Storming the CastleNovember 23, 2015
The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.
At that time, people were incensed, disappointed, and appalled.
Charles Desmarais’s byline has begun to appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, an event that has not been met with as much attention as the announcement in September that he was stepping down as president of the financially troubled San Francisco Art Institute to become the Chronicle’s art critic. At that time, people were incensed, disappointed, and appalled. They pointed to everything from the potential conflicts of interest in writing about anyone related to the school to the fact that his wife is an assistant managing editor in the features department of the paper. In the ensuing weeks, as we’ve adjusted to the news, few seem to have softened their voiced opinions about the appointment. The discussions have included a great deal of speculation on the longer-term impact that the new critic will have on our local culture. And while speculation is highly problematic, unreliable, and dependent upon conjecture more so than facts, I’ll indulge it here and share my opinion: In the long run, this appointment matters very little to the Bay Area visual arts community.
I suspect, given the abruptness of his transition from SFAI, he may perceive this appointment as an interim position and move on before fully developing an identity as a critic. And even if Desmarais plans to stick around, he has a lot of hurdles to overcome before Bay Area visual art audiences will embrace him in the role. He will need to address such germane issues as the absence of a critical oeuvre, as well as accusations of nepotism given his spouse’s proximate role in the organization. (In the end, it doesn’t matter if his wife had a say in his hiring or not; the appearance of a conflict of interest is as valid as an actual one.) And finally, there is the issue about which Desmarais can do nothing, but which should have given the Chronicle’s hiring team pause: They replaced one white male critic over the age of sixty with another.
It is this last point of concern that illuminates why I would deem his tenure irrelevant over the long term. The editors of the Chronicle chose to hire a single individual to represent an incredibly multivalent community of producers. He is automatically ascribed authority because of his race, gender, and history as an institutional leader; it is an outmoded model that bears little resemblance to how and with whom this community engages in critical dialogue. And so I’d like to shift the focus from the problematic circumstances of Desmarais’s hiring to consideration of two questions whose answers do have resonant impacts on the community: “What do Bay Area audiences need from art criticism?” and “What can these audiences require of their cultural leadership?”
Criticism is not activism, but I believe that when criticism takes certain forms or occupies certain locations, it catalyzes action. Criticism cannot simply serve the function of consumer advocacy—whether or not one should see that exhibition/film/performance/show—it needs to position itself as participatory, self-reflective, and highly conscious of the audience it is serving. It takes on the responsibility of representing the full range of artists’ social, economic, political, or ethnographic identities. Criticism in the Bay Area needs to be produced by writers that identify as or with those who are queer, straight, cis, white, of color, established, undocumented, transnational, transgendered, educated, middle class, displaced, emerging, progressive, and so on, if it is going to be relevant to artists or arts audiences in this community.
We, the arts community, have found better ways to represent ourselves.
In Art Practical, I can point you as easily to the perspectives of queer women of color writing about new media as to those of white straight men writing about painting. We’ve also published a great deal of content about the economic issues that Bay Area artists face, whether they relate to labor, housing, or the outsized and eradicating influences of Silicon Valley. Good for us, right? My point is that over the past six years, we’ve constructed a composite portrait of Bay Area visual culture, shaped by the identities of its producers, the significant challenges it currently faces, and the means by which those challenges are being answered. Our archive is not comprehensive, but its veracity is indisputable. And because of that, I can credibly say that the model of a single, authoritarian voice for criticism is irrelevant because it is incapable of producing such a heterogeneous portrait. We, the arts community, have found better ways to represent ourselves.1 And because we have the means to do so, we also have the responsibility to voice what we want the cultural leadership of this community to look like, individually and collectively.
Since 2013, there has been an unprecedented changing of the guard at Bay Area visual arts institutions. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco hired Colin B. Bailey as their director. YBCA hired an executive director, Deborah Cullinan, who appointed a new senior leadership team (Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Jonathan Moscone), and brought on a new visual arts director, Lucía Sanromán. The Contemporary Jewish Museum hired Renny Pritikin as their chief curator. The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts hired director Anthony Huberman, who appointed Jamie Stevens as its curator. The Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI are now helmed by Hesse McGraw. Dena Beard took on the herculean challenges of the Lab, and Heather Snider is the executive director at SF Camerawork. Aimee Le Duc is now directing the Berkeley Art Center. A team has replaced Joseph del Pesco of the Kadist Art Foundation, which is perhaps the ultimate compliment for a departing director. And most recently, Natalia Mount was named executive director of Pro Arts while Susan Sayre Batton was named deputy director for curatorial affairs at the San Jose Museum of Art.
It is only in assembling this list that one senses how radically Bay Area cultural institutions have morphed over the past two years. What is remarkable is the relative stability with which these shifts in executive leadership unfolded.2 Whatever internal upheavals, policy changes, and organizational revamping have occurred in these organizations have largely manifested for us, their audiences, as new branding, new programs, and new artists. This is not to say we aren’t looking below the surface, or that we should be complacent about these shifts. But with such a wholesale change in such a concentrated period of time, we have to be conscientious of the decisions these individuals make, the values they bring to their institutions, and the cultures they create there. Through our critical forums, the opportunities arise for us, as audiences, to hold these individuals and their boards accountable in ways we haven’t before.
This opportunity comes to light most acutely in the wake of the uncertainty Desmarais leaves behind with his move from one position of cultural leadership to another. SFAI has been plagued by financial instability and short executive tenures for well over a decade, a surprising and unfortunate fate given the school’s storied history. Many local artists have a stake in its survival as alumni or faculty.3 Beyond that, I would argue that the Bay Area visual arts ecosystem is highly dependent on its academic institutions and the role they play in incubating emerging artistic practices. The strength of this layer is holistically measured; it would prove detrimental to California College of the Arts and the visual arts departments of Mills, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis if SFAI were to collapse.
Let me pose the question: To whom did you air your dissatisfaction over Desmarais’s appointment? Besides to me or to your friends? It certainly made for a rousing topic of conversation at exhibition openings that weekend, but then what? Jillian Steinhauer wrote a column for Hyperallergic, where a lively debate unfolded in the comments. But only five comments accompany the Chronicle’s announcement online. Ample discussion happened on Facebook and other social media—William Powhida and Bean Gilsdorf, among others, took Desmarais to task on Twitter—but ultimately, the beneficiary of this activity is Facebook and Twitter, not us or the related institutions.4 It would be one thing if such postings led to a call to action: Can you image a mob of angry artists storming the Chronicle’s editorial offices demanding a reconsideration of their hire? Or calls for a town hall-style meeting at SFAI so we may voice our opinions on hiring criteria for their next president? If not these actions, there are others to take.
SFAI’s vacancy occurs alongside others; Southern Exposure, SOMArts, and di Rosa are all searching for new executive directors. These appointments don’t occur as the result of public opinion polls; decisions are made by boards and hiring committees. But the mission statement for each of these organizations speaks to whom they serve.
There should not be a single executive director or board member of any visual arts organization in the Bay Area unaware of whom that is. It is our responsibility to speak directly to them and tell them what values, skills, and vision we want our cultural leaders to possess as they shepherd the institutions we participate in and are invested in. We don’t have to wait until they are hired or depart. We can start with the Chronicle. Our critics need to closely represent who we are and what we need. Who’s going to tell them that?
Patricia Maloney is the founder of Art Practical, the Executive Director of DSAP, and Associate Professor in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts.