Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crossing the Professional-Amateur Line

Think back to the last time you crossed a line.
Did you feel brave? Deviant? Proud? Ashamed?

In art institutions, we typically treat the curator as the arbiter of quality. The curator draws the line between worthy and unworthy. He may explain the rationale behind where he drew the line--or not. Either way, visitors are expected to respect the line, respect the judgment, and appreciate the resulting display.

I'm not sure how well this is working for us in museum-land.

As our culture explodes in embracing creativity across the professional/amateur spectrum, museums have two choices:
  1. we can sharpen the line.
  2. we can embrace the embrace.
#1 is the weaker choice. It's the kid at the beach, frantically retracing the line in the sand with his foot as the sea swallows it. It's him yelling, "this is the way you are supposed to play!" and his voice getting lost in the waves. It's him standing on the beach, alone, as everyone continues the game around him.

#2 is the powerful choice. If done critically and with intention, it advances understanding of different types of quality and different levels of expertise. It covers the entire beach. If done poorly (uncritically), it turns the museum into yet another place to watch cat videos.

I actually believe that we have MORE ability to advance scholarship and curatorial expertise with #2 than #1. The line in the sand is not your expertise. It's a weak symbol of your expertise. And once everyone has trod over the line, it loses its power.

Expertise is worthy. Period. The classics don't lose their power when they share library shelf space with beach reads. Top boxers don't lose their status when they fight at the end of a long bill of lesser athletes. Why are we so afraid that great art will lose its power if we surround it with other work?

I've been grappling with this question as we enter the final month of a massively crowd-sourced exhibition at my museum called Everybody's Ocean. We took our inspiration for the exhibition's format from the vastness and complexity of the ocean. The ocean is a force. A home. An inspiration. A trash receptacle. We wanted to reflect this diversity of identities by inviting all kinds of artists and artworks into the gallery. The exhibition includes artwork about the ocean by over 250 artists of all backgrounds and abilities, grouped into ten poetic metaphors for the ocean.

The exhibition has been polarizing. Most visitors love the diversity, quality, and abundance of the art. But some visitors--especially some artists--hate it. As one upset artist said to me:
"We artists have so little. Being included in a museum exhibition used to be a sign of real achievement. With this exhibition, you've ruined the sanctity of that experience." 
When I hear this, I feel sad that the value of artistry is being reduced to a thin line of curatorial discretion between "in" and "out." I understand her concern. But I think it's a concern born out of weakness, not strength.

How can we be proud of the artistic ground that we are covering without worrying about where we draw the lines?
How can we go on the offensive instead of the defensive about the power of art and quality?
How can we cross lines joyously, thoughtfully, critically--and without fear?

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