Last week I criticized a Hirshhorn ‘Directions’ show for being too commercial, for being a Chelsea show masquerading as a museum exhibition. My email lit up, so I decided to talk with the two curators I mentioned in this post. Today: the Art Institute of Chicago’s Lisa Dorin.
MAN: Do I have a point, do some of these mini-contemporary shows tend a little bit too much toward the commercial?
Lisa Dorin: I agree with you that museums do have – should have — the responsibility and the ability to do different kinds of things than what happens in commercial galleries. Ideally, we take advantage of that. I can speak for ourselves and say that our motivation is to try as much as possible to try to do something different than what people are going to see elsewhere, and to understand what our context can provide that other contexts can’t. In choosing the artists for each exhibition, that’s always in our mind. As long as we do that, I think the process is going to be successful for the artist, for us, and for the viewers too.
MAN: I also griped about the scholarship that is and isn’t done with these shows.
LD: With the ‘Focus’ shows there’s always been an accompanying brochure. It’s not a catalogue so there’s only so much we can accomplish there – it’s a 2,000-word essay. We always do an essay, never just an interview with the artist. We always try to do something that situates the show both within the context of the artist’s other work and within the context of contemporary art more broadly.
MAN: Can you talk a little bit about how you go about picking artists for your ‘Focus’ shows?
LD: Our approach is a mixture of things. In fact, I think one of the most unique things about our ‘Focus’ shows: We do bring in international emerging artists, but we also focus on more established artists, specifically, strains of their practice that people might not necessarily be familiar with. My colleague James Rondeau has done an excellent job of this with some of his recent ‘Focus’ shows including Michael Asher/George Washington, the Mel Bochner ‘language’ show and our current James Bishop show. [Bochner's 1966 Portrait of Eva Hesse is at left.]
MAN: I think that being at a big museum with a big budget and big obligations changes what a curator can do, how edgy a show can be, etc. Does being big change what you think you can do? Does being encyclopedic change what you can and can’t do?
LD: Yes, on both counts. But the ‘Focus’ shows are the one place in the museum where we can be more experimental and push a little more. The shows are smaller. The budgets are smaller than the other temporary exhibitions we do. In some ways that hems us in, but it also gives us more freedom because we can do things more quickly and less conventionally than the way other shows are done here.
MAN: And sometimes there’s a museum-wide theme into which your shows work: The way you did Kasmalieva and Djumaliev during the museum’s Silk Road project. [The image above is a still from Kasmalieva and Djumaliev's 2006 A New Silk Road.]
LD: I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a program I’m trying to fill. It’s rare that there’s such a direct tie-in to the broader museum context. In a case like the Silk Road project, my mandate was to find a contemporary artist from that region. And I chose to find an artist, or artists, whose work engaged critically with the concept of the museum’s focus on the region. I think Muratbek and Gulnara’s work did exactly that and what we were able to do with that show was give them a chance to make a new work.
Actually, they’d been wanting to do large-scale video installation on the theme of the “New Silk Road” for a long time, and they hadn’t had the time or context to do it, so it worked perfectly. Since then I’ve not had that type of mandate again. We have a theme here this year, American art, and it just happens that the three artists we’ve shown this year are American: William Pope.L, James Bishop, and Mario Ybarra Jr. But that was an accident, it wouldn’t typically have been the case.
Part two is here.