This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“Art Environments: Curatorial Roles and Responsibilities” by Jo Farb Hernández
Jo Farb Hernándz: Hi everybody. I’m really very happy to be here this morning. I wanted to talk in general about curatorial roles and responsibilities. I’ve been in this field since about 1973, working with art environments, and I’ve been a curator and museum director since 1977.
The first Divine Disorder incarnation was an exhibition that I did with Seymour Rosen, who was the founder of SPACES, back in 1985 at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, which was where I was director at the time.
I had an opportunity after I moved to the Monterey Museum couple of years later to do another exhibition just focusing on one artist, Mark Walker, from Northern California, who did all kinds of things, building barns, making fiddles, and also populating his site with a variety of concrete figures and other sculptures.
This is a much sparser display as you can see. The other Divine Disorder exhibit focused on 10 California art environments.
In addition to being a curator, I’m also a writer. In 2005, I published the first book in which I introduced the work of Josep Pujiula i Vila from Spain, the now rather renowned builder of one of Spain’s most spectacular art environments and labyrinth in northwestern Cataluña.
Doing the work on Josep made me realize that there was no single publication on Spanish art environments. And so, I followed that project up with the recently published “Singular Spaces” book, which is a monumental book so big I couldn’t even bring a copy here. I don’t know if there’s one in the bookstore, hopefully there is; it was published by, Raw Vision in the year 2013. This is a study of 45 different artists, and their sites all around Spain, not including the islands, though, so I still will do volume two at some point.
I’ve been director of SPACES since the year 2006, which is when Seymour passed away. As I mentioned earlier with the
Divine Disorder show, I’d worked with him since about 1985. SPACES was the first non-profit organization, founded informally in the late 1950s by the people who worked to save the Watts Towers from demolition by the city of Los Angeles, and then formally incorporated in 1978, with the focus on identifying, documenting, collecting materials about, and advocating for art environments.
From what we know, this is the first exhibition ever in the history of the entire universe that featured art environments. This was a show about the Watts Towers that Seymour put together in 1962 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. How modern it looks.
Like any other genre, it seems logical that a curator needs to be expert in the field in which he or she works, but we’ve had situations over the past years, in which people who don’t know really very much about it think that they do, and put on exhibitions that are really very simplistic, and very facile. It’s been problematic for the field because it really gives the wrong impression to people.
Because of the relatively short span of objective, thorough, and painstaking research in the field of art environments, curators therefore often have to become the first line of field workers, and they’re the ones out in the field doing primary research. That’s usually not the case with curators in other fields. If you’re doing a book on Monet, you can go to the library, right? You can go to the museum. You can look at what other people have written. But for the most part, we’re forging ahead here as the front line, and so it’s really up to us to do the primary insitu, field work. So, my talk today will be talking a lot about documentation and other kinds of things that perhaps normally a curator wouldn’t be doing, but that we have to do in this case.
As with any genre of work, we have to be extremely careful about the way that it’s presented, and we really have to work hard to sidestep clichés, particularly with this material, both in terms of the romanticizing of the artist, such as the Noble-Savage concept, the isolate artist, misunderstood, authentic, with much greater connection to his or her inner creativity than any mainstream artist could ever hope to achieve as the Surrealists talked about this kind of artist, but also the commonly held view by passersby and/or neighbors that the artist may be on the crazier side of eccentric.
As the academics, the curators, those who have done the research, and thus provide the scholarly veracity, it is up to us to frame the parameters of the way we describe, define, and interpret this art. We cannot let sensationalist, romantic, or simply ignorant others do it for us.
And just as we take care regarding how exhibitions are intended to be understood, we also need to anticipate ways that they may be misinterpreted.
It’s also very important to clarify that this isn’t folk art. Members of the public often try to pin that label on this kind of material because they know it cannot be defined by the mainstream art world, but folk art has to do with shared traditions in which there is a generally understood sense of quality and style. In this definition from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, which is an organization that supports folk arts, I think this last clause is particularly germane for us, where it talks about how folk art expresses a collective wisdom, rather than a unique personal aesthetic. But every art environment is absolutely, positively expressing a unique personal aesthetic. There is nothing folk about this, although they might refer to folk or cultural images or traditions, or they might have learned building techniques in a manner that could be described as “folk transmission”.
As we curate these exhibitions, it’s also particularly important to recognize our own biases. When I was working on the Forms of Tradition project, I was really clear about the fact that I had a tendency to romanticize these folk traditions and the lifestyles within these traditional cultures. If you have those kinds of issues, you need to bring them out in front so that you can dispense with them.
With creator-builders of art environments in particular, we have to be careful not to attribute intentions to them that they might not have. We have to make sure, as we would in curating any other type artwork that we defer to the artist’s own indications to bring us to whatever connections the work may reveal.
After doing our original research and speaking with the artists, again and again, we have become the experts, and therefore we have to form the parameters of the exhibition, or the website, or the book in a way that can be easily communicated to the public. This is story-telling in a different format. In order to make the narrative comprehensible, it is of course important to smooth out the rough edges, but it’s also important not to overly simplify, leaving out pertinent information that might make the story more complicated, but yet that more truly reflects the artist’s life and work.
I know that the issue of biography has often been raised when dealing with exhibitions or publications of the work of these artists: that bios take on greater importance than they would with mainstream artists. But, I don’t agree. No artist works in a vacuum, and contextualizing their work within their neighborhood, their vocation, their culture and/or their religion, their country, and certainly, of their own strengths and weaknesses, helps us to develop a further understanding of why they made the work they did.
I wouldn’t think about curating an exhibition of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, without contextualizing it against the same kind of components. Surely, no one would deny that the accidents that broke both of his legs were not germane to how he lived his life and what he chose as his subject matter. It’s the same for creator-builders of art environments.
I think that my insistence on documenting as much of the whole is possible is also underscored by two elements in my life’s experience. First, although not foremost, is my master’s degree in folk art, which included training in ethnographic methodology and collecting oral histories as part of primary fieldwork. When first working with an artist, or a musician, or a storyteller, or a dancer, it is important to cast a wide net, both in terms of asking questions, and in terms of collecting data, because sometimes stray thoughts or seemingly innocuous comments can become the key to understanding important aspects of the artist’s creation and the inspiration for it.
The second element is that I’ve spent my life surrounded by artists. My dad was an artist, my uncle, my husband, my sister, many cousins, etc., are all artists, and I have seen intimately, and over the long term, how there is no art without the artist. One cannot separate the creator from what he or she creates no matter in what genre of art. And, why would we want to?
As the curators, those who are doing the in-depth studies, we must be the ones to forge a complete and comprehensive interpretation of the work. Let others do the superficial photo shoots of these undeniably photogenic spaces. It is up to us to do thorough and full reporting. No simple and cursory one-afternoon conversation should become the basis for our work. We must go back again, and again, and again because we have a responsibility to the creator to represent his or her perspective, and to illustrate and respectfully interpret the historical and cultural context of their work.
Art environments also provide the perfect opportunity for collaborative curation, because as each perspective is distinctive, each delimited by the language of its own discipline, having an art historian work with a landscape architect, for example, or with an engineer, or with a religious scholar (in the case of shrines), opens us up to a much broader view of the creative constructions that we are studying. It also helps us articulate connections that we may not have imagined when the project was first being developed, and this helps us as curators to learn even more about our subjects as we integrate contrasting viewpoints. But perhaps even more importantly, it provides a much more complex and realistic learning opportunity for our visitors.
(Selection of works – Standards)
I would say that there are two ways to look at art; both of which are completely legitimate.
The first is just a gut response. Do I like what I see? You can respond in that way without any background at all. The second, of course, is a much more informed view that does take into account context-not only the artist’s individual context, but the context of the genre. It is this latter, then, in which the curator’s eyes and expertise become so important, because hopefully we can help people supplement the enjoyment of the work from simply the non-educated response to one that is designed to help supplement it. Not to supplant it, but to supplement it.
Why and how do we choose the artists that we do for our curatorial projects? I think it is important to shoot for developing aquote-unquote “big idea” with our programming: working to make sure the art we select fits into a bigger picture of why this material is important. To that end, I would tend to shy away from exhibitions such as the Bonovitz’s collection exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the Petullo collection exhibition of the Milwaukee Museum, both showcased in recent years, in which the curators basically stood back and simply brought in selected works compiled by an outside collector, relying on that collector’s eye and pocketbook to select works.
Unfortunately, this has actually been more the norm than the exception, and I would chalk it up to such things as 1), the curator assigned to the project may not be sufficiently versed in the field to curate the show him or herself; and that tends to be paired often with number 2), the temptation or promise of gifts of artwork or money to the institution if the collection is exhibited.
Again, this brings us back to the curator as the one who must provide scholarly veracity for the project. All museums really have, after all is the trust of the public, who believes that the works we are exhibiting are chosen for the right reasons of education, and clarity, rather than that we are either sidestepping our duties, or being bought off by wealthy or influential collectors, for this latter is a clear conflict of interest. As public benefit institutions, we are barred from using our public funds in a way that would benefit… that would result in the personal aggrandizement of any individual or group of individuals, such as would accrue with the exhibition of a single collector collection, and the consequent increase in value of the work as a result of the museum’s imprimatur.
People visit museums to see great art, but they also go to look at art that they don’t know, or don’t understand, or even don’t like simply because the museum has said it is important or it is great. But this public trust depends on the public’s perception that museums make independent judgments and that they’re not just fronting for trustees, or politicians, or corporate sponsors.
Ideally, exhibition decisions should be based upon short- and long-range plans that incorporate the museum’s mission, constituency needs, educational goals, scope of collection, and available resources. As we curators have changed as we have gone through the process of doing research on our displays, we also want the museum visitors to change after they’ve seen our shows. We want them to feel differently about the work, and take home at least a general sense of the “big idea” that we are trying to communicate.
In terms of acquisitions, curators develop the collections under their care in conjunction with the institution’s stated acquisition and other institutional policies, procedures, and documents. They identify deficiencies in the collection, review potential acquisitions, and provide compelling reasons for adding objects to the collection in accordance with the acquisition policy of their institution. This is standard for curators in all museums in all genres. But it becomes somewhat more problematic when discussing art environment sites. Because whether these sites are monumental in size or in number of components, they are generally conceived of as a whole rather than as a grouping of discrete objects, so the removal of any individual piece results in the degradation of the site as a whole.
We would not think of removing part of a work of a mainstream sculpture, or selling off half of a diptych, yet we have seen that certain collectors or pickers have had little compunction about purchasing and removing separable works from art environments. And this provides a conundrum for curators; how to represent the work of these creators, indeed how to represent the entire genre of art environments without degrading the site and without disrespecting the artist’s work.
Circumstances, of course, partially dictate how and why works enter museum collections or are included in exhibitions. In some cases the art environments are being dismantled, and the “saving” of discrete works provides the only pathway to a visual relationship to the site for those who are not able to visit the work in situ.
In other instances, generally more recently, artists have even volunteered to construct separate works for museum exhibition or for acquisition. They understand the practicalities of the logistics of visiting the sites, and they’re happy to expand the reach of their work to other audiences. But in other circumstances, particularly when the provenance of the work is cloudy, I believe that we have to be cautious. While photographic or video documentation can never take the place of actually having the opportunity to enter a site, neither can (that be achieved by) singular works displayed with little context in white box galleries. We cannot risk ethical questions about our acquisition or exhibition activities, and squander the public trust that is our most important currency.
It may be fruitful, actually, to take page from the NAGPRA policies governing the use of cultural objects from Native American peoples by public institutions to help guide us as we evaluate artworks from art environments and determine our responsibilities, both to the creator, and to our visiting publics.
Because of the complexity of art environments and often, also, because of their ephemeral nature, it is crucial to parallel their complexity in the documentation we undertake. In many ways, I believe it is important to approach each site as if it were an ethnographic study, so that any and all influences and components are taken into account. Photo documentation is of course, key, but video and audio files are equally important in clarifying not only the physical layout of the site, but also the maker’s concerns-along with those of community members, governing authorities, and more.
At times, when the site is extremely complex, I’ve made a separate video, in which I actually walked through the site and described the different components in relation to each other. I’m like a crazy person, going through the site, talking to my video recorder. Nobody else is there, but it’s been invaluable to me later in developing the site plans and the full documentation for the site.
The three major components of visual documentation include 1) gathering vintage documentation, 2) creating and organizing contemporary photos, and 3) creating a site plan.
(1. Vintage documentation)
Starting with vintage documentation, all images of the site as it appeared during the artist’s lifetime should be gathered and archived because, they will be used to guide all curatorial and preservation activities. The goal of site preservation should be to preserve the site as closely as possible in its condition as created by the artist. In most cases of course, the site changed significantly over the course of the artist’s lifetime as well as subsequently, so, for sites that evolved or changed dramatically over time, it is often wise to identify a specific time period to target for preservation activities. Even if a particular time frame is identified as the target for preservation however, it is still important to gather any and all documentation of the site in all of its states over all of its years.
So how do we do that? We start by contacting the artist’s family members, neighbors, local historical societies and libraries, senior citizens in the community, and any other relevant resources to locate every bit of vintage documentation of and about the site and the artist. You need to have a plan to digitize all the collected documentation. You don’t need to own the original; you just need a high resolution digital file of every image you can lay your hands on. Scan it at the highest resolution possible.
It will help you in your queries to assure all lenders of images that images will be used for preservation and/or educational purposes only. And, you should ask them if they will sign a release form allowing use of the image in any way to support site preservation, with the understanding the images will be credited appropriately. This is also a good time to ask them to provide credit information, and to date the image to the best of their ability. You also need to assure them that if ultimately you think you may be publishing the image, you will specifically contact them later for permission with details of the project.
And please, in a word from our sponsor, if it would be great if you could ask if these images can be shared with SPACES, so that we can add them to our database and/or post them on our website.
Sometimes, there’s concern from people that may-be posting would allow public visitation before the site is really quote-unquote “ready” to receive visitors. The website posting doesn’t have to include and address or other identification that specifically discloses the precise location. We would just keep that information in our files.
As you organize all vintage documentation, make sure all people who worked on this site are aware of, have access to, and are guided by these essential images. And then, of course, back up your data. Store duplicate copies preferably off site.
(2. Documentation of the site’s current physical condition and current composition)
The second part of this, of course, is documenting the site’s current physical condition and current composition: all elements of the site. You can’t have too many photographs.
Photographs are most useful when photo documentation of the site has been strategized in advance; these tend to be more documentary photos than what I would call “art” photos.
I’m going to go through a couple slides here of some images that I took of the façade of this garage that Manual Garrido did in Villatoro in Spain.
You begin with overall views from each direction or elevation. If possible, get aerial or overhead views. I’m actually totally jazz lately about drones. Just not for any other reason except for hovering over an art environment and taking pictures of it for me because I’ve found that even Google Earth doesn’t often get the resolution that I need, or sometimes if you can believe it, it’s cloudy right where I need to see a component of the site. So, bring them on.
Once you take these overall views, you take closer in views, also from each direction, and then you take detail shots of every component. Don’t forget to take the back side of frontally-oriented works.
Photos then should be labeled with the title or the site plan name and designation. The identification of specific components by the name the artist used for it if that’s available. And then, of course, the date that the photograph was taken.
(3. Site Plan)
You’re going to take all these pictures, and then you’re going to put them together and create a site plan that identifies all elements of the site: architecture, structures, objects, landscape features, fixed and movable elements, pathways, fences, property boundaries, etc.. You can do these in phases, obviously. When you’re on the site, at least just do a quick sketch, and then later you can use Google Earth or whatever to help you site your cardinal points, and then use your photographs to help you really place where things are.
I can’t do this. I cannot do this. So, thank the Lord I have a willing husband. He complains, but he’s willing, and he drew every single site plan for me for my book. We chose to do these by hand, instead of doing them by computer, because we thought that it’d be more compatible to the do-it-yourself sensibility of the artists themselves. But, even if you don’t have a willing partner right there, you might be able to find a student, or a landscape architect, or some other professional that can help you draw these site plans.
Once you’ve located each element on the site plan, it needs to be labeled with a specifically designated letter or number. And so, here what you see are a couple of pages from the Singular Spaces inventory component of the book, in which some of these pictures that you just saw, each element is numbered, each one is labelled, each piece of each piece is photographed, and documented, and described, so that we have a baseline then to go forward, as to knowing what’s happening later or what happened when.
Art environments, of course, vary dramatically, so determining the most logical way to organize a site plan will depend on the types of the elements on site. If there are areas with a number of elements that comprise a single tableau of related elements, like with Garrido’s, you might have areas and sub-areas, so you could label them as an outline so that all treatments can be described accurately according to the element or to the sub-element.
One of the most important reasons, of course, to give all elements a specific designation is to provide an aid for future conservation and preservation, as any fragment that is collected on site should be tagged according to the element or the area where it was found. And, all conservation treatment should be described in a report linked to the appropriate elements.
In [this image], you just see two figures… This is a year apart. Not even, like eleven months apart. Although the pictures have been shot from different angles, you can see that this is a mother and her son, and the son’s been knocked over [in this later image], so we can see significant degradation of the site. It’s really sad.
While I continue to insist on the unique and idiosyncratic qualities of each art environment, the one thing most do have in common is that many face similar predicaments in terms of community response and governmental pressure. It cannot be denied that the fame of Gaudi’s work has impacted general response to other non-standard constructions in Spain, for example. However, cognizance of his works has not necessarily been associated with the willingness of local building inspectors, municipal councils, or urban planning committees to bend regulations inscribed in local property ordinances, or enshrined in civic improvement strategies in order to preserve these extravagant sites, and allow them to flourish.
The appalling history of the City of Los Angeles bureaucrats tilting against Rodia’s towers, which would be almost a laughably absurd if it had not had such a severely negative impact on the long-term stability of one of the world’s greatest works of public art, unfortunately, has had numerous clones. So, although the work of non-academic artists such as Rodia and other creator-builders of art environments all over the world are slowly beginning to be included in an expanded definition of art, they still remain in a much more tenuous and often perilous position.
Academic art and fork arts are typically protected in some way, housed in galleries or museums, regarded as national treasures, or cared for by the community from which they were brought forth. Even if they are in a private home and in use, they are relatively safe. But in contrast, most, if not all, art environments are continuously at risk. It is up to us then, as curators, who have photographed these artists, documented their work, interviewed them, and of course, we have taken their time away from their work, or we’ve accepted a drink, or we’ve accepted a meal from them and their families, that we not forget them in their hour of need.
The relationship that we build with these artists as we work with them is different than the one we might build with a mainstream artist, who both understands the flow and the fickleness of the art world. In general, the kind of relationship that I have crafted, that I am crafting, with builders of art environments is different. Sometimes, I think this has to do with the fact that I’m the first person to approach this work in a professional manner with these artists, particularly when so many of them have been questioned, or even mocked or threatened as a result of their work.
In Spain, this has also been because I’m the outsider. I’m from somewhere else. I don’t speak the language perfectly, and I’m a novelty. But particularly because I’ve relied so heavily on the artists as I’ve sought to learn their story because I’m forging new ground, conducting original research, and developing new scholarship where I can’t rely on earlier texts. I have become much more part of their lives. I bring them materials that they might choose to use in their constructions. I take them out to lunch. I send presents for the birth of their grandchildren. And, when necessary, I meet with the mayor, I send letters to the governing body, I organize petition drives; I do whatever it takes to ensure that these works are maintained and conserved for future generations to enjoy as I have.
With all of the artists with whom I’ve worked over the past 40 years, builders of art environments inspire me the most. The passion they bring to their work is a passion for which I see no parallel in the mainstream art world. Despite all the artists I’ve met, and all the artists in my family, none of these mainstream artists approaches their work with the same 24/7 tenacity as do the creators of art environments. The drive they bring to their creations is impressive, but even more what makes me smile is the innovative way that they approach their work. The best art, after all, shows us how to look in a new way, and the best of these artists do this in a way unequaled by anyone else in the art world.
Scholarly research into art environments, which provides the opportunity for comprehensive, non-biased, and in-depth interpretation and analysis, is essential prior to initiating any professional plan for conservation and preservation. Taking a broad view of the worldwide phenomenon of these invented spaces, Jo Farb Hernández will explore the range of curatorial and documentation parameters essential for success, based on her groundbreaking survey of art environments created by self-taught artists from across the Spanish mainland, and informed by her work with SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), the world’s most important archives of these monumental sites.
Hernández reminds us that due to the complexity of these sites, curators who have done the research must insist on framing the parameters of the way this art is described, defined, and interpreted, and must not let the facile descriptions or simplistic interpretations of the media override the ability to provide a professional analysis. Detailed case studies must be contextualized with historical and theoretical references to a broad range of interlocking fields, including art, art history, anthropology, vernacular architecture, area studies, and folklore, because so doing provides an opportunity for viewing art environments through a variety of lenses and collaborating in a trans-disciplinary manner to approach a more thorough and complete understanding of these multi-leveled and multi-coded displays.
Hernández’s project Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments, introduces and examines forty-five artists and their intriguing and idiosyncratic sculptures, gardens, and buildings. Most of these had never been previously published, let alone professionally documented. Her powerpoint presentation will feature her photographs of many of the noteworthy Spanish sites, along with comprehensive information about the associated site plans and inventories that augment this project, making her encyclopedic study a model for the field.
While each art environment is unique and idiosyncratic, what most do have in common is that many face similar existential predicaments in terms of community response and governmental pressure. It cannot be denied that the fame accorded Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s works has impacted general response to other non-standard constructions within Spain, for example. However, cognizance of his works has not necessarily been associated with the willingness of local building inspectors, municipal councils, or urban planning committees to bend regulations inscribed in local property ordinances or enshrined in civic improvement strategies in order to preserve these extravagant sites and allow them to flourish. It is up to us, then, as curators who have photographed these sites, documented the work, interviewed the artists—and no doubt taken their time away from their work—that we be prepared to support and forcefully advocate for their preservation in whatever way is needed. Comprehensive research and rigorous documentation provides us the tools and the scholarly veracity to do so with force and conviction.
Jo Farb Hernández, Director of SPACES – Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments—the world’s most important nonprofit archives documenting art environments and self-taught arts, is also Director of the Thompson Art Gallery and a Professor in the Department of Art/Art History at San José State University. She has worked in the museum field for forty years, and is internationally-recognized as a scholar in the field of art environments. An award-winning author, curator, and photographer, she serves as Contributing Editor for Raw Vision magazine and as member of the national or international advisory boards for several art environments. She lectures widely and has authored or co-authored over thirty books and exhibition catalogues; recipient of a 2008 Fulbright Senior Scholar award, her encyclopedic book, Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments, was published in 2013 by Raw Vision (London).