Tag Archives: Boston

European Art History’s Audience

Before I left for New York Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem ask me: “Just as a curiosity – if you ever do visit the Frick Gallery in NY, make a mental note of how many non whites you see there. I have this sinking feeling that western art history/art appreciation is a “white folks club” to a certain degree and I am hoping to be proved wrong.”

There are some problems that I faced in considering the race audience for European Art History in the USA.

Firstly I did this by casual observation rather than a proper survey with a comparison the visitor numbers to the general population. Observation is not a good way to determine how people identify themselves racially. I generally don’t like to do it; it feels too close to racism and I wouldn’t have done it if Hasan hadn’t suggested that I do it.

Secondly art history visitors are more to do with gender, education and class rather than race. So a proper survey would not only consider the percentage of racial groups in education levels and income.

Thirdly, how different are the visitors for European art history compared to the visitors for non-European art history and contemporary art. I did notice that there was a slight difference but the audience for contemporary art but not for Asian, Islamic, Inuit, Haitian or Amerindian art.

Given these problems the answer is still obvious. The black face in an art gallery is most often the gallery attendant. The overwhelming numbers of visitors at the Frick Collection in New York or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are European with a few Asians and a couple of African Americans. This is the same case for exhibitions of non-European art history and this makes me thinking that this is more of an issue of education, specifically a liberal arts education, as well as income levels. To understand a painting in the Frick Collection you need to know both who Thomas Moore and Hans Holbein were and how they featured in English history. And it is education that is reason why a black face in any art gallery is with generally a school group.

Art history in America is largely a “white folks club”. Not that it intends to be, this is not a matter of content. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has Islamic and Chinese art in the collection. (Another place where you are likely to see a person of African origin a European art gallery is in the art, rather than amongst the viewers. This is more common than you might expect.) I am somewhat relieved that on the whole Europeans have learnt to appreciate the many cultures that they have conquered, colonised and pillaged.

The audience for modern or contemporary art is a little bit more racially broader there are more Asians, a few more Africans and a very few Arabs. With contemporary art you don’t require a specific knowledge of history or a liberal arts education. But the racial group that was most noticeably absent from any of the galleries that I visited in the USA were Indians.

Thanks to Hasan Niyazi for suggesting that I consider this issue.


Collections or Museums

A museum is a collection of collections. Some museums are encyclopaedic in their collections whereas others are more focused on certain types of collections. But single collections do not make museums, except that sometimes the naming of these institutions does get confusing. Some galleries and institutions have collections and others don’t, some places call themselves museums and others don’t.

Single collections do not make museums because the collector limits the collection in that you can to clearly see the identity of the collector in the collection. A collection of anything is similar to a work of art; it could be a work of art, consider Duchamp’s readymades and Danh Vo’s 2012 Hugo Boss Prize winning exhibition of the collection of Martin Wong. I saw Danh Vo’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2013 and it was a portrait of Martin Wong readymade from the things he collected.

Perhaps this is one of my problems with David Walsh’s MONA in Hobart, it is not a museum it is just his art collection (see my post on MONA). There are limitations on the number, quality and taste that a single collector can bring to a collection. A collection of collections fills in gaps in the have occurred in a single collection. In this respect an art museums collection may taste blander than that of a single collector that preserves the original taste of eccentricity.

You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be an art collector but it does help, a lot. There are collectors with important collections who aren’t rich (see my post on London Regionalism). But the collectors who open their collections and homes, or palaces in the case of Isabella Stewart Gardner, to the public are the very rich.

The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston is an astonishing collection. It is well worth a visit even though but much of the collection is not of highest quality. I had a lot of fun at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. I played at seeing how many works I could identify and put a date to and then check the room sheets to see how close I got to the correct answer. It is also a very eccentric collection, right down to the admission fee: free to people named Isabella or people on their birthday, a $2 discount to people wearing Boston Red Sox items and to people who have visited the Museum of Fine Arts in the last three days (I qualified for the last one).

Isabella Gardener was a dedicated collector but that was not her main love; that was art, music and literature. Collecting was simply a means to an end and it was not the only means. Gardener provided work-space, accommodation and even travelling expenses for artists, including John Singer Sargent.

The Frick Collection in New York has the same variation in quality and taste that can be seen in Isabella Stewart Gardener’s collection. It is a super collection with some of the best paintings that I’ve seen. However, the wall paintings of the absurd cherubs in the “Boucher Room” may not to be contemporary taste. Actually the Frick Collection is more a museum than the Gardener Museum as the Frick Collection has been added to considerably since the death of Henry Clay Frick.

With collections like Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner, no wonder the Europeans felt that rich Americans were buying their culture. Gardner’s fantasy Venetian palace competing with William Randolph Hearst’s Castle in California and other American collectors like Frick. (Other collections on display see my post on Gustave Moreau’s Museum.)

(See my post on Types of Art Galleries.)


Paintspotting in America

Paintspotter, noun, definition: like a trainspotter but for people who look for street art and graffiti (a portmanteau word coined by Fletcher “Facter” Anderson, editor of Invurt).

Stencil Dumbo district NYC

Stencil Dumbo district NYC

I’ve recently returned from travelling in Canada, New York and Boston. When I visit other cities I am a stranger trying to get to know the place, finding the hidden places where street artists and graffiti writers like to work is even more challenging. I try to find a street art tour or a local who knows the scene but often this is not possible. I probably am not seeing the best locations for street art in these cities. Street art is such an insider’s game and that makes it difficult for a tourist to play. In this respect sticker art is the travelling paintspotter’s friend because it gives you a sample of local street art conveniently located on the backs of signs.

Railway graffiti Canada

Railway graffiti Canada

The way to see lots of graffiti is to travel by train. It is not a good way to photograph graffiti but it is a good way to see a lot (respect to all the Bridgeport writers). I did to train trips from Ottawa and Montréal and from NYC to Boston. The best graffiti that I saw in Canada was in Montréal’s plateau district; there were also a couple of impressive walls in London Ontario.

Wall, London, Ontario, Canada

Wall, London, Ontario, Canada

Street art in Montreal

Street art in Montreal

Of the notorious or famous artist whose work I saw Revok up high up in Montréal, Neckface high up in NYC’s Bowery, Shepard Fairey in the Bowery and a piece by Kenny Scharf in Chelsea – Scharf had an exhibition in a gallery just across the road but it was shut so I could only see it through the large windows.

Shepard Fairy Bowery NYC

Shepard Fairy Bowery NYC

Kenny Scharf, Chelsea, NYC

Kenny Scharf, Chelsea, NYC

Another way to find graffiti is to track down the art galleries and there will often be some street art and graffiti in the area. This rule proved true for NYC’s Dumbo district where I saw some of the best street art that I saw in NYC. I didn’t any further into Brooklyn but there was so so many things other that I wanted to see and do in NYC.

Graffiti Wall of Fame, Harlem, NYC

Graffiti Wall of Fame, Harlem, NYC

In Lonely Planet I read about the “Graffiti Hall of Fame”, a wall in NYC but when I got there it was small and capped. The other side of the wall was in better condition but less accessible. So there was I standing on the corner of this street in Harlem asking people passing by if they knew of any other good graffiti locations – New York is a very friendly city but nobody knew of any good walls.

Reverse side of the Graffiti wall of fame, Harlem, NYC

Reverse side of the Graffiti wall of fame, Harlem, NYC

I was just lucky in Boston on the way to the Barry McGee exhibition (see my post) I left the T station and right in front of me is this great wall by Os Gêmeos.

Os Gêmeos, Boston

Os Gêmeos, Boston


Barry McGee – Drawing From The Street

Barry McGee (aka Twist, his street tag) also uses the personas of R. Fong and Lydia Fong. McGee’s art has been described as “Mission School” (after the San Francisco Mission District) and “New Folk” but I’ll just call it street art. McGee’s art brings together graffiti, comics, hobo art, sign painting and surfing.  His art on the street or in the gallery has clean lines and he uses a blocky sans-serif font with drop shadows. His art is based around grouping and clustering materials and images. He is inspired by the eclectic mix that is found in bodegas and on the street.

Barry McGee 1

McGee enjoys working collectively and collaboratively. There are collaborations with his long time collaborator Josh Lazcano, his late wife Margaret Kilgallen, or his collaboration with Boston graffiti artists for this exhibition.

You can enter this retrospective from two directions at the ICA. You can start with McGee collaborating with local Boston street/graffiti artists to create his own exhibition (for more on Boston graffiti see http://www.bostonsgraffitighosts.com). Or you can start where the curators started.

The curators mention that there is a “central contradiction” in McGee’s art between the street versus the museum. I don’t know about that, museums/contemporary art institutes are (or should be) just place to display art, whatever it is rather than the art having to conform to the institution. McGee is not a naïve, outsider artist – he studied art the San Francisco Art Institute in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And McGee can easily fill whole gallery walls as easily as he can fill walls on the street. In one gallery an animated wooden head repeatedly bangs against a bulging wall of scrap plywood. Maybe the central contradiction that McGee explores is between kitsch versus tasteful, quality versus junk, good versus bad art.

There is along with all the images, sculpture, junk and stuff a lot of sound in the exhibition, the animatronic spray painting figures squeak, there is tower of televisions – it is not a silent tomb of an exhibition.

Barry McGee 2

I took some time out from walking around the exhibition to sit down in the Poss Family Mediatheque to take another look at the art of McGee in videos, photographs and text on an interactive screen while looking out the window to Boston’s bay. This gave more depth to the exhibition and meant that I wasn’t on my feet the whole time.

Barry McGee 3

“I can live with the rats but I can’t live with graffiti” says a local resident quoted in The Boston TAB 7/8/90. You can get diseases from rats, like the plague, but I’ve never heard of anyone dying from exposure to graffiti. In the NYC flat that I was staying in last week the cat was sitting proudly behind the cockroach that it had killed.

The constitution of the USA does not include private property as an inalienable right; the inalienable rights (those that a person cannot be alienated from are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seems like surfing and the art of Barry McGee.

This exhibition at the ICA Boston is billed as “the first-ever retrospective of acclaimed artist Barry McGee” expecting that there will be more, I hope there will be.


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