Local Representation in Art Institutions – Why Not?

Many local artists and galleries have voiced concerns about a lack of support for the Phoenix art community by the local arts institutions.  There is a sense of a proverbial “they” when it comes to Phoenix Art Museum, SMOCA, ASU Art Museum, etc. as a conglomerate entity ignorant of the local scene and preferential to blockbuster international exhibitions and artists championed by Board members and the elite decision makers at these institutions.  Some concerns are metaphorical conspiracies suggesting a plot to dissolve the contemporary artists of the valley and implant a new regime, as if they wish to introduce an intrusive species into the desert to gorge on resources hidden from locals.  We propose that what exists is a lack of critical thinking and understanding of the position that institutions populate within the community, along with a total disregard for the purpose of a museum.

A museum is an institution that collects and/or displays objects of historical value and makes them available for public viewing on a permanent or temporary basis. Most museums are also places for academic research and education. Today, the museum has evolved into a place for social interaction, social justice, and community engagement.  A priority is also placed on spreading creative innovation, as Holland Cotter states, “Their job as public institutions is to change our habits of thinking and seeing.”  Therefore, they are spaces meant to expand creative and critical thinking about the ideas and objects in our world.

Most importantly, museums typically serve the general public by bringing ideas and objects to them not seen on a regular basis where they live.  Let’s look deeper at this through the mission statements of the three largest institutions in the Phoenix area:

Phoenix Art Museum: Our Mission is simple – Phoenix Art Museum is a vibrant destination connecting people to great art from around the world to enrich their lives and communities.

SMoCA: The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art champions creativity, innovation and the vitality of the visual arts. We seek to build and to educate audiences for modern and contemporary art, as well as to provide opportunities for the artistic community— locally, nationally and internationally. SMoCA provides a memorable experience of art, architecture and design by exploring new curatorial approaches and by highlighting cultural context. We interpret, exhibit, collect and preserve works in these media.

ASU Art Museum: The ASU Art Museum’s mission is to be a meeting point for the exchange of new ideas, perspectives and experiences among artists, students and the public through our exhibitions, residencies, collections and programs. The Museum forges meaningful connections across all areas of research in order to create a better, more sustainable future.

We could continue to explore the mission’s of other local institutions and there are a few common themes—engaging the public, educating visitors, and advocating for the arts.  Further, museums collect, conserve, and store objects for academic research in order to continue to expand discourse on society, politics, culture, and much more.  Only SMoCA even mentions opportunities for the local artistic community, but when we look in depth at the activities of the local institutions we find a great deal of support.

Contemporary Forum (CF) is a support organization for contemporary art at the Phoenix Art Museum. CF awards up to seven grants to Arizona artists each year, totaling over $224,000 to 168 artists since 1986.  The recipients are selected through a jury process of an annual open call.  The selected artists are also exhibited the following year in the Lyon Gallery at the museum. Additionally, the Arlene and Morton Scult Contemporary Forum Artist Award is presented annually to a mid-career artist to be used for the further development in the field of art—so far granting $30,000 to six artists, who have also been featured in solo exhibitions in the museum.

The annual CF art auction is often a source of heavy debate in the local art community.  The main concern is that CF asks local artists to donate their work to the auction and the funds raised are used to procure a work of art from an internationally recognized artist from elsewhere in the world. In light of our exploration of museum missions, this now appears logical, as well as beneficial to local artists.  CF offers each artist a percentage of the funds for their work and gives them an opportunity for exposure to a wide array of art collectors and museum supporters.  The funds are used to bring a new work to the museum for the benefit of the artists—to engage with new contemporary work by an established artist—and the public.

As for exhibition opportunities, there are plenty for local artists if they know where to look and qualify for the institution guidelines, although there have been relatively few major exhibitions featuring locals.  In 2009, Phoenix Art Museum organized “Locals Only,” curated by Sara Cochran (former contemporary art curator at the museum, now Associate Director, Curator, and Educator at SMoCA).  The exhibition presented the work of 12 Chicano and Latino artists based in the Phoenix metro area and focused on issues of identity, cultural tension, and shifts in art practices.  The limited scope of the exhibition definitely excluded many local artists but was a great step in the right direction with the inclusion of local contemporary artists at the museum.

There are many opportunities for local artists to submit their work or exhibition proposals to the other major art institutions in the valley. SMoCA, Mesa Art Center, Chandler Center for the Arts, Shemer Art Center, and the West Valley Art Museum all actively call for and review submissions from any artists and have a history of showing locals.

There have also been complaints in the art community that the museum curators do not pay attention to local artists, which in our experience is not the case.  Cochran and PAM curators Vanessa Davidson and Becky Senf are regulars on the local gallery circuit.  Heather Sealy Lineberry from ASU Art Museum can also be found making the rounds on many First or Third Fridays.  There has also been more collaboration between museums and galleries recently.  Last December Phoenix Art Museum curator worked with the monOrchid to continue the exhibition “Focus Latin America: Art is our last hope” (which included many local artists) at the gallery after its run at the museum.

Bottom line—the local institutions are here to inspire, not only artists but the entire community.  They are places to explore history, engage in ideas, and use as launching pads for artistic experimentation.  They bring important work from history around the world to Phoenix so that we, as a city, can experience something not of our own place and expand our horizons.  An artist who has not done anything to build their resume, explore the limits of their work, or develop as a professional artist has no room to complain about the lack of support from the institutions.  Especially when that perspective is ignorant of fact. One suggestion to artists, stop thinking so narrowly.  Institutions around the country provide opportunities and there are so many calls for art to be found online.  Look outward to build your resume, then maybe more institutions would take notice.

That said… there are some improvements that would definitely foster connections and increase appreciation for the museums.  It would be outstanding to see more involvement in the local art community from PAM and CF, especially with a new director and hopefully soon a new contemporary curator.  New PAM Director Amada Cruz has stated that she would like the museum to organize more travelling exhibitions that originate here.  A suggestion—maybe an exhibition featuring the cream of the crop from the local talent pool. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an assistant curator at PAM also be someone who has been immersed in the local art scene?  An idea down the line may be to inaugurate the first Museum of Local Art… It would also be amazing to see a group step up to form a Phoenix biennial that would engage the entire valley and bring art collectors in from around the world. Tucson has one, why not Phoenix! The month of March comes to mind… Use Art Detour as a launching point and get all the cities, institutions, and galleries involved.

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