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a visit to the college art association conference

Post #222 • February 25, 2004, 12:40 AM • 5 Comments

Brought to you by Regina Hackett and

Opening night of the College Art Association Conference in Seattle belonged to the Guerrilla Girls. They're this year's winners of the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism. When four of them took the stage in gorilla masks, 3,000 art historians, students, artists and critics rose to their feet to applaud, leaving a few medievalists seated and shaking their heads.

Go medievalists.

Is this the acme of art criticism, women leering at the audience through yellow teeth and throwing bananas as a primitive form of thank you? In a word, yes.

I agree! Wait, I thought that said acne. No, the acme of criticism would hold up against any that has ever been written. The Guerilla Girls have performed a useful function and done so in a compelling way, and importantly, they're right, but I would challenge their range as critics. Is it the acme of criticism to have almost never praised anything? (Here's a page on Frank Jewett Mather for comparison.)

Although CAA president Michael Aurbach couldn't bring himself to say the full title of their much-praised 2003 book, "Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Guide to Female Stereotypes"...


...he praised the effectiveness of this anonymous band of agitators during two decades of subversive action. With corrosive wit, merry sarcasm and many buckets of wheat paste, their posters and billboards -- first in New York and now worldwide -- have made sexism and racism seem worse than wrong. They've made it dull, stuffy and out of date, a three-strikes-you're-out combo for the museums and galleries that are most often their targets.

Dull, stuffy, and out of date are worse than wrong? When talking about racism and sexism? No, wrong is still worse.

Now that the Guerrilla Girls are famous authors as well as agitators, they're doubly honored in the art world for remaining anonymous. If the original members of the band came forward, surely they'd boost their careers, but all have remained silent, passing on the masks to second and third generations.

I would have been more impressed if they had sent back the award notification in a box of suppositories. They accepted a prize from the CAA - how tame. They should have made a poster excoriating the organization and plastered downtown Seattle with it. So much for subversion.

New York artist Fred Wilson, the keynote speaker, let his work speak for him, screening "September Dreams," an elegiac response to the destruction of the World Trade Center, approaching the theme through Shakespeare. On four screens, the piece opened with Othello strangling Desdemona and rolled back to when they were happily in love, evoking the common desire, after disaster, to retreat to a happier time.

Do I understand this correctly - the keynote speaker didn't speak? I guess with Wilson not speaking and the banana throwing and what not, it all makes sense, in a way. A drunk way.

No one could have gone to more than a fraction of the 180 sessions that followed the Wednesday night opening and continued through Saturday at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

First prize, one week in Cleveland. Second prize, two weeks in Cleveland.

Anxious artists and doctoral students stood in long lines waiting their turns for a brief interview, hoping to make the short list for a college or university job that may or may not materialize in the age of scarce funding.

Another round of suckers took part in the annual CAA career fair scam. I don't have enough invective to hurl at the slimeballs who perpetrate this thing - although I used what I had in an essay refused by the Chronicle of Higher Education that I wrote last year. I'll post it once I dig it up out of the old computer. Here was a missed opportunity to talk about real evil being done.

New York critic Eleanor Hartney dutifully attended the panel for which she served as moderator, "Public Art and the Art Critic: Advocate or Antagonist," and then skipped out to look at art.

Tells you something about those 180 sessions.

She said she liked Claire Cowie at James Harris Gallery, Ben Darby at Bryan Ohno Gallery and James Martin at Foster/White. Heading down to Tacoma, she was impressed by the new Tacoma Art Museum and the sweeping plaza exterior of the Museum of Glass.

Back at the conference, there was plenty worth hearing. "Identity Roller Coaster" was a heated discussion of the history of exhibitions that attempted to break barriers between art in the developing and industrial nations, from "Magicians of the Earth" in Paris in 1989 to Documenta 11 last year in Kassel. Curator Elisabeth Sussman got her chance to back-talk critics who hated her activist Whitney Biennial of 1993.

From nine years ago? Are we still caring? Back-talk away, Sussman.

My favorite session was "Problems in African-American Art Now," with a hilarious overview of Lorna Simpson's retreat from the figure, "Bye, Bye, Black Girl," from Huey Copeland, graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Talking about father figure artist David Hammons, artist Glenn Ligon observed, "If black is a construct, then we're all construction workers."

Must have picked that one up from the Giant Book of Big PoMo Laffs.

Points for honesty and insight go to painter Gregory Amenoff, who said on a landscape-in-crisis panel...

His talk was entitled I Would Rather Look at a Painting of a Landscape than a Real Landscape: Reflections on the Crossroads Where Human Longing and Anxiety Meet, Landscape Painting and the Fiction of "Nature." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

...that he thought artist Andy Goldsworthy's insertions in the land were precious and overwrought. "Martha Stewart is a better artist," he said.

Sorry, were you saying that the landscape of Martha Stewart's anxiety meets at a crossroads of Andy Goldsworthy's longing? Oops, time for another panel discussion. (Amenoff's work isn't bad, by the way.)

The most important panel locally was the least advertised, slipping in under the radar too late for inclusion in the catalog, a discussion of what went wrong at the Bellevue Art Museum, which closed in September.

Politics trumps aesthetics every time, and the art world is no exception.

After the story broke in the P-I, the issue was thoroughly chewed in the press. The Stranger thought an installation of thong underwear was the break point of Eastside audience alienation. The Seattle Times went with money mismanagement and, oddly, lack of communication with the community. (No museum has surveyed its audience more.) Most peculiar was The New York Times, who blamed the fiasco on the museum's sweeping, postmodernist spaces. As anyone knows who ventured beyond the lobby into the galleries, they're boxy with low ceilings.

Well, you know how the New York Times has that crack problem. No, seriously, I'd like to know what's going on here.

At Saturday's panel, participants tried to clear up some of the confusion. Sharon Burke was director of finance for the museum, hired after it moved into its new building. The books were a mess, she said. Turns out the museum was running a $1.3 million deficit, instead of the $200,000 deficit the board knew about. Because there was no financial cushion, the museum started a downward spiral it was unable to pull out of. She'd advise museums contemplating a new building to fold into the capital campaign another 10 percent operating surplus and get donors to commit to covering museum costs in the first three years.

Miami Art Museum, please take note.

Board president Rick Collette said the school within the museum was a disaster. Instead of providing income, it was a money drain. It won't be there when the museum reopens in the summer. The board is developing partnerships with the University of Washington's Burke Museum and Pilchuck Glass School to share a floor of exhibition space. The interior needs a major remodel, he said. "With what money?" called out former Bellevue curator Miriam Sternberg, from the audience. "We need to raise it," he replied.


Former chief curator Brian Wallace said he thought it was important for institutions to encourage those who work there to maintain a healthy skepticism. "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," he said. "Don't buy into ill-founded enthusiasms."

I say something like this to myself whenever MAM starts talking about its expansion. (For all you shorties out there: that was a suicide cult reference.)

Collette said the board has been meeting with more than 400 community, civic and art leaders on the Eastside and in Seattle and will, as a result, return to its craft roots, focusing on craft along with art and design. "We let our supporters and the community down," he said. "We had to close to step back, take stock and fix it." Doug McLennan, editor of, said he thought the direct way the board handled the problem was admirable but worried about its survey-the-audience approach to articulating a vision.

I'd hyperventilate with glee if someone from MAM asked me to help articulate its vision.

Asked if he would have become board president if he'd known what was in store, Collette replied, "Absolutely not. Who would? But I'm staying around after we reopen. That will be the fun part. It will make all of this worthwhile." The museum hopes to reopen at least in time for the next Bellevue Arts Fair in July.

It would be nice if we could put Museum Administrator Candor in bottles, fly it down from Washington, and pass it out.

See you next year in Atlanta: same load, different shovel.



Nate Martin

February 25, 2004, 9:13 PM

Now that's a hell of a Fisking! Usually I find this kind of post frustrating to read, but yours was quite well done, much more of a "Point-Counterpoint" than a "look at what this fool wrote (in excruciating detail)".

The Bellevue guy's recommendation about "planning for an increased operating budget" after an expansion is frankly a no-brainer, and any museum that hasn't done it is digging themselves a deep, deep hole. More space obviously requires more money for maintenance, more security personnel, higher heating and cooling bills and usually some level of expanded programming. I'd say that expecting a 10% increase in operating expenses is probably a low estimate, in many cases.



February 25, 2004, 9:31 PM

nice fisk. I'm still stunned that the GG won the criticism award. It actually shows how insular and literal the art world can be - "Well, they criticize US don't they?". A good critic, one deserving of an award, is more than disguised rabble-rousers (however good their intentions). And the GG's have totally lost all their mojo from this...



February 25, 2004, 9:46 PM

When I was in grad school there was the belief that at least four of them were on campus that semester. Whether or not we actually know who they are, the female faulty that semester gave us some powerful energy. The Guerilla Girls have meant a lot to me.


Tyler Green

February 26, 2004, 12:11 AM

This is the funniest thing I've read all day.



February 26, 2004, 7:49 AM

I agree that taking the CAA bait/pacifier, er, award, is anything but subversive (and smells like selling out). However, it's also possible that the GGs were always more about getting attention or notoriety than anything else.

In other words, the real or primary goal may have been a kind of stardom or celebrity, at least in certain circles--and if it could be achieved with the cachet of being radicals, so much the better.

The fact they've had such a good run may finally have made them feel like "Hey, we're a big deal; it's an award, and we deserve one, no matter who's giving it." Their whole concept is so politically correct, so fashionable, trendy and theatrical that I can't take it at face value. It was always eminently safe-- practically foolproof, in fact, and I think they knew it.

Smart, certainly. Brave, I don't think so.



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