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State of the Art at Boise Art Museum

Examining Boise Art Museum's role in the Community

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Every three years, Boise Art Museum puts out a call to artists seeking the best current artwork in Idaho. Like the Whitney Biennial in New York City or the Venice Biennale in Italy, the Idaho Triennial acts as a cultural barometer, a way to press our collective fingers to the state's artistic pulse and feel the thump of issues that ignite and enthrall us. The Triennial—the largest group exhibition of Idaho work hosted by the only nationally accredited collecting art museum in the state—is, understandably, a big deal for local artists.

This year, in part to land a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and in part to spruce up an event that has been occurring in various forms since 1932, BAM tacked on an additional requirement to the Triennial: artists had to submit their work under the theme "Sustain + Expand."

Many artists' gut reactions were, to put it nicely, negative.

"The purpose is to say ... 'Here's the best of what is going on in Idaho today.' To put a theme on it, it's almost like, 'Well, we ran out of ideas and nobody's making good work' ... It turns it into a circus. You're not going to get the best of people's work," said painter Dave Thomas via phone, while visiting the Whitney Biennial in New York City.

Artist Pete Grady also felt like the theme was an insult.

"I think that the people in town—this doesn't speak for everybody, it may speak just for me—but people kind of looked at it and sort of rolled their eyes and groaned because, though the words are maybe a little more contemporary, the whole theme just felt sort of '90s."

For artist Surel Mitchell, who currently has three pieces in BAM's permanent collection and was accepted into the 2010 Triennial, the theme initially irked her for other reasons.

"My original response was pretty negative ... for various reasons. One, it was very abrupt that we had so little notice if we were to make new work. It was a ridiculously short amount of time for someone like me who takes quite a while to do work," said Mitchell. "I felt it was putting artists in a position to lie ... to fit the theme. That they would take existing work that had nothing to do with the theme."

To clarify the museum's intentions, Executive Director Melanie Fales sent out an e-mail to artists the following week in which she explained that the exhibit received funding from the NEA, largely because of the Triennial's new approach.

"Whenever you want to continue with a long-time-running project, you have to get creative and look at some of the funding opportunities so that we can continue to offer this kind of professional development opportunity back to the artists," Fales explained to BW.

"We needed to come up with something that was a little new and different. We needed a new twist so it would be a compelling and competitive grant proposal."

In her e-mail, Fales said the museum's goal wasn't to have artists "create new work to fit the theme or to limit artists, but to encourage artists to consider how their work already contributes to a more universal dialog about art."

And while, according to Fales, this e-mail was effective in quelling any misunderstandings in the artistic community, there was nonetheless a notable drop in Triennial applicants this year--152 total, down from 249 in 2007.

Some artists, like Mitchell, reassessed their feelings, realizing how inclusive the theme is.

"The theme is extraordinarily broad, the more I thought about it. It's very, very broad and can be taken in so many ways," said Mitchell.

Still, other artists saw having a theme as emblematic of a larger, more overarching philosophical disconnect at the museum.

"I think they choose amateurish programs that they're putting together. I just don't think that they're very interesting programs that communicate with the local—and by local I mean Idaho—artists. When a museum stops communicating with the art community, they become ineffective. They become just another place," said Thomas.

For Amy Pence-Brown, a former assistant curator at BAM who juried the 2007 Triennial, the museum is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pleasing the local artistic community.

"I think the Boise Art Museum has always had a love-hate relationship with local artists, specifically around this exhibition ... They have a tricky role, too, in the sense that they're the only art museum in the state, so they carry this huge burden of bringing in interesting art for people to look at and then there's this burden of no one else is showing local art, and the galleries are closing," she said. "The local scene gets pissed off because the museum's not showing their work, and the museum feels like they have a responsibility to bring in a wide variety of work, so that's a tricky balance."

That tenuous balance—the struggle to be many things to many people—can be seen in BAM's mission statement: "[To champion] excellence in the visual arts through exhibitions, collections and educational experiences."

This mission statement, one that doesn't specify BAM cater to any one demographic or show any one particular genre of art, has led to a broad—some say safe—program.

For example, since the start of 2010, BAM has shown quilts made by an isolated African American community in Alabama in "A Survey of Gee's Bend Quilts"; Werner Kramarsky's collection of works on paper in "Idea as Art: Contemporary Works on Paper"; modern art collected by an eccentric couple from New York in "Vogel 50x50: The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, Fifty Works for Fifty States"; art about robots (which, to their credit, included a large-scale Jeff Soto) in "Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon"; and a collection of bird illustrations from the 1800s in "John James Audubon: American Artist and Naturalist."

Three of these exhibitions—"Gee's Bend," "Robots" and "Audubon"—were traveling shows, which means the museum had little to do with piecing them together, while "Vogel 50x50" was part of a national gift, in which 2,500 contemporary artworks were distributed to museums around the country.

According to Fales, the museum's programming reflects the diversity of BAM's audience.

"We do, as part of our mission, take a broad view and diverse view in terms of kinds of exhibitions and kinds of programs and kinds of opportunities that we offer. We do want to make sure that we have something that appeals to a broad range of audiences," said Fales.

Jacque Crist, former owner of J Crist Gallery, views BAM's uninspired programming as an attempt to appease its financial supporters.

"To be fair to the Boise Art Museum, they are constantly having to deal with who their contributors are, who the people are that contribute financially to the museum," said Crist. "You're not going to get some of the big corporations that are very conservative to support some of the more outrageous art that's being done that probably says more about what's happening in the world than anything. You're limited so much by how you satisfy your donors, your lenders, your board."

Pence-Brown agreed, adding, "No nudity is allowed in the art museum ... it's not 'not allowed' but it's so not suggested ... Of course it has to do with money, funders not funding things that are too provocative ... Apparently years before I came there was a breastfeeding mother in a painting and it caused a huge stir."

Fales is quick to point out that nudes are occasionally featured as a part of "exhibitions of integrity" shown at the museum, like Rodin's Balzac studies and Garth Claassen's large-scale drawings of male figures. And while she acknowledges that corporate support is vital to the success of BAM, she argues that donor opinions don't directly affect programming.

"BAM's exhibitions and programs schedules are organized and arranged by professional staff in accordance with the established mission and vision of the museum. Funding is sought after determining the exhibitions and programs," said Fales. "BAM is proud not to have any loans or incurred debt, so 'satisfying a financial lender' also is not applicable to the museum."

According to Michael Kaiser, the executive director of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., who writes on the current state of the arts, trying to appease everyone—particularly donors—isn't an effective strategy for drawing in new audiences. At a recent lecture at the Morrison Center, Kaiser explained that it's important—particularly in tough economic times—to make sure arts programming continues to be challenging and provocative.

"I think a lot of us are so frightened about selling tickets that we end up doing art that is accessible because we think that's what the audience wants, but the truth is there are lots of projects ... that could teach our audience or move our audience, but the audience may not know that they want that and it takes time to teach them," said Kaiser.

Kaiser has spent his career turning flailing arts institutions into cutting-edge cultural behemoths. Under Kaiser's direction, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Royal Opera House and American Ballet Theatre have all gone from drowning in the red to swimming in the black. So what's Kaiser's solution for how arts organizations can continue to thrive in an economy where less and less money is being spent on the arts? First and foremost: Don't cut or dumb down programming.

"When the recession started, so many arts organizations, their first knee-jerk reaction was to cut programming or to make their programming safer or a little less interesting. ... What happens is your [audience] starts to look elsewhere, they start to look for the more interesting place to be ... which means that you have a little bit less revenue which means that you have a little bit less to put into programming, you do a little less marketing and your [audience] shrinks a little bit more," said Kaiser. "You get sicker and sicker and sicker."

In Crist's opinion, it is an art institution's responsibility to bring in work that provokes audiences. But that isn't always the case.

"I think you're served as a people to be forced to question, to be forced to think about the alternative. If all [BAM's] programs are going to be like the 'Audubon,' that's not going to do much for a multi-leveled community. It's going to be one level."

Though the museum has proactively worked to expand its educational programming, opening the ARTexperience Gallery, an interactive space geared toward kids, and broadening hands-on family art programs and art classes, the museum has taken a less-aggressive approach to courting new or younger crowds and rarely engages audiences with multidisciplinary programming. For Pence-Brown, this is emblematic of an unwillingness to adapt to the changing times.

"It felt to me that when I worked there ... the main part of the structure, the leadership doesn't like change and sort of likes that status quo and likes that elitism of the old museum that's not relevant," said Pence-Brown. "In bigger cities, they've learned that way ahead of us."

In Portland, Ore., for example, Portland Art Museum's recent exhibition, "China Design Now," employed a variety of fresh techniques to unite the Rose City's diverse population. The exhibition chronicled China's creative revolution in graphics, fashion and architecture over the past 20 years. In an article in Fast Company, author Steve McCallion observed: "After walking though the 'China Design Now' exhibition, the youngest member of the Portland Art Museum's board proclaimed to Executive Director Brian Ferriso, 'The museum is relevant again!'"

PAM did this, in part, Ferriso explained, by releasing control of the conversation.

"We really went out and had numerous conversations ... with some key people in leadership positions in the design community ... We talked about how do we extend the exhibition beyond the physical confines of our walls? ... In one sense, we allowed and encouraged other voices to participate around the exhibition," said Ferriso.

PAM set up the website cdnpdx.org--linked to its homepage--which hosted bloggers in Portland and China and provided a platform for "creators, commentators and consumers" to communicate about events around the city relating to the exhibition. There were "China Design Now"-themed after-parties hosted at restaurants, performance art pieces in local hotels, exhibit-related movies shown at theaters and alternate exhibits curated at other art galleries. While the show was so successful largely because it engaged a wide variety of Portlanders—designers, those with Chinese ancestry, contemporary artists, students—it was also significant because it opened up the conversation, something traditionally kept under tight control by museum curators.

"I believe the museum should be a voice of authority but also facilitate other voices within the city and dialogue around the art that it presents," said Ferriso. "I think that that's really critical for a museum to do and it needs to be relevant in doing that."

According to Kaiser, promoting this type of dialogue is now a crucial part of creating successful and engaging programming. But, he added, that doesn't mean curatorial control should be thrown out the window.

"You have to be secure enough to say I'm going to open up the conversation and lose a little bit of control in the conversation but not necessarily what I'm going to present. I don't believe the community should say what your art should be, I believe that's your job as the arts leader," said Kaiser. "But I certainly believe you should open up the conversation with the community, to see what they think of it, how they respond to it, what they learn from it."

The approach worked for PAM. During the short time people were waiting in line for "China Design Now," there were 1,700 new museum memberships generated.

"We had a lot of new faces and new donors, not as many donors as I'd like—there's never enough," said Ferriso, laughing. "But we did have a number of new people engaged in the institution."

As grant and funding opportunities in the arts have plummeted over the last few years, Seattle Art Museum has also made it a priority to cast its net wider, courting new and younger audiences. The most recent exhibition, "Kurt," explores the significance of '90s grunge idol Kurt Cobain.

"Certainly we thought ['Kurt'] was the kind of show that could bring in a different type of audience than the museum has been used to," said Michael Darling, a curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM. "These are tough times, and we really want to try and make the museum as pertinent and relevant to our public as possible and try to get as many people involved with art and invested with art as possible."

The exhibit traces Cobain's influence in music, fine art and popular culture during the years following his death. Through a variety of works, including photos by Charles Peterson and Alice Wheeler and an installation by Banks Violette, "Kurt" explores the themes of celebrity, identity, mimicry and mythology.

Seattle Art Museum has also drawn in new crowds with a program called SAM Re-Mix. Quarterly, the museum stays open until midnight and invites bands and DJs to perform while local celebrities and artists lead "opinionated, free-wheeling, unfiltered" tours of the museum. For Darling, courting these new, younger audiences is a way to keep the museum experience relevant and possibly interest a new generation in future museum patronage.

"I get frustrated when young people who are interested in the most cutting-edge music, the most cutting-edge fashion, and yet still have very old-fashioned ideas about what art is," said Darling. "So, I'm always really hoping and trying to introduce them to the art of their time ... We're trying to make it as friendly as possible—which is not to say dumbing it down or simplifying it—but just giving them a vehicle for entering into the dialogue and then they can wrestle with all of the complexities once they get over that threshold."

Kaiser also views the lack of participation of younger audiences as problematic.

"Now we have a whole generation of people in their 20s and 30s who didn't have the arts as children in schools, and I'm not sure where the board members and the donors and the volunteers are going to be coming from in 20 years and that scares me much more than the current recession."

Closer to home, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts has also realized the importance of engaging younger audiences, bringing in exhibits like "Superheroes and Secret Identities," which included a lecture by lit superstar Michael Chabon. The center has also taken a multidisciplinary approach in order to engage a variety of community members. For "Outside In: Indian Art Abroad," the SVCA showed work by artists Sutapa Biswas, Gauri Gill, Baseera Khan and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, and also hosted classes on Indian cooking, a Bollywood film night and a lecture by literary giant Salman Rushdie (postponed until Sept. 10).

"One of the most important things we've learned—and I think most visual arts organizations have learned over the last couple of years—is just putting up a static show where people come in and learn something, that doesn't cut it anymore," said SVCA Executive Director Bill Ryberg. "There's got to be engagement, there's got to be discussion, there's got to be interchange, there's got to be an opportunity for people of all ages to get together and talk about it and provide feedback."

Though the Sun Valley Center operates on roughly the same budget as Boise Art Museum—$1,615,070 in total expenses during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, versus $2,303,356, respectively—SVCA is still able to offer its gallery exhibits in both Ketchum and Hailey to the public for free.

"Access is just as important as programming in this day and age, allowing people to participate in whatever way they find works best for them—and that includes social media, that includes free exhibitions. Our gallery is free every day of the year here," said Ryberg. "It's really important for arts organizations to be up to speed on how best to reach their audience that way."

Arts accessibility, according to Kaiser, is one of the most pressing issues in the industry. Because it's difficult to increase worker productivity—a string quartet will always have four players—arts institutions find that their costs continue to rise at the same time that their earned income potential—the number of chairs in an auditorium—remain fixed.

"This is a central thing that we face economically in the arts, how do we fill this gap between costs and earned revenue?" asked Kaiser. "Unfortunately the technique we've used too much in our field over the last 40 years has been to raise ticket prices ... we have disenfranchised huge portions of our population who think arts are irrelevant to them. They're not irrelevant, they're just too expensive."

But that's not to say BAM isn't trying to reach new audiences. BAM has made admission free for Boise State students and also for military personnel and their families from Memorial Day to Labor Day 2010. They've also initiated a number of special programs, like teen nights and the salon-style "More Than a Pretty Face," to engage younger crowds.

"What we wanted to do is encourage the teen audience because we know that will then encourage those 20- and 30-somethings to continue on as visitors in the museum," said Fales. "We have a teen night and they have a reception and they have music and have hands-on activities."

The museum also recently partnered with Boise State's marketing association to beef up BAM's Facebook page, which Fales acknowledges is "pretty static." Additionally, due in part to funding received from the NEA and the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, BAM will offer a "Guide by Cell" tour at this year's Triennial, where visitors can engage with the exhibit on their cell phones.

"BAM has a long history of receiving grants from funders who award institutions for innovative art projects that embody diverse art forms and cultural traditions and promote civic dialogue about critical issues, demonstrate artistic excellence, feature professional artists and engage audience members on multiple levels," said Fales.

But for some in the local arts community, BAM's attempts to court new audiences and bring in engaging exhibits aren't cutting it.

"For me, the BAM's program is probably not considered cutting edge, and if BAM wanted to be a leader, I'd imagine they'd want to rethink their program," said Crist.

Artist Pete Grady also feels a general lack of enthusiasm for the museum's program, but blames a Philistine public.

"I know that they want to attract more people to come in, it's an economically tough time for them. And it has been for a long time. It's not just because the economy is down. That museum has really struggled to keep itself going for a long time ... I think it's a lack of an educated audience. I don't know if the museum is as much at fault as the community," said Grady.

Crist wholeheartedly disagrees. In her opinion, it's up to local artists and arts institutions to lead the public discourse. "I think that if we say that about our community then I just want to pack up and leave ... I do not believe it's true. I do believe people want to see different things and new things."

So, whose responsibility is it to bring new ideas and promote artistic discourse in Boise?

"The museum would be the ideal candidate because they're not in it for financial gain, they're only in it for education," said Pence Brown. "Really at the heart of it, [they're about] helping people see art and life in a unique way ... funding will force them to be more creative ... to collaborate more, with not only artists but other organizations, dance and writing in a really interesting way."

Crist, on the other hand, believes it's time for local artists to take personal responsibility and create the artistic change they'd like to see in the community. When that happens, she posits, Boise Art Museum will have no choice but to pay attention.

"Right now, what we don't have is ... anybody coming up against the Boise Art Museum, there's nobody coming up against them except for this little fluff with the Triennial. Everybody gets a bee in their bonnet and then they die down and they don't come back ... My criticism would be more for the artistic community to take that anger, that dissatisfaction with whatever BAM is doing, and get off their chairs and do something themselves. It's not going to be done for you."

CLARIFICATION: Surel Mitchell's work is not in the permanent collection, it is included within the current exhibition, "Full Circle."

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