in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript: Californian Museum Leaders on Expanding the Canon

"Expanding the Canon", a live panel with (from left to right) Megan Steinman, Andrew Perchuk, Naima J. Keith and Michael Govan.

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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 are coming to you live from Frieze Los Angeles, with a panel discussion entitled “Expanding the Canon”. Joining me for the discussion are a quartet of Californian museum leaders. Michael Govan, CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Naima Keith, who is the Deputy Director of the California African American Museum and also the co-artistic director of Prospect.5; Andrew Perchuk, the Deputy Director of the Getty Research Institute; and Megan Steinman, the Director of The Underground Museum.

Before we dive in, here’s a reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now, onto today’s show.

Thank you all very much for being here today and thank you to our audience, as well, for coming. I also wanted to introduce, briefly, our topic. When Frieze asked us if we wanted to think about partnering with them on a conversation, we were in the middle of an in-depth and unprecedented data survey looking at the representation of African American artists in US museums and the international market.

In the course of researching our data, it occurred to us—the report was co-published by In Other Words at Art Agency Partners and by artnet News—it occurred to us that the Californian institutions we were looking at the data of and speaking to for the subsequent month or so of interviews we did, were perhaps more nimble than their East Coast or European counterparts in rethinking what a museum could be and who a museum could be for.

And this panel specifically, Michael is in the middle of fundraising for a massive $630m expansion of the museum, which will rethink the way in which the public navigates that space and art history and is also thinking of a campaign to bring satellite campuses around Los Angeles.

Naima has been credited with revitalizing the California African American Museum, bringing a focus on contemporary art and audience. Andrew has launched an initiative recently—he’s literally rethinking art history—focusing on different areas that have been overlooked, and in September announced a research initiative looking at African American Art History, which we will talk about today.

Megan is the director of The Underground Museum, which is intentionally a community museum, but at the highest level that is not patronizing, or in any way anything other than engaging and of the highest quality. 

A brief conclusion of our data survey—which you can read more about at our website—progress was slow and limited. Only 2.3% of museum acquisitions over the past 10 years had been of works by African American artists; 7.7% of museum exhibitions; and $2.2bn had been spent—which is only 1.2% of the global market—on work by African American artists.

So, that’s our beginning. I thought I would open up our conversation about expanding the canon by asking my guests if they think there even is such a thing as the canon. 

Who’d like to start?

Megan Steinman: I’ll jump in. So, The Underground Museum was started by a brilliant artist named Noah Davis. The reason that he wanted to create The Underground Museum was for a few reasons, but primarily to bring works out of collection storage from major museums and into relationship with a very, very, very diverse audience—specifically his neighbors in Arlington Heights, which is a small neighborhood of Los Angeles in Mid-City.

He was absolutely interested in working with “a canon”: the canon of contemporary art. He was interested in working with museums from around the world and bringing those works out of their collections into our exhibition space. I think that his incredible breadth and depth of knowledge about art history and what those works historically had meant to audiences was the reason that he thought, “What if we reshuffled that? And we gave them new context and gave them new relationships through not only the hanging of the works in our space, but also the addition of other artists that are working through ideas of monochrome and color field and hard-edge paintings?” By redefining and re-contextualizing all of those relationships and genres of art, you start to loosen up a little bit about what are the borders and boundaries that are predefined for us as audience members and as museum goers.

Charlotte Burns: Andrew?

Andrew Perchuk: I think that there is a canon, but it’s not a stable construct.  I’m always a little bit suspicious of de-accessioning because when I think back to when I was a kid, the Metropolitan Museum had all of its salon paintings in storage because they were extremely out of favor in that era. And now, of course, they have pride of place in certain galleries.

I think also feminism and activism have really changed the canon quite a bit in the last 30 years. I think the thing that has really changed in the last 20 or 25 years is that to a large extent, art historians, critics, curators at one time had a big influence on what is canonical. And now, really, the market determines the vast amount of that except for institutions that are really trying—such as The Underground, CAAM and us—to change the canon.

Charlotte Burns:  I wanted to sort of speak to your point about the unstable canon and kind of remind everyone that art history is relatively young. It goes back essentially to gossip: Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” is a kind of high-brow gossipy version of the people that he spent his life around. Which kind of speaks to this idea of art history and the canon being shaped by the author—whether that author is a writer or whether that author is the market. So, it’s very subject to change.

I don’t know, Naima and Michael, would you like to speak to that?

Naima Keith: Well, I was just saying that I was equally surprised by the data. I know you and I spoke after the article was published. Given the fact that museums are not completely, obviously, reactive to the market but that they’re informed by what’s happening in the market, as Andrew pointed out—just given the amount of attention that African American artists had in the last couple of years as it relates to the market, I was so surprised to see the percentage being so low.

I guess I shouldn’t be, necessarily, but I was just thinking again because of what seemed on the outside to be an increase of exhibitions and visibility, the number of artists being represented by larger galleries: I thought that needle would have been moved a little bit more. So, yes, like I said, I definitely was surprised. But in terms of altering the canon, I think museums like CAAM and the Studio Museum in Harlem and others are starting to disrupt that canon and to hopefully insert exhibitions and people into the conversation, even if they weren’t being shown at other museums.

Just like The Underground Museum and others, where they were founded on the idea that they were both engaging with, and also disrupting, this notion of a canon. So, it is something that’s kind of problematic but also evolving all the time.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it’s a constraint that people can kind of rally against, in a way.

Michael, do you believe in a canon?

Michael Govan: Yes, I mean clearly CAAM, Studio Museum—there are many disruptors that have opened the world to see how diverse creative production can be. And the needle is moving, you feel that. I think the good news is that the canon doesn’t really exist in a fixed sense. 

The word is to suggest there are some reference points, but it is always changing. History’s always changing. Andrew, you’re talking about de-accessioning: LACMA de-accessioned a Diego Rivera, that luckily came back to us in another acquisition, because at a certain point it was considered “not as good” as other American paintings. Luckily, we got it back through some other way, and it’s hanging often.

So, the idea that people know what’s going to last is itself a question. And we know yes, this art history is young. I mean, the Metropolitan Museum turned down a Caravaggio for, whatever it was, $50,000, at some point recently—not recently, in the ‘50s—but it’s always changing.

I think that’s really the positive. We talk about institutions—you said author, but I actually think artists have the biggest influence in the end. What is important now is partly going to be determined on what future artists think is important, because whatever influences carries on through artists. I think that map is really important. I think artists have always and continue to have a huge influence on that. Like Noah deciding to pick this or that or rearrange it. There is an impulse that artists have to do that as they make their work and which artists they pick out of history.

We try to create categorization and order because we’re order-making beings, as institutions, but even if you look at art history it’s a bunch of cul-de-sacs and crisscrossing lines and that’s kind of the beauty of it: that there isn’t anything fixed, in that sense.

Charlotte Burns: We’ve kind of spoken about and accept as a base of our understanding that we’re in a moment where there’s a push for more progress, more diversity. But there is concern that that could be episodic. We have seen in the past various movements and various points in history where there have been more determined efforts to be more inclusive, have more diversity. I’m thinking specifically of the late 80’s and the early ‘90s, when the multiculturalism movement placed more pressure on institutions to think in a broader way. Ultimately there was an acute backlash and things sort of sizzled out.

Do you fear reverse? That the movement can be reversed? Is it a cycle or it is progress?

[Laughter]

Anybody want to take that on?

I suppose I’ll ask Andrew this because you write the history books.

[Laughter]

Michael Govan: You’re the archive.

Andrew Perchuk:  If the canon is changing, if things aren’t fixed, then I don’t know if cyclical is the right word but things will change. What I hope is that they won’t change back to the way that they did in the 1990s.

I think one of the things that has changed, and I think probably permanently, was when I grew up in New York, for most of my childhood and early adulthood, the idea was if something didn’t happen in New York, you really didn’t have to worry about it.

That might be one reason that places really have been more experimental out here on the West Coast. I think that that loss of centrality means that things are much more open in general. It’s hard to imagine going back to a time where—well, that’s not true because a handful of galleries in New York do control a lot of things.

I’m sure that there will be backlashes but at least I’m very hopeful. I think we’re seeing it, not so much in the market, but if you look at the percentage of women artists having exhibitions, it’s by no means equal but it has gone up enormously in the last 30 years.

I’m very hopeful that for other African American, Latino artists there’ll be a similar movement within the next 10 or 15 years. But of course, it only happens if all of us do something about it. That, I think, is the possibility that museums and research institutes that are not so market-driven—

Charlotte Burns: Can help with.

Andrew Perchuk: —can help with. 

Charlotte Burns: Yes, Naima I can see you—

Naima Keith: Well, I was just thinking I don’t think—I hope not, of course—I don’t think there’ll be the backlash because I think the interest in diversity is coming from all different angles. It’s not just curatorial diversity as there may have been at one time, but really encouraging boards to become diverse. You know, Mellon, Ford, I think there’s so many different organizations that are encouraging diversity. I think people are obviously seeing the benefit, right?

I think people—in terms of audience, engagement, visibility—I think that people now fully understand that when you have a diverse set of people at the table, it’s just going to help grow the organization.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Naima Keith: I think that, I hope, that there’s not backlash. Also, there’s so many more curators of color out there, or people just working in the field out there, that I do not expect necessarily for there to be that kind of backlash.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting. You spoke to boards, which is really a question of—brings me to a question I was going to ask you about power, because the extent to which boards embrace diversity or an agenda of a museum that’s trying to shift in a more progressive direction determines the extent to which it can broaden its focus.

When we were doing our data, one of the off-the-record comments that a museum director told us was that at a recent board meeting, one of his board members had taken him to one side and said, “This is all great, but just don’t forget the white guys.” And there are a lot of comments that people told us anecdotally, not for print, about things like that. Which brings up this question of change. How far you can bring about change at the top; how far you can shift the configuration of boards so that we’re looking at change all across the spectrum.

Michael Govan: I think one of the things Naima was talking to, too, is the idea that if there’s a hope we’re not going backwards—even though people who have money and power usually make a lot of decisions—it’s that it’s good for business, too. That the more diverse the program, there is a market for ideas and there is a market for audiences. The audiences do have a lot of power, too, in aggregate.

What you see with the broadening of the scope of what art museums are doing is you’re seeing more audiences more interested in more things. So, I think that would be the best hope that it doesn’t roll backwards, because it’s not just an intellectual construct. It’s actually what the world is, and we will thrive if and only if that broad view is out there and we can attract those audiences. No one person—I mean, the idea is we’ll advance faster and further the more quickly we can open up those perspectives, create relationships to those broader audiences, and in aggregate those audiences have as much power as anyone and any board.

I think that is the primary issue, is to diversify the points of views in the programs for sustainability and to thrive in that way, and not to just wait for the powers that be to say it’s ok.

Megan Steinman: I would just add to that too, that none of these buckets that we’re talking about—whether it’s “the canon” or “the board”—they don’t act in isolation of one another. For example, what you do have is when you’re working with the board and when you’re working as an institution that is also beholden to funders and foundations, that you’re getting calls for actively thinking through the formation of your museum as you describe it to the foundation.

You’re looking constantly, “What does our museum represent, and how are we forming the interior of our space, the people that work within our space and how are those people in turn being reactive to the audiences that come in the door?” Nothing is actually so removed from the other piece.

Charlotte Burns: The series of networks.

Megan Steinman: Yes, exactly. I think that in turn would be then another reason why these discussions about diversity will only continue, because they’re not siloed. They’re happening at every single level already.

Especially for young museums, such as The Underground Museum, who is essentially developing itself in real time as it steps into this conversation with long-term institutions. We are constantly thinking, “Okay, well, what does our board look like? What does leadership look like? And how can we be exemplary of that?” But also, the board itself is looking, “Okay, well, how do we represent The Underground Museum in the world?” Nothing is in isolation.

Andrew Perchuk: I mean, demographics are changing both within the United States and also in terms of—I mean, in the case of the Getty, the largest group of visitors who are not American are now Chinese. Which is a very, very big change in just the last 10 years. I like the opera, but when I go I’m frequently the youngest person that I can see in the audience. Hopefully museums will not suffer that same fate.

Charlotte Burns: They’ve had to stay relevant.

Andrew Perchuk: The note of skepticism I would introduce into that is, you don’t have to be a Marxist to realize that globalization is the stage of capitalism that we’re living in. That corporations don’t like national borders and think of themselves as global entities. You do see a bit of the art world replicating that, rather than leading.

Charlotte Burns: In what ways do you mean?

Andrew Perchuk: That so many museums in a lot of places have embraced the global in a non-critical way. I think The Underground Museum and CAAM are good examples of places that are really relevant without really global ambitions or a global mission.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s something that actually came up in our data survey. In our survey, we asked 30 museums for their data and it was a mix of the 15 best-attended museums in America—which we thought spoke to power and mainstream tastes and wealth—and then 15 that were leading urban, suburban and college museums. What was interesting is that overall, the smaller museums had been much more diverse in their collecting much earlier on and in a much deeper, more sustained way. Through our interviews with institutional leaders, there came around this idea that actually the larger museums were only recently really beginning to think about this idea of locality and serving your specific constituents. Whereas smaller museums, perhaps by forces of the market, have had to diversify earlier on in terms of their support in terms of the work they’re likely to get, in terms of the work they were showing and their mission.

So, do you think that’s true, that there’s a trend towards thinking more locally in museums generally?

Naima Keith: Well, I think while CAAM’s mission is a lot more local in terms of it being on the West Coast, Studio Museum’s mission has always been international, both in terms of looking at artists of the African diaspora but also more international in their reach. But I think that the founders of CAAM have always noticed there was a lot of attention in New York and kind of wanted to spotlight what was happening in California.

So yes, the mission has always been a lot more focused on the West Coast—or has always been focused on the West Coast. But I was actually going to speak a little bit to what you were saying about diversity. We’re kind of in an opposite situation in that George Davis is also thinking a lot about diversity in other ways. In terms of diversifying audiences, making more people—a larger audience—feel welcome at the museum, thinking about diversifying the board in other ways.

It’s interesting that the question of diversity is not just happening at mainstream museums. It’s also happening at ethnically specific museums as well as ones that are more focused on the West Coast.

We, CAAM, definitely find strength in that locality where it’s not just looking at artists who are living and working on the West Coast, but also artists that are using the West Coast as a source of inspiration either through material or subject matter. So really narrowing and focusing in on location and geography as both a way of anchoring the museum, but also as a point of conversation and as a point of inspiration.

That’s how we think about site.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Michael Govan: Yes, and I think like most things, it’s not an either or. It’s a bit of a cliché, but in Los Angeles, every day local meets global. So, our partnership, for example, with the Vincent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles College—what we’ve been showing there has been interesting. We’ve shown a Chinese ceramics show because they’re on the border between Latino and Chinese neighborhoods. We’re showing Egyptian art, and then there’s Latino art. It’s of relevance in so many different ways, in addition to the fact that there are global differences in the construction and understanding of art museums and art history because it isn’t an old thing and it is dominated by a European/Western-centric approach. So, if there’s no dialogue, then you’re not engaging those issues.

If you’re of scale, it makes sense to be doing both. I think that’s part of the reason we want to be invested in local neighborhoods and small local museums with collections, but also it would be folly to retreat entirely to the locality if you have scale, and also if you have this point of view. This point of view that a diverse outlook on culture is valuable for the future, that’s an idea that you do want to spread if you can, because that’s not the idea that exists everywhere. So, I think that’s important when talking about democracy. There is this idea of a lot of viewpoints.

I think it’s not either or, and the cool thing about LA is they meet every day, in every neighborhood, a little bit.

Megan Steinman: I just would add that I think what you’re also speaking to is a question of curation in that it is a curatorial effort to think about the journey you want to take your audience on when they come through the door. That can apply to any artwork that comes from any place in the world including Los Angeles, including Europe, including China, including Africa, but that how you talk about that artwork and how you contextualize that artwork is really the work of the people that are at the museum every day.

We have at The Underground Museum a wonderful program called “The Daily Dose”, which is where our docents work for about a month to two months before each exhibition working through all the thematics of the show and the biography of the artists. Then they take those understandings and those facts that they have, and they actually tailor daily tours that are only of what’s absolutely relevant in their daily life. So you’ve got a young person talking about James Turrell and Hans Haacke and Olafur Eliasson, but with the concept of how environmental racism is acting out in their neighborhood.

You’ve got these artists thinking through ideas of environmentalism and you’ve got young people making it relevant to their local neighborhood, and that is really a curatorial thrust.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a really interesting approach to that. One way of getting messages out is by bringing in more voices. A very efficient way is to do that with the internet, obviously. I wanted to talk to you about the challenges and opportunities of digital growth and diversity in that sense.

One of the topics that came up on a podcast recently with the Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was this idea of digital swarming. He said that in New York he was in the process of convening a group of museum leaders to talk about the pressures of responding to online outrage, essentially. I think daily, there’s some kind of online tussle over how museums are funded, what works are shown in museums and essentially who has the voice and authority to decide that.

One of the great things about that is that people who have never had their voices heard before are finding ways to be heard and to feel heard. And then there are negatives to that, very real negatives like in the case of the Guggenheim, you know threats of violence against the staff.

How do you deal with digital era diversification?

Megan Steinman: We’re The Underground Museum, we don’t do anything.

[Laughter]

Andrew Perchuk: Well, in our case the digital has completely changed the Research Institute. We can accommodate about 6,000 readers who come to look at the rare material in our collections each year. We now have between three and four million people around the world who access the digital surrogate of that material. So, it’s a complete see-change. Our audience now is not primarily people who can come to Los Angeles and go up the hillside of the Getty anymore.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a major shift for the Getty. Naima, Michael, anything?

Michael Govan: I don’t think anyone would disagree that the digital world is changing everything in terms of audience relationships, art history. The whole issue of swarming and all of that, that’s a function that museums are part of the real world. And that’s happening everywhere with corporations and museums and people speaking out and organizing. And that’s just the truth of being in the real world. It’s existed before the digital age, but that’s enhanced that quality. Largely we’re interested in the accessibility part of the digital world and trying to more freely distribute information and images, create accessibility as the Getty’s been doing. And I think everyone wants to use it in this way.

It comes with these problems like lack of accountability—we’re seeing this in terms of social media—and what that will do to our world. But I don’t see any of those issues targeting museums specifically, and I think they’re all real-world problems that we’re all dealing with.

Naima Keith: In terms of CAAM, we have a very small but mighty digital team. We’re certainly thinking about trying to make more of our materials and catalogues available online, but primarily over the last couple of years we’ve just been focused on reintroducing ourselves to audiences via our online social media platform so producing a lot of video content, posting on Instagram and Twitter as a way to show people what we have and like I said expanding our audience.

Our videos have been on everything from how you get to CAAM, showing different communities coming to the museum. For us, because we’ve been a museum since 1984 and maybe in the more recent years have been under-known in LA, we’ve really been using our social media platform for just awareness—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Naima Keith: —about what we’re showing, about how we’ve been heading in this new direction, showing more contemporary art and trying to reach an audience that may not necessarily feel comfortable going to museums.

So for us, we’re trying to, again, re-engage the long-standing CAAM public, but like I said maybe people who don’t really see museums as for them or feel intimidated by going to museums. We’re trying to meet you halfway by the content we put out via social media.

Charlotte Burns: How do you do that? How do you engage an audience that may feel intimidated by coming to a museum without patronizing them?

Naima Keith: Sure. For example, like our openings. We celebrate all of our shows together which was certainly an idea that was inspired by other institutions. But we have DJs and food trucks and we don’t necessarily put emphasis on a particular artist, but rather the idea that you can come to the museum and experience art and culture amongst friends.

We find that people who may be following that DJ or may be following that food truck or again, may be a little intimidated, are excited to just experience culture rather than feeling they have to know everything about that show or about that artist. So that’s one way

Another is through our public programming. We are always looking at how we can look at an exhibition or an artist in a different way, maybe even through a historical lens also, because we’re an art and history museum. 

For example, we had an artist, Adler Gehrier at the museum a couple of months ago. He is a conceptual photographer, so some people might not necessarily understand his work. But a lot of the photographs were shot in View Park which is a traditionally African American neighborhood here in LA. We decided to do a whole public programming series looking at the history of View Park, and how it initially was not an African American neighborhood and now it’s turned into one.

There was s whole older demographic that came to the museum—300 and 400 people each time—to hear about the history of this particular neighborhood as a way into understanding Adler’s photography.

For us, we’re trying to—through social media, whether or not it’s the type of facts that we share about an exhibition or the way in which we present a show—we don’t necessarily steep it deep in our history not because we don’t want to honor that, but because we understand that not everyone has that training or background. We try to share interesting tidbits about a show or about a way in which an artist is working that can appeal to many different audiences.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Megan Steinman: I would add at The Underground Museum, one of the things that we do is understand that our museum is many different things besides just an exhibition space. We have a really wonderful wellness program that offers free yoga, free meditation classes, a farmer’s market. With that thought is that art-viewing is one part of a larger ecosystem that is each individual’s life, and how can you expand the art viewing experience and make it a more regular process for people that might not have historically gone to museums to have that be their Saturday afternoon. But if you actually introduce that the museum’s a space of comfort, a space of refuge, a space of contemplation, that they can come to the museum for those aspects and then while they’re there also get an understanding of art.

We’re also very, very clear of, again, how we curatorially contextualize all of the work that we’re presenting. One of the things that we do is edit and re-edit that introductory paragraph, which is the first piece of explanation about the artwork that we’re presenting. We’re really thinking through that language as a specific tool, and how do you start that conversation around the art from the minute that people walk through the door? Because as we all know if you go into an exhibition and you read that paragraph and you don’t understand what’s going on, then you immediately think that A, there’s something wrong with you and B, that you don’t understand and see that this space is not for you. So how do you immediately draw in audiences that way?

We have the additional factor that many of our exhibitions were curated by our founder, Noah Davis, and he’s no longer with us. Those exhibitions actually don’t have a curatorial statement that go along with them. So what we’re trying to set up is this platform where everybody becomes equal, critical thinkers alongside one another. That we don’t have the actual answer about what Noah wanted to say about his shows, so everything that we think and everything each individual audience member that comes into the museum thinks is absolutely accurate, because we are all dealing with the same level of information about the works.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

Michael Govan: You know, one of the things that’s true about all of it, including the social media piece, is it’s less about what we say through social media: it’s more about what people say to each other. It might result in a swarm of criticism, but then the positive side of that is that this is shifting power towards the acknowledgement of audiences and how much the future is in their hands. It’s not as if we’ve turned over the museum entirely to anyone on the street to curate, but we are listening. People on the outside are making more and more decisions about whether we’re doing the right thing or not—being hypercritical or being supportive. I think everything we’re doing, whether it’s meditation, or wall texts, I think there’s largely increased awareness about the power of those audiences which I think is exciting and good. That is one of the biggest shifts that you’ve seen in the field recently.

Andrew Perchuk: When we’ve done the Pacific Standard Time projects, we actually had the kind of budget where we could do some research. What we realized is that most things that museums did historically, like taking out an ad in the LA TimesThe New York TimesArtforum, did absolutely nothing to reach new audiences or encourage people to come. I mean, it does make board members and funders sometimes happy, but—

Charlotte Burns: And journalists.

Andrew Perchuk: And journalists. 

Michael Govan: You don’t have to pay for the journalist. 

Andrew Perchuk: As everyone has been saying, looking at institutions is slightly different. Partially as community hubs, listening to your audience, going out where they are and also as you were saying, encouraging people to come for other things than just purely art history. I think it’s really made a big difference in the nature of institutions like ours.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think the fact that Californian museums are so much younger than their European counterparts, for sure, and also their East Coast peers—do you think that’s a factor in this idea that maybe West Coast museums are maybe more dynamic in their thinking? There’s less baggage, maybe, in their founding?

Andrew Perchuk:  Even 20 years ago when I moved to LA, all of my friends kind of had a wake for me in New York. One, there wasn’t the same pressure; and two, I think places had to be more innovative if they wanted to survive and have an audience. They didn’t have a built-in—I mean, 5m people will go to the Met in New York no matter what is there, which is not a luxury that most West Coast institutions have had.

But I also think that the whole way that Modern art came out here was very different and it’s a different history from the beginning and the ones who have survived—which a lot of early museums didn’t—have found their own voice, also because just repeating what European and East Coast institutions were doing was not a very effective way to build either a collection or an institution.

Michael Govan: Yes, I mean institutionally, the youth is maybe the unformed quality of the institutions because they are young. Artists have been here for a very long time, and institutions follow artists. But the youth is huge advantage in a fast-changing world because institutions do accumulate a fixity. The joke was that you couldn’t get Wi-Fi through the stone walls of the Met because it was built in a different era, a different time. So, that fixity has disadvantages in a fast-changing world.

The one great thing—one of the great things—about being in LA right now is that yes, the institutions are pretty young relative to the big picture of institutions or even younger in some other parts of the world. It gives us a nimbleness. It is a true cliché that the youth gives nimbleness, in institutional terms, to more quickly adapt to a changing world. I think that’s why it’s kind of an exciting time to be here because, as I say, we can make it whatever we want.

I joke about our building that it’s made out of cardboard not stone, metaphorically and literally because it’s leaking like crazy today as our staff knows. So, that idea that you can rearrange it because the way people thought about that institution years ago is different from how we think about it now. It gives us a chance to rethink things. Now, that might be a disadvantage in the future if it changes again. But right now is our time, and I think it is a great moment that we’re all assembled in this metropolis which is big, fresh and changing and trying to greet the world in sort of a different way.

Naima Keith: And while we’re all young, I also think we all get along. In terms of—

Charlotte Burns: I was just going to ask about collaborations.

Michael Govan: Institutionally, absolutely.

Naima Keith; We all see each other pretty often, but also for example with the Charles White exhibition. LACMA reached out pretty early when they decided to take the Charles White exhibition that just opened. They wanted to do a companion exhibition with CAAM. So, we’re opening our companion exhibition of contemporary artists that are inspired by Charles White in a couple of weeks.

So, the idea that we could a year ago talk about, “Okay, this exhibition is coming, we would love to partner with other institutions in the city, let’s make that happen,” is something that we can do in LA. That it doesn’t necessarily take years and years and years of planning.

And the same with—

Michael Govan: PST [Pacific Standard Time].

Naima Keith—PST is the perfect example.

Michael Govan: Everyone’s jealous of that, right?

Naima Keith: Exactly. PST I think when it was started in 2008, the idea that over 60 institutions would come together around a particular topic, I think for any other city it would have seemed impossible. But for LA, we pulled it off and in 2011 it was amazing just to see how many shows—I don’t know what the final number of exhibitions was, but it was quite a few. It was amazing to see how many people responded and wanted it to continue.

It wasn’t like “this happened and let’s never do this again.” Obviously there have been subsequent PSTs, for us to continue to work together.

Megan Steinman: I would just add to that point, that I would hope the thread running through all of this and through your data set is that when you pull back the capital “I” of institutions, it’s people inside of it. I’m very clear—and something that I’m constantly putting forward to everyone that I work with at The Underground Museum and the artists that we work with, is that we want to stand for people. So beyond, let’s say, the geography of Los Angeles, who are the people that are at the institutions, and what are the decision that they are making, and how are we being responsible for those decisions and how are we guiding our institutions from the perspective of what’s important to the people that are surrounding us both internally and externally every day.

Charlotte Burns: Also, when you talk about this sense of having options, being able to collaborate, being able to rethink a museum: there are different degrees of financial wealth represented here on the panel, how do you decide where to focus in terms of your resources and time spent, in terms of thinking about redressing the balance? Where do you put that effort, and how do you decide where to put that effort, moreover?

Which is different for all of you. I guess I’ll start with Michael—

[Laughter]

—because you have, you know, LACMA’s encyclopedic.

Michael Govan: Well, obviously we’re tiny compared to the Getty but I guess big compared to—it’s all relevant, right? What resources one has.

I think that again, there’s no single answer to that question. Our audiences are diverse and increasingly diverse and as we diversify our programs it increases that. So, there’s a sense of incentive. We do talk a lot about, since our museum covers the world and all time, that you can’t do everything at once. We try to have something for everyone always, but you’ll see waves of energy—of concentrated energy—timed for PST. The last PST, before and after, we had big waves of focus in Latin America and Latino art because we already had a strong history, so it became a moment to focus it while the audience is looking.

This year, you’ll see a wave of exhibitions around Asia looking at Chinese contemporary art. That will go with initiatives for collecting. The statistics are incredible in terms of single artist shows by women. Last year our collecting committee was half and half and this year it will be 100% women, whatever we buy.

But, they are initiatives pieced together. I think mainly because of passion. I think passion and, luckily, we’re in a place where the passions themselves are diverse. It hasn’t been that hard to engender that energy. It’s just you can’t do everything at once, so it does concentrate.

Charlotte Burns: I thought before we close out and go to questions from the audience, I wanted to ask each of you if you had any advice for our audience both here today and for our audience on the podcast that will be tuning in. In terms of how you engage with your museum: if your museum is not representing your interests or you want to support the interests of the museum that are already out there—what advice would you give for the audience in terms of engaging, bringing that diversity themselves to bear on institutions and getting involved?

Megan Steinman: I think as an audience member, I wouldn’t allow for the knowledge that there are gatekeepers out there to be in any way a deterrent for you being in the world or being of the art world. I think that there’s been a lot of talk on the panel today and a lot of thinking through with your study of how we measure things. 

I think words like “the” should be replaced by “a”, like not “the” canon but “a” canon. We are all absolutely diverse in our everyday lives and that waiting for an award or a museum to give you a piece of a reflection, let’s say, of the art you want to see in the world is not really necessary. You can actually go and create a community and be part of a community driven by people that are like-minded with you and have the same interest as you, and experience that in real time. You don’t need to wait for the larger institutions to tell you that that is the case.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Andrew?

Andrew Perchuk:  As we were talking about, a good institution listens as well as putting out their own ideas. Getting involved with an institution really does make a difference whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s becoming a member, expressing what you feel on social media. If you have more resources, joining a council or even a board. That really does influence the direction of an institution.

I think that even though there’s still a lot of work to be done, the activism of the women’s movement starting in the 1970s has had an enormous impact on institutions in my time. That combination of a consistency and activism really can make a difference in whatever direction you want an institution to go.

Naima Keith: I think one of the through-lines that we’ve all been saying, to just piggy-back off of what Andrew was saying, is that audiences have power, right? And that museums constantly want to hear feedback, they want to hear from audiences. We want to always hear what audiences think about institutions and how we can better serve audiences. So to be active—again piggy-backing off of what Andrew was saying again—to be active participants in your museum, and not being afraid to speak up and providing that input in terms of not only what a museum is doing, but also suggestions of what a museum can do to better. It will just widen the audience, not necessarily just better numbers but also kind of a deeper engagement with those audiences. Really encouraging people to be proactive visitors of the museum.

Charlotte Burns: To keep coming back, yes.

Michael?

Michael Govan: I assume in that question you’ve kind of constructed this discussion to be an invitation: that is, that the canon is permeable, changeable and so, if anybody’s listening, that’s all positive. And you’re hearing from the possible and you’re hearing from institutions that are very diverse in their structure, patronage, leadership, and yet they’re all saying the same thing: that it is a time of incredible openness.

One thing I always say about big public institutions like ours, like our collections—we have tens and tens of thousands of artworks, but every single one was a gift. Every one was either a gift where someone said, “Here’s the work of art,” or they said, “Oh, that’s great, you want to acquire that to be part of this archive, we’re going to give you a resource for it.” That’s literally everything in it. So, it’s like a vessel that holds all those gestures, that generosity and those gifts and carries it forward. When you think about that, it’s like, “Oh, yes, you do have to get involved, because whatever’s there is going to be a function of whoever made it.”

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Michael Govan: So, if you combine that with an openness—obviously, there were times n maybe that was not combined with an openness and there was a strong filter for what the contents would be—if you combine that possibility with the openness, then really, all things are possible over a period of time.

Charlotte Burns: Well, brilliant, thank you so much to my guests for joining me today. Is there anybody in the audience who has any questions? I believe there’s someone with a microphone. Hi, this lady at the front here.

Audience Member 1: Hi, that was great, thank you. You all speak about audience participation and how to get information to each of your institutions. How does that happen? How does anyone contact to give their voice?

Megan Steinman: Well, The Underground Museum is free and open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 12-7. Come on down.

[Laughter]

We’re all there. I’m there every day. We’re such a small group there that we welcome everyone. We do have an Instagram feed—even though I said we don’t do social media, we do do social media—and you’re super welcome to make comments on that.

I think that we actually try very, very hard to have, like I said, an open-door policy and absolutely welcome and acknowledge every single person that comes into the door. 

So, come down and talk to us.

Naima Keith: I was just going to say, it’s the same for us. We’re open Tuesday through Sunday, since we’re saying our hours—

[Laughter]

Audience Member 1: The question, particularly for me, it was just kind of in general. I was curious.

Naima Keith: Yes, we do. When you post on Facebook or Instagram, we actually answer every single comment—including the “what are your hours” comment. We answer every single one.

We of course have a comment book in the museum, but we actually do read and reflect upon the suggestions that we get both in social media and in person. We have gallery guides, of course, like every other museum, that are there to answer questions but also take in feedback for the future.

Michael Govan: We do still get letters.

[Laughter]

They come to my desk. I can tell you that I’ve been in the plaza at LACMA and people have come up to me and said exactly what we should do. So that’s another option. But I think the social media part is the one that has grown and that I think you’re hearing that it has grown so much because you can hear it, you can comment and other people can see what’s going on. So, that is a new world.

Charlotte Burns: Any other questions? I think we’ll do this gentleman here.

Audience Member 2: Hi, I have a question in regard to terminology and language—in particular in terms of the Getty and LACMA, and let’s say The New York Times or the LA Times—in terms of describing various communities, neighborhoods. One term that’s often used is “under-served”. This particular language that’s frequently used, to my understanding, is a type of deficit model and potentially even colonialist function. I’m wondering if you see the potential—this is a leading question, of course—the pathological kind of tendencies of “under-served”? Or more generally talk about the ways in which describing particularly working-class communities of color and your kind of conception around that.

Charlotte Burns: I think essentially, could we use better language in the way that we talk about the audiences attending museums, and what would you propose that might be?

[Silence, laughter]

Anybody?

Andrew Perchuk: I mean, we’ve never referred to an audience as an “under-served” audience. I think Pacific Standard Time was the big example—which had much more resources than most projects—was to go out and find out why audiences weren’t coming to museums if they weren’t. And then asking them what would be appealing to you.

Another way is collaboration. We have two campuses in two of the wealthiest parts of Los Angeles. That is something that we always have to realize: that not everyone is going to want to go to Brentwood or Pacific Palisades. But I hope that things like our partnership with CAAM and hopefully soon The Underground Museum can address some of those issues. 

Michael Govan: Yes, I mean if you’re applying “under-served” just to art museums it gets a little complicated. But if you, as government, might talk about social services, light fixtures on streets, medical facilities: I think there’s an idea that we expect as a civilization to have a certain number of amenities. Park space, open space, all those things. There’s one way to look at it that is, let’s just try to make sure that that expected public infrastructure—I personally see culture as part of that plumbing, and that that should be part of all of our communities in some way in different forms. 

It doesn’t have to be one form or a particular form, it just should be part of it. I do notice that resources get concentrated—the Getty being one example. But resources get concentrated in certain areas. I think that’s true. 

I think it’s important that the collaboration stands, because as you know, if there is an organization to collaborate with where there is an infrastructure—we just used the example of Vincent Price Art Museum or the Charles White Elementary School where there’s an art gallery, or there’s CAAM, or there’s The Underground Museum, then it’s great to partner. And then if there’s nothing, then we should all be thinking about improving and increasing that accessibility and infrastructure so, for example, we can share our resources.

I think the sharing theme is through it and the distribution and sharing is the key theme.

Megan Steinman: I would just add that: does the language need work? Yes. Can we stay in the world of language? No. That we need to actually shift into the “what are we doing”. We actually do talk about The Underground Museum existing in a, or what was once, an art desert. That we address the actions or the needs of an art desert in the same way we think about how we address the needs of how we think about a food desert.

But the more I think about that, it’s almost also having a colonial aspect and thinking that the desert is an empty open space that wasn’t having its own vibrancy and living ecosystem itself. So, again, language is tough and if you get stuck on the language itself and less about the things that we do and do together, I think you’re not going to move forward. So yes, the short answer is “under-served” needs a lot of work.

I was actually on a panel with Thelma Golden yesterday, where she made this brilliant point that, “Is the neighborhood under-served by the exterior viewpoint, or underserved by its interior?” Our neighborhood is a prime example. Our block is a prime example. Not under-served by its own standards at all.

Next to The Underground Museum is a carpet distributor, a carpet-distributor, a church, a tattoo parlor, a music school, a liquor store and another artist’s studio. Oh, and a lawn-mower repair store. Which I really hope the lawn-mower repair leaves, it’s very smelly. But, all that said, you have an entire landscape of all types of needs that one person might be able to address by just coming to our block. It’s who’s doing the describing and who’s doing the actioning.

Charlotte Burns: I think we have time just for one more short question. The lady sitting behind you, Lucia. Sorry, nope, that’s her there on the edge.

Audience Member 3: Thank you for your discussion, it’s really inspiring. I’m an artist and I’m based in Oakland and starting to work between Oakland and Los Angeles. I find that when I think about the word canon, I think about presence. I think there is some level of risk when we talk about the idea of the canon.

I’m just wondering, what risks do you take since you are part of institutions—different versions of them—how do you take risks in terms of getting out into that more immaterial or more experiential aspect? What creative risks do you take, as someone with an institution, to connect with emerging parts so the canon?

Naima Keith: I think CAAM has been taking risks since its founding in terms of supporting artists that are just now starting to be on people’s minds. Everyone from Noah Purifoy to David Hammons to even someone like Betye Saar, CAAM has been supporting from the very beginning. So, for us, it’s very important that we include the accession numbers on our labels so that people see that we’ve made a commitment.

Like John Riddle, for example, that’s someone that we’ve added more recently in terms of the accession numbers to our labels, because we wanted people to see that we have been supporting artists particularly on the West Coast for quite some time. We have been showing Maren Hassinger and others well before they’ve gotten wider acknowledgement.

One of the beauties, I think, of a place like CAAM and especially ethnically-specific museums, is they often do take risks with artists well before they land on the whiter radar. In terms of what we’re doing now, I think we’re continuing to do that. Whether that’s showing young contemporary artists and giving them their first museum exhibitions, or it’s really kind of rethinking —because we are so nimble, and we are so small—really rethinking how we’re presenting our history exhibitions so that we’re a lot more focused and introducing more visual arts to our history exhibitions.

I think that one of the beauties and one of the amazing things about CAAM is that it has, I think, been supportive of the local artists’ community for a very long time.

Charlotte Burns: I think we’ll call that the end. So, thank you so much everybody for coming. 

 

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