Originally posted December 15, 2005 -- I attended a panel discussion the other day, "Local Engagement: Museum Curators Speak" which featured four "younger" curators (although they weren't all young, and some had been in their posts for a number of years) as part of the ongoing "Artists At Work" series sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs under Barbara Koenen's capable supervision. (Check out their excellent website, here,)
Presenting were four curators from major Chicago institutions - the Art Institute of Chicago (Lisa Dorin), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Tricia Van Eck), the Illinois State Museum (Robert Sill) and UIC's Gallery 400 (Lorelei Stewart). I don't go to very many panels discussions these days, so maybe I'm just very out of touch, but I have to say I was rather taken aback at the small number of people in attendance.
Yes, artists in Chicago carry on almost pathologically about how difficult things are for artists
Here were four curators from important institutions, including the Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art (where I am also a curator) and there were maybe thirty people to take in what these figures, who very well could control their artistic lives, had to say. That's approximately eight people per curator. You'd think artists would jump at the chance to interact directly with such figures, who are often accused of failing to get out into the community. Yes, artists in Chicago carry on almost pathologically about how difficult things are for artists. That they aren't being properly paid attention to, especially by local institutions. Curators don't visit their studios; collectors don't buy their art, writers don't write about it either.
The scant attendance reminded me that years and years ago (probably the 1980s) I had given a lecture - my topic was "your responsibilities as an artist" - for Northwestern University's art department. And I really lectured those in attendance: Go visit your local museums! Get to know the staffs of these institutions! Get to know whether these institutions have anything to offer you! The audience of artists and art students sat in numbed silence, as if too much was being asked of them. I have often wondered if even one of my lecturees took my advice. Much the same advice was sagely offered at this panel discussion.
My colleague, Tricia Van Eck, exhorted artists not to waste their time sending out their information packets indiscriminately. Get to know an institution; find out whether it even fits what it is you are doing as an artist! Again, the audience sat in numbed silence. In those moments I would like to assign all potential audience members for panel discussions to attend a black church and perhaps learn how one might better participate. Some well-placed "amens" or "we hear you's" would be refreshing.
Yet as the audience seemed constrained and perhaps even timid, the panelists were confident. They outlined what their respective institutions did for the local artist community, and spoke of how they went about deciding who and what to show.
Get to know an institution; find out whether it even fits what it is you are doing as an artist! Again, the audience sat in numbed silence.
A lot of very good information was distributed. Yet I was feeling feisty, perhaps in reaction to the numbing politeness of the room. So during the q & a, in response to many comments about artists using their studios and practices as information conduits that they could better deal with issues that favored buzzword of the moment - I asked: "What resources out in the world as opposed to the often insular confines of the art world do you access?" When the panelists sat seemingly in stunned silence at my question, I clarified: "Ah, like, do any of you listen to Rush Limbaugh?"
Ah, I had pressed the right button. Not only was there a stirring in the audience, my questions instantly set off a chorus of murmurs and the panelists couldn't wait to respond. Lorelei Stewart answered me first. With her face curled with some disdain she said, "No, I don 't listen to Rush Limbaugh." I again clarified, "Well, it was a rhetorical question. What I 'm trying to get at is what kind of information do you take in so that you can properly evaluate the production of artists who are dealing with the issues of contemporary life?" And so she clarified, "Well of course I stay in touch. I travel. I go to movies, concerts, and so on, although I wish I had more time for that sort of thing. I listen to NPR and read the New York Times."
I had pressed the right button. Not only was there a stirring in the audience, my questions instantly set off a chorus of murmurs
At this point I will take my own advice and mutter "Amen." I could have predicted this answer with half my brain tied behind my back. For those of you who don't recognize my reference, that's one of Rush Limbaugh's tag lines. I first started listening to Rush Limbaugh regularly probably ten years ago, after I heard a girl artist at a party savagely ejaculating her opinion of him to a friend: "God, I hate him. I tell you what I'd love to do. I'd love to f---k him to death!" I stared openly at this young lady, thinking, "I'm sorry to tell you this, girl artist, but I suspect that Mr. Limbaugh might decline your offer of such a pleasurable death," for she wasn't much to look at, was wearing dirty, mannish clothes, and was very coarse (obviously) in her language.
It amused me that a young woman who had grown up with all the benefits that the women's movement had achieved would think the best way to deal with someone she detested was to use her sex. But I reminded myself such is the lifework of artists, to present paradox, or so I have been told.
I had listened to Rush Limbaugh from time-to-time at this point, as the local 50,000 watt blow torch, WLS, carries his program and I was spending a lot of time in my car in those days. When I first started tuning-in Rush was carrying on about the spotted owl. I found it almost impossible to listen to. Not only was I appalled by what he had to say - he was giving recipes for spotted owl stew or some such thing - as I have been a conservation-minded person since I participated in the 4-H Club growing up in rural Missouri, I couldn't stand his explosive voice and hyperbolic tone. But there wasn't much to listen to on the AM dial, and I was spending a lot of time in my car, so I kept tuning in.
Gradually I realized I had been making the basic mistake of expecting what I heard to conform to my druthers - I do prefer polite give-and-take, being the fifth child in a family of seven. I realized I was taking Rush literally when he was deliberately being hyperbolic and facetious. I had failed to let myself consider that he is an entertainer as well as a pundit, and had turned off my sense of humor completely. After I figured out that I needed to relax, lay aside my expectations of what should be said and listen to what was actually being said (in other words, open my mind), I realized I found Rush Limbaugh to be very funny.
I realized I was taking Rush literally when he was deliberately being hyperbolic and facetious
And I felt I was really hearing a different side of things. But perhaps at this point I should clarify. My political education consists of a single seminal experience that occurred I was in my early twenties. Not many can point definitely to the moment when the scales fell from their eyes, so I suppose I should be thankful. But at the time it was devastating, as of course I was young, idealistic, and liberal - wasn't everybody? You see, a few short weeks after subscribing to Rolling Stone magazine, a big financial commitment at a time when I was surviving on about $200 a month, I started receiving solicitations from the Army, enthusiastically requesting that I consider enlisting.
Mind you, this was while the Viet Nam War was still on! The way my name and address appeared on these solicitations was exactly the way I had penned it when I signed up, convinced it was the organ of my generation, for Rolling Stone. My youthful idealism was crushed in one fell swoop as I put two and two together: counter-cultural icon Jann Wenner was selling his magazine's subscription list of hip young people to the U.S. Army. I mean, this was when there still was a draft! (And in the interest of full disclosure, I eventually did consider enlisting in the Army, when I found that my expensive art school education had left me with no viable career.) This experience set me on the path of subscribing to a wide variety of magazines (after canceling my subscription to Rolling Stone).
My youthful idealism was crushed in one fell swoop as I put two and two together: counter-cultural icon Jann Wenner was selling his magazine's subscription list of hip young people to the U.S. Army
I wanted to hear all sorts of voices, not just what was deemed "correct," so I subscribed to The Nation and The National Review. I read the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times (well, they do have better sports coverage). I read The Face and The National Enquirer, finding them two sides of the same fantastical coin. I sought out the Black Panther Party newsletter and ducked occasionally into the local Christian Science Reading Room to peruse their Monitor.
I was especially careful not to develop an opinion based on what was being said in what is now fondly referred to as the "mainstream media", as my own rudimentary interactions with the press as I began my career as a curator showed me that they almost never got everything correct. Either the name was spelled wrong (it is Lynne with an "e" I would tirelessly say), the title was wrong, or the name of the museum was wrong (I can't tell you how often I stressed that "The Chicago Modern Art Museum" is not the same thing as The Museum of Contemporary Art). I'm not talking about matters open to interpretation and analysis tho I started thinking, I must admit, that people who can't get the basic facts right might have a problem with the rest of the content as well.The only reporter who ever did get all the facts right in an article about one of my endeavors was Jeffrey Zaslow, when he wrote for The Wall Street Journal.
Of course, he then became an advice columnist for the Sun-Times and then seemed to disappear. All too typical, I could lament, if I were a cynical sort. These days, I tune in Rush Limbaugh pretty regularly (if I'm not listening to Catholic Radio (Relevant Radio 820 AM), a little-accessed resource in the art world, I'm sure), but what I really listen to is what Rush's callers have to say. I hear opinions that I don't hear on NPR or read in the New York Times tho' I am sure most art-world readers, having decided that I must be a conservative, might imagine I ritually burn.
Yet I also know my brothers, raised in a pro-labor union, knee-jerk Democratic party household where JFK was a god, have all become increasingly conservative (well all of them except the youngest, a certified Yuppie) after listening to Rush Limbaugh. My brother Neal, an ornery cuss who lives off the grid on a sailboat - hardly the profile of your typical Republication - said he had been force-fed the idea that Republicans were close-minded and only cared about what went on in others' bedrooms until he started listening to Rush, and that Rush and his callers opened his mind to a whole new way of thinking. Yes, he's college educated, as are all my brothers, and he is in the majority in his political leanings in this country, believe it or not, art world denizens. I'll have more to say on this in future postings.
Please, I say to people in the art world (although it is like shouting into the wind) don't be afraid to listen to Rush Limbaugh (tho' I would avoid Sean Hannity). He has some interesting things to say, and even if you don't find them interesting because you've decided he's an idiot (a popular stance these days amongst the elites, but that'll be the topic of my next posting, the elite that dares not speak the name elite) if you truly are a "cultural leader," as artists have been taught to think of themselves, you need all sides of the story, not just the line NPR is wont to give.
I mean, how many heart-string jerking stories about disadvantaged youth and heart-warming humorous anecdotes from David Sedaris can one listen to? About as many woe-is-me, the-Chicago-artworld-doesn't-care-about-us stories I have heard from artists over the years, I suppose. Perhaps there is even a relationship between these two things: for every story about disadvantaged youth there arises a gripe in the mind of the listening Chicago artist about how disadvantaged Chicago artists are, and for every David Sedaris tale, the artist feels cheated that he or she isn't as well known. After all, Mr. Sedaris emerged in the 1980s out of the Chicago art scene...