New digs!

•March 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Things have been very busy for arts&letters lately! Well, rather for the girl behind the blog. A while ago I replied to an on Craigslist looking for paid bloggers to write for Examiner.com, a website that aims to crowdsource local knowledge about specific areas…but in a blog format. The idea is that each “examiner” has a locale and an area of expertise, and you can search their site for local examiners (in Seattle, in NYC, etc.) or on topic (high school sports, parenting, navigating the rental market).

Anyway. I investigated their site, and I’ve *no idea* what their traffic numbers are, but many of the folks who write for them (locally, anyway) are published writers, and the content is surprisingly good. I applied for the Seattle area visual arts spot…and ta da! That’s where I’ll be writing now.

You can now find me writing here:
http://www.examiner.com/x-4749-Seattle-Visual-Arts-Examiner

This doesn’t mean I’ll be neglecting this blog, not entirely. I will probably be using this site to archive posts, as well as to write about topics that are not exclusively art-related. But the majority of my writing will happen over at Examiner. I know, I know, the ads are tacky, but I’ll be getting paid to write (on a per-click basis), so it made some sense. I look forward to seeing you over there!

Yay! And may this lead to bigger and better things!

Buying the (bread) line

•February 19, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As I was doing the dishes today, I was listening to the news online. I shouldn’t bother: the news is unceasingly bad, with the recession central in every headline. Last week, I got forwarded this little chart:Job Losses in the US from last 13 months

During the first 13 months of the recession, we’ve lost 3.6 million jobs across the country. That’s roughly 1 percent of the entire population. (My statistics aren’t good enough to account for people who were unemployed before this, or who don’t/can’t work.)

That’s a hell of a lot of people. Here in Seattle, as across the US, it is the big companies who are cutting back — Microsoft, Circuit City, Starbucks, Boeing. Each day brings another grim headline about additional workers released into the unemployment pool.

All of this has me wondering: what is driving the need to shed workers on the company side? Is it the fear that the stock value will drop? Or is it really bottom-line profitability? If it’s the latter, what would happen if companies simply hung on to some of their workers and took the hit to their stock price?

It seems to me that large companies are engaging in a full-scale panic. They can’t be sure that they won’t take a loss to their ledger books, so they are going to cut the only asset they have: their employees. This is having a domino-effect in the economy and news — as more companies engage in huge layoffs, other companies freak out and do the same. I’m not convinced it’s necessary.

Look at Microsoft, for example. They laid off 1700 in January. If Microsoft were to hang onto these people for an extra six months, what would happen to the company? Would they really lose a ton more money? MS has no debt. If they took the hit and moved people around internally (or engaged in “good attrition” — letting people go who didn’t fit after a re-org), the Seattle economy might be a little more stable. The company would be, certainly. As it is, the loss of those 1700 full time Microsoft employees will result in a hit of well over a hundred million dollars to the Seattle economy over the next year (assuming none of these people find work). A HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS. Think of how many cheeseburgers you could buy with that! (Or how much health insurance.)

So this is my question: do corporations have the same obligation as individuals to help stem the tide of our bleeding economy? Maybe no one entity can stanch the flow, but if all of us take the hit collectively, it won’t be so bad. I just don’t buy the line that it is the taxpayer’s – and the government’s – responsibility to bail out huge companies who can’t keep their act together (US auto manufacturers, cough, cough). So, Microsoft, Starbucks, Borders, Boeing, I ask you: can you hang onto your workers for a little longer?

Go see these shows!

•February 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Arts&Letters missed last night’s ArtWalk, and will be missing March’s, too. Why? Because I will be in class, learning the ins and outs of basic web design. (Yeah, I’d rather be looking at art, too, but the hope is that this class will help me get a job.)

Through WorkSource and Cascadia Community College, I applied for and received a grant of $1900 to take an intense, full-time web design course. The funding came through the Workforce Investment Act, and it is specifically for people who are currently on unemployment and wish to upgrade their job skills. I’m now in school three nights a week, and am, by all counts, a full-time student. Crazy.

As a result, I will probably be posting a little less until the end of March.

In the meanwhile, I recommend that you check out the following shows:

Locally:

Seattle Asian Art Museum – Garden and Cosmos: Royal Paintings of Jodhpur
Through April 26th.

Lead Pencil Studio – Retail/Commercial
5th and Union – Rainier Square Shopping Center
Fridays and Saturdays, 1-6pm, through March 14.
(See the review in The Stranger.)

Davidson Galleries – Seattle Print Fair
Feb. 6th-8th (This weekend only!!)

Henry Art Gallery – Jacob Dahlgren: Forward, Back, Right, Left
Through April 19th.

Frye Art Museum
The Munich Secession and America – Through April 12th.
Transatlantic: American Artists in Germany – Through April 26th.

Seattle Art Museum – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery
Feb. 26th through May 25th.

Farther afield:

Tacoma Art Museum – Northwest Biennial
Through May 25th.

Surrey Art Gallery (Vancouver, BC) – Edward Burtynsky: An Uneasy Beauty
Through March 22nd.

Vancouver Art Gallery (Vancouver, BC)
How Soon is Now? – Through May 3rd.
Enacting Abstraction – Feb. 14th through May 10th.

Portland Art Museum (Oregon)
Rachel Whiteread – Through May 3rd.

Wikipedia Loves Art, and so do I

•February 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Speaking of making the museum experience more interactive without adding any overhead cost, this is really cool:

Wikipedia Loves Art

Wikipedia Loves Art is a scavenger hunt and free content photography contest coordinated by the Brooklyn Museum with Carnegie Museum of Art, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Houston Museum of Natural Science, The Hunter Museum of American Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, New-York Historical Society, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Taft Museum of Art, V&A aimed at illustrating Wikipedia articles. The event is planned to run for the whole month of February 2009, and the name is a play off of Valentine’s Day. Although there are planned events at each location, you can go on your own at any time during the month.

Shoot on your own or create a small team (10 people, tops) and sign-up online. Use the scavenger hunt lists provided by Wikipedia (see “Goal Lists” section) to take shots and cross off as many subjects on the list as possible. Upload shots to this group with the correct Creative Commons license required by Wikipedia and we will tally the scores.

How fantastic is this?

Many of the museums are also sponsoring meetups for their scavenger teams, both to introduce them to any special collections and so that teams can assess their competition! Each museum has posted a “goal list” which includes instructions on how to submit photographs, and which themes or items in the museum are part of the scavenger hunt. All photos will be uploaded to Flickr for tallying, and final images posted to Wikipedia. Each museum will award their local winners prizes; these range from museum membership to special after-hours tours.

I have only seen announcements about this on Twitter; has anyone heard about this through other media?

If there were any Seattle institutions participating (Henry? Frye??) I’d get involved in a heartbeat. I love that the Brooklyn Art Museum is using this as an initiative to push their collections – and those of other museums around the world – online into forums beyond their own websites while getting art enthusiasts involved at the same time.

FEEL…better?

•February 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Right now, I am supposed to be dressed in a cute cocktail dress and parking my car near a big warehouse in Seattle’s South Lake Union Neighborhood. Tonight is the Henry Art Gallery’s annual gala, and I’m on the list to volunteer.

Party with Jeppe Hein at the Henry Art Gallery Gala!

Or, I was. I’m sick. I’ve been sick all week, and sleeping and drinking vast quantities of tea has made no difference at all. I’m still too ill to stand up without getting dizzy, I am congested in ways that are truly disgusting, and I can barely croak my own name. I’m in no shape to head to a party, and I’m so disappointed I want to cry.

For those of you who will be going to SEE HEAR TASTE FEEL tonight, enjoy yourselves!

I am now going back to bed. Maybe when I wake up, I’ll be able to breathe.

Six suggestions to help SAM survive

•January 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

It’s eerie being right. Two weeks ago, I worried openly about the state of the Seattle Art Museum’s finances, specifically about its relationship with WaMu. As those of you who read the news now know, JP Morgan has kindly told SAM that they won’t be paying $4.6 million dollars in annual rent, but they will give them $10 million to tide them over while they find new tenants.

That. Sucks.

(There’s been lots of great coverage of this, including all the messy details: see Jen Graves’ article, Regina Hackett’s coverage, this thinly-veiled real-estate ad, and blog commentary. )

So, what can the Seattle Art Museum do? Some ideas:

DON’T start selling pieces from the collection.
Tyler Green would have their ass in a minute. Besides, SAM insists that the entire point of the expansion was to gain new acquisitions from donors. (This post isn’t about debating de-accessioning, anyway. I’ll try and talk about Brandeis, the Rose Art Museum, and my thoughts on this later this week.) Instead, work with other museums to arrange “art swaps” or arrange to loan pieces for an exhibition in return for the exhibition making a stop at our museum.

Make the most of what’s in the permanent collection.
During an early orientation as a volunteer shortly after the museum re-opened two years ago, I was told that SAM took great pains to make connections between the various parts of its collection across the museum. For the viewer, this would mean a more cohesive viewing experience. (For example, on the third floor, you can see the Tiffany glass window from the contemporary glass gallery on the opposity side of the building.) This is good in theory, but rarely works in practice, especially if little effort is made to explicitly connect diverse pieces.  SAM gets so stuck in the periodization of art (when was the last time you looked closely at Mesopotamian pottery?) that it’s even harder to connect these disparate pieces into a cohesive viewing experience.

I would propose following the model of the Tacoma Art Museum, or the Frye: re-curate the collection in smaller themed exhibits, then put together a flyer about the show as if it were a travelling exhibition.

In this scenario, imagine if the Seattle Art Museum had pulled pieces that drew on themes of looking, seeing, watching, and being observed in response to their Edward Hopper show? They could assemble a show that includes everything from Mesopotamian pottery to 19th century portraiture to contemporary photography. Add an essay and some blurbs on the changing nature of realism, observation, perception and self-awareness, and you have a whole new way of thinking about a large number of pieces from the permanent collection.

The drawback here is that this would require more homework on the part of SAM — it’s not an exhibit in a box. But, there’s no insurance or shipping fees to pay, and what else are curators for?

Streamline the size of visiting shows.
They’ve done this well with the current Edward Hopper show, but Roman Art from the Louvre was madness. The contract on that exhibit forced the SAM to fly over several curators from the Louvre, as well as station a guard in the Special Exhibition galleries 24 hours a day. I shudder to imagine what the insurance cost.

I saw an article a while back in The Guardian (I think, I can’t find the link) about how one- and two-piece shows were very commercially successful for UK museums struggling to pull in new patrons. These shows give the viewer a deeper understanding of a single work of art, rather than a bloated show of fifty paintings. They get marketed the same way as a big show, but the overhead costs are much lower. SAM did something similar with Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and I would love to see them do this again.

Make it easier for the right volunteers to do your work for you.
If it would be expensive and cost-prohibitive to re-curate what’s in the collection, consider using grad students from the UW’s Museum Studies program. I’m sure some already work at the SAM, but, umm, I’d intern to do research in the library and write up little decals, especially if I got work-study credit. Hands-on training in setting up exhibitions? Yes, please!

Get more personally involved with your patrons.
SAM has a Facebook page, but they haven’t jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. SAM does a great job with teens, they have some decent family programming, and they also do really well with the older, sit-in-a-lecture patronage. The museum tends to fall short with its 20-35, adult and childless demographic — people who are urbane and love art, but aren’t going to pay for membership to be on an Arts Council.

SAM has lots of good programs, but they are poorly advertised. Those that are popular – lectures, film screenings – could be made more popular by more aggressive advertising and running on two consecutive nights.

Also, make membership feel more like belonging to a club. There are 40,000 SAM members, and the museum doesn’t do enough to reach out to them. Open up ticket sales early to them for special performances. Once a month, have a “members-only” plus guest free entry night, and pair it with live music and a bar.

Collaborate with other institutions across the city.
When I was at the Bellevue Art Museum last week, I picked up a flyer for their Intertwined: Contemporary Baskets from the Sara and David Lieberman Collection show. It was a list of suggested further reading, all of which had been set aside on a reference shelf at the Bellevue Art Museum. What a radical thing to do! SAM will let strangers into its own library, but the hours are such that you can’t visit on the weekend. A suggested reading list coordinated with the downtown Seattle Public Library might convince some people to patronize two cultural institutions on the same day! (And, if the rumors about audio-tours are right, patrons will need to do their own research on shows anyway.)

Or, consider collaborating (thematically) with upcoming shows at other museums. The Tacoma Art Museum is currently running a biennial of Northwest artists; if SAM put together a show focusing on the art of the Pacific Northwest, maybe you could use your SAM ticket to get a 25% discount on your ticket to the TAM (and vice versa).

The Seattle Art Museum has a variety of other big fundraising tools to use to get it out of the current financial mess, but none of those impact the fundamental ways in which the museum has been operating. Short of a check large enough to pay off the mortgage, there’s no easy fix, and SAM needs to change its behavior to see long-term gain in profitability. None of my suggestions will bring in $3.6 million dollars annually, not even together, but they would suggest a change in attitude about how the SAM sees itself in relation to the rest of the Seattle art community. Mimi Gates will leave to the Seattle Art Museum a legacy of fantastic space, wonderful acquistions, and crippling debt. The SAM’s next director should be someone with the creativity to make the most of all of their assets — art and patrons.

Edward Hopper’s Peep Show at the Seattle Art Museum

•January 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Edward Hopper’s images are among the most iconic in the American art canon, and with paintings like Chop Suey and Automat, he is well-known for being an urban Norman Rockwell: he painted 20th century genre scenes of men and women going about their daily routines. The Seattle Art Museum is currently running Edward Hopper’s Women, a small show of ten of Hopper’s paintings and etchings, providing a unique opportunity to examine more closely one of the more well-recognized American artists of the early 20th century.

The challenge in presenting Edward Hopper’s work is finding an angle for entry into Hopper’s artistic perspective for contemporary audiences. Patricia Junker, curator for American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, has culled images that portray primarily women — or men watching women. She chose to frame the show around the shifting roles of post-Victorian women, who work, live, and dine independently.

A large portion of the exhibit is given over to “Tables for Ladies” — paintings where Hopper documents the activities of these newly liberated women. In the catalogue, Junker writes,

“When the discreet but friendly sign ‘Tables for ladies’ began appearing in windows, it signaled a restaurant’s acceptance that society was changing. The morals and motives of an unescorted woman were no longer automatically questioned, and she was not shunned in a public dining room. The placard ‘Tables for ladies’ also indicated a place of refuge for the young working woman desiring a comfortable, unthreatening environment in which to take her lunch and supper meals, a place where the stranger sitting next to her would most assuredly be a friendly female companion and not, as a woman alone might understandably fear, a predatory male.” (Edward Hopper: Women, pp. 16-17)

Chop Suey is set in a restaurant such as the one the catalogue describes, showing two women enjoying lunch on a sunny afternoon..

Chop Suey (Edward Hopper, 1929), Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

Chop Suey (Edward Hopper, 1929), Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

But Edward Hopper is no journalist, painting these images out of a desire to record the changing mores of his generation. No — this exhibit (and others across the country) cast him as a Peeping Tom, peering in at ladies through windows. On the walls of the exhibit at SAM, there is a quote from the New York Post from 1935:

“He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night…. He likes to ride the els. He would like to get into the apartments but there’s no excuse.”

This paints Hopper in a dark, sinister light, and encourages viewers to read a voyeuristic, erotic tension into his bright, if laconic, images. I think this show took the easy route in reading Hopper’s paintings: after my own analysis, I am not at all convinced that Hopper is spying on women without their permission.

Hopper was apparently a shy man, and spent time in Paris between 1906-1910; during this period, he honed his sketching abilities in the cafes, watching ladies lounge at dainty park-side tables. The SAM exhibition catalogue reproduces two sketches of fashionable ladies drinking wine, alone, at cafe tables; they gaze back at him, one even playfully leaning her chin on her hand, her green boot emerging coyly from under her ruffled cerulean skirts. The gaze went both ways: these European women were engaging in sly exhibitionism as much as Hopper was engaging in voyeurism. (Images are included in the catalogue, but are not available online.)

Edward Hopper brought his love of people-watching back to the United States with him; his work after his return to the US documents people in public, though without the same self-aware returning gaze that we see in his Paris sketches. Some works he sketched from life – the SAM show includes several of his wife, Jo – and there is evidence that some he sketched from memory. The structure of his images are such that if we imagine the artist present in the scene, Hoppers subjects must have granted him tacit permission to be there, and by extension, for the viewer to gaze too. It is harder to read in the Chop Suey picture above, but take this one below, Evening Wind, as a distillation of Hopper’s voyeuristic impulse.

Evening Wind (Edward Hopper, 1921)

Evening Wind (Edward Hopper, 1921)

It is a startling scene, as the naked woman looks quickly away from the viewer, turning to peer out the open window where a stiff breeze has pushed the billowing curtain aside. An art history professor of mine once described the difference between nudity and nakedness as perceptible self-awareness while unclothed. (Examples: Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus is nude; Manet’s Olympia is naked.) Hopper wants us to believe that he has caught the woman in Evening Wind in the nude — as she climbs into an unmade bed, she is surprised (and suddenly modest?) as the wind pushes aside the curtain to reveal her bared skin. I call Hopper’s bluff. This woman is entirely unclothed before a large window; she must surely recognize the possibility of her exposure! Further, to compose this image, our artist must be in the room with his subject. This is a scene, staged to look genuine.

Evening Wind is one of Edward Hopper’s earliest images in this exhibition (1921), but it has all of the qualities of his other ‘views of women’ seen elsewhere in these two galleries at SAM. This image has three distinct perspectives: the artist (and viewer) looking into the frame, the woman looking out the window, and anyone on the outside peering in. Who is watching whom? And, as mentioned above, Hopper’s subject must have had a tacit awareness that she could be seen or watched in this setting, though she does not acknowledge the gaze of the viewer. Hopper found this formula compelling enough that he comes back to it again and again: ladies sit before windows, while the artist and viewer gazes upon them from inside the same room. Hopper’s women keep their eyes low, and avoid our direct gaze, but this does not mean that they are unaware of being watched.

All of this – particularly the staged-to-look-genuine aspect – reminds me very much of photography and film. Watching a movie is a different kind of tacit permission to view another’s performance of intimate activities. Throughout his life, Hopper was a passionate theater and film-goer. He and his wife regularly attended shows, and Hopper would often go by himself when he needed artistic inspiration. In an essay (thank you, Google) called “Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, and Film Noir,” Erika Doss writes about the connection between Edward Hopper’s artworks and American cinema. He was not a realist, working from photographs, but instead created images out of his mind, using “imaginative reconstructions” that were a pastiche of person, time, and place. “In their generalized nature,” she writes, his paintings “…can be read as sophisticated discourses about American culture, in much the same way American movies delineate American history.” Doss goes to great lengths to draw comparisons between contemporary American films and Hopper’s paintings; Compartment C, Car 293 (1938), on display at the SAM, has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). Out of curiousity, I watched the film myself. Though the film is in black and white, in one scene a woman casually flips through a magazine in a sleeper car; Edward Hopper replicates the layout of this scene in his painting, from angle of the viewer’s perspective inside the car and the woman seated near the window reading a magazine, even detailing the brass fittings and the shape of the seat booth.

Geoffrey Clements, Corbis

Compartment C, Car 293 (Edward Hopper, 1938) Image: Geoffrey Clements, Corbis

Edward Hopper may be a voyeur, but so are any of us who have ever paid to see a film. Hopper, like a great filmmaker, taps into the universal desire to look and to observe small details in human action. The characters who people his paintings and drawings are subtle exhibitionists: their actions are indistinguishable from real actions (eating a meal, sitting in a train car, staring out a window), but are small performances nonetheless. In his works, Edward Hopper – and his subjects – give us permission to look, to observe in others the uncomfortable alienation of sitting alone at a cafe table late at night, or the quiet melancholy of being left alone with one’s thoughts.

Take Hopper’s lead, check out his peep show at the Seattle Art Museum, and do a little spying of your own. The exhibit runs through March 1, 2009.