Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today we’re going to be talking about the year that was: 2019 rounds out, what feels like a long decade. This was a year of protests and profound change. We’re going to be looking back on what happened, what our guests talked about and what our listeners most responded to.
Joining me are two of our somewhat regular guests. I’m happy to welcome you both back: Ian Alteveer Alteveer, the Aaron I. Fleischman curator of Modern and contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York. Ian, thanks for coming back on the show.
Ian Alteveer: It’s my favorite. I’m so glad to be here.
Charlotte Burns: Oh! Thanks! And Julia Halperin, who is the executive editor of artnet News and together with me, she’s the co-author of “Women’s Place in the Art World: Why Recent Advancements for Female Artists are Largely an Illusion”, which is the second major annual data study that In Other Words has produced with artnet News.
More on that later in the show, no doubt. Julia, thank you for joining me.
Julia Halperin: Thanks for having me.
Charlotte Burns: Here’s your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words, newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And so, onto the show.
2019, where to begin. This was a year of great change and unrest. People took to the streets all around the world, from Hong Kong to Chile, Iraq to Venezuela, whether it was students leading a battle in Hong Kong for democratic concessions, opponents of president Maduro in Venezuela, student demonstrations that began in Santiago but escalated throughout Chile. In Lebanon there were a nationwide protest against austerity and corruption, which forced the resignation of the government. In Iran and Iraq there was anti-regime unrest that was brutally suppressed leading to the deaths of hundreds of protesters and around the world millions and millions of children and adults, inspired by a Swedish schoolgirl, took to the streets to call for action on climate change.
And that found its way into the art world. There was a lot of protest and unrest in museums, too. We can talk a little about the way in which power structures were challenged, whether that was at the Whitney Museum of American Art where Warren Kanders, a vice chairman, resigned after months of protest; whether that was the Serpentine Gallery in London where the CEO resigned.
There was a sort of holding out and then a rapid domino falling on the decisions about whether to take money from the Sackler family—the family behind Purdue Pharma, which has been accused in thousands of lawsuits of misleading the medical industry about the addictive qualities of the OxyContin painkiller.
So, where do we start? Ian, you work in a museum, so how was it on the inside? Can you talk a little about what the thinking is institutionally about how to move forward?
Ian Alteveer: Well, I was struck by what how you opened this conversation about the world in a state of protest and particularly the last point about people taking to the streets regarding the climate crisis. I’m struck by how so many of these protests are led by some very charismatic and very vocal women. And so, someone like Jane Fonda, for example, who’s moved to Washington DC—
Charlotte Burns: And keeps getting arrested.
Ian Alteveer: —and keeps getting arrested on Fridays, I find super inspiring; and similarly, of course, with protests against Purdue Pharma, Nan Goldin and the group P.A.I.N.—who did stage protests in New York museums and London museums. The Met has a wing named for a branch of the Sackler family. Of course, it was donated in advance of OxyContin’s manufacture. But nonetheless, the Met, I think, made a very bold decision in saying that they would no longer accept funds from the Sackler family. And I think it is a moment where one does need to be decisive.
I was also inspired by some of the participants in the Whitney Biennial this year. Over the summer, a group of artists who were included in that exhibition really decided to push again at the Whitney for not, I’d say, being decisive enough, maybe, about what was going on with their board—
Charlotte Burns: And we should just say what was happening with the board was that Warren Kanders—who was a vice chairman at the Whitney—he owns a company called Safariland, which manufactures tear gas that has been found to have been used on the American border against migrants. There was a lot of protest about this. It’d been going on for months and months and months. But the decisive moment was, as you were saying, when four artists wrote a letter that was published in Artforum to the co-curators asking for their work to be removed.
Ian Alteveer: It goes to show, just on a very basic level, that on the one hand these issues are really difficult for museums who, of course, depend so much on the generosity of their patrons. We always talk amongst ourselves about whenever a donor comes forward for anything, I think good stewardship entails looking at where that money comes from. It means doing a lot more work in the background. Something we could point to for 2020 is maybe a shared responsibility that we all need to steward culture, but we need to do it responsibly.
Charlotte Burns: Julia, I’d like to get your viewpoint on this as well. We’re talking about the idea of there being good money and bad money. Do you think there’s such a thing? Where do you draw the line?
Julia Halperin: I think that’s a question that really occupied the art world this year. And I wanted to go back to one thing about Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N.: this time last year, that was considered widely as a pretty fringe activity. It was this sort of radical wing of activists that were coming in and doing things that were very headline grabbing and very theatrical. But I don’t think anyone thought at that moment that they were going to have a concrete impact on international museum policy. And I actually think the same is true of Decolonize This Place and the activists who were protesting Warren Kanders, that it took a year—and that’s a very short amount of time, when you think about how slowly museums move—to fundamentally change the way that they think about their own governance.
Aside from the artists who protested within the Whitney Biennial, these were people who were coming from outside the institution who I think if you thought about even a decade ago, I don’t think the institutions would have thought that they had the same kind of responsibility to that particular public. It’s important to remember just how radical that is and how much has changed in the way that museums feel responsible to—
Charlotte Burns: And reactive.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, and reactive to certain communities that I think before the age of social media, before the kind of groundswell of internet pressure, it would have been in section C, page 18 in The New York Times. It wouldn’t have been this kind of seismic shift.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think that’s because it was artists, though? Because in each of these instances, the Serpentine as well, it was when artists got involved. It also speaks about the role of media, I think, too. A lot of it’s about social media, but it was Artforum that a letter that caused the change.
Julia Halperin: And I also think it’s important to remember that Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. are very media savvy. They’re not doing demonstrations without giving media organizations a heads up. They know how to work the system.
Charlotte Burns: They do.
Ian Alteveer: It’s a manifestation, in essence, of a performance and it’s a performative protest and I think if you put your finger on it—that artists have amazing voices. And they certainly know how to speak visually. I think it’s a good thing that we follow their lead on these fronts because they teach us something every time.
Charlotte Burns: And Nan had told the National Portrait Gallery in London that she would not participate in a scheduled show unless they refused the Sackler funding. When we spoke at the beginning of the year to Nick Cullinan, the director there, he was talking about the kind of ethical steps that the museum was taking to consider funding. So, they were in that process anyway. But Nan then got involved and said, “I’m not going to take part in the show”.
At the Serpentine, it was when Hito Steyerl asked the gallery to withdraw a work of hers from the website after The Guardian published an article revealing the links between the gallery’s then CEO Yana Peel and the NSO group, which is an Israeli cybersecurity company that’s been accused by human rights organizations of developing technology that’s been used by authoritarian regimes in tracking dissidents. The firm denies this, saying it’s only used to fight crime and terrorism.
Nonetheless, a group of artists then wrote to the gallery privately, demanding action be taken and the next day Peel resigned. So, in each instance, the decisive hinge moment seems to be when the artists are saying, “I don’t want my work to be in this museum”.
Ian Alteveer: Well certainly, that is the basic thing. I mean, when one works with living artists, as I love to do, it is about a conversation, right? And it’s about a trust and it’s about a dialogue, and about how their work is represented. I certainly would never want to put someone’s work on the walls without asking them or talking to them about its meaning and about its context in that space. As much as it’s important to artists to be in a museum, I think it’s amazing to think that sometimes it’s just as important for them not to be.
Also, many of us feel these days somewhat powerless in the face of vast corporate greed, of power plays in politics, and to be able to make one’s voice heard and make it impactful is, I think, a huge part of the importance of all of this.
Charlotte Burns: I agree, and our audience really responded to that. Thinking about the show when we were preparing for this podcast, we looked at the numbers and what people had been listening to. And there were some trends that emerge. One of which was that four of the top ten shows dealt with essentially the state of the world today in culture and more broadly, they dealt with issues like nationalism, cultural authority and power. Essentially, who gets a voice—which actually was the topic of a conversation that we organized at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier in the year. It was entitled “Says Who? Cultural Value and Validation in the 21st Century”. Our guests where Michael Govan, the CEO and director of LACMA; Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times; and the artist Derrick Adams. And here are a few things that they had to say in the panel.
Michael Govan: The museum has the authority to do whatever they want, and they’re looking down on you to tell you what’s good and what’s bad and all of that. And I think there’s a new awareness that it’s not so simple.
Derrick Adams: I definitely think artists should be able to do whatever they want to do and to present ideas that are important to them in the context of whatever they want to establish.
Roberta Smith: So, I think value is something we are constantly dealing with consciously or unconsciously in our daily lives. And I think value in the art world is in complete flux all the time.
Everybody’s thinking and rethinking value. And then at certain points we communicate, we put something on view, we make something, we write a review, we buy something. And I like to say that everybody who’s really passionate about art and interested, you have a vote and you’re voting early and often. Whatever it is you do—making, buying, writing about, installing, calling your friend on the phone and saying, “You’ve got to see this”—you’re expressing an opinion and it’s going to have an effect in some way. And it will just build and build, and then things will change.
Ian Alteveer: What I like about Roberta’s quote and, Julia I think you like that too, is this very empowering idea of this word of mouth, that you’re voting even when you’re discussing artwork, and certainly word of mouth about, “You’ve got to see this show,” is super important. And I don’t know that that’s changed all that much in our new kind of digital age or whatever we call it. And there’s something empowering and enabling about what Roberta says and then a quote that I find very wonderful.
Julia Halperin: I personally found it very affecting. I was listening to it this morning when I was walking the dog and it like reminded me, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to just follow what I think people are going to read. I can—”
Charlotte Burns: As an editor?
Julia Halperin: Yeah. I can make decisions myself about what I think has value. And you’d be surprised how often you can forget that when you have traffic targets and things like that. And you’re thinking about what’s going to get likes on social media or what’s going to get people in the door.
The way that she spoke in general in that conversation was so much about the individual experience with an artwork. She just talked about how she feels, like her goal as a critic is to just get people in the door and in front of the art. It also like just reminded me, “Oh yeah, that is the end result. That is the end goal for everyone here.”
Charlotte Burns: See art. Talk about it. Have an opinion.
Ian Alteveer: See it in person too.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And what was interesting too about being in Aspen is that there were quite a few cultural talks, but it’s culture in quite a broad sense. The organizers—who were great to work with— they were surprised afterwards at how many people came to the talk and how many people were engaged in it. It reminded me, in that context, that when you’re in the art world you can often feel like it’s a siloed interest. And being somewhere like an “ideas fest”, we realized that’s really what art can do: engage people with big ideas.
On which, another episode of the show where we did with our first architect ever, Sir David Adjaye—it was really thought provoking, for me, to interview him because some of the things he said were really fascinating about the ways in which architecture shapes our thinking, the idea of nationhood and nationality and the fictions that we create. So, here’s David talking about that.
David Adjaye: These buildings, for me, are long overdue. For me, it’s sad that they’re having to come now. They should have actually happened. In a way, for me they hinder our understanding of each other and our progress. So, there’s work that I think that these buildings need to do. Then there’s a language that they need to bring, which is about the reality rather than the fiction of nation imagery. I’m very interested in this idea. Every nation needs to build a fiction to glorify their empire and their civilization. There’s a narrative in that. But I think that there’s a kind of conceit in it when it just becomes overly essentialized into one diagram. Especially in a place like America, which is about absolutely not one diagram. It’s one idea, but it is absolutely a plurality.
Ian Alteveer: One of the reasons why he’s thinking about this idea of nationhood is because that wonderful building is of course in Washington, D.C. and is extremely impactful as a site because it’s in the company of all these other institutions that we know, which are government-based or funded by our federal system. So, to have this kind of amazing radical, deeply moving insertion there is super important.
But of course, we’ve also seen this year other new spaces open. I think MoMA’s big reopening this autumn is something we can point to. And there are other buildings in the works: David’s project for the Studio Museum in Harlem, which I’m super looking forward to. It’s one of my favorite places to go and I can’t wait for them to reopen. As someone who thinks about architecture very deeply, his podcast was so interesting to me because he speaks to what it can do, how it can shape your experience and how it can change the way you look at things.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. And, obviously the building that you’re talking about is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is on the mall in D.C.
He said something that I thought was really interesting. He was talking about one of his favorite books, and it made him rethink our relationship with light and dark. He had sort of ingrained in his thinking this idea that light spaces were good spaces and dark was bad, and he’d sort of suppressed this idea that darkness was also illuminating in a different way. I thought that was really fascinating.
Another show that was along the subject was with the Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker and the artist Teresita Fernández. The Ford Foundation is one of the most generously endowed foundations. And Darren has been writing and talking a lot publicly this year and talked about it on the show, this idea of the system and how we need to change the system.
Ian Alteveer: We shouldn’t forget, too, that the Ford Foundation not only funds art and artists, but also of course many other things, social justice and education and the list goes on from there. I mean, it’s an incredible, incredibly impactful organization. And Darren, as its leader, also has an amazing platform from which to speak about things like social justice.
Darren Walker: I think part of what we’re seeing with this new generation of artists is an unwillingness to accept tokenism, but rather to say we want transformation. That the idea that one of us is anointed by the system to represent quote unquote, “our people,” is no longer acceptable. And as artists, we are going to demand the kind of behavior from the system that brings about long-term systemic change.
Ian Alteveer: Together with Teresita, the Latinx Futures Conference, it just gets better and better every time they put that together. And I think these are two people who you were really lucky to have with you, who are doing so much to bring awareness, I think, to how art can change the world and how different dialogues can open up doors.
Charlotte Burns: And I like that Teresita—we were talking about equity and I think I said something like, “Once you get people in a museum, isn’t it a question too of how much equity you give them to express themselves?” And she corrected me, quite rightly, saying that you don’t get given equity, you have to take it.
Teresita Fernández: The truth is that equity is not given. Power is not given. It’s often taken. That’s actually the history of power, is always that it is taken, that it’s demanded.
Charlotte Burns: And I thought that was really interesting because we were at that point just finishing, literally that day, our massive data study. And even though that had absorbed us for eight months or something, still you kind of fall into these ways of thinking where you’re like, “Oh, well maybe someone will nicely give up some space.” And what we’re looking at with the numbers is that of course that’s not going to happen, and you see that with these protests too.
Ian Alteveer: Well you guys, can you give a shorthand version of your amazing report?
Charlotte Burns: Julia, you go ahead.
Julia Halperin: Sure. So, we surveyed 26 museums across the US and asked them to tell us how many acquisitions over the past decade were of work by women and how many exhibitions. The findings—we expected them to be low, but we didn’t expect them to be as low as they were. We found 11% of acquisitions over that period of time were work by women and 14% of exhibitions.
The point that I keep coming back to when I sort of regurgitate these numbers is the fact that we think that it has gotten better, but it actually hasn’t. The numbers peaked in 2009 and either stayed constant or tumbled a bit from there.
Charlotte Burns: That was depressing. I think we can just say that. This is our second study. We looked at the representation of African American artists last year and we were shocked then, because the progress had been so small. There had been a shift in thinking, but it was really minute and not clear if it was systemic shift and embedded in the system, or if it was a trend. So, time will tell on that front.
I think we were expecting maybe something a little better, because people have been focusing on female artists, it feels like, for a long time
Julia Halperin: We thought that we would need like a different server for all of the data. We were like, “How are the systems going to support all of these Excel sheets of lines and lines of women?” And then it turned out it was fine.
Charlotte Burns: We had plenty of room on Google Docs. We actually found another system that we could work remotely on because we looked at the demographics of America and we figured that—
Julia Halperin: Right, there’s going to be so many women.
Charlotte Burns: —it was going to have to be around four times the size of last year’s data because the African American population in America is around 12% or 13%; women around 51%, 52%. So, we were thinking this is going to be huge, how are we going to handle it? That’s why we actually did fewer museums this year. We did 30 last year.
Then the numbers came in, and actually what was even worse. We were doing the final eyes, number six and seven, on the data to check that there weren’t any male names that had snuck in there. There were some. The most Western-known male name was Carol Dunham. Great artist.
Ian Alteveer: Absolutely.
Charlotte Burns: But nonetheless, we were looking at the market data. Tip Dunham isn’t an artist who is, you know, appearing at auction all the time. We took out just his one line, and it was like this huge dollar drop. Then there was a bunch of artists whose names had sort of got through the system because they were Eastern names that, you know, we hadn’t recognized and not really known artists. We had to Google all these artists, and they weren’t necessarily even webpages for them.
But even these very, very unknown artists, taking out their lines: just drastic dollar drops. You would be like, that artist was placed up next to, you know, this great artist of historical importance, and they’re higher than, X, Y or Z female artists. So, watching the way in which the data just fell by taking out really obscure male artists was like—
Julia Halperin: By the same token we added Dia pretty late in the game—
Ian Alteveer: Who have been doing, I have to say—
Julia Halperin: Amazing work.
Ian Alteveer: Incredible, yeah—
Julia Halperin: Unbelievable work.
Ian Alteveer: Amazing practice.
Julia Halperin: I was adding them into the market spreadsheet, and I remember replying to you and being like, it’s $20,000. It’s an increase of $20,000 for hundreds of—
Ian Alteveer: This was on average, or—
Julia Halperin: No, combined.
Charlotte Burns: But our system was that we took all of the museum names, and then we ran them through artnet‘s market databases. So $20,000 isn’t Dia’s spend, it’s those artists’—
Julia Halperin: —their combined total at auction.
Ian Alteveer: Got it.
Julia Halperin: But I think, you know, for me, I’ve been thinking about, you know, now that we’ve done it a few months ago—for me the real takeaway is that a lot of the institutions that we talk to they felt like they were doing work on this subject, but it was clear when you really look into it that they were sort of doing it as a bonus on top of what they considered their regular work. And that the institutions that were actually creating fundamental change that you could see in their numbers, they saw it as—
Ian Alteveer: Integral.
Julia Halperin: It was integral. Instead of adding a third leg, it was one of the two legs.
Ian Alteveer: That’s really where it has to come from, right? I mean, it has to be part of, it has to be inclusive, has to be equitable, and it has to start from a ground level.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Ian Alteveer: I think, again, looking at what Jessica and her team have been doing at Dia is really inspiring. I can’t remember if I ever told you, Charlotte, that I was reviewing—because we’re going to be installing a rotation in our permanent collection galleries next year of new acquisitions—I was looking at what we’ve been bringing in, and I realized that over the course of a year, my amazing colleague Kelly Baum had basically only bought work by women artists, and I just couldn’t help but think about how cool that was and how it really, I think, in part is just because the work is so excellent and should be in the Met’s collection and wasn’t there yet, but also to really maybe try and swing that balance to counter all of the work by artists who are men that gets gifted to us because collectors have been buying it over the years, or the galleries have been sending it our way. You really do have to pay attention, and we really do have to count the numbers in order to create an equitable space.
Charlotte Burns: In a way that’s the positive thing. When you do look at the data this year and last year, the constant thing is that concentration is what creates change. So, when you look at institutions that are really thinking about this—they talk about it, they focus on it, they’re pushing for some kind of shift—they’re the ones seeing the institutional shift.
The women data, especially, was incredibly sporadic and erratic. It really reflected opportunistic focus rather than consistent concentration. So, the two museums that had more than 50% of the collection over the past ten years—PAFA and Dia—they are led by women who are creating that change.
Ian Alteveer: Absolutely.
Charlotte Burns: But it’s not as simple as just having women in positions of power. Although, it is true that there are no women in the corner offices. When you look at the boards, actually, the museum boards are some of the most equal places in the art world. 47% of the boards—
Ian Alteveer: Equal by gender.
Charlotte Burns: Equal by gender, not by—
Julia Halperin: Many other measures.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. Race or wealth or—
Ian Alteveer: Or socioeconomics, right?
Charlotte Burns: Exactly. But in terms of gender, 47% of the boards at the 26 museums that we surveyed were women. That was really interesting because all the way through our interviews people kept saying to us, “You have to look at the boards. That’s where this is coming from.”
Julia Halperin: Like, “You’ll see, it’s very unequal on the board level.”
Charlotte Burns: So we added it up and we were like, it’s almost equal.
Julia Halperin: That was almost one of the last things we did, and I expected that it would be a really tidy conclusion of like, “Oh yeah, it’s because there are no women on the boards.” But it makes you realize that just having people in the room doesn’t do the job. Also, that these biases are so much more about status and power and money and status quo than they are just on, you know, identity.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Ian Alteveer: I think that’s right.
Charlotte Burns: We’re in the forest, you know, with these data studies. We think almost with one weird mind now—
Ian Alteveer: And I’m one of your trees.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. How did you interpret it? You know, when you heard about it institutionally?
Ian Alteveer: About your study?
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ian Alteveer: I think it’s so important that that you two now for the second time have looked at numbers, because it is a way to kind of get a baseline, right? To see the lay of the land. And it was disappointing. My takeaway is that we in general—I mean a group “we”, as museum people—are not doing enough. So, there’s that.
There is also the basic fact that work by artists who happen to be women tends to be a lot cheaper, which I might say should make it easier to acquire for institutions and collectors. So, there’s that.
Charlotte Burns: One of the things that came up was this idea of quotas. There’s a kind of consistent resistance to that idea from most quarters, and a resistance even to the data. I was talking to an artist the other day who said that they’d been at a panel of a major museum, and our data study had come up and the museum had said, “Well, that data is misleading.” The artist asked me about it, and I said, “It’s the museum’s data…”
Charlotte Burns: So, if it’s misleading, then they need to talk to their people…
Julia Halperin: It makes me so cranky
Charlotte Burns: But there’s this idea that somehow data is misleading and it’s kind of interesting that that level of resistance—
Ian Alteveer: Less denial, right? Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: I think it’s because in the art world so much: a) it’s about the systems of power and how we are not really good in the art world at thinking about actual meaningful change. But it’s also to do with the fact that people are distrustful of data. People are distressful of that kind of thing in the art world because so much of it is on this slightly spiritual idea of what we see and what we value, and we know that that’s valuable—
Ian Alteveer: Like, you can’t quantify aesthetics—
Charlotte Burns: It’s almost, yeah—
Ian Alteveer: Aesthetic meaning and value or—
Charlotte Burns: Exactly, it’s sort of distasteful to think about like facts and figures in that way in the art world. One of the things that several museum directors said to us, “Well, we don’t want to do a quota because this has to be about quality.”
Ian Alteveer: Well, that is the trip, that’s the trap—
Julia Halperin: It’s kind of a dog whistle too.
Ian Alteveer: That is the dog whistle, too. Yes. So, my colleagues and I in the department, when we think about how we’re going to hang a gallery—permanent collection-wise for example—I think we look at the list of who we’re going to put on the wall, and I think we really think about, what comprises that list? Who are these artists, and are there women on this list? There better be. There better be more than just a handful. Are there artists of color on that list?
How are we going to better represent really who we are as a culture? That is so important. I’ve learned a bit about that through some amazing artists I’ve worked with. One of them being Kerry James Marshall, you know, who always speaks about visibility and how he makes his paintings on purpose, purpose built to hang in museums like the Met. So that those amazing black figures are on those walls where they are very hard to find, in general. So, I think about that idea of visibility and also, you know, that our visitorship, that the people that come through the galleries could see themselves on those walls or picture themselves in that space. I mean, it is about that kind of inclusion.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ian Alteveer: And that kind of visibility.
Charlotte Burns: And the roles that they could see themselves in. Are they always in the roles of the reclining female nude?
Ian Alteveer: Right.
Charlotte Burns: Are they always in the role of the servant? The possibilities that you afford people visually is part of the responsibility of a museum.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah, and this was the impact of that amazing show that Denise Murrell curated that traveled to the Musée d’Orsay, that was started at the Wallach Columbia, about the black female figure, beginning with her amazing dissertation on Manet’s Olympia (1856) and the black maid who has always been there in that painting, but no one ever talked about, right? That that can open a whole realm. You start pulling the thread. And I’m so excited that she’ll join us at the Met next year.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s great news.
Julia Halperin: What’s so interesting about that, too, is that that was a show that started as her dissertation and when she was first developing it, she couldn’t place it.
Ian Alteveer: That’s right.
Julia Halperin: She couldn’t find a museum to take it. She eventually got help from the Ford Foundation and that ended up at the Wallach. But to go from writing all of these museums and trying to place the show, including at the Met, I think?
Ian Alteveer: That’s right.
Julia Halperin: To be working at the Met, it illustrates the way that institutional attitudes are changing.
But in the women data study, we were thinking a lot about how the sort of perception of progress can eclipse actual progress.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Julia Halperin: And I’m curious to get your thoughts. I think that there is a segment of the art world that has seen all of this dialogue about progress and representation and equity and thinks, like, “Oh, oh my gosh, we’re just throwing everything out the window that we believed in and it’s going too far to the other direction.”
We’ve heard that about women, too, while we’re showing people the numbers. So, you know, I’m interested if that’s something that you all have to contend with. At the same time, you have these people from grassroots organizations who are saying, “Hey, you’re not doing enough”, and then you’ve got people on the other side that are saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re doing way too much”.
Ian Alteveer: Yes, it’s a push and pull, for sure. Part of our practice is about teaching, I think. About instructing and carrying people along with us in our projects and in our search for social justice and change. And I think a lot of that work has to do with bringing your funders along with you. Once you give people a little bit of information—I’m not talking about hand holding, I’m just talking about opening up worlds, in a way, and opening people’s eyes—I think it’s hard to resist that amazing pull, and the kind of discovery of something that was always there but that you may not have paid attention to. I think that’s part of the wonderful work of Denise’s project, for example.
For a lot of the exhibitions we’ve made at the Met, I think particularly at the Met Breuer—but even, I’m thinking of Wangechi Mutu‘s commission for the façade of the Met. Taking a space that has been empty for 100 years and kind of really nailing it with four sculptures that speak to this incredible combination of Afrofuturism and the deep history of African art, but also her own practice as a sculptor. It’s just a huge step forward and really thrilling.
So, I think there’s opportunities where you can really change people’s ideas about what they think of an institution or a space might be.
Charlotte Burns: I think that’s a really good point, and I think it’s taking us neatly onto artists, but I just want to pit stop. I think what you’re saying is really positive and really encouraging, but it does come back again to this idea of constant focus. Another podcast we did this year was “Designing Motherhood” with two great female curators who are essentially pushing for objects of motherhood and design to be considered design. They talked really eloquently about the difficulties of that. Considering, for example, the humble breast pump to be an object of design, and they were talking later a little bit more forcefully about some of the design artists who get into museums. It’s like, if that guy can get in, why can’t X get in?
Ian Alteveer: Well look, it’s hard enough even to get like, you know, mother’s room or paternity leave.
Charlotte Burns: Exactly.
Ian Alteveer: For many people.
Charlotte Burns: So, it’s really interesting this thought of, you know, there is change and you can bring people along, but the system itself still isn’t necessarily supporting that. It just seems a lot more complicated than—
Ian Alteveer: Really than it should be.
Charlotte Burns: But the question I had for you is, you know, it’s less lament but more from there, where do you go? Like it seems that museums have been making changes quickly and radically, like you were saying at the top of the show, Julia, but it’s case by case. So, do you think that there’s some systemic overhaul in the works, or are we going to remain in this pattern in 2020 where it’s sort of “resist change and then change all at once”? Or are we going to rethink things?
Ian Alteveer: I’m really looking forward to 2020, but I’m so anxious about it as well. I think it’s going to be an interesting year. It’s the Met’s 150th birthday, I’m just going to say—
Charlotte Burns: —Good, good. Happy birthday, Met.
Ian Alteveer: It’s an election year in the US. I think, yes, sometimes it is exhausting to try and keep moving the needle forward, but it is valuable work, and it has to be done. Some of the hardest part is the disappointment with not being able to bring people along with you in your practice. But there is such joy when you are able to get some real work done and bring some people along with you—particularly people who you thought would be resistant to it. So, I think as curators, we keep looking for opportunities to make impactful projects with artists who have strong and deeply important voices that can speak to this kind of moment of crisis that we’re in but can also kind of lead us forward towards something.
Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you. You set that up nicely for me to start talking about artists because it was very interesting how many of the artists on the show this year we’re really engaged with society. The artists who came on the show were incredibly thoughtful and aware of the role of art and thinking carefully about really complicated issues, and essentially this idea of what it means to be a human.
In terms of the audience, what we found was a different kind of traffic pattern for artists. All of those shows kind of aired to average numbers of downloads but over time, they kept a really sustained audience and they didn’t seem to date. One of my favorite shows of the year, and you’re not meant to have favorites, but I do, is a podcast we did with—
Ian Alteveer: You’re going to say mine. No, I’m just kidding.
Charlotte Burns: That’s this one right now. It was as an episode we did called “Power, Purpose and Privilege” with the artists Nari Ward and Derrick Adams, and I’ll just cut to a couple of quotes from them.
Nari Ward: Maybe in some ways, it’s a kind of a metaphor for what I think art should do. It should challenge, consume, maybe even disrupt—and then it should also figure out, because it is art. It is artifice. It is a safe space to consider those different moments.
I’ve always felt like when you start a work, it takes you on a journey. For me, the challenge was to figure out how to give into that journey and how much to control or how much to give over control. The spaces that the work brings me—the space of mystery, the space of introspection—is a space to connect with oneself that even you’re not always fully aware of. It’s a kind of awakening. For me, that idea of a kind of self-awakening and how that is manifested and mirrored needs to be experiential.
Derrick Adams: People are looking for a substance within art and it’s challenging artists from every background to talk about things with their work and to connect with people from various backgrounds. I think it makes the artists make a choice about who your audience is and who you’re speaking with. I think it challenges you more to think about purpose and substance in a way that I don’t think artists thought about it before. Some artists, still, are grappling with the idea of just making art versus saying something with your art.
Ian Alteveer: That was an amazing show.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, it was great.
Charlotte Burns: I loved that show. I loved being in the room. I think it was the longest show we’ve ever recorded, and it really took a long time to edit because it was like killing your babies. You know, like, “Oh, but this is great! I don’t want to cut this out!”
But what they’re talking about here really is this idea of mystery. The mystery of art.
Ian Alteveer: I actually had different favorite parts of that show, but there was so much in there to unpack, and I also love hearing and I think it’s true that people want to hear from artists. The responses we get to when we have artists live-speaking at the Met is phenomenal.
In graduate school you’re taught not to kind of privilege the artist’s voice, you know, “the death of the author” and Roland Barthes and all that. But in reality, it is so meaningful to hear what an artist has to say about their work and how they see the world. What their place is in that world and what art can do.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm, yeah. What was your favorite bit of the show?
Ian Alteveer: I think one of the exciting things in that interview with Nari and Derrick is hearing about how they started out and how an artist kind of thinks about what their place in the world is, and where their artwork is cited, and who their audience is, and who they’re speaking to.
Because there’s this kind of duality, right, between the kind of interiority of what you’re thinking you’re doing as an artist, and then actually how it manifests in the world as a physical thing. It’s displayed somewhere for somebody. So, I’m always interested in how artists navigate that difficult moment where you actually have to make what you’ve put together visible for people.
Julia Halperin: One of the things that was really interesting for me about this episode was that one of the threads that we’ve been talking about through this year, young artists working with spirituality—we saw some of it in the Whitney Biennial, it stretches back to the Venice Biennale before this one. So, it was really interesting for me to hear how two artists who I think are a little bit further along in their careers who these younger artists might be looking to, are thinking about that. It made me realize that artists are sort of seeing things probably in older artists’ work that I’m not seeing.
We saw the fact that artists can kind of see through the noise a bit with the data study, too. The people that we spoke to, a lot of the museum people were surprised, any range from mild surprise to shock about what we found—
Ian Alteveer: Anger, even.
Charlotte Burns: I would add disbelief.
Julia Halperin: Yes.
Ian Alteveer: Denial.
Julia Halperin: Utter disbelief.
Ian Alteveer: Denial. It’s not just a river in Egypt.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Julia Halperin: But the artists almost across the board were not surprised at all. I remember talking to Martha Rosler, and she was just like—
Charlotte Burns: She was one of our faves.
Julia Halperin: But she was just like, “Yup.”
Charlotte Burns: She said, “You either have to outlive them or you have to die.” That’s like, how you can find success.
Julia Halperin: She said, “It’s just like Hollywood, where either you’re young and sexy, or you’re—”
Ian Alteveer: All of a sudden playing someone’s mother.
Julia Halperin: Exactly. And there’s nowhere in between. It was also sort of validating for us, because we were in this moment where we were trying to go back to the museums and get them to speak with us about this, and they were constantly, in many cases, questioning the premise of the findings. And so, to have the artists as a constant voice coming in to say, “No, this is my experience. Yes, this tracks,” was really extremely valuable.
I’m always sort of resistant to the idea of treating artists like they’re magical oracles, because they’re people. But in this case, it really felt like they were experiencing it. They didn’t need the numbers to validate what they had experienced firsthand.
Charlotte Burns: It’s quite interesting, too, because we were at this point where several of the major museums in the country just somehow didn’t have time to discuss this, even though we gave them like a three-month window.
Ian Alteveer: I hope you’re not talking about my venerable institution.
Charlotte Burns: We did speak to Max, and we had him on a podcast, which we’re going to quote in a minute.
Ian Alteveer: He did a nice job.
Charlotte Burns: Max was great.
But I will say that there was delay on a lot of fronts. And we had this conversation where we were like, “How can we run this report with no comment from X, Y and Z major museum?” And so, we were like, “Well, we’re just going to have to send them a letter.” So, we wrote to them in a slightly sternly worded note saying, “We’re speaking to artists. They’re incredibly disappointed by this, and it would be very important to the artists that we’re speaking to and many others who we are not, to understand that a problem that is affecting half the population is something you may take the time to discuss with us.” And then they did talk to us, and we were grateful for that, so thank you.
But one of the artists we spoke to, and then I went on to interview—well, there were two great artists. Mickalene Thomas was really helpful in our thinking about all of this, for both data studies. And we did a show with her earlier in the year. We also spoke to Cathy Opie. Both of them had a lot to say about this idea of community, and how they were creating their own. Here’s some quotes from Cathy and Mickalene.
Mickalene Thomas: Why are there no black angels in art history, why aren’t we seeing ourselves? Basically, we’re not seeing our black bodies.
I think I am changing that through the images that I have put forward and the type of women that I portray. The type of woman that I’m interested in and that I portray are not necessarily conformed to what traditions are in society of what conventional beauty is.
Catherine Opie: I see community as being a way to begin to reach humanity, that without community and without this notion of inner connection, how are we going to ever get to a larger humanity in which we’re actually not only caring for the place that we inhabit, but that we’re also caring for one another?
Ian Alteveer: That’s great, because I also want to point out, of course, not that this is going to be news to anybody, but both of those wonderful artists are queer women. And in a year that marked the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, for example, found queer voices to be particularly resonant for me. A year I was marking, I actually was sort of exploring that history in myself almost to remind myself how that history impacts me as a queer man, in what I do, and in my practice. And so, I found both of those women incredibly impactful. And Cathy also of course knows about institutions.
Charlotte Burns: She’s on the board.
Ian Alteveer: She’s on the board, right? So, she has that vantage point too. I think in terms of creating space for ones practice that is ones own, they speak so eloquently to that.
Charlotte Burns: And also, Cathy talked about boards, and she talked about this idea of kicking people off boards, and whether it’s the right thing to do. If you have different points of view, what do you do about that? How do you reconcile all these opposing points of view, especially institutionally, like Julia was saying. There’s this grassroots push, and then the sort of patron pull. The institution could be torn apart with that. It’s really important to have voices like Cathy who are able to accommodate difference of opinion and discuss.
Ian Alteveer: Right, because if you’re only in the echo chamber of people who think exactly like you—we see this every day play out on our TV screens, and in the pages of the newspapers—then you’re not really moving the needle. It really is about consensus building as well. Yes, resistance, but also at some point, one needs to try and bring people along.
Charlotte Burns: Right. Yeah. I think that’s really interesting. You mentioned that we’re seeing this play out. This is a year of, yes, protest, but also politically, enormous change. We’re heading into an election year here in America. As we talk, the impeachment documents are being presented. Meanwhile in the UK, there’s a terrible mood because they helpfully staged an election just before the holidays. We’re seeing changes of governments throughout Europe. And so, it’s a moment of enormous change. We had Nicholas Serota on the show. Here he is with a couple of words on that.
Nicholas Serota: It’s certainly true that when it was announced that I was appointed to be director of the Tate, there was quite a lot of press comment suggesting that the only art I’d chosen at the Whitechapel was German art. That tells you a lot about the state of Britain in the ‘80s. Probably tells you a little bit about the state of Britain in 2019.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Sir Nicholas Serota: A certain paranoia about continental Europe and artists from Europe.
Ian Alteveer: I was interested to hear what Nick said because I’ve been thinking myself about, and of course my boss comes out of that moment with Tate as well, Sheena Wagstaff, who was a big part of what we know Tate Modern to be like now, which is totally different than it was in the 1990s.
So much of that is tied up with what England was like in those years in the 2000s, as a kind of burgeoning capitol of intellectual progress, and really exciting international exchange. And I think that that’s what Nick was pointing to in his great interview with you.
And I think I’m not alone in this. So many of my friends in London that I talk to about this is this kind of desperation: that that era of free exchange, not only of a porous border, and no need for work visas, but also intellectual exchange is kind of disappearing.
Julia Halperin: And I think it’s so striking as an American to go to Tate and see how international it is. I grew up going to American museums where America is the story, and then everything else is either it was before America, or it’s kind of extra and exotic. And you see in so many of Tate’s exhibitions that there is this interconnection of both Europe and the rest of the world. It’s really striking as an American person to go there and see what it looks like to have a broader view.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, and growing up in that country, that was why I got into the art world. It was this exciting moment.
Also, it’s England, so it’s obviously also about class. And it’s about—
Ian Alteveer: Colonial history as well.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ian Alteveer: Kara Walker’s Turbine Hall is quite impactful and meaningful in that space, right? It speaks to those painful legacies.
Charlotte Burns: Exactly.
So, it’s a shame, because there was a moment of much greater mobility that I think lots of people, including myself, benefited from.
Ian Alteveer: But I think also, and the same goes on this side of the Atlantic, there’s a lot of people that get left behind in that kind of rubric. And so—
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, exactly.
Ian Alteveer: That is what we’re seeing playing out in so many ways.
Charlotte Burns: And this ties us neatly back into the Met. One of the things that the director of the Met, Max Hollein, spoke about on the show, was this idea of cultural repatriation. This is also to do with nationalism and borders and sharing.
It’s been a big year for conversations about repatriation. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, decided to announce that he would be returning works to African countries in the French museums’ national collections.
Julia Halperin: I think it’s important to point out that he hasn’t done it.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. Well, exactly.
Ian Alteveer: That’s also based on a report that he commissioned from Savoy-Sarr to… Let’s just say it’s certainly a controversial report.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Alteveer: I really enjoy Max’s podcast with you from September, because he spoke to our standards of the Met that we’re still in dialogue about. But basically, our collecting practice is, in part, centered around this really well-defined moral compass, but also on the research that we do.
That kind of practice is already embedded in a way inside the institution. It’s also about spreading it out further. I have amazing colleagues in the Met, for example, who’ve decided that their departments will no longer collect because of issues with provenance.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Ian Alteveer: Ancient Near East, for example. And they disagree with other colleagues around the same thing. But it’s an open dialogue that we continue to have inside the walls, and with our board. That is one of the reasons I love working at that place, because it is a brain trust, and a kind of righteous place to talk about these issues.
Charlotte Burns: Here’s Max on that.
Max Hollein: I see a great, great benefit for culture and artworks being dispersed and being in the world and being part of a much broader cultural understanding and showing a level of not only connectivity, but a level of understanding of other cultures. I think that was really what brought the world together. I think that one shouldn’t underestimate the role that museums play in that.
So yes, you follow a moral compass in regard to some of these questions for restitution. But you also need to make sure that that moral compass is somewhat defined, on the one hand, by a legal framework and on the other hand, by a level of information and a level of understanding, of background, that you then exercise.
We clearly want nothing to do with works that have been looted or came illegally into our collection. On the other hand, I see the conversation currently, in some areas, going into a direction that basically almost makes the argument that an object or any artwork ideally should be returned to its original country of origin.
Charlotte Burns: We’re nearly at the end of the show. We can’t do a roundup of the year without talking about the art market. We had a couple of dealers on the show. Really interesting to me when we looked at the traffic was that the dealers were more listened to than the museum directors, which I did not expect.
I don’t know what that means.
Julia Halperin: It’s brutal.
Charlotte Burns: I think it probably speaks to marketing reach and personal brand name recognition. One of our most popular shows ever was an interview with David Zwirner. Here he is.
David Zwirner: I see an informality in newer generation of collectors, which is very interesting. I’m always amazed how much people rely on their phone to make aesthetic decision. So much art is bought looking at a phone.
I’m a little dismayed that connoisseurship is sort of discounted right now. We would like to work with collectors that are well informed, that would like to know if we offer work of art, what else has the artist done? What shows has he been in? What is the career trajectory? That is not what it used to be. There are more collectors, but it’s a little more towards the entertainment part than the scholarship part.
But, so be it. Who am I to judge what the audience wants and how they want it? We’re going to be rolling with those punches.
Ian Alteveer: I loved what David said about how it’s shocking, in a way, how much commerce is done over the phone or looking at pictures, rather than looking at the work in person. And we talk about this so much just in our curatorial meetings about, well, did you see it? If you didn’t, then why are we even talking about it right now? We need to lay eyes on this thing before we even think about buying it. But I understand that that’s not always possible for people. He is a very compelling dealer and very thoughtful about his program. And I think also deeply in tune, often through the artists he works with as well, through what’s going on in the world at large. So, I enjoyed listening to him.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, I thought it was really interesting. He’s not someone that you hear from that often, and not much in depth. I realized when he was talking, I was like, do I even really know what his voice sounds like?
His conversation about digital was really interesting. They are one of the galleries that has really put a lot of emphasis on that and sort of how you present art online, and how you might be able to transact online. There was this one brief moment where he was talking about the viewing rooms that they have, and saying, “We want artists to get to a place where they feel like they might want to make art for the viewing room, online.” And I was like, “Oooh, I wonder.” First of all, I am very curious if that will happen. Then I immediately can see the backlash of like, if we’re mad about making art for art fair booths, imagine a digital—
Ian Alteveer: For a website.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Julia Halperin: It was like for a minute, like a glimpse into a very different future of a different art market, this shadow online art market.
Ian Alteveer: I mean, there are some amazing artists who work in digital.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, it was interesting. David doesn’t do that many public interviews.
It just reminded me of when I worked in galleries years ago, and then I moved when I became a journalist there was always this sense of like, the market is so terrible, dealers are nefarious evil-doers. And obviously, dealers, the best dealers—there are many nefarious evil-doers, and we hear about them in the courts—but the best dealers, they really are the people dealing directly with the artists. And so, there’s a degree of thought and expansion.
Ian Alteveer: I think you’re totally right. I think we on the curatorial side can learn a lot from the really good dealers. I also loved your interview with Steve Henry and Paula Cooper.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ian Alteveer: Two of my other favorite people. We glean a lot from them, because they know the artists really well that they work with. And so, that again is another link back to artists and to their voice. And the dealer, the good dealer has a really special, close relationship with their artists, and can speak to the practice and furthering that.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Julia Halperin: And they put their livelihood on the line for these people, you know? They’re often fronting them money for projects. It’s a very different kind of putting your money where your mouth is situation where you’re saying, “My livelihood is going to be based on my belief in what you do.”
Paula Cooper: In the past two years, the shift is unbelievable.
Steven Henry: Seismic, yes.
Paula Cooper: It’s this huge international money world.
Steven Henry: It is this sort of shutting down of a dialogue that is, to me, the most frightening part of the conversation.
Paula Cooper: The gallery will be forgotten. It’s the artists who survive.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Okay, so we’re at the end of the show now, but we can’t really end the year without talking briefly—we have three minutes—on MoMA. And the question I have for you here is, this was a big year for big shows—Venice Biennale, and MoMA reopened with a kind of reinvestigation of what the canon means—I’d like from you both briefly, your sense of how successful that was, but also the impact that you think that will have.
Ian Alteveer: I was thrilled to see the new MoMA, and so proud of my colleagues. There’s so much pressure, number one, not only speaking to MoMA’s illustrious history as this kind of beacon for the story of Modernism, to do battle with that or to even try and contradict that, or complicate it, is already a really valiant thing to do. And so, to see it pulled off quite successfully was really exciting. And just on a physical level, the space is just so much bigger. It was really fascinating to me to see how that created a sea change.
You can no longer just go there for an hour or two and feel like you’ve seen most of the building. You now have to kind of spend two days or something. I had to go back many times to get to see everything that’s there. So, there’s a kind of power in that, too, in that there’s that much more fantastic art to see, which is super exciting and it’s going to make so many more opportunities. And I think one can argue or debate various decisions they made, but it’s exciting to try and rethink that. And I think in many ways, it’s very successful.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, I think of it as going from a two-lane highway to a four-lane highway. They’ve really broadened. They haven’t changed the course of history. They still work through a through-line that goes from Europe to America. There are still—
Ian Alteveer: That is the classic MoMA, and that’s reflected in their collection.
Julia Halperin: In the collection, exactly. But I think that they’ve made room for other voices that serve to give us a sense of how much more there is. The part that is the most interesting and that I’m curious to see how it might influence other institutions is the fact that they’ve committed to reinstalling every six months, which is like lightning speed for museum time.
Ian Alteveer: We all do that. I’m just thinking of our galleries. Not every department at the Met does that, obviously. You’re going to see the Greek and Roman galleries for example don’t change all that often. But our galleries in the Modern wing change all the time because we have to take things off the wall to send them out on loan, or put them into other shows, or change artworks on paper. And so, yes.
Julia Halperin: Maybe it’s not as radical as it sounds. It sounds like it’s structural—
Charlotte Burns: Are we talking about the difference between perception and reality again?
Ian Alteveer: I think it’s really a nice statement though, because it does make you think, “Okay wow, that is exciting. It makes me want to go back.”
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Alteveer: Right? It makes me want to check in and see what they’re doing. It makes you feel as though it’s more vibrant and more alive, right?
Julia Halperin: And that it’s not a fixed story too. In a way, it’s also generally reflective of the way that institutions are.
Ian Alteveer: They’ll do it the way we do it, scale it. They’re not going to close the whole thing down again for two months and rehang it. It’s going to be gallery by gallery. Again, some of this is necessitated by conservation for works on paper. You can’t have those photos up for more than three to six months, so they have to change out.
Charlotte Burns: Right. That’s interesting. Well, this was the year that was. And obviously looking ahead to 2020, it’s going to be the Met’s big moment with the 150th anniversary, moving back into the main building from the Breuer. So, a time of great change for you.
Ian Alteveer: Come celebrate with us in April next year.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, we’re looking forward to it. So, thank you both for being my guests today. I really appreciate it. It’s been really interesting to talk to you both.
Julia Halperin: Thank you.
Ian Alteveer: Thanks so much for having us.