Friday, August 29, 2008

“Education” is boring?

In this week’s City Beat cover story we are introduced to a few local art education coordinators. Each tells of the challenges of introducing the arts and growing diverse audiences for our various art institutions. These challenges are well known and have been discussed so often they almost seem cliché. But it is true; the arts seem to be inaccessible. Most art administrators respond to this concern with innovative educational programming.

But not Cincinnati Art Museum’s Emily Holtrop. When asked about why her title was switched from Curator of Education to Curator of Learning and Interpretation, she said “education” is boring. Actually, what she claimed was people (which people, I don’t know) hear the word education and it’s boring. So she, presumably with the approval of the museum director, Aaron Betsky, changed the title. This is yet another reaction to the tired claim against a perceived stuffiness. Instead of making art more accessible through education, Holtrop simply removes “education.”

But it is not just a mere changing of her title. She goes on to say, “I’m not so concerned about whether we’re educating people….” I thought Holtrop was the art administrator responsible for supporting local school teachers and their curriculum. This means, our teachers who do care about educating their students are left to rely on someone who admits no concern for the same. Holtrop seems proud to claim “we took out ‘education’ and now we learn from you how you want to learn from the museum.” She should have learned how to learn while she herself was in school.

Holtrop and the art museum need to recognize that patrons young and old visit the museum to learn, not to teach. Teaching is a core mission of most museums and Holtrop has effectively removed education as a part of hers.

Friday, August 22, 2008

“It should not be missed”

People generally look to restaurant, book, film, and art reviews, to determine whether they should spend the time or money to entertain or be entertained. The media recognize that although so many deny relying on what some stranger has to say, the reviewer has the power to secure patrons. Understandably, non-profit art galleries and museums specifically rely heavily on reviewers to help swell their attendance.

Spending the last couple of years reading reviews of local art exhibitions I have found most to be informative rather than critical. As an advocate for the arts who encourages large audiences of every age for art, information that entices viewers is good. Such information, much of which is lifted from the press packet or the gallery website, functions as a nice primer before I make my own judgment. As an art historian, I don’t really need a reviewer to encourage me to see an exhibition. Though there have been reviews that have kept me home. If I hadn’t gone to the opening of ArtWorks Paper Chasers, Matt Morris’ review in City Beat would have been one of those reviews.

While it is clear that Morris is a friend of the artist/curator and I admire his support of her work, his attempt to laud the current exhibition with art theory does nothing more than force the average art patron to quickly dismiss the show and turn the page. With phrases like, “…a substantial constant that calls attention to the unique solutions each artist extricates from the broader continuum of connotations…” Morris’ review reads like what my former grad school colleagues referred to our own scholarship as intellectual masturbation. This is not for your eyes.

And if that is not damaging enough to the attempt to encourage people to see the show, Morris goes on to suggest reading Jacques Derrida. Derrida? Is he kidding? Art theory should perhaps be required reading to create a show like Paper Chasers, but not to view it. Morris’ reading suggestion only intimidates and discourages.

At the end of his review Morris seems to find his way back to his recognized reviewer’s voice. Finally, he insists clearly we should see the show. Because Morris spends too much time beating his chest and our heads with art theory only to come to a plea to see his friend’s show, he, ArtWorks, and the rest of us are left to rely on City Beat’s red “Critic’s Pick” that graces the review. Morris’ review thus risks not only alienating loyal art patrons, but reducing the role of the reviewer to a mere editor’s stamp.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

“Starts with Community”

This is the title of Emily Holt’s work in “The Neighborhood Is Our World,” now on view at Kennedy Heights Arts Center. This is a black and white photograph of the bottom of a sign that reads “community” in black letters. The rest of the sign extends up past the picture plane indicating there was more to read. Holt’s shot focuses on the last word while her title reminds us the idea should remain first.

That Holt created this work as a student of KHAC’s own summer photography camp is no surprise. It is a testament to the art center’s focus on the neighborhood and the work of teaching artists like Natalie Hager who help their students honestly engage the world around them. Traveling exhibitions like “The Neighborhood Is Our World,” which will show in various venues throughout the Kennedy Heights area is the type if community arts programming that I have not yet seen here in Cincinnati. With this one exhibition, the Center celebrates local art students, established guild artists and the community. What’s more KHAC is able to begin moving beyond the “make and take” arts programming on which even the Cincinnati Art Museum still relies for membership. There is an immediate need to retire such stale programming that I’ve argued can actually stifle creativity. KHAC sees the value in inviting their students, adults and children, to see their work displayed alongside local working artists. Also with such innovative programming, the guild artists at KHAC are given the opportunity to hone their crafts through teaching and further expand their own portfolios while mentoring future Cincinnati artists. I hope to see art centers follow suit by implementing similarly fresh programs.

The Kennedy Heights Arts Center has taken the lead as a community arts center that puts community first while providing a wonderful home for artists to focus on not just selling but making art and possibly mentoring. Emily Holt’s Starts With Community is not only my favorite work currently exhibited in the galleries, but the KHAC and each of Cincinnati’s community arts centers should really consider purchasing a copy of the photograph as a reminding emblem of what a community arts center should be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Scrap it

Grand ideas or themes for exhibitions have the promise to present new ideas by providing an element of freedom to the artists. ArtWorks Paper Chasers seems to attempt to do just this. But just as KHAC’s Fire last month, the downtown gallery is currently exhibiting works that share a single oversized idea that lacks solid curatorial parameters. Certainly, there were some pieces that seem to focus on paper, such as Lauren Clay’s cut paper capsules and Stacza Lipinsky’s cascading paper cuttings welcoming us into the gallery space. Yet there were others like Liz Kauffman’s series of self-portraits I especially enjoyed, though have no idea why they are included in this show other than they are drawings on paper. Then there is the mixed media piece by Ryan Mulligan that begs to be read as something more than a paper chase.

While I think it is important to have such shows that provide a certain creative freedom, with this comes the responsibility of the curator. Without clearly defined exhibition parameters that celebrate the artists’ creativity, interesting works like those by Kauffman or smartly comical installations like Mulligan’s risk being diluted to merely paper objects that fill the space.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

“So beautiful, I cried.”

The aesthetic moment that brings one to tears. I’ve heard of this before and certainly can imagine being drawn to a work of art through an emotive power that seems impossible to describe. Rothko claimed his all-over paintings successfully drew viewers to tears. I would sometimes joke about this instance in my classes. Then after a class during which I introduced the passion of Rothko and Newman’s “zips,” one of my students approached me in tears telling me she got it, she felt it…the aesthetic moment. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy to have introduced a student to this moment or jealous.

As much as I am passionate about art, I had never seen anything so beautiful that it brought me to tears. Then yesterday, at the Cincinnati Art Museum when I casually drifted into Gregory Crewdson: Beneath the Roses I got it. This was the first time I had ever seen Crewdson’s photography in person. It is not only the large scale and wonderful detail of these photographs that mesmerizes, but the subject of American suburban stories that drew me in. To capture these rather gritty scenes with a lushness that is more often reserved for pristine landscapes or nature photography is wonderfully brain twisting.

I caught myself a few times trying to gain some stability by recalling Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Edward Hopper; a classifying habit that is the bane of the art historian. Though in the end pushed away those artists and their influential works and simply enjoyed Crewdson’s compositions, refusing to fight back the tears.