What I Learned About What You Want

June 24, 2009
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Annie and Christine staffing the Ask Me table

We’ve got no shortage of ideas for cool projects at LACMA that will help improve the visitor experience, but before we give any of them the green light, we want to be sure they would actually address your needs and desires. To that end, we did an experiment last week: we set up an “Ask Me” table near the Pompeii exhibition, looking to see what visitors would ask for if they weren’t prompted. (We’re also doing onsite and, soon, online surveys.) It was a one-day-only experience, and boy was it enlightening. It was also a lot of fun—I don’t get to interact with the general public as much as I’d like and it feels great to chat with people who are as excited about art as I am.

We weren’t surprised to learn that our visitors need directions; it’s a big campus after all, and not terribly easy to navigate. What was surprising though is that people wanted to know what to see. They also wanted to know what, if anything, is free on campus, from our wi-fi to our Pay What You Wish program to our first Tuesday program. (All are indeed free, by the way.) Then there were the more playful questions posed to us—hey, all the sign said was “Ask Me”; who said it had to pertain to the museum?

What is Lil’ Wayne’s birthday?

Where can I get a cup of tea and great piece of chocolate cake?

Do you have directions to the store that sells buttons on Beverly Blvd?

Will the Yankees win the World Series this year?

Allison Agsten


Something Old is New Again

June 23, 2009

As part of my self imposed Month of Art, I visited the Greek and Roman galleries last week to see one of LACMA’s iconic pieces—The Hope Athena. She’s a commanding marble sculpture who resides in an enviable space awash with natural light and gleaming dark wood floors. (Most of our gallery space does not allow for windows because of the deteriorating effect sunlight can have on objects; marble is obviously immune.) Nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered; it was an experience that amounted to perhaps my most thrilling art moment at LACMA.

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The Hope Athena, 2nd century A.D., with Welcome, 2009, Choi Jeong-Hwa (detail)

The backdrop for The Hope Athena and the other exquisite ancient objects was none other than Welcome, which we wrote about last week. Somehow I never put two and two together—the huge windows in the third-floor Greek and Roman galleries allow visitors to see the backside of Welcome, which drapes the exterior of the Ahmanson Building as part of Your Bright Future, opening this weekend.

You don’t need me to explain what is so mesmerizing about the new/old juxtaposition, or how powerful the element of surprise can be. The result of the two combined, in my opinion, amounts to the most accidentally spectacular permanent collection installation around.

Allison Agsten


A Curator Answers

June 22, 2009

We have been blown away by the thoughtfulness (and volume) of questions you submitted via Unframed, Twitter, and Facebook for our ongoing Ask A Curator series. We will be rolling out answers over the course of the next few weeks, so keep checking back and keep submitting questions. First up, we turned a question from Ian, who left a comment here on the blog, over to photography curator Charlotte Cotton.

To what extent do curators feel pressure to make a show that will impress other curators? Is there a sort of unspoken competition to put together exhibitions that will outdo or one-up other museums?

What interesting questions! So far, I’ve not heard of the planning of a curatorial version of American Idol or The Apprentice, so I think we are safe to assume that there are no fist fights nor mercenary tactics scripted for the behind-the-scenes of curatorial life. In the main, I don’t think a curator working within a county or public institution looks at what they perceive as their specialism as a terrain that can be fully or globally dominated by you and you alone—and that’s not one’s aim. The really stimulating part about what you get to do as a curator is to think originally, but also within a context of there being a critical and energetic mass of points of view and approaches to your subject that drives it forward and gives it renewed relevance to contemporary, and mainly local, eyes.

I don’t think there are many convincing parallels between the lives of artists and curators, but from the outset of my career as a curator I have observed a connection between these two creative fields. Artists seem to divide into those who avoid being aware of (and contaminated by) the most popular or empirically vast forms of art in order to do what they do and sustain their individuated voice, and those who get sustenance from looking and thinking about what other artists are creating and actively seek out the discursive potential of their arena. Curators, I think, also divide into those who need a state of isolation from popular trends and those who are actively nourished by the overall scope of contemporary curatorship and what it means to interpret culture for a broad constituent (i.e., who actually experiences the fruits of one’s labors). For both ways of life, it’s the practitioners who could not live or create in any other way, who have no alternative profession or way of communicating with the world, who create the magic and innovations of their fields. Both artists and curators are highly sentient of how we collectively look and, therefore, how you make exhibition-goers engage with the forms of culture and histories that we explore.

Embedded within your questions seems to be a desire for qualifications of the extent to which being a curator is a competitive profession, and perhaps also how curating tallies with the mechanics and politics of academia, where the currency of projects within a peer group of individual thinkers is a serious issue. I still remember a comment from a staff meeting I attended at a similarly encyclopedic museum as LACMA fifteen years ago. I was a curator in a much-maligned, out-of-fashion institution whose senior management opened up the debate in an all-staff meeting to the audience, perhaps looking for ideas from its junior curatorial staff about how this stumbling, dusty beast of a repository to all manner of human endeavor might be brought up from its current state of decline and irrelevance. Following a rallying and eloquent cry from an old-school curator who had no intention of modifying or stylizing his impressive knowledge of his subject, sullying the complexity of his scholarship with the trappings of populism, a young researcher stood up. She asked us to make a distinction in our intent and ambitions between being academic and being intelligent.

In my opinion, a curator always keeps in mind that while there will be peers in the visitors to their exhibitions who expect an awareness of and a departure from the received wisdom of the relevant field. There will also be an added litany of doctoral thesis-holders who parlay with the same fenced-in terminology as traditional curators, but we’d be best to keep in mind that these scholars may also be bringing their inquisitive five-year-old with them—and that they also email, google, twitter, and read their local newspaper. Our job as curators is to not only respond to but also anticipate what is timely, and to engage with the “how” and “what” that can be presciently shaped from the wealth of the visual and material histories for which we have responsibility, for anyone who is intelligently inquisitive about culture.

Charlotte Cotton

Want your own art question answered by a curator? Leave a comment here and we’ll consider your query for an upcoming post in our ongoing series.


Name the Object—We Have a Winner!

June 22, 2009

We had a number of responses to our Name the Object contest last week—including people making suggestions via Twitter and Facebook. To refresh your memory, we asked you what you’d name this object:

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The actual title is Roto; it’s a sculpture by Ronald Davis and was created in 1968.

There were a lot of great responses (all of which can be seen in the comments to the original post), and we definitely had some back and forth as to whom the winner should be. We came this close to awarding Donald Frazell for his inspired Uh, hello, HELLOOOO! until we realized that he wasn’t competing. (We’re slow that way.)

In the end, the winning entry came from Zack, who came up with Panopticon (Architectural Drawing from “Rodeo Drive Dressing Room from Hell,” Socialite Torture Version, after Bruce Nauman and Michel Foucault). Sure, it’s not as succinct as the original title, but we found it evocative if not also a little absurd. Points were also awarded for the sheer amount of time Zack spent on this task, as he returned to the comments section three times total—over the course of many days!—obsessively revising his title. Guess what Zack: you got it just right. Congratulations. We’ll be emailing you to arrange your two free tickets to Pompeii and the Roman Villa.

Scott Tennent


Happy Welcome

June 19, 2009

If you’ve driven past the museum—or kept up with some LA art blogs —in the last week or two, you’ve likely seen some of Choi Jeong-Hwa’s artworks taking over LACMA’s campus as part of the upcoming exhibition Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea. His HappyHappy hangs in the BP Grand Entrance, and last week he wrapped the Ahmanson Building in bright fabrics—a work called Welcome. Choi has been at the museum installing his work, so Michele Urton, our assistant curator of contemporary art, asked him a few questions.

Why do you always do site-specific installations?
I don’t like inside museums. I like outside museums, so everybody can have the art. Because people want to feel and have communication with the art. Art is life. So everyone, anyone, can be the artist. I wanted them to make their own art from this experience.

The Ahmanson Building, it is a medieval color. L.A. is so spread out, I wanted to make something eye-catching. I use usual colors and simple design to make folk art.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this is your first outdoor installation here. What are your thoughts on the city?
Every day when I am here I take transportation by bus or I am walking and I see the city has not so many colors. I want to give to the city something bright. I want to shine a light on L.A. And always I love people’s reaction. If it is art or not art is not important; people know on their own what it is. Contemporary art doesn’t need a paper label to explain it.

While you where installing HappyHappy, you had a chance to talk with visitors about your work. What did they say about it?
First, all the plastic is from the local 99¢ Store. This is very important to me. Art is 99¢. Some people asked me, may I make this and hang it in my kitchen? And I answer, yes please. Your heart is my art. And also touch is important—touch the art.

What would you like to say to the public?
Happy Welcome.

You often repeat the words in your titles, like HappyHappy.
Yes, we wanted to make our own paradise, like a utopia, because in our daily life, we have only a short time to forget our troubles and be happy. Art is everything, everything is art. Art is not in the museum, art is your own daily life. I think so.

Michele Urton, Assistant Curator


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