From the Editor

by Wendy Vogel

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      Otis Ike
      Baby Boomer 1 from the series Outside the Green Belt
      Courtesy of the artist. Featured in the exhibition Nowhere Near Here at the Houston Center of Photography and Fotofest, Houston

      The blogosphere is abuzz this week with proclamations of Austin’s art implosion. On Monday April 11, news surfaced that Elizabeth Dunbar’s position as Curator and Associate Director of Arthouse at the Jones Center was eliminated in a series of budget cutbacks. Arthouse Director Sue Graze stated that the organization’s “newly revised, board-approved operating budget incorporated reductions to our staff salary line," and that the exhibition programming would be handled by a rotating series of guest curators and traveling exhibitions. The same day, Arthouse staff member Jenn Gardner announced her resignation after ten years at the nonprofit, stating that she strongly disagreed with the concept of Arthouse existing without a full-time curator. Artist protests swiftly followed suit. A Facebook group entitled “Artists FOR Arthouse” invited artists to collectively protest the institution’s decision by using their cards for Arthouse’s annual 5X7 fundraiser as a way to express their discontent, and on Wednesday, Houston-based artist Dario Robleto announced his resignation from Arthouse’s Board of Directors.

      I don’t want to use this space to issue sweeping apocalyptic predictions for the Austin arts community at large. However, I do want to express my deep disappointment in Arthouse’s decision to eliminate the full-time curator position. I hold a Master’s degree from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and without belaboring the point, the notion of the “curatorial” informs what I do.

      Some might contend that programs such as Bard’s could precipitate a move toward a rethinking of institutional curator positions in favor of independent curatorial projects. I would argue the contrary. While curatorial practice has changed substantially in the last few decades, with non-collecting kunsthalle-type institutions, biennials, performance festivals and discursive events being just a few of the formats that have expanded the public perception of the ways in which art can be presented, the field of curatorial studies serves to reinforce how curators’ sustained involvement can strengthen institutions, transforming them from the inside out.

      Elizabeth Dunbar’s appointment as Arthouse’s first full-time curator in 2007 marked the organization’s maturation. Dunbar brought exciting changes to the Arthouse from the start, through selecting international artists’ works to exhibit in the space and focusing on site-specific commissions. In late 2009, Dunbar’s efforts were rewarded when she was promoted to Associate Director of Arthouse. In a …mbg interview from December of that year, Claire Ruud asked what Dunbar’s biggest challenge would be as Associate Director. She replied: “I think one of the biggest challenges facing me—and one that acknowledges my dual roles as administrator and curator—is how to help Arthouse evolve into a larger organization without losing our creative edge or compromising our commitment to risk-taking.” This statement seems prescient. Considering the controversy generated by Arthouse’s recent curatorial programming of works by Michelle Handelman and Graham Hudson, and Dunbar’s efforts to defend her efforts through encouraging open dialogue about queer imagery and institutional self-censorship, it seems the loss of her position was a very unfortunate casualty of institutional growing pains.

      What do curators gain from full-time curatorial positions? For starters, they gain health insurance and stability. Despite the romantic mythos surrounding Harald Szeemann’s intellectual genius and rise to fame as the first independent curator, the most notable independent curators of today are not true freelancers—not even in European countries where the idea of a welfare state lives on. Most “independent” curators, including Maria Lind, Catherine David, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Charles Esche and Hou Hanrou, are or were supported to a large degree by some other institution, whether academia, a position at another art space, a publication (though that is increasingly rare) or a non-art-related day job. Back in 2006, Alex Farquharson charted this trend in a frieze article, using the slightly pejorative term “new institutionalism.”

      Arthouse’s elimination of Dunbar’s position is more a symbolic action than anything else, one that speaks volumes about its institutional politics. It says that exhibition curators should be treated the same as short-term contract employees, and not as one of the building blocks of an art institution. But without curators, what bricks does the institution have to stand on? Arthouse has provided one possible answer in its retention of its Public Programs Curator. The role is a relatively new one for the institution that reflects its changing notions of curatorial practice. Without a collaborative effort between curators of both exhibitions and programs, however, it's unclear how the Program Curator's role will play out in Arthouse's future. We hope for a continuation of interesting programming and not a scramble to fill the gaps created by a series of guest-curated shows.

      But let’s move from architectural metaphors to the architecture itself. In October of last year, Arthouse opened with a bigger and more spectacular building, nearly tripling its exhibition space. I dedicated an issue of …mbg to profiling the institution and its new building, featuring interviews with some of the artists whose work was first shown in the renovated spaces. In the wake of Dunbar’s dismissal, the question many are now asking is whether Arthouse’s new expansion is trying to capitalize on the “Bilbao effect” as defined by Witold Rybczynski in The Atlantic in September 2002. In other words, without a consistent curatorial vision, will the architecture of Arthouse supercede the importance of the art within, as some have accused Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim building in Bilbao of doing? (For an artist’s response to Bilbao, see Little Frank and His Carp, the hilarious artwork by Andrea Fraser.)

      The direction of Arthouse from here on out is an open book, and the Austin arts community wants the best for it. As an organization that has supported the local scene through efforts such as the Texas Prize and the Visiting Lecture series, Arthouse is important to us. While the organization’s commitment to discursive and satellite programs is commendable, we ask for a building that lives up to its potential as exhibition space and as an organization that supports curatorial risk-taking. When reached for comment, Director Sue Graze responded: "Arthouse is committed to curatorial voices. Having the freedom to select guest curators including artists, writers and independent curators who have various interests, expertise and viewpoints gives Arthouse the ability to engage different audiences in multi-faceted ways. We are always nimble and flexible and eager to experiment with new curatorial models."

      *In full disclosure, several principal supporters of …might be good, including Fluent~Collaborative’s Director Laurence Miller, sit on the board of Arthouse.

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.

      Apr 15, 2011 | 2:07pm

      I’m not privy to everything that went into Arthouse’s decision and believe it was made in good faith.  It’s difficult to believe, however, that the indefinite elimination of the in-house curator was the only or best possible resolution.
      Among other things, I note that the elimination of that position can cut costs only if Arthouse plans to fulfill the functions performed by that employee in the way Walmart might – i.e., eliminating a full-time, full-benefit position and outsourcing the services to part-time, lesser-compensated individuals.

      Apr 18, 2011 | 9:02am

      I feel this discussion needs more coverage. It’s not a health choice for the art community in Austin to avoid discussing about a issue of great concern.

      Apr 18, 2011 | 11:16am

      I happened on your site purely by accident - and read the piece on curators et al at your organization. (I live in California.) As a board member of a contemporary arts organization here and previous museum director I take some exception to your comments. My impression is that financial naivete and the results of expansion are at play.  There is a a direct relationship to square footage and operating expenses that generally cannot be mitigated. Staff expense -one of the biggest line-items - is one of the few places where boards have some flexibility to make adjustments. Permanent curators do offer a value-added proposition, but my view is that utilizing "rotating" guest curators is both financially prudent and presents the introduction of multiple curatorial points of view that can be energizing and compelling. Beyond that - why is the board or community not stepping up by contributing to save the position?  Where is the fundraising effort? People speak with their checkbooks.

      Apr 20, 2011 | 8:42am

      @ William…Although it seems clear that Arthouse is experiencing financial issues that are due at least in part to the expansion/renovation, your acceptance of this as the actual reason for Ms. Dunbar’s termination is what is naive. As a close friend of someone on the Arthouse Board of Directors, I know that not only was the full Board kept in the dark about this decision, but the Executive Committee was as well. This is significant for at least two reasons. First, this represents a major shift in strategy and mission, something that would warrant discussion on most institutional boards. Secondly, and even more problematically, the dismissal of Ms. Dunbar came directly after she raised concerns to the Executive Director and Board President about how decisions they were making regarding artist and their work jeopardized the Arthouse’s credibility (letters to the press and Arthouse Board from Ms. Handelman and Mr. Hudson both clearly illustrate this point). Here too, none of this information was shared with the rest of the Board.

      What is truly at stake here is artistic integrity and the disingenuous dismissal of someone who stood up for what the institution purports to value. What is truly disappointing the lack of Board action to correct this injustice.

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