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:


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

Chalk It Up

June 19, 2009

For the past three years I’ve participated in the Paseo Colorado Chalk Festival in Pasadena. Sponsored by the Light Bringer Project (where proceeds go to art education in Pasadena classrooms and other community-based projects), the event is held in June on Father’s Day weekend, where chalk artists work from sunrise until sundown on their murals. Artists can work individually, with a partner, or in a group on a mural that can be as large as 10 x 10 feet—but I’ve seen much larger:


The techniques used are amazing. Methods include priming the surface with a base layer, sketching, meticulous blending, painting ground chalk mixed with water, spraying down pulverized chalk, or other various combinations. Some participants take inspiration from the year’s current events, pop culture, even masterpieces in local museums.


Every year there are always new ideas and new designs; some works are so seamlessly blended it’s hard to believe they’re done with chalk.


The Chalk Festival attracts several visitors, and while the large crowds and parking might be a detractor to some, here’s an insider’s advice: beat the summer heat and get there early on Sunday. The parking meters are free, and you can also catch the Pasadena Police Classic Car Show that runs concurrently with the Chalk Festival. If Dad wants to sleep in on his special day, you can always go at dusk: take advantage of the long summer days and see the murals in all their glory after the crowds have died down. But don’t wait too long: the concrete gets washed clean the next day.

Devi Noor

Wish You Were Here

June 17, 2009

“I stopped keeping up after Sam Cooke and the Beatles and… what’s the one with Mick Jagger?”

Our exhibitions administrator, Elaine Peterson, was one of the few LACMA staffers down in the offices when I walked in yesterday morning. Everyone else was up on the BP Grand Entrance watching Incubus.

Wait, what?

Yes, Incubus performed live at LACMA Tuesday morning—a secret show put on by KROQ’s Kevin & Bean morning show. They’ve been giving away tickets all week to true-blue Incubus fans and told them the location at the last minute. Kevin and Bean were broadcasting from LACMA all morning, since 5:30 am. The crowd rolled in around 7:00 and, as at any good rock show, started drinking by 7:05. At 8:00 Incubus took the stage and performed three songs from their new album, Monuments and Melodies, which was released this week, then closed it out with their hit “Love Hurts.” LACMA was chosen as the location for this event as a tie-in to the album title—the band wanted to perform in front of a monument, so Chris Burden’s Urban Light provided the proper backdrop for their show.


The whole show was taped by KROQ and there were a lot of cameras in the audience, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on YouTube soon. We’ll tweet about it if any videos surface [Update! As soon as we posted this, a youtube video indeed popped up. Check it out below.] Stay tuned to our Facebook page as well, where our intrepid behind-the-scenes video crew will be posting an interview with Incubus’s singer (and art lover), Brandon Boyd, in the next few days.

Scott Tennent

Five to See at the LA Film Festival

June 16, 2009

Though we’ll likely have to wait until AFI FEST rolls around this autumn to catch some of the notable entries from this year’s Cannes, there’ll be plenty of enticing titles from the international festival circuit at this summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Here are the five I certainly won’t miss:

Our Beloved Month of August

Portugal’s improbable ’09 Oscar submission is a category-defying double-album film about filmmaking set in the land-locked municipality of Arganil and performed largely by locals. This second feature from Miguel Gomes places everything onscreen—the equipment, the crew—and fictionalizes a summer’s tale while documenting the season’s bustling surplus of disarray. Here’s the trailer, and an interview with Gomes.

Embodiment of Evil

Embodiment of Evil

Embodiment of Evil

Brazil’s maestro of rhapsodically gory, bargain-basement bloodbaths José Mojica Marins, pushing 70, returns as atheist gravedigger Zé do Caixão (“Coffin Joe” is the decent and ubiquitous translation) for his only directorial effort in two decades. Certainly a first—has a ZdC title ever screened in a US film festival?—this Gran Torino of sorts is flush with hardcore surrealism and baroque terror. Visit the official site.

The Silence Before Bach

The Silence Before Bach

The Silence Before Bach

A few years older than Marins, Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella is a comparable force of subversion, with a voracious ear and even a slight taste for the gothic (see his 1970 Vampir Cuadecuc). Positing Bach as a conduit of modernity, this elegant collage is lucidly “experimental” in John Cage’s sense of the word: “inclusive rather than exclusive.” Visit the official site.

United Red Army

United Red Army

United Red Army

A contemporary of Nagisa Oshima and the third filmmaker on this list north of seventy, Kōji Wakamatsu is perhaps best know for his pinku eiga efforts—furious low-budget spasms of pornography and anarchy—but United Red Army will certainly tower over the pulp. This three-hour-plus treatise on the titular, doomed left-wing paramilitary revolutionaries features an original score by the newly Japan-based Jim O’Rourke and concludes with a show-stopping snowbound climax set in the filmmaker’s own mountain lodge.

35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis can always be relied on for some rumpled warmth. 35 Shots of Rum is her first feature since the sublimely elliptical L’Intrus in 2004, and this father-daughter duet is comparatively more conventional. But the luminous cinematography of Agnes Godard and Denis’s almost trancelike sense of rhythm should let it linger like a waking dream (or a hangover).

But if all the above just seem far too plot-heavy, there’s a whole day to be swallowed in the 840-minute Crude Oil. Screening for free inside a gallery at the Hammer Museum—which notably sits on land owned by Occidental Petroleum Corporation—this slab of real time from eminent docu-minimalist Wang Bing is a persistent, panoramic look at a drilling station and its workers in the Gobi Desert.

Bernardo Rondeau

Name the Object

June 15, 2009

Take a look at the permanent collection objects below and see if you can guess their names. Create your own title in the final bonus question and we’ll send a pair of VIP tickets to the Pompeii exhibition to the reader with our favorite suggestion. Answers are after the jump and more info on this selection of works, all which were included in our 2007 exhibition SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s, can be found on Collections Online.



A. Magma

B. Conch

C. Echo

D. Freckles




A. Untitled (The Elusive Eureka)

B. Untitled (The Epiphany Evident)

C. Untitled (Santa Monica Sunset)

D. Untitled (Tarry Night)




A. Badgirl

B. Goodboy

C. Sweetlady

D. Angryman




A. Old Cotton Fields Back Home

B. Chicago Plains, Harvested

C. Barren Citrus Groves Out West

D. Tilled Sand




A. Bob

B. John

C. Tom

D. Ron




A. Tetris in Blue

B. Blue in Two

C. Temples in Blue

D. Big Blue




A. Acid Breeze with Yellow

B. Silent, Asphalt and Cement

C. Ionic Gesture, Part II

D. Silence and Ion Wind




Ronald Davis made Roto, above, in 1968. It’s a Polyester resin and fiberglass sculpture, 62 x 136 inches. (See a larger view here.) What would you name this object? Tell us in the Comment section for your chance to win two VIP tickets to see our Pompeii exhibition.

Answers after the jump . . .

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