Interview with Dominic Willsdon and Frank SmigielMay 28, 2013
Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.
Sello Pesa with Vaughn Sadie. Inhabitant, 2011-ongoing (still); performance. Goethe on Main, Johannesburg, South Africa. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Suzy Bernstein.
On an early May afternoon, while the artist Jonn Herschend was filming in the offices of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) for his upcoming offsite SECA project, Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney sat down with Dominic Willsdon, the museum’s Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, and Frank Smigiel, the associate curator of public programs. Herschend’s presence was indicative of the singular phase of the museum’s existence that it is about to embark upon, as it disperses its collections and programs throughout the city during the construction of the building’s expansion. Collaborative, artist-driven, and site-specific offsite programming will take center stage over the next three years, activities that have been a hallmark of the museum’s public programming under the direction of Willsdon and Smigiel. In our conversation, we sought to glean insights into what their interim programming will include and the philosophy shaping it, as well as opportunities for new modes of interactions and engagement that the new building will afford. The abridged excerpt included here can be heard as its full length on Bad at Sports, Episode 404.
Dominic Willsdon: When it became clear that the museum was going to close, there was suddenly the opportunity to devote more energy to projects done in collaboration with other organizations and agencies in the Bay Area, including offsite projects, such as the many Frank in particular has curated. It’s also a difficult time institutionally for the museum, and there are a lot of exigencies around the retention of audience, for example. There’s definitely some opportunities to experiment, and there’s also, actually in some ways, more that’s required of us institutionally in order to retain an identity for the museum during this period. Probably for many people, the most visible activity would be the collection-based shows that will be presented at other institutions in the Bay Area, so the live projects that we’ll be producing every couple of months as clusters of activity will still seem the less visible, the more peripheral, form of activity.
Frank Smigiel: It’s also true that because of the difficulties for people to understand the multiple activities the museum is undertaking in the interim, we are oddly tracking our activities more closely to some of the marquee museum partnerships and particularly to site-specific work. We do like to work collaboratively with other partners, and we do like to explore other places in the city, so it’s true we’re going to be getting out there and doing some great things. One of the things that’s exciting about these live projects is this opportunity to drill down deeply with a few artists we want to work with, either by hosting them here for a longer residency or to be able to commission additional works for the museum shows.
DW: Frank and I will talk at length about the South Africa show, if you want us to. We are cocurating it with Betti-Sue Hertz at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We get to do something that we don’t normally do, and it’s a special project for us.
Brian Andrews: Please, I’d love to hear about it.
DW: As you might know, the starting point of the interim exhibitions is the museum’s collection; in other cases, the exhibition is curated entirely from the museum’s collection. Ours starts from the increasing acquisition of photography from South Africa that Sandy Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, has been pursuing but goes beyond that. It’ll be mainly loaned works and not only photography. It gets into other areas of visual culture, publication and graphic design, and the live components. The title of the show is Public Intimacy, and it examines the way contemporary artists, especially in the last five years, have looked at interpersonal relationships, and it seems like a particularly contemporary tendency in South Africa, a country where art and culture has been dominated by race for so many generations.
Athi-Patra Ruga. The Future White Women of Azania, 2010-ongoing; performance still. Courtesy of the Artist.
BA: I’m curious about the live work. What are you bringing?
FS: They’re not all confirmed, but for example, Athi-Patra Ruga is an artist currently working in Cape Town. He actually started out in fashion—in fact we found this intersection with a lot of the artists we were tracking between the art and the fashion worlds, particularly in Cape Town and particularly with people exploring queer aesthetics. Athi creates fantastical characters that he then pushes into a procession in public space. The latest group is called The Future White Women of Azania, and it’s a character whose upper torso is covered entirely in balloons that are filled with black liquid. Of course, the balloons start to pop as he’s walking, and it almost creates an odd, sloppy line drawing as he moves through the streets. He’s often putting these provocative characters into neighborhoods where they’re not going to be particularly welcome. One of the interesting things about Johannesburg is that it’s a very large metropolis; it’s a huge hub for migration from central and southern Africa into South Africa. So in many ways you’re having this real mash-up between certain ideas in the art world with new migrant communities.
DW: The second live project is called Inhabitant, which [is one of] the two projects we’re the furthest along with. Inhabitant is a collaboration between the choreographer Sello Pesa and the conceptual artist/lighting designer Vaughn Sadie with two other performers. They research a city and select a street in the city on which to choreograph a performance that takes place at dusk, lit by Vaughn according to the light sources that are found in the area. He will collaborate with the storekeepers, residents, or wherever else has a light source on that street in order to light the project.
Patricia Maloney: How are thinking about the reception by a local audience for either of the pieces?
FS: This is a city that’s not surprised by extravagant characters moving along in city streets, so… [laughs] We might be exploring options so that it doesn’t just become another San Francisco parade or mob action.
PM: I have a two-part question; the first part is thinking about the ways this programming is still representing SFMOMA as an institution.
DW: We want to make this an opportunity for the kind of experimentation that we always want to do and hope to do more of in the summer. Our programming in the live sphere takes place on alternate months [September, November, January, March, and May] for the two years that the museum is closed. For each iteration, we’ll select an artist, or sometimes more than one artist, and have them work on ideas that will be a starting point for the films we’ll screen and the projects we want to commission. Each of these series of events is not an intensive on that artist. On the contrary, the artist helps provide the lens or toolbox for us to see differently who we are and where we live. In each of those moments, we will have an anchoring artist talk at the same place in these memorable alternate months, at the SF Jazz Center. That’s about the only thing that will be at the same place at the same time, but our hope is that it’s something people can hang onto in their heads, and then this always changing, dispersed, more nomadic activity can spin off of it.
FS: For me it’s thinking about how we support institutional needs while giving us the chance to experiment. On the institutional-need side, we have an occasion for assembly that is really important because all of the other partnerships and site-specific shows are going to flow off different spaces, but these five moments are where the SFMOMA family can assemble as SFMOMA in a place, even if it’s not our place. I’m hoping that it’s going to be a way to foreground the people of SFMOMA—our members, our friends and family, artists and academics. This will be our opportunity to get everybody together for an occasion, something that is very exciting. The experimental part is letting us explore different tempos. We’re getting to explore this more festival-like modeling where something will happen over three weekends, or one very condensed week, and that’s something we want to bring to the new building in 2016, as we think about different tempos and a much larger structure with more opportunities for programming.
Schematic design., SFMOMA expansion aerial view southeast. Courtesy of Snøhetta and MIR, Oslo and New York.
DW: I think we feel as close as ever to our colleagues in this moment, and there are also chances for us to collaborate across departments [in new ways], which is nice.
PM: Taking up the point of assembly, my second question revolves around the history of your programming to date and how your approach to assembly within the building might be informing the program you are working on outside the museum.
FS: There are three types of assembly I think about in the program. One is very collections based, or at least exhibitions based. Thinking about how we can serve the work on view is often an opportunity for really fantastic collaborations. When Rudolf Frieling invited me to join his curatorial vision for Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media, I was able to do a large live performance program within the context of that exhibition in a specially designed space. Because it was opposite the Cindy Sherman retrospective, it led to an amazing conversation on that floor all summer.
So one type of live program looks at the different works on view or the different exhibition goals and sees if a live program can serve them. But often there’s an independent commissioning strand that uses the museum as a platform to investigate something else. I think about it in terms of the Rebecca Solnit Infinite City project, in which we collaborated with her on the book of the same name. Issuing these eccentric maps and broadsides before the book came out gave us an opportunity to move around the Bay Area. When we had the collaborative exhibition The More Things Change on the fifth floor in 2010, which included works in the collection over the first ten years of the twenty-first century, which was our first collaboration among all five curatorial departments, we commissioned Stephanie Syjuco to create the Shadowshop project. The project became a really vital portrait and series of conversations about artists in the Bay Area and the larger Bay Area art ecosystem and SFMOMA’s role in it. We get to contribute in our own ways by producing programs that don’t seem collection based but are very much part of the museum’s mission to contribute to a conversation in the art world and the Bay Area.
DW: It’s been interesting in the recent weeks and months talking internally about a curatorial vision for the future of the museum. Some of these projects are part of that discussion, and the focus of our discussion is really on what it means to be contemporary and what it means to move between the local and the global. So, in fact, The More Things Change, which may be an exhibition people saw or remember, was internally quite an important exercise for us. As was, to the huge credit of our former colleague Apsara DiQuinzio, Six Lines of Flight, last fall. Our experience working across the departments with just those two projects seems more to inform our thinking for the future than most anything else that’s been done recently.
Schematic design of an expansive glass-walled gallery on Howard Street with free public access. Courtesy of Snøhetta and MIR, Oslo and New York.
PM: I’m fascinated with how modes of circulation, which are now being taken out into the community, are then going to be reinserted back into the museum. How is the way that you operate going to influence the way the museum, on a larger scale, is thinking about this kind of circulation?
DW: Can we have a year to think about that? [laughs]
A couple of things that may not be obvious about the building matter a lot to me. One is the Minna Street side, which is not currently the entrance but will be in 2016. It’ll be an entrance onto a set of programming spaces. There’ll be an upgraded Wattis Theater, a new education center that will move across what’s now the parking lot and will be expanded to be more of a designed programming space rather than, say, an orientation space or an information hub, as the current education center is. Above that there will be this white box, which is essentially a versatile, multipurpose performance space or expanded cinema. These spaces will or could be open when the museum isn’t, so we’ll be able to program with a different tempo and establish a quicker tempo than we’ve pursued in this space. It can be independent of the museum’s hours, but when the museum is open, it just becomes part of the museum, which is great. One thing I’m thinking a lot about in that context is film. We’ve done so many film screenings, which have been terrific in recent years, but it would be great to really get back to the historic commitment to film this museum had in the mid-twentieth century.
FS: It’s just such an interesting moment, thinking about what the landscape of projected cinema is going to be in 2016. What kind of theaters will be left? Are we going to be the only ones to have the capacity to show 35 and 16mm? Is that something we really want to make a historical commitment to? At the same time, we’ll be dealing with artists who work in projected images and need a theater and who don’t want a gallery. The theater will have greater accessibility, so we could be having more screenings more often. It’s a big thing to think about.
If the functionality turns out the way I’m hoping it will, the white box will be a multipurpose space. It’ll have the infrastructure we need to do very versatile tech work for artists in terms of lighting and sound. It’d be great if we carved out maybe three performance seasons, and if we thought about those seasons very smartly in the way that something like Stage Presence worked. How could something happening in the white box rhyme with something else? To be able to look at the collection and introduce a new live medium that will rhyme off of it is the radical approach that my colleague Limor Tomer, who is the managing director of performing arts at the Metropolitan Museum, has taken with her program, as opposed to just showing independent baroque or chamber opera series in the Met’s auditorium. She really wants to see how the live program can rhyme with specific galleries. I don’t know if that’s my motivating philosophy, but it’s a smart one that’s out there, and it’s one that has been successful. The live-projects festival model in the interim is a kind of rehearsal for how to animate that white box when we get back in 2016.
PM: One of the things that has tripped me up in thinking about the new building is an architectural rendering I saw of either the Minna Street lobby or the Howard Street lobby. It’s a beautiful space with an amphitheater-like set of stairs, but on the ground-floor level are these huge Richard Serra sculptures. Those might be placed there to convey scale, but to me that representation disrupts the idea that the building is offering a whole other type of user interface.
DW: They call them Roman stairs, where you can sit as well as step. It’s how you get from the Howard Street entrance into the main public hub for ticketing, etc., on the second floor. That’s all public space, which you could use as a shortcut from Howard Street to Third Street without buying a ticket or caring about the Richard Serra or anything else, which is a plus. It gets at what Snøhetta is trying to achieve and will achieve in making this a building that flows more into the city. The Botta building is a picture really, an icon, while Snøhetta has thought more about the flows of the public than about an image. And the building is hard to picture, actually. It’s more a thing you move through, which is great for how we think about museums. That gallery is considered a temporary contemporary art space, where different exhibitions will be visible from the street. It was one of our early requests to the architects that the building register as an art museum from the street in a way that the current one doesn’t. So seeing the art from the street is the key thing.
PM: By way of contrast, perhaps, is how the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern is used and how it functions. It’s certainly not a pass-through space, but there’s this interesting transition that happens when one enters that space: visitors shift from being pedestrians to performers in that space maybe because of the scale of the installations that are in operation there, but I find the way in which people orient themselves differently as soon as they’re in the Turbine Hall, with regards to both that physical space and the work that’s installed there, fascinating. I’m looking for those transitional opportunities in the new SFMOMA building.
DW: It’s a funny thing. Craig Dykers, a Snøhetta principal, said a couple of times when he first walked around SFMOMA that he was surprised how often he saw people kissing in a museum. He knew that the museum was going to jump in scale and wanted to retain that level of intimacy for people. He’s also interested in the alleyways that divide the super blocks of South of Market and what happens in those alleyways. We who live here know about the parklets and the businesses that people open in the alleyways, so they’re trying to create more of that experience of intimate scale and a tight urban context in a very big building. There’s not a Tate Turbine Hall experience, and I’m okay with that.
Schematic design of a versatile, double-height white-box space on the fourth floor. Courtesy of Snøhetta and MIR, Oslo and New York.
BA: Having gone through all these elements of the building, it does sound like Christmas for curators. You’re getting a whole bunch of new toys and some really interesting opportunities to play with, and these ideas of the actual experiential involvement of the public is really exciting. Are you also looking at or creating other opportunities for local artists working in these areas to engage with the expanded museum in an expanded way?
FS: We have this curatorial think tank, which started with the question of the contemporary and how are we going to service the contemporary in such a monumental museum that’s dealing with a collection that’s weighted from 1960 to the late ’90s. This was a question when I was at the Whitney Museum when the New Museum opened, because the fear was that the New Museum would seize the contemporary and the Whitney would become the museum of the ’60s and ’70s. What would it mean to be able to balance the historical parts of your collection with a commitment to today? That’s opened up to not just the most cutting edge or who is in the latest triennial; it also has to do with the question of the global and the local that you brought up and how do we engage. How are we going to balance resources and opportunities for local artists through the continuation of SECA? How are we going to mobilize the New Works program to also help us have a global reach? How are we going to look at exhibitions like Six Lines of Flight, where San Francisco was a line of flight embedded in the exhibition as part of a larger conversation about artistic infrastructure and collective activities? How can we find those conversations that will help us thread out from here into other places that are also having a kind of similar conversation?
DW: For seventy-seven years this museum has sort of swung between those two poles, the local and the global. The early decades were incredibly energetic and dedicated to supporting a cultural experience in the Bay Area, and in the ’80s it wanted to be this international museum and establish that profile. Lots of people hope that we’re now at a point where it doesn’t have to be an either/or, where we can really feel confident about being able to fulfill those two roles the way that an institution of this scale and a city this great should be able to.
Frank Smigiel is the associate curator of public programs at SFMOMA, where he designs and implements live events from artists’ talks and public projects to visual arts–based performance and film. He has realized live work with Martha Colburn, William Kentridge, OPENrestaurant, Rebecca Solnit, Eve Sussman & the Rufus Corporation, Stephanie Syjuco, Mika Tajima/New Humans, among many others. He holds a doctorate in English literature.
Dominic Willsdon is the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA. He has taught at the Royal College of Art, California College of the Arts, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a former editor of the Journal of Visual Culture and co-editor of The Life and Death of Images: Ethics and Aesthetics. In 2010, he was the inaugural Kress Fellow in Museum Education at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.