Monday, December 27, 2010

Opposing Views: Who Determines Art Exhibit Content? by Kimberly Reed-Deemer

Opposing Views: Who Determines Art Exhibit Content? by Kimberly Reed-Deemer

I’ve decided to start a blog series that focuses on opposing views-- the target… My views. For the debut of this series I offered artist Kimberly Reed-Deemer the chance to discuss her thoughts concerning my views on the issue of public funded art.

Kimberly Reed-Deemer is a New Mexico artist with a background in fine art, paleoanthropology, scientific illustration, and museum design and construction. Kimberly takes issue with some of the opinions I expressed in the following articles:

Brian Sherwin: Art writer to be feared? Thoughts on public funded art exhibits…

Brian Sherwin on Art, Politics, and Censorship

Kimberly Reed-Deemer’s guest blog article is an insightful read-- I hope that you enjoy it as I have.

Who Determines Art Exhibit Content? by Kimberly Reed-Deemer

I share Brian Sherwin’s view that publicly funded art museums and exhibit spaces should represent a cross section of perspectives, but I arrive at this conclusion along a path slightly different from Brian’s. Being an unabashed political and social liberal, I have an obligation to address issues of justice when I encounter them, which is one of the reasons why I support opening publicly funded museum exhibits to include a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, even those views I vehemently oppose. This doesn’t mean I attribute a blind equivalence to all perspectives, however. On the contrary, not all perspectives are of equal merit, and this is precisely why they must be examined in the open light of public discourse, and especially in comparison to competing views where rigorous analysis will identify and discredit flawed perspectives.

If competing views aren’t given an open airing they don’t simply disappear, but are driven underground where they continue to spread one way or another throughout American culture, minus the necessary critical examination. I see this occurring all the time, for example, in the form of forwarded ‘hoax’ emails and poorly developed polemic dealing with a variety of hot button issues and hammered out in fanatically red 24 point font, some of which have been circulating around and around the country for years. Some of which have real consequences in the form of policy, legislation and elections (remember the 2010 mid-terms?). Which scenario is more conducive to the goal an open and well informed society?

Unlike Brian, however, I don’t directly link funding sources, either public or private, to arguments regarding diversity in museum exhibit content. In theory, it sounds reasonable that taxpayers have a right to expect publicly funded museums exhibits to reflect their concerns and perspectives. The funding source rationale for exhibit diversity, however, opens a problematic door where money, in effect, buys exhibit content, the most obvious issue being that advocates of perspectives backed by the most money buy greater influence over exhibit content than those with fewer financial resources. Furthermore, in an American political environment with conservatives pushing the country toward ever smaller government and lower and lower taxes (at least for some clever and influential people), an argument for greater exhibit representation based on taxation would seem to be a rather slippery talking point.

Under a system that would link taxation to the right to determine museum exhibit content, those who most successfully avoided taxes couldn’t complain when publicly funded institutions represented the views of those constituencies who were left shouldering the lion’s share of the nation’s revenue obligations. Moreover, do all taxpayers have an equal right to determine the content of the exhibits their taxes fund? Or do those who pay a higher absolute dollar value in income taxes or pay a higher percentage of their total income have more of a right? Ask a different constituency and get a different answer. When a given exhibit’s funding comes from both public and private sources, the situation becomes even more complex. What money has greater sway over content? Public or private? Exhibit content would thus seem to be best dictated by other criteria, but how then should it be determined?

It may be a radical proposition, but I think the first consideration in determining art exhibit content has to come from artists themselves. Public funding of the arts was initiated by Republican Senator Jacob Javits as a cultural tool designed to combat Communism (Plattner, 1996:38-39), so unfortunately there was a distinct political agenda influencing publicly funded art from the very start. Art museum exhibit content, however, should reflect not what politicians, political parties, special interest groups, museum directors, art curators, art critics and individual taxpayers want artists to do, but what artists of all persuasions are actually doing, what they are concerned with in their work! And not just what some artists working in traditionally hegemonic urban centers are doing, but what artists working all over the country are doing. Maybe it’s an artifact of my background in anthropology and because I’m an artist, but in short, I see museums and exhibit spaces as open platforms for presenting to visitors what artists are actually doing. These venues ‘describe’ what artists are generating, rather than ‘prescribe’ what artists should be generating.

My husband’s museum methods course at Northern Illinois University was organized around the decision making process as it pertains to all aspects of museum operations, including exhibit design and construction. The museum's mission, its collections, its size, its financial resources, the size and expertise of its staff, and the physical characteristics of its facility are some of the practical factors that determine and constrain exhibit content. A museum’s mission statement sets the framework for the exhibits it presents and the activities it engages in, and a museum can’t be expected to mount exhibits that are well beyond the scope and intent of its stated mission.

The same can be said for a museum’s collections, although traveling exhibits, temporary exhibits, and loaned collections allow a museum greater freedom to reach beyond the constraints imposed by its collections. Some limits have to be drawn when, for example, representing the full range of viewpoints regarding a given issue would require more space and cost than a museum or exhibit venue could realistically manage. Few of these factors, however, are so constraining as to mean that art museums and exhibit spaces can’t accurately reflect the full range of art being produced in America. If they aren’t then perhaps there needs to be some serious reform.

People who care about art in this country can perform a reality check on art museums and art spaces, both publicly and privately funded, and make their opinions known to the art establishment and its gatekeepers. As the art world becomes increasingly decentralized, more and more artists are opting to represent themselves through home studios and galleries and artist web sites. Not all artists can afford to maintain their own web sites, but enough are doing so that concerned individuals can readily research the art that is currently being produced in any geographic location in the country and see how it squares away with the work that art museums and art spaces are presenting. If what one sees in museums and exhibits spaces is inconsistent with what artists are actually producing, then people can voice their observations directly to these institutions and stop visiting them until change occurs.

To learn more about Kimberly Reed-Deemer please visit her website at,

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