Interview: Andrée Bober, Landmarks Public Art Program

by Claire Ruud

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      Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965
      Painted Steel
      135 x 128 x 90 inches
      Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1986
      1986.432a,b

      Last week in the Life Science Library, while her team installed a piece from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's loan to The Univeristy of Texas at Austin, Andrée Bober, Director of Landmarks, talked with ...might be good about the role of the public art program on this university's campus. During our conversation, I learned, disappointingly but not unexpectedly, that UT Austin will be assembling a rather conservative public art collection.

      …might be good: What were the events that led up to the establishment of the new public art program, Landmarks, at the University of Texas at Austin?

      Andrée Bober: Landmarks has its origins in conversations that began around 2005. Leading up to that point, the University had been engaged with Peter Walker Partners Landscape Architects, working to reconstruct Speedway and the whole East Mall. That effort, like all of the architectural construction that occurs on campus, conforms to the Cesar Pelli Master Plan from 1999. I was not involved with the conversations during that time, but my understanding is that Peter Walker was thinking about the Speedway and East Mall projects as a defining part of the entire campus and questioning how the new construction would support the Campus Master Plan. From what I’ve reconstructed, Peter suggested that the University had been doing a really good job of following its Campus Master Plan in terms of the spatial orientation and the architectural character of the buildings, but it had been very building-focused. Peter pointed out that the University should give greater attention to the spaces in between buildings—those patches of grass, those big corridors and gateways—the spaces that really begin to create a sense of place and experience for people walking around the campus.

      Out of those conversations, the university realized that one way to address those concerns was to develop a public art program. Pat Clubb, the Vice President for Employee and Campus Services, forwarded an initiative in 2005 to develop a policy for public art on campus. The policy—Art in Public Spaces—set a goal to devote 1-2% of the construction cost from all major renovation and new construction projects on the main campus for the acquisition of public art.

      When the University adopted that policy it was an exciting moment: it was the first time in the University’s history that there had been any kind of a push for ongoing support of public art at UT. And so Landmarks was born. I came on board shortly after that policy was put into place, and my job has been to develop the architecture of the program and to define its curatorial scope.

      …mbg: Why was Landmarks established as a separate program from The Blanton Museum?

      AB: The Landmarks Program operates in the College of Fine Arts, alongside the Blanton. If you look at other public art programs at other universities, they are often closely associated with museums, but they’re typically separate entities from the museum. The reason for this separation stems from a difference of mission and a difference in the way those missions are carried out. At UT, there’s certainly a lot of coordination and collaboration with the Blanton. For example, there’s an upcoming project—we haven’t announced it yet—in which Landmarks is going to install a monumental outdoor sculpture to coincide with an upcoming exhibition at the Blanton.

      …mbg: What is the selection process that the University has established for public art?

      AB: Any proposal for the placement of public art in the campus landscape begins with the Subcommittee for the Review of Artwork, lead by Ken Hale. That subcommittee predates Landmarks by a few years. It was put in place to respond to requests made by the general public (or from deans or other university officials) for works of art or monuments on campus. The Subcommittee makes recommendations to a committee called the Faculty Building Advisory Committee. From there, the proposal goes to Pat Clubb’s office in Employee and Campus Services, and then to the Facilities and Space Council—that’s the President’s committee—and from there certain proposals may be reviewed by the Board of Regents for final approval. That’s the official process for any proposal. Landmarks is simply one of the entities creating proposals and sending them to the University for review through this process.

      …mbg: And you have your own advisory committee?

      AB: Landmarks has its own advisory committee. It’s made up of student, faculty and staff representatives. On a project-by-project basis, the committee may also include other expert professionals in the field and individuals who are associated with a particular project—for example the architect of a particular building or the staff and faculty most affected by the site. We really try to keep an open, transparent process.

      ...mbg: Who are the core people on your committee?

      AB: Sarah Canright from Studio Art; John Clarke from Art History; Mirka Benes from Landscape Architecture; the Art History graduate student is Amanda Douberly; and a UT museum curator is also included—that seat is currently held by Annette Carlozzi from the Blanton. So with Annette’s participation, the Blanton remains closely involved although our organizations remain separate entities.

      …mbg: What is the Public Art Master Plan?

      AB: When I started to develop Landmarks, we approached Peter Walker and asked if he would develop a Public Art Master Plan. He very generously consented to create a plan as a pro-bono contribution. The plan is not meant to be prescriptive, but it’s designed to create an inventory of opportunities across campus and establish guidelines for criteria that we’ll want to consider for any public art project we might propose. By following this plan, the University will build consistency and cohesion in its public art placement over time.

      ...mbg: So how do the Met sculptures fit into the Master Plan.

      AB: With the Public Art Master Plan in place, I began looking at our campus and thinking about an appropriate curatorial scope for this program. There seemed to be no compelling reason to narrow that scope thematically or to one movement or era of art history. That was one consideration, and the other was economic. Resources aren’t infinite and I realized we would have to be smart and resourceful. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that we should follow the model of other successful campuses that work with artists of our time. Eventually, with patience and consistency, such programs develop an art-historical perspective within the collection. That’s what lends depth to the collection and the kind of cohesiveness that our campus should strive to achieve.

      So how do you start? My concern was that if we just chose an artist and commissioned a work, chose another artist and commissioned another work, then we’d end up with what I often call “Spray and Pray.” You put one piece here and another one there, and hope that over time they all begin to make some kind of sense. Our challenge in building a campus collection is that we needed to start from some kind of foundation. The difficulty has been that in terms of 20th century pieces, there are few examples and the quality has been rather uneven.

      So I began to imagine the possibility that we might borrow some group of works, bring them to campus and have that group serve as a foundation for the Landmarks’ curatorial scope. I learned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a collection of sculptures that they’d exhibited in the past, but that they were no longer able to show because of a lack of space. So I approached the Metropolitan and pursued the opportunity. People on campus seemed enthusiastic and people at the Met seemed enthusiastic, so it was a very happy marriage. Now with these works coming to UT on long term loan, we have precisely that art historical perspective from which we can begin to build our own collection.

      …mbg: So you’re imagining that this group of works will remain on campus for ever?

      AB: We intend them to be here indefinitely, however the terms of the loan agreement are for five-year renewable periods.

      …mbg: What kind of an art historical foundation would you say the loan creates?

      AB: Well, all of the pieces are sculptural. I would say that’s the biggest difference between this group of works and Landmarks’ scope because the Landmarks collection should be broader. But the group does provide a very deep representation of major artistic trends that are happening in the second half of the 20th century. The earliest Met sculpture is from 1948 and the latest is from 2000. Because these pieces provide important examples from this 50-year period of time, they represent many of the major artistic trends that occurred during this vibrant era of art history. In these works, one can see the vestiges of Surrealism alongside major examples of Abstract Expressionism, Feminist Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Post-Minimalism, Pop…

      …mbg: When I hear that the University loaned 28 works from the Metropolitan, I imagine that must have been very expensive. And I wonder why you decided to borrow these works rather than spend the money on commissioning works by emerging artists.

      AB: Well it might surprise you to know that the cost of this loan to us was very reasonable. The Met did not charge us its typical fees for labor, mount-making, borrowing of the work, or insurance. They waved these for us because of the long-term nature of our arrangement. Moreover, because the costs for UT are only for transportation, installation and ongoing maintenance, the overall cost is commensurate with a typical museum exhibition that would last about three months. And we wouldn’t have been able to purchase work of this quality and rarity. It really is a privilege for us to be able to have them here on campus and extraordinary that we were able to realize the project with such little expense.

      …mbg: I’m worried about how the students will treat the works—vandalism.

      AB: I am too. But I worked with the Met team to choose pieces that we felt were of a durable enough construction and material to be on display 24/7. We also carefully considered placement of the works—traffic patterns, exposure and so forth. We wanted these pieces to have the greatest possible public visibility and to be in places where the landscape and architecture would complement them and vice versa. But we were also thinking about whether placement would invite some kind of problem. Many of the pieces have camera surveillance; some of them have vibration alarms. You hope that people realize that it’s a privilege to have these objects and, as they become part of the landscape and identity of the campus, people will want to protect them.

      But we’re not being Pollyanna about this. Things happen. Even in museum galleries or in storage, works of art can get damaged. For that reason, we have a conservator on call. Fortunately for us, the Metropolitan’s attitude is that it is better for these works to be in circulation with the risk of something happening than to be locked up in storage.

      …mbg: One last question about Landmarks and then I want to hear briefly about your background. In Landmarks’ mission statement, it says that the public art on campus will convey the University’s “standards and ideals.” Can you explain how these works might convey the University’s standards and ideals?

      AB: As a leading research institution, the University has the responsibility (and privilege) of introducing people to ideas and to standards of quality about ways of thinking and being. Artistic representation provokes criticism and dialogue about ideas. But moreover, certain works of art have, over time, proven to be of greater quality and enduring resonance. For the university to take a position and say, “we are about understanding those distinctions and bringing to our campus the best quality art that we can,” supports the institution’s standards and ideals in the broadest sense.

      It’s true that there are a lot of different kinds of public art programs. But I think that for The University of Texas at Austin, it makes sense for the public art program to be about the best quality it can be.

      …mbg: What do you mean by quality?

      AB: Well, that can be tricky. I think it’s important to encourage audiences to experience works of art, to find their own personal meanings, resonances, and to express their ideas and opinions. This creates teachable moments about the nature of art and why it is a meaningful cultural endeavor. But it’s also important to distinguish between casual engagement and connoisseurship, especially here at the university level. Identifying quality in visual art is a skill that comes from a great deal of critical examination. When you’ve spent your entire life looking at and thinking about art, you’re better prepared to make judgments about quality.

      The reason why Landmarks operates in the College of Fine Arts is because the college is principally concerned with the examination of the history, meanings and the appreciation of works of art in all its forms. I worked with several experts in the college to develop a whole set of selection criteria for public art projects. These have to do with the formal qualities of the work, its artistic and art historical merit, the reputation of the artist, the appropriateness of the work to the site, and the relevance to other works in the collection. Some people might be surprised to learn that among experts who have spent their entire lives looking and thinking about art critically, there is a good deal of consensus about which works are of greater or lesser quality.

      I often like to use wine as a good analogy. I love just about any Barolo, but I’m no sommelier. In my mind, the question of which vintner or vintage I prefer is a matter of personal preference, but I’m hardly prepared to build a critical defense for my judgment. A great wine critic could, and I suspect that the independent opinions of other informed critics would result in considerable overlap.

      …mbg: So what’s your background? Where are you from?

      AB: Well, I’m originally from Beaumont, Texas, and I did my undergraduate work in Art History here at UT. Then there were years where I practiced painting conservation, studied arts administration at Columbia, and worked on several administrative and curatorial projects for different museums. Most recently I came from Cincinnati, where I was Deputy and then Interim Director for the Contemporary Arts Center there. I was at the CAC for five years, leading the project to build Zaha Hadid’s first American building. After two years of long-distance marriage to my husband Jonathan Bober [Curator of Prints, Drawings and European Paintings] at the Blanton, we finally managed to share a roof.

      …mbg: What are your particular interests in Modern and Contemporary art?

      AB: That’s a really good question and one that nobody has asked me since I founded Landmarks. I tend to be most drawn to experimental work. It’s an interesting process for me to identify and understand my personal interests, but to see them apart from what the curatorial scope of Landmarks is and ought to be. Certainly, my personal interests inform my ability to lead Landmarks, however, these aren’t necessarily appropriate a university public art program, and I know that. I have developed a curatorial scope for UT that is appropriate for it as an academic institution. Does that make sense?

      …mbg: Yeah, it does, and it sounds extremely difficult in some ways.

      AB: Well, it’s actually not because the things I like tend to be rather challenging and experimental. Experiments are extremely important, but a lot of experimentation gets lost over time. The works of art that have real resonance and continue to engage people over time become the canon of art history. The curatorial scope for the Landmarks collection at UT is and should be more aligned with artistic achievements that are tried and true, that demonstrate quality over time. This is not to say that the University shouldn’t look forward; it should and it must if we want to remain current and continue to build a relevant collection. But it shouldn’t be a risk taking institution. That’s the role of a great kunsthalle.

      Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.

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