Lateral Thinking: A Director’s Viewpoint

Posted on January 01, 2004 by Kristin Swan

An Interview with Hugh Davies, The David C. Copley Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Hood Quarterly, winter 2004
Derrick R. Cartwright, Director, Hood Museum of Art, and Hugh Davies, The David C. Copley Director, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Interview conducted September 17, 2003

Lateral Thinking: Art of the 1990s is a deep survey of vanguard representational practices from the preceding decade, all drawn from the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). The exhibition includes major examples of work by Matthew Barney, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Vanessa Beecroft, Lisa Yuskavage, and dozens of other artists whose work has never been widely seen in Hanover before. The project inaugurates a year of careful thinking about contemporary art at Dartmouth. Last fall, Derrick Cartwright interviewed Hugh M. Davies, the much-admired art historian, past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and David C. Copley Director of MCASD. Davies has published widely on contemporary art issues, including important books on Francis Bacon, site-specific sculpture, and the architecture of Robert Venturi. In association with Lateral Thinking’s opening, Davies will deliver a public lecture at the Hood Museum of Art on January 16.

Derrick Cartwright: You have what many people would consider a classic background in art history, includ- ing a Ph.D. from Princeton. At what point did you become focused upon contemporary art?

Hugh Davies: My contemporary art focus came to me during college, in the late 1960s, when I took a studio art course with the sculptor George Segal. George encountered this class of young Princeton boys—most of whom had never had their hands dirty making anything, much less art—and he exposed us to a wonderful new world of cre- ativity. I was also very fortunate that in my senior year, the art department hired two former curators—Peter Bunnell, who taught the history of photography and formerly curated at MOMA, and Sam Hunter, who taught contemporary art and came to us from his position as director of the Jewish Museum. These two professors, who were deeply engaged with the New York art world and with contemporary artists, introduced me—both as an undergrad and later as a graduate student at Princeton—to studios, galleries, collections, and museums in a way that determined the shape of my career in contemporary art, taking me far beyond classrooms, libraries, and academia.

DC: What role does a place like the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego play in contemporary art debates? Is it possible for a smaller, more remote museum such as the Hood to play a similar role?

HD: The smaller museum can always take greater risks, and it can show emerging artists at a much earlier stage of their careers than the major museums can. Those of us in so-called “provincial” or university museums don’t have the same pressure to spin the turnstiles with blockbuster shows, and we can hide our exhibition or collecting mistakes more easily than can major urban institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Smaller museums can have a very influential role in promoting the careers of under-recognized or emerging artists at seminal moments in their lives, and they can even change the course of art history through the placement of a judicious imprimatur on a brilliant artist at just such an early moment.

I often describe MCASD as an “active laboratory and primary patron” of living artists rather than a “passive repository” of time-tested objects and well-known artists. It is that collaboration with artists that provides the greatest rewards, both personally and professionally. Another pleasure of directing a relatively modest-sized museum is that I never lose touch with the art, the artists, or the curatorial process that first got me interested in this field. At a larger museum, a director’s focus must, by necessity, be on fundraising and administration—with most of the fun of art left to others.

DC: You’ve built a very impressive collection of contemporary art practices at MCASD over the past two decades. Many of the exhibitions and acquisitions that you have brought to Southern California have been risky and high profile. What were some key moments an challenges for you, professionally and personally, surrounding this ongoing endeavor?

HD: I have always tried to offer a balanced exhibition schedule. By “balanced,” I mean between one-person and group shows, established and emerging artists, very recent work versus older, modern work, always preserving a diversity of media, ethnicity, gender, age, and theme. As I say to my trustees, “Please don’t judge us by any single show as being too radical or too staid, but rather look at the exhibition program for a full season, if not a couple of seasons.”

Among my high points as MCASD’s director, I would point to Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue, as well as Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, an exhibition we originated four years ago that is as strong an exercise of curatorial scholarship as any found in much larger museums. I am enormously proud to have been associated with both. I am also very proud that, in the past twenty years, we organized Ann Hamilton’s first major museum exhibition and published the first catalogue on her work; we were the first museum to acquire an installation by Chris Burden; and we were the first to do a major show of Vito Acconci.

Perhaps the most controversial, difficult moment of my directorship was in 1993. An exhibition we had originated—La Frontera / The Border: Art About the México / U.S. Border Experience—included a conceptual artwork by three border artists, Louis Hock, David Avalos, and Elizabeth Sisco. Their artwork, called Art Rebate/Arte Reembolso, was intended to draw attention to the plight of undocumented workers in this region. The artists used a portion of federal monies from an NEA grant the museum received to give $10 bills to undocumented workers in a kind of “performance” piece that included significant press attention masterminded by the artists. The $10 “art rebates” were on the CBS Sunday Morning television show, and within twenty-four hours, chaos ensued. We were front-page news in the New York Times, articles that were replicated around the country. George Will wrote a scathing editorial criticizing the piece—and the museum—that was syndicated to papers everywhere. Senator Jesse Helms even used the furor as an opportunity to grandstand in his opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts, waving a $10 bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate and denouncing our museum. Needless to say, the hullabaloo caused my summer vacation to come to a screeching halt. I’m enormously proud that in the end not a single member of our staff—including the director!—was fired, and none of our brave trustees resigned in spite of really nasty peer pressure from the San Diego community and beyond.

DC: Hanover is a long way geographically and demographically from La Jolla, where you put together Lateral Thinking at MCASD. What do you hope our visitors will take away from the show?

HD: I hope it will be thought provoking. We deliberately made a selection of works that runs the gamut in media and content—on the one hand, it has something that nearly everyone can like; on the other hand, it also has something very new that might even irritate or anger. I think of art not as a comfortable armchair (in the Matissian sense) but more as a spur to philosophical rumination. I think it would be hard for anyone to come away from Lateral Thinking unmoved or unthinking.

DC: What are you looking for today when you visit galleries, the studios of young artists, or museum exhibitions in major and minor art centers? What catches your eye? What essential advice do you give to collectors, curators, and visitors as they confront the unfamiliar and the new?

HD: What I look for in art and in artists, above all, is a combination of intelligence and innovation. Without a good concept or idea, all the best craftsmanship in the world becomes merely decoration. When I travel to studios or to international shows in other parts of the world, I'm constantly looking for that artist who has managed to break out of the rut and create a new form or convey a new idea in a refreshingly new context, someone who can set a preconceived notion on its ear. I often tell people, “When you visit a museum or a gallery, spend the most time with a work you don’t understand or you don’t necessarily like, because it frequently ends up being the piece you learn the most from, rather than the things you find easy, accessible, or reassuring.” Above all else, keep a receptive mind and an open eye.

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Written January 01, 2004 by Kristin Swan