I have been thinking about King Tut: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs at the Art Gallery of Ontario quite a bit lately. Actually I have not been just thinking about it, I have been troubled by it. As a former museum director / curator I have to admit that I have a huge issue with Blockbuster exhibitions. I understand that they have the potential of bringing huge numbers of people through the door, and that they can expose your institution to new audiences, but are they really worth it?
I spent the entire drive to Waterloo on Tuesday morning subjecting my husband to all the reasons that I have issues with the blockbuster exhibition concept in general and the King Tut exhibition in particular. While he patiently listened to my rants, he reminded me as I got out of the car that maybe I should go check out the exhibition before condemning it! As I sat in my office waiting for students to come begging me to adjust their grades on their research papers, I switched on my computer and did a quick Google search for articles on the King Tut exhibit. One of the first listings was Murray Whyte's post on his Untitled: Contemporary Art in Toronto and beyond blog. It was interesting reading Murray's thoughts and the comments by David Balzer, Leah Sandals and others.
However, it was his most recent post that caught my eye. Nadja Sayej host of ArtStars* invited six of her Toronto art critic colleagues to join her in forming The Toronto Alliance of Art Critics for their first public event and panel Bring It! The Toronto Alliance of Art Critics says MAKE FACE MOFOS! held at Double Double Land earlier this evening. The event co-facilitated by The White House Studio and ArtStars* attracted a standing room only crowd and featured a panel of Toronto art critics and writers that included: David Balzer, Otino Corsano, Rosemary Heather, Charlene K Lau, Leah Sandals, and Murray Whyte.
The promo material stated that this will provide the audience with the opportunity to find out "... about what sucks about galleries, artists, art dealers, art fairs, art shows and press releases." While the evening did not turn out exactly as billed, Nadja kept the evening light-hearted, entertaining and interesting.
Rather than simply introducing the panelists, Nadja quizzed and provoked the panelists asking them pointed questions about their backgrounds, their interests in the arts, how much they get paid by various publications, life inside an art publication all of which provided the audience with an inside look at the reality of art writing and the world of art criticism.
A theme running through much of the evening was the topic of criticism. Who has the authority to act as a critic? What is criticism? How does art criticism differ from art writing? How critical should it be? Can artists be critics? And why and how art criticism differs from theatre and film criticism?
When discussing their role as critics, Nadja Sayej recounted a piece of advice she received early in her career from John Bentley Mays who told her that, "you need to decide between being a servant to power or a brat." Very poignant advice I thought, and advice that pertains to more than just art writing.
I think it was David Balzer who stated that artists want reassurance, recognition and to be noticed. He continued that "...we don't have the critical culture that we once had and as a result people aren't used to that kind of censure."
So while there was a general feeling that the critics are not critical enough - the question was raised as to whether or not we are ready for serious criticism.
Dan Adler, an art historian from York University and critic for ArtForum was not part of the panel, but stated that ".... critics and art writers need to know or understand who they are addressing and why. Once they know and understand this audience, they need to know how to inspire them."
The job of an art critic is understandably very difficult. Artists want reviews and mentions of their shows so that they can include them in their resume. Reviews give artists reassurance that they are doing the right thing, that they are noticed and appreciated. Galleries want and need reviews as it gives the gallery recognition that is priceless. Anyone can buy an ad, but only a few galleries and their artists get mentioned by the critics. Papers and publications need to sell issues or copies and need to satisfy both their advertisers and readers. Which leads us to the readers which make up the general art going and non-art going public. A group that did not get much mention by the art crowd in attendance.
While the general public may not be the audience that publications like ArtForum, Border Crossings, ArtPapers or C Magazine are targeting, they are the ones reading publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, Now Magazine and Eye Weekly. The public gets their information on the shows and artists that are worth seeing and talking about through the reviews. If you are not part of the "scene" the endless list of galleries, exhibitions and shows in the paper can be meaningless and daunting. If you don't know what you should see, it is easier to see nothing. As a result the general audience wants and needs to see art writing that is interesting, engaging and informative and goes as far as to tell them where to go, what they should look at and even sometimes what to buy.
I agreed with a lot of what some of the writers in attendance said. However, as a gallerist with a gallery outside of the "gallery district" and therefore, too far from the epicentre of the "scene," I left wondering how do we create a dynamic and inclusive art environment? I felt that many of the individuals in the room felt that the art critics and writers were writing for them and to them. Yet, there is an entire city that exists outside of the designated gallery district and that may or may not be currently interested in contemporary art, but needs to at least have access to knowing what is going on.
If the AGO is hoping that 1,000,000 people will see King Tut before it closes in April, why can't we also welcome and engage the public into our contemporary art world. Murray Whyte and David Balzer both touched on this. As artists we need people, outside of our immediate social and artistic circles to see and respond to our work, as galleries we need clients and collectors to view and buy work. We need to work together with the art critics and writers to open the dialogue. Last night was a good start and I look forward to where this discussion leads us.