Articles in This Issue
In Other Insights
Chances are that before lockdown no one in the art world had heard of Tim Tiller, an unassuming middle-aged man who is the head of security at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Probably, few had heard of that either.
Since then Tiller has become an internet sensation. As one of the few people still allowed into the building, he has been posting pictures and comments about the museum and its collections. Its Twitter account has grown from 10,000 followers to more than 300,000 in less than two months. This is despite the fact that Tiller is so unsavvy, social media-wise—he signs his tweets “thanks Tim!” and initially thought “hashtag” had to be written out in full.
The realization that original content—whether social media posts, articles or films—can attract and engage new audiences has signaled a big shift in thinking at museums and galleries. In-house editorial production first began in earnest at places like the British Museum, the Tate and the V&A in London, which already had outreach, education and membership departments. It was soon adopted by major auction houses: Sotheby’s and Christie’s now have print magazines, digital publishing operations, and regularly commission short films.
In recent years bigger commercial galleries have followed suit: in 2017 Gagosian was the first to launch a large-format print magazine, Gagosian Quarterly. The following year dealer Richard Polsky caused a Twitter furore when he mused on artnet News about what he perceived to be the “existential troubles” of titles including Artforum, Art in America and ARTnews. He argued that “the most relevant publications are not independent publications but those of major auction houses and—don’t laugh—Gagosian Quarterly”.
“It’s a generalization, but most museums and galleries are generally being reactive [to the current situation],” says Abhay Adhikari, founder of Digital Identities, a consultancy focused on developing new models of social impact whose clients include The Guardian, universities and government bodies, as well as the Deutsches Museum network of German science museums. “Museums realized that the analogue aspect of their offer is no longer possible [because of lockdown], so their first reaction is to say: ‘Let’s go back to the archives and put what we can online’,” he says.
Others are further ahead in the game. “Museums felt the need to justify themselves, to defend the fact that they get public funding,” Adhikari says. “So they started using content in clever ways: to demonstrate their relevance, increase their visibility and, in a few cases, engage in activism.”
Producing editorial content “is a way of being part of a broader cultural conversation”, says Lucas Zwirner, head of content at David Zwirner. The gallery has an extensive program of print publishing, event-driven partnerships with the likes of The New York Review of Books and launched a podcast series, Dialogues, in 2018.
Some also argue that in-house content covers areas that no longer receive much attention from independent publishers and broadcasters. Many of these have suffered from the huge increase in sources of information, the flight of advertisers to online platforms and—in the case of the BBC and Arts Council-funded niche titles—from a decline in public subsidies.
Done well, self-publishing is an effective, stealthy form of promotion that can attract and engage people in a way an advertisement never will. It is no coincidence that in-house production emerged at the same time as the corporate world was developing the concept of “content marketing”. Brands began to realize that digital platforms could allow them to create their own distribution channels just as marketers were wrestling with the fact that audiences were turned off by content that was obviously promotional. In response they started to hire journalists, film-makers and other creative “storytellers”—as they are often now called—to create more appealing content.
Last year Campaign, the bible of the UK advertising world, reported that in London various companies—from asset managers Cazenove and Fidelity International to insurance giant Aon, HSBC bank and law firm Hogan Lovells—had hired senior editorial staff from The Daily Telegraph, CNBC, the Financial Times and the BBC among others. The art world had already been doing this for some years: Art Basel, Lisson Gallery, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Hauser & Wirth have all have well-known arts writers in their content teams.
Many smaller museums, galleries and non-profits have been focusing their editorial efforts on the cheapest option: social media—in particular Instagram, the art world’s favorite. Since the lockdown kicked in it has become an important tool for driving people towards membership offers, online exhibitions, viewing rooms and newsletters.
But most—even some very successful—accounts do little more than post a series of pictures with anodyne captions. Chris Michaels, the director of digital, communications and technology at London’s National Gallery, has described this style as “the standard ‘pictures of pictures’: it’s mostly a lot of effort, boring and pointless”.
He made this comment last year at a Frieze Academy seminar, where he conceded that how the art world should use social media “is highly unresolved. What’s it really for? Not to show art, but to connect art to the audiences.” He added that millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, “are socially driven and seek social media-driven experiences”. He said we need to “stop the pictures of pictures, take risks, get the curators in front of the audience, do more with video”.
These days most digital experts in the commercial sphere value “engagement”—how many ‘likes’ and comments a post attracts, and how much it is shared—over absolute numbers, which in previous years could be bought and even now can be artificially boosted. By this measure people, especially those with original voices, perform many times better than institutions. “Jerry Gogosian”, who has 71,000 followers who actively like and comment on her posts, is a case in point. Her account, subtitled “Art World anti-depressant”, satirizes its many foibles.
Other art world Instagram “stars” include New York magazine’s critic Jerry Saltz (410,000 followers), who mixes erudition, wit, opinion, the occasional “weenie outburst” (his words) with a dose of self-deprecation. Art dealer Brett Gorvy (135,000) posts selections of art accompanied by poetry, lyrics and literary readings. Uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (300,000) is typically counter-intuitive, using a primarily visual platform to upload pictures of scribbled messages on Post-it notes, snippets of art theory and artists’ quotations.
During lockdown a few museums and galleries have started to take more risks. In London, the 251-year-old Royal Academy has been making waves after handing over its social media accounts to Adam Koszary, dubbed “the museum world’s king of memes” by The New York Times. He rose to prominence after devising a witty social media campaign for the tiny Museum of English Rural Life in Berkshire.
During lockdown, inspired by his own lunch, he randomly asked on Twitter: “Who can draw us the best ham?”—and received a slew of creative posts from RA followers including critics, barristers and even the Association for Art History. “People should only copy what I do to the extent that they should try and form proper human connections,” Koszary told the newspaper. “Social media is meant to be collaborative, democratic.”
Meanwhile, a small number of gallerists have abandoned their usual reticence (“it’s not about me, it’s all about the artists”) and taken to Instagram Live. One of the best is German gallerist Johann König’s regular 10am Series of conversations with artists and other art world figures (archived on the König Galerie’s Instagram highlights, @koeniggalerie). He has proved a penetrating, dry interviewer and, like the best journalists, is unafraid to ask a blunt question: “But how do you make any money?” he asked Great Women Artists podcaster Katy Hessel.
Meanwhile, “Jerry Gogosian” has been revealed to be gallerist/writer/curator and artist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein. Jerry’s fans will be delighted to hear that Helphenstein has now launched a podcast, AM Art World Radio (a joke, she says, about the technical quality of the recording). She says that the initial episodes “have been received with both love and hate”, because her radio persona is, unsurprisingly, different from Jerry’s. “Some people are disappointed that I’m not some old, bitter, rich, art dealer, and some that I’m not a disenfranchised hacker,” she says. Others want her “to stick to making jokes and shut up about anything else”. But, she says, “creative risk is very important to me… and people don’t have to follow me”.
Individualism is less easy for traditionally hierarchical, reputation- and brand-conscious galleries and museums. “Striking a balance between representing their mission and being perceived as personable is challenging,” says JiaJia Fei, founder of a specialist digital agency for art and consulting director of digital at the Jewish Museum in New York. “It’s why the most successful accounts are run by those with the deepest understanding of the organization.”
This may explain the success of the cash-strapped ICA London’s lockdown newsletter, ICA Daily. The institution has been returning to its anarchic, experimental roots under Stefan Kalmár, former director of New York’s Artists Space. He launched the rough-and-ready email newsletter—basic grey background, blue and red links—featuring free-to-air YouTube, Vimeo, audio and articles chosen daily by him, his staff and independent curators, artists and performers.
It’s an eclectic mix, with a slant towards activism, cross-disciplinary work and content from the margins: this month performance artist Susanne Oberbeck (performing name No Bra) chose an interview between Left of Black webcast presenter and Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal and artist John Akomfrah; a film she made in 2003 with Frieze assistant editor Fanny Paul Clinton, and new-music site Bandcamp.
Contributors explain briefly, in straightforward, often chatty language, why they have chosen what they have, and why we should take a look. As the weeks go on it feels as if we are getting to know the ICA regulars. There is a business, as well as engagement aim: to increase the uptake of the institute’s £240 “Red” membership.
Navigating the mainstream
ICA Daily would be too left-field for institutions with more mainstream audiences such as the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art, which have to appeal to everyone from family groups to connoisseurs. Like most big museums’ editorial offerings, MoMA’s The Museum from Home newsletter is educational and accessible in tone. “Today we’re sharing resources to bring art and inspiration to the learners in your life…” one missive begins. It saves itself from patronizing the cognoscenti by finding surprising stories among MoMA’s vast collections.
So far it has presented obscure items from its extensive home-video archive, personal reactions to its collections by figures such as African American human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, and unusual responses to individual artworks. One of the most original is a 15-minute contemporary music commission by composer Conor Bourgal designed to be listened to while looking at Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 (1950).
In London, Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery and of last year’s Venice Biennale, is also exploring new ways of connecting with its audience. “Although it’s not a substitute for seeing art in a gallery, digital content has great potential to engage with people who are interested in learning more about an exhibition, an artist or an artwork,” he says. His atmospheric “Among the Trees” exhibition was forced to closed only a few days after it opened, and his team have instead been working on short, educational films, themed poetry and playlists, even an urban tree identification guide by artists and scientists.
Adhikari, meanwhile, turns about to be an enthusiast for museum education departments and the way they share their skills with curators. “They aren’t just panicking and saying: ‘How do we replace our analogue offer with digital content?’” he says. “They are thinking: ‘How do we have a legitimate presence in the homes of our audiences and facilitate new kind of relationships?’” The days when a museum’s communication strategy was limited to erudite talks, archival material and in-depth catalogue essays are long gone.
Ironically, perhaps, these are migrating elsewhere—to the big commercial galleries. Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner have all invested heavily in editorial: books, films, online articles, magazines and podcasts. In a recent edition of its Dialogues podcast, which has increased in frequency to once a week during lockdown, Lucas Zwirner moderated a discussion between two video artists of different generations, Diana Thater and Rachel Rose. Topics included architecture, robotics, trauma and animals’ experience of the world.
At Hauser & Wirth, New York Times writer Randy Kennedy, executive editor of the gallery’s Ursula magazine, told Monocle radio that his team have been working “really, really hard to put the magazine, films, interviews and archival things… online very quickly”. It has launched an editorial-based lockdown newsletter, Dispatches, filled with free-to-air content. Among its recent articles is a memoir of a day spent with Joseph Cornell in 1971 by the art historian Phyllis Tuchman.
Meanwhile, Gagosian has packed its new online sales platform, Artist Spotlight, with interviews by famous writers, long-form essays and in-depth films. This is sophisticated stuff, verging on the reverential, designed to appeal to the galleries’ artists and a wealthy, generally older, educated clientele.
The trend for self-publishing makes sense, Fei says, as it “provides agency, expands the brand and reach of the gallery, as well as adding narrative”. But “we have to find ways of formulating a story that is compelling and accessible: there is so much competition on-screen and so many different formats that people consume. It means changing gear and adapting the way you speak to different audiences and different platforms in the digital space.”
Which brings us back to the Cowboy Museum and Tim Tiller. With his homespun wisdom and aw-shucks dad-jokes (example: “What did the cowboy say to the pencil?” “Draw!”), Tiller shows that even with an overwhelming amount of competition there is space for the right content, for the right audience, to cut through.
He is, of course, no average warder, just as Jerry Saltz is no average arts writer. Tiller is a true cowboy enthusiast and a natural communicator. As he told The Wall Street Journal, he has spent 20 years pacing the galleries and stores and quickly earned a reputation as “the guy who likes to read the labels”. Originality, authenticity, knowledge and the right way of writing for the right platform: publishing perfection.
In Must See
Drawing a Line
One exhibition I missed before London was shuttered was a Tate Britain show dedicated to the work of the late-Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. A great fix is offered by Scandal & Beauty, a BBC Four program superbly fronted by the actor Mark Gatiss (with a guest appearance by fellow Beardsley enthusiast Stephen Fry).
Beardsley died in 1898, aged just 25, of tuberculosis, a respiratory disease that he was diagnosed when he was seven, and that comes across as the driving force of his artistic ambitions. His talent is undeniable—both his sheer ability and the way he channeled his influences, such as Japanese art, so well. The simple lines of The Climax (1893), made to accompany Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, are, to me, perfection.
Gatiss, sporting a geek-chic wool waistcoat throughout, is the perfect English gent to champion Beardsley’s mix of observational elegance and taboo-breaking smut. The historian Stephen Calloway is also a delight and will feature in Tate Britain’s online tour of its show, which launched on 13 April (tate.org.uk). M.G.
Get Up to Speed
Our relationship to the past has a habit of changing, almost overnight, at times of crisis and systemic shock. Things will never to return to the way they were. But to me this is not a loss; it is a chance to see the familiar anew. Proust knew this pleasure well when he wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” (and, really, what could be more appropriate than quoting from The Prisoner, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, in isolation?)
As the virus transformed New York, I re-watched the film that first connected me to the city in an emotional way: Bennett Miller’s 1998 documentary The Cruise. It is a love letter to the metropolis seen through the eyes of Timothy “Speed” Levitch, an incomparable autodidact and tour guide whose intense feelings for the city are laid bare like an open wound. His incessant biological metaphors for the chaos and complexity of urban life, his tours of death in Greenwich Village, and his revelry for life’s fleeting moments take on darker and richer overtones now. Nobody makes things feel as urgent or as full of life as Speed; a major museum should hire him to completely overhaul its docent program. M.T.
Travel the Globe with Nowness
Nowness, a digital channel of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, hosts short films featuring well-known cultural figures, from artist David Hockney to model Bella Hadid. But there is more to see than celebrity. The latest installment in the series “Portrait of a Place” focuses on Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus crisis. The video is composed of drone- shots of streets empty save for an ambulance speeding by, sweeping large-scale cityscapes devoid of life and, eventually, scenes of people returning to normality—all overlaid with haunting audio recordings of Wuhan residents describing their reactions to the crisis. J.V.
From the windows of our home-for-now in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, an abundance of wildlife comes in and out of view every day. The two large evergreen trees at the top of the yard are home to a multitude of robins—the suburban version of the New York pigeon—as well as blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, starlings, sparrows and, occasionally, a circling hawk.
There are bunnies, foxes and cats, as well as a groundhog couple we’ve taken to calling Mr and Mrs Wilbur. I’ve found myself becoming a birder, researching North American backyard species on Audubon.org. It reminds me of the Audubon Mural Project (2014-ongoing) in my neighborhood of Hamilton Heights in Harlem—which was home to the renowned ornithologist and watercolorist John James Audubon when there were still acres of trees and wildlife there.
This public art initiative, by the National Audubon Society in partnership with the Harlem-based Gitler & gallery, was created to bring attention to the 314 species of North American birds that are endangered by climate change. So now, colorful contemporary murals of Audubon’s beloved birds brighten up corners and bodegas, weaving Harlem’s history into the fabric of its current community. M.S.
Take Inspiration from Frida
Frida Kahlo was largely confined to her home in the last decades of her life as she struggled with her health, during which time she channeled her creative energy into her diary. The Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City has partnered with Google Arts & Culture to digitize a selection of pages from the intimate journal she kept from 1944 until 1954. For those of us who don’t read Spanish, the museum has provided some insightful text in English. J.V.
Since we can’t go out to dine there’s no better time to bring the restaurant into the comfort of our own homes. I’ve become enthralled by cooking tutorials—from New York Times columnist Alison Roman’s tasty viral dishes to Massimo Bottura’s daily postings of Michelin-starred masterpieces.
But one unlikely cook I’ve recently been introduced to, thanks to Seth Kelly, a partner at Petzel gallery, is Jorge Pardo. The sculptor—who is known for creating work that imbues the familiar with multiple meanings using vibrant colors and patterns—is also an extremely gifted cook. In this video Pardo and his daughter Penelope cook a rendition of tongue with polenta and zucchini squash at his home in Mérida, Mexico. While not necessarily a recipe I’m running to make, it was enjoyable to see this glimpse into an artist’s private, domestic world. J.W.
Let the Music Play
Being cooped up at home with free reign over the office playlist has been a silver lining of sheltering-in-place, but the indefinite postponement of concerts is painful for all of us who love live music. Fortunately, musicians around the world have been staging live performances online, from intimate, solo kitchen-table songs to live collaborations between multiple artists.
Museums and institutions are taking similar steps to bring the concert and performance experience into our homes. Art Channel, the new platform of the Henie Onstad museum near Oslo, is releasing exclusive and previously unpublished footage from its archives every week, including recordings, performances and concerts. Coming up later this month is a 1990 performance by Yoko Ono at Høvikodden (from 21-28 May).
Meanwhile, closer to home, the Met Opera is offering free nightly streams of operas, granting unprecedented access to these exceptional performances. C.P.
Take Time to be Precise
In 2017-18, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a landmark exhibition entitled “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” which featured 133 of the artist’s drawings along with three sculptures, a wooden architectural model and some of his earliest paintings. In preparation for the show, the Met tasked Marjorie Shelley (the Sherman Fairchild conservator in charge of works on paper at the Met) with restoring a drawing on loan from Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford. It was Shelley’s first time working on a piece by Michelangelo “after looking at thousands of drawings over the course of years”, she says in this wonderful video on YouTube. Shelley walks us through her meticulous process of evaluating the damage to the drawing, which had several tears and multiple creases, and the delicate methods she used to restore it. J.V.
Unable to see much art in person, I have turned my hand to making art: a needlepoint of Chinese guardian lions, known as “foo dogs”, to be more precise. This surprisingly therapeutic distraction from the daily news comes via Lycette Designs of Palm Beach, founded by my friend Jessica Chaney, who has built the brand on modern and playful, but elegant, designs. For my next project, and in honor of spring, I’m looking to make a piece involving flowers. Lately, I’ve been admiring David Hockney’s paintings of sunflowers in vases, and hope to use his works as a source of inspiration. J.W.
As time begins to smear, I have slipped in and out of Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad (of which there is a Criterion Edition). This meditation on memory is haunting and romantic, wrapped in the warm fog and time-bending disorientation of a fever dream. Suddenly all-too-familiar now are the wandering from room to room, the couples aimlessly strolling at a distance from one another, the slow and endless tracking shots, and the languid repetition of the voiceover: “Once again I walk, once again, along these corridors, through these salons and galleries, the edifice of a bygone era…” Marienbad was also Vito Acconci’s favorite film, and now we can train the lens of social distancing on Following Piece (1969) too—Vito never followed anyone into movie theaters or other confined spaces either.
Another Acconci work that I can’t shake is Remote Control (1971): Vito and Kathy Dillon, his partner and frequent collaborator, sit in separate wooden boxes, speaking through video cameras and monitors. Isolation, communication breakdown, lo-fi video—they unwittingly captured the strange social experience of Zoom. The full work, along with at least 18 of Acconci’s other video works, and so many thousands of other works and pieces of ephemera from the luminaries of the avant-garde can be found on Kenneth Goldsmith’s resolutely anti-institutional anti-archive UbuWeb. It has, or seems to have, everything, and focuses on more esoteric content: Richard Serra’s media-critique video Television Delivers People (1973),Chris Burden’s “Television Commercials” (1973-77), Dan Graham’s poetry, Joseph Beuys’s pop music. You will while away countless hours learning about things you might never have known existed—but now can’t possibly live without. M.T.
In Other Insights
As a voracious fan of experimental live performance, during lockdown I find myself turning to the artists and artist-centered organizations who create and present this sometimes soothing, other times provocative work.
The last live gathering I attended before New York City closed its cultural doors was a long-form conversation at Danspace Project, in St Mark’s Church, as part of “PLATFORM 2020: Utterances from the Chorus”, co-curated by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Okwui Okpokwasili and Danspace executive director and chief curator, Judy Hussie-Taylor. The event, “Voice & Body”, brought together three pre-eminent visionaries of our time: scholar Saidiya Hartman, multi-media artist Simone Leigh, and choreographer and performer Okpokwasili. (Full disclosure, I am on the board at Danspace Project.)
It was 7 March and, in a space where long, warm hugs are typically bountiful, we were already mostly touching toe-to-toe or elbow-to-elbow to say hello instead. This generous and iterative program, years in the making, is itself an homage to both slowness and gathering. Like others, Danspace Project and Okwui thoughtfully moved what could be virtual, continuing the rich dialogue and programming online. I wholeheartedly recommend a deep dive into this singularly beautiful space, and if you are looking for a place to start, Okwui’s powerful and probing seven-song album Day Pulls Down the Sky is the perfect spot.
Other kindred and legendary organizations accustomed to producing live performance have now turned their attention to the screen, including The Kitchen, which quickly initiated “Kitchen Broadcast”, a live-stream performance series on Twitch, in which “artists connect from their homes to yours”.
The Baryshnikov Arts Center nimbly created two platforms in response to this crisis: “Parlor Broadcasts”, newly produced live-streaming events with curated artists that were slated to perform in the now-on-hold live season, and “PlayBAC”, which mines Baryshnikov’s archive of gorgeously documented performances for a weekly video series. The selection is wide-ranging and includes the Latvian National Choir, former Merce Cunningham Dance Company member-turned-choreographer and performer Rashaun Mitchell, and vocalist and songwriter Somi, who has been dubbed “the new Nina Simone”.
One other screen-bound performance that really strikes right at the heart of this moment is Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Room/Roof Piece. Unable to embark on its long-planned 50th anniversary tour due to covid-19, current and former members of the company convened from their homes over Zoom to re-create Brown’s seminal 1971 Roof Piece, originally performed on rooftops spanning ten blocks in Lower Manhattan. It is a mesmerizing movement-based game of telephone. While you’re on the site, peruse the incomparably extensive archive for more.
And, lastly, if you want to move your own body, check out the “Social DisDance Party”, conceived by choreographer and performer Ani Taj and fellow members of The Dance Cartel, who are the most wonderfully raucous and exuberant dancers around. A virtual nightclub, participants are encouraged to dress up and turn on some flashing lights. Joining is free, but the organizers always highlight a cause to which dancers can donate if they are able and so inclined.
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