Monday, July 27, 2009

lions and tigers and cars, oh my!

All these pictures are from a recent trip to Detroit, where I saw the following:

The fabled murals by Diego Rivera (above) and a coffered ceiling at the Detroit Institute of Art (below).

A carousel at the Detroit waterfront (above) and an oddly deflated yet violent sculptural memorial to Joe Louis by Robert Graham downtown (below).

A tale of two modes of transportation: GM headquarters (above), and the old Union station (below).

A tale of two mansions: The Whitney restaurant above, and another, nearby, below.

What did I learn from these disparate images and experiences?

Detroit is rich and devastated, the "first" car city in America (as said to me by Greg Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum) with Phoenix the last. There are many small businesses popping up in town, signs of the grass roots growth that creates communities--the top down, one company / one industry town is what leads to this kind of economic collapse (Phoenix, are you listening?) The early industrial leaders invested in the arts, but new multi-national corporations are not invested in place in the same way. How can we in the arts protect our institutions from the vagaries of institutional raiding?

Many of the people we encountered in Detroit said there are many valuable, interesting things and people in this diverse town, and perhaps as Detroit redefines itself, we'll learn more about how America will reinvent itself over the next 20 years. Artists like Rivera and Graham are witnesses to our communal hopes and dreams--what will this generation of artists say about this time of crisis?

I'll keep looking, let me know when you see signs of that vision.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hi ho, off to M.O.

truck on 10 freeway east, Tempe, Arizona, on my way to Austin, Texas

It's official: I am moving to St. Louis, Missouri, to become the Executive Director of the Laumeier Sculpture Park (see why I included the picture above? I think about Johnny Sokko's episode about the giant flying eyeball as well).

I am thrilled. I'm joining a great board and staff, a culturally complex and rich community. I've just gotten my two purchases--"Hidden Assets: Connecting the Past to the Future of St. Louis", edited by Richard Rosenfeld and "Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City" by Colin Gordon--to become more knowledgeable and grounded in the city's past. I want to be able to clearly articulate, and activate, the next phase of the LSP's contribution to the region's visual future.

I've already gotten lovely notes from board members, staff, colleagues and artists (both in St. Louis and across the country) about their great enthusiasm for the Laumeier Sculpture Park--I think I'm going to have a great time, and isn't that ultimately why we do what we do?

In addition to a great new challenge, I am also going to be nearer to Kevin and my pals in Milwaukee (plus my Milwaukee family Lou and Carmel), my mom in Kansas City and water. This last word is so meaningful. As much as I have had many great experiences and opportunities in Phoenix, the biggest question I have had for urbanists, architects and city people concerns the sustainability of post-industrial cities. Are any of them sustainable at their current rate of growth and our economic collapse?

Jack Becker speaking in Milwaukee, July 16, 2009

Last night I went with friends to a Public Art Symposium at Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee. Jack Becker, founder and executive director of Forecast Public Art, St. Paul, spoke about the evolving field of public art. We met for breakfast the next morning to speak more fully about the field, opportunities, the new amendment to the Minnesota State constitution that dedicates funds to arts, parks and legacy projects like public art--inspiring. Art in the public realm--not plop art, mind you--is a compelling area of contemporary artistic production that I've been dealing with for a decade, and I think the Laumeier Sculpture Park will continue to play an important role in creating opportunities for artists testing new media and materials.

And since I am technically on vacation, I include a picture of Lou Miyazaki's garden in Wauwatosa. She, Kevin and I have been working on this for a few years now, and with all the rain this spring, the garden has popped. We love the fresh produce and cut flowers, and with almost all perennials, the garden is self-sustaining (Dutch iris, anyone?). I've got some more mulch to put down but I will wait until fall to move and plant some things. I'll stop by Starbucks for a sac full of coffee grounds, great for the tomatoes. How can a family plot yield more food--that's next on our agenda; amending the soil and encouraging worms comes first.

Happy summer everyone!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Public space, public speech

Scott Illman on Gormley's Plinth, 2009

I am amused, captivated and mortified by Anthony Gormley's Fourth Plinth project "One & Other."

Amused because it's a simple gesture, harkening back to soapbox preachers and, as more morbid commentators have noted, the prisoner's walk to the guillotine in history past. Amused because it's officially sanctioned anarchy. Anything could be said, although I suspect anyone willing to sign up for the computer lottery is less nutcase than media hound.

I love this image of Scott Illman dressed as a town crier; it makes me think of the diaries of Samuel Peyps, a 17th century London merchant who chronicled London's great fire, the exile and return of his King, and his personal picadillos. LA-based artist Monique Prieto brought his writings to my attention; her recent work uses phrases from his diaries to comment on our own time, giving voice to the human concerns that return over and over. I think Illman understood the possibilities and responsibilities of the Plinth opportunity to disseminate news, release decrees or plea for mercy.

Captivated because there is no public space anymore, every nook and cranny of the streets and public plazas are controlled and corporatized--the arts may be one of the few places where embarrassing, angry dialogue can flow (well, outside of the tight control the market has).

Mortified, and this is why I have such respect for artists: what would you (me) do if you were given such an offer? What makes performance transformative is not just an artist's depth of historical knowledge or years of practice, it's the spark of a unique mind which cannot be scripted. This is when their magical spark lights your own, this is what art can do.

It's possible that most of the people who signed up for Gormely's Plinth are egotists, trained perhaps by reality tv that their every inanity is a meaningful as my every inanity--and why not? But this is where a range of people can have a voice. And not all reality tv is bad of course--competitive shows like Project Runway, and even the Antiques Road show, show off forms of expertise and critical judgement so that the use of a ruche front or square-headed nails separates the women from the girls. Enlightening.

© Sam Durant, This is Freedom?, 2009

The Plinth project makes me think of LA-based artist Sam Durant, who has been exploring public speech and its manifestation, and suppression, in American public life over the past half-century. Durant's sign in lower Manhattan is poignant and distressing--indeed, what is freedom in the face of official speech?