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An Insight Into Curatorial Thinking

Trends in Sotheby’s Prize applicants provide a look at museum programming

An image from the ZUMU project, commended by the Sotheby's Prize jury in 2018. Photo by Naama Porat

BY Joe Dunning
director at AAP

Published
In Analysis

Certain insights into the landscape of curatorial thinking around the world can be deduced from an analysis of the individual applications over the three years for the Sotheby’s Prize. The award has a slant—it was created to facilitate exhibitions that explore overlooked or under-represented areas of art history. The jury is illustrious—Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Donna De Salvo, senior adjunct curator, special projects at Dia Art Foundation, New York; Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, The Hague and director designate of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Allan Schwartzman, founder and principal of Art Agency, Partners and chairman of the Fine Art Division of Sotheby’s; Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England; and, for its first two years until his untimely death, the late, great Okwui Enwezor.

Here, the 2019 jurors talk to us about what the data reveals—and bring to light some of the backstage deliberations.

Gender imbalance

Exhibitions of work by male artists constitute a growing majority of applications for solo shows (60% in 2017; 64% in 2018; 68% in 2019). Despite “a growing push for gender equity”, there is still a “deeply embedded resistance to it”, says Butler, who organized the ground-breaking exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at LA MoCA in 2007 and next year will co-curate “Witch Hunt” with Anne Ellegood, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The exhibition will be jointly held at the Hammer and the ICA and will feature new work by mid-career artists who are committed to feminism. “Unless you make an asserted push, you won’t get any kind of lasting trend,” says Butler.

Above is an installation view of “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA”, organized by Connie Butler—who believes that despite “a growing push for gender equity”, there is still a “deeply embedded resistance to it.” Photo: Brian Forrest

The discrepancy is less pronounced than the one revealed in a data study by In Other Words and artnet News earlier this year. The report, “Women’s Place in the Art World—Why Recent Advancements for Female Artists are Largely an Illusion”, found that, among 26 prominent American museums, a whopping 89% of all acquisitions and 86% of exhibitions over the past decade were of work by male artists.

Change will have to come from curators, Butler says. “We are able to focus on this more than directors, because they have broader responsibilities.” This is echoed by Serota, who served as director of the Tate from 1988 to 2017. “The impetus to make these exhibitions is coming from the chief curators; they have power in relation to the program, if not the whole museum.”

Big issues

It is perhaps not surprising, given the turmoil around the world, that more applicants for the prize are focusing on social and political issues. This year there was a dramatic increase in the number of topics addressed—from race to nationhood, from sexuality to science and technology. The number of exhibitions addressing themes outpaced the growth in actual applications by five to one, suggesting a renewed focus on tackling some of the issues of our times.

One of the few exhibitions dealing with sexuality, the jury commended “For Today I Am a Boy: Contemporary Queer Abstraction” at Des Moines Art Centre as “a really smart, risky, bold and committed project”. Here, Carrie Moyer, Jolly Hydra: Unexplainably Juicy (2017)

The number of exhibitions addressing sexuality has risen each year, doubling with every round of submissions. However, the figures themselves are fairly low: only 8% of applications across three years address the topic. One of these, “Queer Abstraction”, which closed recently at Des Moines Art Center, was commended, suggesting the jury is willing to buck statistical trends. “It is a really smart, risky, bold and committed project,” De Salvo said at the time.

Religion is another theme that has seen outsized growth—more than 300%—but, like sexuality, the overall numbers are low. For De Salvo, this reveals a tendency “towards the personal realities of living in a complex world. It is about lived experience, individuality and identity—and reaffirming of agency.”

Race to the top

By far, the most notable increase was in exhibitions tackling issues of race which, in 2019, featured in one in three submissions. This could be because curators are noticing which exhibitions the prize has so far recognized, including last year’s winner, “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970” (scheduled to open next year at the Academy Museum of Motion of Motion Pictures) and one of the commended shows, “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”, (at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati until January 12, 2020)—an artist whose “perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage and cultural hybridity allow us to forthrightly confront what the state of global culture will be in the immediate future”, says its co-curator, Lowery Stokes Sims.

Meanwhile, 15% of all solo show proposals submitted for the Sotheby’s Prize have focused on work by African American artists, a figure closely aligned with the demographics of the American population (13.4%, according to the United States Census).

A still from Stormy Weather (1943), a work included in “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970”, the winner of last year’s prize. Image courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Within the solo show applications, there is a slight trend towards more focus on female African American artists: 58% of all proposals for African American artists were of work by women. “In the last five to ten years there has been an increase in the appetite for art that addresses political issues,” Serota says, “and a lot of these issues disproportionately affect women. I think African American women might feel there is a greater urgency about the issues they wish to address or portray.”

The submitted proposals “underscore the real strength of African American artists in the contemporary art world”, Butler says. “Museums are making up for a lot of lost time and history—and so they should. We are all trying to correct patterns that historically have excluded women and artists of color.”

Applications for the prize are ahead of the national US museum average in terms of representation of this group. The 2018 report “The Long Road for African American Artists”, by In Other Words and artnet News, revealed that just 2.4% of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.7% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent North American museums have been of work by African American artists.

National concerns

T.C. Cannon, Collector #5 (Man in a Wicker Chair) (1975)

Proposals addressing issues of nationhood, which is often interwoven with race and racism, also increased, growing by 62% this year to become one of the three most common topics, figuring in one in three of the proposals reviewed by the jury.

The jurors have recognized projects that grapple with these difficult issues, commending “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” in 2017 (at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), and this year split the prize between two upcoming projects in São Paulo, Brazil, which both deal with questions of nationhood.

The Museu de Arte de São Paulo received the prize for “Histórias indigenas”, an examination of indigenous histories from the 16th century to today, scheduled for 2021. “Such histories are becoming increasingly urgent and need to be addressed, while obtaining the funding for such projects remains quite challenging,” says its artistic director Adriano Pedrosa.

Jochen Volz, general director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, one of three institutions (along with Casa do Povo, a cultural center, and Kalipety, a prayer house) partnering on the other winner, OPY (working title)”, proposes a wider “indigenous definition of art-making… naturally including music, dance, storytelling and the passing on of knowledge”.

Cool on climate

Only 3% of proposals address the environment or climate change. “It was a surprise to us all not to see more,” Serota says. “There are artists dealing with these issues, but in general the art world hasn’t come to terms with the enormity of this challenge and found ways of talking about it.”

American hegemony

From Salem to St Petersburg, from Taipei to Tel Aviv, from Winnipeg to Wakefield: institutions in 133 towns and cities around the world have applied for the prize over the past three years. But this spread fails to tell the full story. As in many cultural matters, North America dominates. Every year, around half the applications come from this continent—as do the majority of projects that win or are commended. In contrast, despite accounting for 17% of submissions, no proposal from continental Europe has so far been recognized by the jury.

For Serota, US museums have something of a head start because “they think about funds from the outset”. In Europe, says Gordenker, “most development departments have been in place for ten years, max. We’re learning fast, but there is a much better tradition of grant-application writing in the US because there you have to write them.”

Academic excellence

Antonio Caro, Columbia Coca-cola (1976), from “Pop America” at the Nasher, the inaugural winner of the prize and one of many college museum exhibitions that were nominated

One particular type of institution stands out as conducting ground-breaking research: university museums across North America. Over the three years of the prize, these smaller college museums have submitted some of the most dynamic proposals—and one in five exhibitions recognized by the judges has come from a university museum in the US, including the inaugural winner (“Pop América, 1965-1975”, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) and two that received commendations (in 2017, “Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison” at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and, in 2019, “African Modernism in America, 1947-1967” at Fisk University Galleries).

Overall, 13% of applications from US institutions have been from university museums. Many of these were not formally recognized by the jury but nevertheless were impressive for their vision and quality of research. “Those projects were especially research-driven and collaborative,” says Butler. “They all embraced the inclusion of other kinds of expertise.”

We feel that we have an obligation to take risks and push boundaries

There is something specifically fertile about the intellectual atmosphere fostered by the “umbrella of the university” which allows a certain degree of freedom of thought, says Kate Kraczon, recently appointed curator of the Bell Gallery at Brown University, and curator of the Ree Morton show. “University and college spaces have mounted many of the most significant contemporary art exhibitions over the past 50 years,” she says.

Anna Sampson, senior associate director of development at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, agrees:“We are already a site for learning and experimentation, and we feel that we have an obligation to take risks and push boundaries.”

The US is leading in this aspect but Serota says the UK may catch up. In recent years, one of the judging criteria for academic research funding has been any potential impact the project might have on the wider world, he says, adding: “This is something I would encourage more of.”

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