be recruited to bring artists in and help organize these programs.
Establishing the Sackler Center for Feminist Art points in the right direction. The exhibition and curatorial program should look to mine areas of art history that are otherwise neglected and subject them to serious, rigorous scholarship. When you find an exhibition that truly does reach out to a part of the public who you don’t think would otherwise set foot in your museum, don’t cancel the exhibition because the corporate oligarch who’s one of your biggest sponsors thinks it would be inconvenient and messy. Throw the party and just figure out how to clean it up afterwards. The point is to get that part of your community into the museum so you can show them some other interesting things that may draw them back, and maybe they start to think about art as a possible means to expanding their horizons. The key to doing that, on the other hand, is not dumbing down the rest of the program. Popularity and populism work to the detriment of a museum when they are all that is on offer.
Previously I complained about the pitfalls of letting the general public dictate the shape of art to artists. The special thing about Brooklyn, is that with so many artists, many in the community pay attention to art and culture as part of their daily lives. They are already invested. The Brooklyn Museum should look at GO as the first step to bringing artists and the community together to find a new model for constructing the museum’s program and establishing art as a central plank within the community. This is a long-term plan for growth that must be willing to take risks and show the community something new, even if that turns out to be different, unexpected, or upsetting. And these are almost certain to be the results of helping a community (of artists) organize up from the bottom rather than being organized from the top down.
[i] Which is part of the stated point of GO, afterall.
[iii] Which is fair; shortlists are prestigious for literary prizes, but not making the cut for a group show would become a public failure. To say nothing to opening the curators up the criticism and second guessing.
[iv] Two and a half months is not a lot of time to organize even a small museum show, so the logistics are a limitation.
[v] A name that I’ve always disliked for it feeling a bit condescending.
[vi] As in a, ahem, “truly democratic” process.
[vii] It not being exactly a secret that the Brooklyn Museum is struggling when compared to some of its more well endowed relations across the river. Just another example of the destiny of real estate I suppose…
[viii] And I would argue that they should already have been doing this from the get go.
[ix] Of course most of us moved to New York from somewhere else, and we’re all familiar with the community arts center that shows local artists without any real judgment. That is a trap to avoid, but it shouldn’t be that hard as you’re pulling from one of the deepest pools of talent available.
[x] This would also encourage participation going forward, and could be extended to voters as well.
[xi] I hesitate to say this, because current funding being what it is, it probably means adopting a soul-crushing model of employing many low-paid, benefitless adjuncts that colleges have been using for years. A model that keeps the core work force impoverished is not the way to go, but there are also undoubtedly some young curators who would welcome the chance to work on large project at a major venue and show off what they can do. Perhaps there’s a way to integrate a young curator’s program just as the Whitney used to have its own studio program. The point is to think outside the corporate box here.