A Winter Retreat for museum curators, gallery directors, and art collectors

JOHN SKILLEN

How might gallerists and collectors and curators take more active roles in fostering a renewal of a more socially-engaged art – art that serves as “a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture”?

The Studio for Art, Faith & History’s activities in the visual and performing arts typically have something to do with putting the arts back in the place of local communities – putting the artwork to work in helping the community enact its identity and its mission.

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For example, the Studio has a long-running collaboration with Karin Coonrod’s Compagnia de’ Colombari and Andrea Brugnera’s KaminaTeatro to work with the folks of the medieval quarter of Orvieto to rediscover their own rich history of sacred drama – sacre rappresentazioni. The heart of this neighborhood is the beloved 1,000-year-old parish church of San Giovenale, which turns out to have been the home-base of a confraternity that performed such plays in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The seminars and retreats hosted by the Studio every winter and summer help mainly-American groups recover a sense of how the arts were incorporated into the life and work of premodern communities not as decorative add-ons but as essential elements of the fabric of the buildings that housed the activities of the community.

So why did the Studio host a retreat in January 2018 for a dozen gallery directors, museum curators, and serious collectors of art?

After all, the typical pattern, as most of us think of it, is for artists to make what they are inspired to make, and only after the artist makes the artwork does another set of people kick into play. Gallery owners and auction houses and art fair organizers operate as middlemen through whom collectors buy works of art.  Art critics and the intelligentsia of cultural theorists and historians play an important role in setting the value of an artist’s work. Museum directors and exhibition curators give wider access to audiences interested in seeing art and artifacts of past or unfamiliar cultures – or of their own culture. Curators of non-commercial exhibition spaces play their role in educating a public about contemporary art even if the viewers are not looking to buy. And finally Collectors – the serious buyers – put the art somewhere for longer-term viewing by people (except for the billions of dollars worth of art now locked in climate-controlled warehouses as elements of investment portfolios). But all these people do their work after the Artists have done theirs.

This whole system is a product of the last couple of centuries when the artist was the one who made the artwork. But for an even longer period (at least of European culture) the sequencing moved in the opposite direction, and one must speak rather of the set of people who made the art work.

First, the call for art began with the network of communities and associations, guilds and confraternities, cathedral committees and prominent families: the nameable entities who used artwork to give shape and purpose to the activities that embodied their identity and mission.  Then came the patrons and commissioning agents – those engaged in funding the art and contracting the artists to make particular works of art.  Scholarly advisors were typically called in to explain the thematic matter to be given visual embodiment by the artist – to insure that the artist’s visual design measured up to the ideas informing it. The artists who made the artworks were last, not first, in this circle of the four parties who made the art work.

Well, we can’t suggest eliminating the whole now-institutionalized apparatus of entities and roles that get what the artists make into places where their artworks can be appreciated.

But we might imagine how gallerists and collectors and curators could take on more active roles in fostering a renewal of a more socially-engaged art – art that serves (writes Adrienne Chaplin) as “a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture. It aims to connect art with ordinary people and addresses issues that are relevant for today. It has an ethical focus by raising awareness of matters of injustice and by providing a voice for marginalized communities.”

Those were the challenges put before a group of such people participating in a Retreat in Orvieto sponsored by the Studio for Art, Faith & History in January 2018. The group – small enough for shared conversation – represented the various roles: the director of a university museum, the full-time curator of an active church-sponsored gallery, the director of the art gallery associated with a major international evangelism association and a financial supporter of that gallery, the director and former director of a major association of people of faith involved in the arts, and several artists and serious collectors.

One participant, Chad Bartlett, made a 7-minute video about the Retreat, focused on the three excursions we made to see artworks commissioned for specific places. Watch the video here.