Curating People: David Henry

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “Curating People” on April 28 and 29, 2011. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by David Henry, Director of Programs, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
A hybrid inside the gates: confessions of an artist/curator/educator/administrator/curator/artist
Over the past 30 years I have worked in five different art museums including one photography museum, two encyclopedic museums, and two modern/contemporary museums. I came to the field through the back door—a government grant to better engage visitors gave me and three fellow MFA students our first museum jobs – – leading tours and creating public programs.When the grant ended I went behind the scenes in a different museum as a preparator and curatorial assistant.
In this capacity, it became obvious to me that while museums cared for art, that did not necessarily translate into caring about art—at least as it had come to be understood in the second half of the 20th century. Or maybe I should say artists.The concerns of artists and curators were widely divergent.
By the late 80’s I was working at the Walker Art Center as an educator.  I frequently invited artists in through the back door or, to be precise, the basement of museum education. Together, we created tours that were performances, classrooms that doubled as art installations and music as an alternative to language based interpretation.
During this time, artists were becoming more sophisticated about the practices and concerns of museums. Museums, for their part, were becoming more reliant on larger diverse audiences. These audiences, it turned out were less interested in scholarship and rarity and more interested in authentic “art experiences.” Artists were better able to provide these authentic experiences then curators and the relationship between artists and museums evolved.
However, just as curators were getting comfortable working with artists, many artists began moving away from the fixed object – the raison d’être of museums. The ascendency of conceptual theory, the influence of new media and time-based explorations across the visual and performing arts opened up a rich vein for artists to mine. And, as they did so, visual artists found themselves drawn to practices associated with media and performing artists, just as performing artists found themselves drawn to practices of the visual arts. Simultaneously, many artists rejected the museum context choosing to present their art in alternative contexts.
Currently, as a presenter of performing arts and director of education at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, I find a kind of confusion among critics, curators, artists, collectors, and audiences regarding criteria for evaluating different kinds of art. While there is excitement among audiences for live arts in the museum, a theoretical basis for understanding the work among historians and critics, and excellent work being produced by leading artists, the work (sometimes intentionally) sits uncomfortably in museums raising intriguing questions?
  • What type of institution is best suited to present the hybrid art forms of today?
  • How does the economic structure of museums and the visual arts affect attitudes towards performed art which has a significantly different economic structure?
  • How does the traditional mission of museums to preserve and collect impact its receptivity to non-object art?
  • How do the differing histories and practices of performing arts and visual arts influence criticism of hybridized art forms in art museums?
I look forward to discussing these and other issues in greater detail in Berkeley.