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Monday, April 8, 2013 / 2:50 PM

Talking to Lee Rosenbaum, AKA CultureGrrl, About the Arts in St. Louis

Talking to Lee Rosenbaum, AKA CultureGrrl, About the Arts in St. Louis

Photo © by Jill Krementz, Courtesy of Laumieier Sculpture Park

This year, the St. Louis Humanities Festival picked a really timeless theme: "Money, Money! Need, Greed and Generosity." As part of the festival programming, Laumeier Sculpture Park invited Lee Rosenbaum, the arts journalist behind the award-winning CultureGrrl blog, to lecture on museum finances at the Contemporary Art Museum-St. Louis. (If you missed the lecture Friday night, check out her interview with St. Louis Public Radio's Steve Potter.)

Rosenbaum has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Art in America, and ARTNews. She's also the author of The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf). Trained as a traditional journalist rather than art critic, Rosenbaum does cultural journalism like no one else; she loves and understands the art part, but also does some seriously rigorous reporting about art and economics, which of course made her the perfect lecturer for this year's festival. We met up with her early Friday afternoon at The Eclipse, right between her radio interview and a tour of Laumeier. Though we tried not to focus too heavily on money and museums, as that was her lecture topic that night, it was hard to resist, as she's a bit of an expert in that area. We also asked her thoughts on our local (and regional) arts institutions, including Crystal Bridges and the Saint Louis Art Museum. And, well, it was also hard to resist asking her about blogging versus traditional journalism, too.

You can read Rosenbaum's recap of her St. Louis talk here, including some of the comments she received from her audience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I wanted to start with Crystal Bridges...I've not been there yet. But it's exactly the same distance from us as Chicago, so I'm wondering if people will go, since it's just out there by itself...

Yeah, and Crystal Bridges is the new boy in town, or the new girl in town. So it's certainly interesting to see. I was there very shortly after the opening, not before the opening, but a couple of weeks after. I was very impressed with what they were able to pull off in such a short period of time. It's not easy to put together a good collection from scratch in any field. And I think in about 10 years time she [Alice Walton] managed to collect some very fine things. Some of the things weren't the finest example of those artists, but they've acquired a lot just in the past year. They've gotten hundreds and hundreds, more than a thousand new pieces. Some of them are works on paper. Some of them are filling gaps that they have. The architecture sometimes fights the art there, but it's a very pleasing building to be in. The ponds are quite spectacular. They had some problems with them, they were leaking, when I was there it was just one pond that was filled at that point because they were still working on the issues with the other pond. But I think that they're hoping now to expand their programs to do more loan exhibitions, and the director is now president, because he's going to focus more international initiatives, and I think exhibtionary types of initiatives. Of course they had to get the place open, and get the collection. They've also had a lot of staff turnover, which is a little bit unusual. Some of the key players have left. But it's definitely worth seeing. You should go at least once!

One of the things that interested me about your blog post on Crystal Bridges was you'd touched on how Alice Walton had funded all of this stuff, but not in a showy way, more in a quiet, medieval patron sort of way, versus this Las Vegas approach that people take now.

Well, to her credit, she didn't want her name on everything. She really did, as far as I can tell, really let the professionals run the show in terms of how the art was presented. Her tastes were such that it limited certain things that were in the inaugural collection. She was not a folk art aficionado. Though now I think they have gotten at least one painting I know of in that genre. And there's a lot to be done, but a lot was done in terms of what they opened with. I've got to go back and see what they've done since.

I wanted to talk expansions, too, because that's on everyone's mind because of the Saint Louis Art Museum. And I saw on your blog today, you were posting about St. Louis, how the last time you were in town the only thing that was done enough to see was the little model in the lobby.

I did get to see it from the outside. I was not allowed to go in, because they were installing art... I was impressed. It contrasts. It doesn't try to imitate the Cass Gibert building, which I think is a good thing, you don't want to slavishly imitate that. It's very different, and yet I think it is respectful. I haven't gotten inside yet, and it's hard to review a building until you get to see how it works as gallery space, how it works as a museum. But I guess I'm cautiously optimistic. You certainly got it done here with a lot less cost than the Whitney Museum, which was just in the news today about its expansion. It's having artists and collectors and artists' estates donate art to try to help plug that $200 million dollar gap in their capital campaign! I mean, it's not going to plug it, it's going to help plug it. Sotheby's is doing the auction. So St. Louis did a great job, apparently, from what I'm understanding.

St. Louis and Kansas City are always in this sort of competition about this and that, so I'm curious about your thoughts on the Nelson-Atkins expansion, too.

In a way, it came to mind in connection with this, because it was another case where the architect did something that was clearly of today; he didn't try to slavishly imitate the more traditional museum building that he was playing off of, and yet somehow it worked. That one was a much more flamboyant building. As the St. Louis spokespeople said yesterday, Chipperfield is not doing a "look-at-me" kind of building. It's not a Steven Holl, it's not a Frank Gehry. It's trying to stay respectfully in the background, and yet provide something new. I love the poured concrete with the flecks of the aggregate, to play off the limestone. I thought that was a nice touch. So [the Nelson-Atkins] did come to mind, though it's a very, very different building. But they are both trying to do the same thing, which is work with what's there but not slavishly imitate it. And I think that's the way to go with expansions, I like that approach.

And you finally got to visit the Contemporary.

Yes! And I love, love, love the Cloepfil building. I've seen a couple of his other museum buildings. I covered for the Wall Street Journal the expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, and I also covered for the Wall Street Journal the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan. It wasn't a new building, but he completely redid it, though it's on the same footprint. These three buildings, what strikes me is they're incredibly different from each other, because the institutions, and the missions at those institutions, are so different. I thought the Contemporary Art Museum worked wonderfully as a quasi-artist loft, on a grand scale, with many different kinds of spaces. Right now, as you know, they have the Jeremy Deller show, which takes over the whole place. I gather that is unusual, but I thought it worked really well. I enjoyed my time there, and was glad I finally got to go in.

Because on your last trip, you went to the Pulitzer, but CAM was closed.

And today, the Pulitzer was closed! I was planning to go to both. But that's the problem with being a cultural tourist and not checking visiting hours before you go. (Laughs.) I once came to the Coliseum on the wrong day. Not quite the same league, but yeah.

What else have you seen?

I got to the Kemper, which I hadn't been to; I managed to hit two places I hadn't been to. Again, very impressed by what they pulled off there in terms of that Braque exhibition. That's not what I think of when I think of your typical university museum exhibition. But they pulled off a first-rate, high museum quality show. So, yeah, I'm a bit euphoric about the St. Louis arts scene! I'm really pleasantly surprised.

And next up, you're headed to Laumeier?

Yeah, I've never been there either. So I'm filling in my St. Louis gaps...I have this funny quirk as a journalist of getting to a lot of museums while they're in construction, and doing the hard hat tour and then not necessarily getting back to see it once it opens. (Laughs.) I'd really like to get inside the Chipperfield building, I'm very eager to see how that works with the existing facility, and the flow, and the proportions of the gallery. So that's something I'm hoping to return for at some point.

One of the most interesting things about it is that they are using natural light, with the little scrims that open and close, which, if it's not done absolutely perfectly, could get kind of dicey.

I was going to use that exact word. Of course I asked that question, reporter that I am. What they always say is that the light is controlled, it's filtered, the shades go up and down, technology will do all of that...speaking of that, Brad Cloepfil did that for the Seattle Art Museum, there were about five different kinds of shades that can go up and down, with sensors. Seattle never sees the sun, so it seemed like overkill (Laughs). But the interesting thing that I found out, and I don't know if you know this, and I learned this when I covered the opening of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, temporary exhibition spaces really can't have natural light, because lenders do not want their loans to be exposed to that. They have particularly cautious sensibilities about that. So I mentioned that. Apparently the skylights in the temporary exhibition area are faux, they're not really skylights, for that very reason. I don't know how many people know that. So the natural light is not coming in, because there's no skylight there. It looks like it's continuous, but it's not. So the question is, if it's not good for lenders, why is it good for the permanent collection? I love natural light, it certainly brings things out in the art that I like. But it's also very variable. It's hard to get it right.

Part of the idea is that the colors change through the day, so every time you walk in, it's a different experience.

Right. And it does that. In the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, they had a very elaborate system of skylights, and it was beautiful, and you did see the paintings in a very different way. It's a soft, subtle light. I really appreciated that lighting. There are no reflections, no glare. It was a very sensitive lighting - I covered that for Art in America. So, you know, I'm cautiously optimistic that they've got that under control and that no art will be harmed in this expansion.

So we're in this weird transitional period in traditional arts journalism, where newspapers are firing their critics and hiring one A&E generalist, and the same time, there's an explosion of arts blogs, but no way to make money off of them...

It's sad! The whole state of print journalism in general, as you well know, is very precarious right now. So we see all these papers cutting back, and you get the incredible shrinking arts section. It's mostly economics, and if something has to go, just like in education, if they have to cut something, they cut the art class. It's the same thing in newspapers. They cut the cultural topics. So yeah, online things are going into that vacuum to some degree. The quality of that is very variable. It's hard to do that kind of quality control when you're trying to find sources to go. I don't know what the solution is.

But it's nice to be able to use audio and video, you're able to do things you would just not be able to do in a newspaper column.

I love that. There's so much I can do on my blog. I've done, and still do, a lot of mainstream media, but I can link to everything that I talk about, and give more depth in that way. As you know, I do my own photography and my own videos. They're kind of unprofessional, in a way, but they really capture what it is that I'm looking to capture with my writing. Even my Wall Street Journal articles, I've taken to providing a slideshow on my YouTube channel, because I'll mention eight different artworks, and they'll take two images that were sent them by the museum, which may or may not be the best images to illustrate what I'm talking about. So I've had commenters write comments on my Wall Street Journal article, thank you, they want the images. The whole thing about art criticism, you're trying to describe things that are visual, and are best understood if you look at them. So that's one thing I do. Another thing I can do is have a very strong voice. A very opinionated voice. And sometimes be a force for change, or at least food for thought for people in the field. No one would ever interview me, or invite me to talk on radio, or ask my opinions when I was just writing for the Wall Street Journal! (Laughs.) It's really because of the blog that I have a more high-profile, out there persona than I ever did writing for print. It's fun! It's also stupid, because I make very little money from doing it. If you told me when I started that I'd be doing it for seven years with very little remuneration, I'd laugh at you and say, of course I'm not going to do that. But I really find it satisfying in some ways, and there are those other fringe benefits of being invited to speak and being on radio and occasionally getting mainstream media assignments also, as the result of my blog work. So I keep doing it.

It seems like an arts blog might widen your audience, by attracting people who might not necessarily check out an art criticism column in a newspaper.

My writing is not primarily traditional art criticism. I'm trained as a journalist. So even when I review a show, I'll talk about the managerial circumstances surrounding it, or the organizational circumstances surrounding it, as well as talking about the art in the show. Because that's kind of the world I came from; I do a lot of investigative kinds of pieces. So I'm not a substitute for the critics. I think Roberta Smith of the New York Times is a much better critic than I'll even be, and Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker. But I add a kind of other dimension to what I do, and I write criticism, too, I don't want to sell myself short on that. But I do more than just what the traditional critic would do when I go to a show. But there is room for both. And to some extent, I bridge the two. I can function in both worlds simultaneously.

I don't have the total long view on this stuff, but it seems like the art world, like the world at large, has gotten really stratified, with this tiny elite.

I'm not sure what you mean, exactly, but there's always been the art cognoscenti, the people who are the insiders. And the critics, too, there are two schools of thought about whether a journalist should be inside or outside, and how pallsy should I get with the people I'm covering? I think one of the reasons why Jeffrey Deitch was so well-received when he was first named to be director of MOCA, which I thought he was grossly unqualified for, which I think has proven to be the case, he was a friend of a lot of the writers. He had good relations, and he was a very effective, good dealer. He did what he did with a great deal of panache. And people were all excited about his appointment. I said, well, you know, what they needed wasn't someone with a great artistic vision. They already had that at MOCA! They needed someone who could fundraise, who knew how to balance the books, control expenses. That was the dire need that caused all the upheavals in administration and the board, and that's exactly what they didn't get, as time has shown. I was really ahead of the curve in saying this was really not a smart thing to do.

Well, and I was reading your posts on The Barnes Foundation, which has been a pretty controversial thing. I'd noticed Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine gave it the thumbs up, but it seems like most people feel as you do, that it was better in the first incarnation.

Well, yeah, they took Dr. Barnes out of the Barnes, to some degree. They did keep his hang, but there's a very different feeling to seeing it in that building versus the one that he purposely built for his collection. Also, the finances of that were, when last I was there, still a work in progress. They hadn't yet raised the amount that they said they needed to make the place work financially. And I know that the architects were worried about that when they had a press preview, they had just come off the debacle of the American Folk Art Museum, which was sold. They designed it, and after 10 years, the museum almost went out of business entirely because they couldn't afford the building, and the projections didn't work out. Partly because the leading trustee who was responsible for making it financially solvent was in jail. As I said on the radio, and will say again tonight, the mistake is to say, if we build it, they will fund. You have to have that fundraising in place beforehand. I'm very worried about the Whitney in that regard. They're so far behind in what they need at this point.

And you noted that the ticket prices running a bit high, which makes it a little difficult for the average bear to attend.

So the head of the trustees there, who professes to be very concerned about "the plain people," as Albert Barnes called them, says is we have to get open first, and yes, you're right, but we can't do it yet. Well, I'm not looking for them to give you free admission anytime soon, as far as that goes. I think they've paid all that lip service to that in order to get the political support to move to Philadelphia. But the truth of the matter is, they haven't lived up to that promise.

Can you comment a little on museum deaccessioning?

This evening I'll be talking about how museums have dealt with the financial exigencies that they've encountered. And of course one of the worst ways is to sell. They always pay lip service to the fact that they are selling things that are redundant, or doesn't suit their mission, which is sometimes because they expediently changed the mission. They also say, because it's the professional standard, that they sell to buy other things, but we don't always get an accounting for how they do spend it. And when museums that you know are in a lot of financial trouble and can't pay their bills, when those are the ones that start selling, it raises red flags. The Corcoran Gallery is undergoing enormous turmoil because of its financial problems, and there was one proposal, made by someone who was posing as possible savior for the museum, who said that they should just sell 100 Million dollars worth of objects of art, and apply that to their budget, essentially. But that of course is like burning down the house to heat it, it's not the way you're supposed to operate a museum. So I've been following this issue for a long time. I think I've helped to raise some consciousness about it. And I've had people tell me that they were really grateful for what I do because it helped them to hold people accountable. It helps to have some of us here to remind people that it's not an appropriate way of raising money.

And this is maybe loosely related, but aren't museums raising money doing these blockbuster shows related to, say, fashion?

I have nothing against blockbusters per se, if they're blockbusters for the right reasons. And I have nothing against fashion per se, I thought the McQueen show was really good. And the show at the Metropolitan right now, which has to do with Impressionism and fashion, it seems like almost a joke, oh, it's this cheap thing, but it was really a good show. It overcame my skepticism. And it really added a new dimension that was worthwhile to the paintings, by bringing in what the fashions were at the time, and what that meant to the artist, and what he was showing in using the fashions that he did. And blockbusters aren't necessarily a way to make money. When the financial crisis hit, you had museums not doing blockbusters because they're very expensive to mount, especially if they come from multiple lenders. They were doing much more mining of their own permanent collections. That's the economically efficient way to go. And you always hear about the death of blockbusters, they're just not tenable anymore to do them, but it never dies because people like to organize those things. People like to go to those things, and sometimes for the right reasons. One of the greatest shows I ever saw was the father of all blockbusters, Tutankhamun, under Thomas Hoving. Yeah, it was a blockbuster, but it was a great one. The quality, and the excitement of what we were seeing....and of course there was the whole mystique of it, but that's another story!

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