Art Marketing in the Museumpresented at panel "Consuming Art in the Age of Corporate Decadence" Jeff Rosen, moderator; at College Art Association Conference , NYC, February 7, 1997, 8:00 - 10:30 pm.
The author experienced a refusal of a window installation project in the Spring of 1995. The project was solicited by a museum, with an initial statement of, "You can do *anything* you want." On receiving an outline for a proposed installation, the museum backed down, giving various reasons for the refusal, among them,
- - This is too close to home,
- - You should not work with students,
- - It should not be about something you are engaged in, and,
- - It should be more aesthetic.
The refusal clearly indicated a conflict in thinking between the artist and the museum. But let me describe the proposal first...
The scope of the proposal involved the use of the two exterior windows as a stage for a project I had already undertaken with Simon Cygielski. We were actively engaged in the competitive promotion of T-shirts as high art at Columbia College, where I teach part time, and where Simon was a Teaching Assistant in the Photography Department.
My T-shirt sported the image of one of the students in the photography department (who had worked with me as a TA for three years), and Simon Cygielski's T-shirt had the image of another student, also a TA. We had obtained model releases from both, and were actively engaged in a mock price war, when the invitation for a window display came along.
I should point out that Simon Cygielski (who is now working in Warsaw, Poland as a journalist) is an immensely skilled technician, and that the T-shirt images in both cases represented studies in the limits of what was technically possible with halftone materials and graphic arts processes. Simon's initial plan had been to enlarge a manipulated polaroid print (taken by a third party) to the dimensions of 6 by 6 feet. Our abilities and the technological wizardry involved in this project were not properly appreciated by the museum. Or perhaps they were recognized, but with apprehension.
Despite the concentration on process, what we wanted to do was to turn the point of mass-produced images on the issue of art. At the core of this exercise lay the whole confusion of concepts of authorship, competitiveness between artists, and sales promotion.
This last item especially calls to mind all the common concepts about galleries, dealership, promotion, and whatever else is involved in the eventual sale of art objects. Neither of us, by the way, had much intention of actually mass producing and selling T-shirts. A total of about five printings were actually struck between the two of us.
What was thus proposed to the museum was to use the windows to physically develop a marketing space, with no set plan or script, but without being disruptive to the normal traffic in the museum. What would end up in the windows would develop as spontaneous responses to each other's efforts over the span of the exhibition period.
We wanted to work from the proposition that there are many implicit constraints and unspoken protocols specific to the treatment of art as sales objects which stand in contradiction to general marketing theories. At the same time, we realized that the concept of an "art market" has been brought forward by critics over the last twenty years, intended as an instrument of critical analysis. This was going to be a test.
We thus started off from the hypotheses that (a) marketing in the broadest sense consists of a no-holds-barred practice, that is, there is no restraint to what can be done or what claims may be made, and (b) that marketing operates in response to and in competition with others who have something similar to sell.
The primary working method for this project would have been the creation of a series of interconnected ideas and responses, which might have been related causally or metaphorically, starting with the two general precepts listed above. Specifically we intended to use the available space as advantageously as possible as display windows. The actual content of the show-windows might include images, objects, actual T-shirts, models and manikins, bales of materials, advertisements, order forms, extravagant claims, reviews and articles, attention getting devices, and process-related equipment.
Future turns taken under consideration included: the use of photo-buttons as promotional material, grocery store type of ad banners, clothing racks, the creation of fan-zines and clubs, junk mail campaigns, the introduction of T-shirt specific credit cards, cash discount offers, distribution of press releases, introduction of Kim and Nicole action figures, a Kim and Nicole coloring book, creation of reviews and endorsements, use of social parables in the ad campaigns -- in other words, an array of applications from everyday advertising and marketing. We promised the museum not to use sound.
We expected the viewers to have to confront the irony involved in the competition, attempt to decipher the display of information and objects, and grasp the incongruity of intent and production. Viewers would also have to reconcile the show-window setting against the sponsorship and the location. We hoped a recognition would develop that art is also a process, not just a product.
I think we could have pulled all this off; between the two of us we had both the resources available, and the resourcefulness. But the museum's reaction must have been more like, "These guys are out of control."
We were turned down. The objections of the institution were in fact accompanied by a shift in venue. The spring schedule for the window was quickly filled with other artists, so that all time slots into early summer were filled. It was then suggested to move the installation to the summer. At that point I withdrew the proposal, for my student partner would have graduated, and the involvement of other students and the student audience would have dissipated.
The question remained, What caused such a reaction from the institution?
Obviously we had misread the open invitation which had been extended. Whatever the museum wanted, it wasn't what we had proposed.
We thought that we and the museum were actually thinking along similar lines, at least up to the moment the proposal was delivered, and that this thinking was lodged in convictions of moral proportions. As artists we were firmly convinced that we had the privilege of an open choice of topic and that we should be allowed any method of expression. And our understanding of the museum was that the institution would stand behind this artistic privilege, and certify the right to total freedom of expression. We were wrong.
Although we had been told, "You can do anything you want," we were now told, "But you can't do this."
We thought initially that the museum had misread us also. I felt as if the museum had no prior idea of the persistently anti-institutional nature of much of my previous work. If I was going to make a proposal, it could have been guaranteed that it would attempt to bite the extended hand. The same went for Simon Cygielski. An abbreviated inquiry with some of his instructors would have pointed out the swing he had accomplished from making art to questioning art.
I understood the objection of "too close to home" at first as a reference to an earlier published critique of a show at the museum which had held an exhibition to be too commercial, that is, to promote commercial advertising photography as art.
But the objection "too close to home" could also have been presented as a peroration of the other three objections, all of which deal with the process of artistic distancing. It basically proposed a certain level of conservatism and blandness for the museum, which requires living artists to remain distanced enough from everyday realities to match the work otherwise shown, which is, at the core, the dead masters of the past.
But none of this thinking quite explained anything, for there have been enough incidents of the museum showing work which espouses a political stance, or which leans over the boundaries for art production toward commercial practice. The only consistent thread I have seen over the years has been a propensity to aestheticize.
It wasn't until a chance discussion with my gallery dealer, that I gained any insight into the root causes at work in fostering the misunderstanding between the museum and Simon and myself.
I have been fortunate to have been represented by Beret International in Chicago, but my work, although shown frequently, just doesn't sell well enough to make a profit for the gallery. The discussion with my gallery dealer involved the question of audience. It came almost as a revelation to find out that who I had in mind as an audience and who the gallery owner had in mind were just not the same.
I come from an educational institution, and the whole force of my artmaking has been didactic and pedagogical. I make art to get ideas across to my contemporaries, to friends, to students, to family members. It may result in products, but the driving force is the display of my personal point of view, or the redisplay of something I have learned. I also have the disadvantage of having exhibited almost exclusively at educational institutions and not-for-profit galleries.
My dealer, on the other hand, has no interest in even explaining work to anyone who isn't a potential buyer. He gives his complete attention to those who might consider owning an object, but neglects any street traffic which might wander into the gallery with only an intellectual or aesthetic curiosity in the work.
This came as a shock to me, for the gallery has a long history of exhibiting some of the most difficult-to-pass-as-art work, and concentrates mostly on conceptual art. I had been comfortable with the idea of not selling much work, but my dealer, after three of my one-man shows, was not.
I have given the details of the gallery's concept of audience because, interestingly, the museum we were dealing with has an audience again different both from the artist's audience and the audience of a commercial gallery.
It would seem at first, simply from the fact that this institution is called a museum, that we could assume a dedication to educational goals. We should have seriously considered the advice of Bias, who wrote, in 560 BC, "When you listen to someone speak, you should ask, Who pays his salary?"
We should have looked at the museum's relationship to its parent organization. The museum started up some decades ago as a photography gallery. The museum is small, and would still qualify as a photographic gallery, except for the fact that it has a sizable collection, and because as a museum there are broader sources of funding available. Over time it has become the most effective public relations tool for its parent organization, Columbia College of Chicago. I would estimate that the museum is responsible for more than half of the press space in Chicago which deals with events and doings at the college.
This situation is of course the reverse of what we normally expect with museums, which is to find a school of art "attached" to a museum. The example in Chicago is the Art Institute and the School of the Art Institute. But the situation at Columbia is reversed. The Museum is clearly the child of the College.
As a public relations arm of the school, it would be clear that the audience for the museum would be those who would support the college, whether through
- - financial contributions,
- - good will,
- - as parents of prospective students,
- - or by being able to offer commercial ties.
This list is of course rather broadly based, and it would perhaps be easier to define it more narrowly by exclusion. We can imagine as excluded, for example, artists in general, and certainly avant garde artists, plus any detractors, the young, the poor, the uneducated. Artists are not part of the audience because they certainly do not represent a source of funds, and because they can be expected to question and disapprove of the doings of just about anything. Excluding the poor obviously excludes students. Students do not become well-to-do citizens for a stretch of ten or twenty years after graduation.
The audience for the museum could be summarized as consisting of
- - financially successful older adults,
- - of parents of college age children,
- - of those with ties to the commercial arts - such as advertising, broadcast, theater
- - all of whom might have an interest in fine art.
Collectively this audience provides a base for
- - keeping the school in the public eye,
- - is a source for monetary contributions,
- - provides commercial contacts,
- - and future students.
Let me add some additional qualities to this population. Let me suggest that this audience could be expected to be politically conservative and intellectually liberal. I would predict the conservatism simply because it seems to go hand in hand with money and age. I would suggest the liberalism as the inevitable result of having a college education.
If this is true of this audience, then we can stipulate the influences on taste. The conservative mind is most comfortable with ideals and principles, and thus at home with work from the past, work with a certified history of recognition and acceptance, and ill at ease with new work unless produced in the style of the old masters. To the conservative there is nothing like seeing the photographs of Josephson or Jachna, for they can again enjoy familiar forms to integrate into a pantheon of masters.
Liberalism defines itself as allowing anything, but doing nothing. The liberal remains ever skeptical, refusing to integrate new work into a schema of all things, and continuous to question and even deny resolution of content.
Liberals never say, "Yes," to content, always say, "Maybe," or "On the other hand." To satisfy a liberal one creates content which never resolutely drives home a point of view, which is elusive at the start, and which includes its own negation.
There are some ambiguous contradictions between these two, but I would suggest that these get resolved on the field of aesthetics, which functions as a display of meditative pleasure in the formal aspect of art work at the neglect of any serious intellectual or emotional engagement. They appreciate, but nominal content takes a backseat on this trip.
I would suggest that this audience is not interested in upstart artists or avant-garde work, or work which makes light of the monetary value of art objects, or which concentrates on art making as opposed to art objects, or which treads political pathways which have not already been well charted by popular media, or rationally develops a point of view to the exclusion of alternatives.
The awareness of such an audience explains why the museum will exhibit commercially sponsored work as readily as it draws on the work of old masters, why exhibitions will often include pieces which deal with the plight of women or gays, but has never dedicated a complete exhibition to such topics, and finally why disengaged aesthetics is so pervasively promoted.
Doing this is not a failure on the part of the museum stemming from some deep seated conservatism. It is, instead, the exact answer to satisfying the broad interest of a selected -- and well defined -- audience. It also does not contradict the museum's charter objectives of being an educational facility and research source.
Nor does it bother me that the work seen by photography students at the college remains mostly in the middle of the road, or that the work is occasionally crassly commercial, or that social topics are treated irresolutely. Students tend to sort such things out anyway, and the exhibition of commercial or pointless work will engender as much discussion as cutting edge.
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