How Not to Die of Excellence
Adam Lerner will speak about the vulnerabilities associated with going outside conventional ways of doing things in an arts organization, discussing his own experience applying the lessons of an alternative art space to a more traditional museum context. He will describe his work bringing shamans, go-go-dancers, assorted livestock and other unexpected elements into the walls of the museum alongside serious exhibitions of contemporary art. Finally, he will talk about avoiding best practices and ignoring your mission so as to keep life, energy and libido in an institution, ultimately, doing whatever is necessary to not die of excellence.
Wow, thank you. It’s so great to be here, and to speak with all of you incredibly nice people. It’s amazing how, like, Museum Next attracts such a friendly group so … And, good looking too. Great.
So, this is where I work, and this is what it looks like when we want to say Denver is an exciting place. And, these are my dogs. And, this is my emoji avatar. And, this is the actor who played me on stage, in a local theatre production about my life. And, this is one of the members of my Board of Trustees, and me. And, this is my Board Member’s family’s marihuana business.
And, this is the place where my life became interesting. And, it doesn’t look like much, I know, that’s how I felt when I first went there. It’s the suburbs of Denver, a place called Lakewood Colorado. And, I was working at the Denver Art Museum, at the time, and I was invited by a real estate developer, to be able to produce an art space, as part of his shopping district, in this suburb of Denver.
So, I created an art space, opposite a Dick’s Sporting Goods. I called it the Laboratory of Art and Ideas, or the Lab. And, I ran it for five years. But, it began with a simple lecture programme in 2004. I started a programme, that wasn’t an ordinary lecture programme, instead of having just one speaker speak on a subject, as you do in a normal educational programme, I paired two speakers, on completely unrelated topics. And, I would have question and answer, both at the same time.
So, there we were, in an empty store front, in this real estate district. This is maybe the second night, I think we had, like, 15 people there, and we created this art environment. And, this is the programme, it was Andy Warhol & Artificial Lighting. Now, there was 15 people the second day, the first day there was, probably, like, ten, and I swear half of them were my friends. But, by the second day we had 15, and then we had, sort of, 25 by the next week, when we did TS Elliott & Fresh Meat Sausage. And, the guy on the left is a Professor at the local university, who is a leading expert on TS Elliott, and the guy on the right is a, sort of, artisan butcher who is, like, an expert on making fresher sausage.
So, this is what a sample year looked like, a sample season that we ran. Carnivorous Plants & Colour Field Painting, Earth Art & Goat Cheese, [Unintelligible 00:03:43], Chinese Opera & Alfred Hitchcock, Water Wittman & Whole Hog Cooking. Now, these are paired simply by the way things sound, like, it sounds good to say those two together. Tequila & Dark Energy in the Universe, of course, we’re all saying, like, that’s the same thing. Yes, of course, right, that’s what the mind does, by the way. Soul Food & Existentialism, Prairie Dogs and Gertrude Stein, and then the summer blockbuster was, Marxism and Kittens, Kittens, Kittens.
So, what started to happen is that, by the fourth week we had 50 people, and we had 75 people after that, and 100 people, and by the time we did Marxism & Kittens, Kittens, Kittens, we had 200 people in the place. And, in the suburbs of Denver, this 200 block real estate development, was now being coloured entirely by this little cultural programme that we had been creating.
And, the point of it, although I didn’t fully understand at the time, is that when we want to, let’s say … our mind naturally goes into existing patterns of thought. So, like, if I were to ask you, let’s say, your home town, you’re at home, and I were to say to you, like, where do you want to go out for dinner tonight, like, your mind will naturally go to the same place that it always goes to, that’s what our minds are made to do.
And, if I were to say to you, though, like, think of a place that begins with the letter A, and tomorrow think of a place to eat that begins with the letter B, the next day a place that begins with the letter C. What you’ve done is, you’ve introduced an arbitrary principle, and your mind will force itself into new paths. So, this is a way of helping people break out of existing patterns of thinking, which is, to say that, this is not, in itself art, and even though I, you know, was asked to produce an art programme, I believe that this is, in some ways, like, the basis of all art. The basis of all art is to take ourselves out of our world, and to help us enter into a new place, to break existing patterns of seeing and thinking about the world.
When I first started the programme, though, I thought it was, sort of, a way of connecting … new ways of connecting audiences. Because, you know, if you had a programme on Marxism, you would have, you know, like, five grisly graduate students showing up. If you had a programme on, like, cats, you’d have ten cat ladies there. But, like, Marxism & Kittens, Kittens, Kittens, there’s 250 people there.
And, of course, when the real estate developer asked to do something that was connected to something that was, you know, an art programme, he invited me because I was working at the art museum. And, he, sort of, had it in his mind, that he would be importing some quality of the art museum to this suburb and environment. But, in fact, what was happening was, I was trying to invent a new type of art institution, that had those elements that were drawn from elevated institutions, like museums, but also connected to the fabric of people’s lives in the suburbs.
And then, well, this is all to say that, I’ve only had one good idea in my entire life, this is it. But, everything interesting that I’ve done, everything interesting I’ve done, I think, I’ve learned from this one idea, and that’s, sort of, more what the talk will be about. So, I began to, sort of, see how you can create sophisticated programming, without taking yourself so seriously. So, we would, for the lab at Denver, we would develop the motto, because culture is big, like Canada.
You know, and so, in addition to our logo we, sort of, said, well, we’re a laboratory, we’re The Lab, so we should have as our logo a lab. And so, these are the series of identities that we ran, The Lab, The Lab Is Smart, The Lab Makes Friends, Get to Know The Lab. And, this was so successful, that the developer actually funded a building on site, it was a second storey building, but it was a really elegant space, and where we would continue to have programmes like these.
Where we continued to have programmes like these, and many others, but we were also able to exhibitions of contemporary art. So, we exhibited this three screen film installation, you know, I did it in partnership with my colleague at the Pompidou Centre. And, when it had its world premiere, we said, if you want to see the world premiere, you have to go to Paris, but if you want the US premiere, just come to Lakewood Colorado.
We also showed Chinese Art [unintelligible 00:09:09]. But, in the lobby, when you arrive, you’ll see this, sacks of rubble, free to new members. And, because we were across the street from Dick’s Sporting Goods, we had a sign in our window saying, Welcome to The Lab, we are not Dicks. Of course, we had to apologise to them. So, it took them six months for them to notice, first of all. But then, someone complained, so we published this apology which was, The Lab apologises to our neighbours, Dick’s Sporting Goods, for the sign in our window saying, We’re Not Dicks, apparently, we are.
So, in 2009, there was a vacancy at the directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art. And, by this time, the programming that I was doing at The Lab was so popular, there was a lot of interest in having me become the Director of that. So, in 2009, the class clown becomes the Class President. Although, I think, in the United States, it’s still too early to make that joke.
And, what the issue is really, for me, at that time, is how do you take all of that spirit, all the playfulness, the personality that I began to, sort of, find in myself and explore, out in the suburbs, in this place where it was, in many ways, a free range to explore. How do I take all of that into a more conventional museum context? And, that’s, sort of, been my problem … my challenge and my process, for the last eight years, since I’ve been there.
So, my first exhibition was the artist, Barnaby Furness, and this exhibition, though these paintings are fabulous, and spectacular, in many ways they’re simply powerful emotive works, they also encapsulate the very problem that I think is endemic to the museum. And, that is that, these works, they look powerful, but they are wholly complete. And, what you see is the evidence of something that is now invisible, and that is, like, the process the artist went through, involved all this, sort of, encourage, it involved risk taking, it involved, in some ways, doing things that are outside the rules.
And, museums are very good at the finished product. They’re, sort of, organised around the product, but they’re not very good at showing all of the energy, all the chaos, that goes into art, that goes into making it, that is essential to art, but not visible, when it enters the gallery. And, that’s, I feel like, the very essence of the problem was, how do you bring in the chaos, whilst still presenting that thing, that you are committed to, which is the work of art.
So, we would exhibit artists, like your neighbour here in Rotterdam, [unintelligible 00:12:23]. But, we would continue, I think is the matinee of our time, but we would continue to do our programming, like mixed taste, where we now, actually, we couldn’t even fit it in the museum, at this point. At this point, where we were getting 300 people each night, to do this, we were in an unused garage across the street.
But, we also would start to redefine the language that museums would use to speak to our visitors, with programmes like Art Fitness Training, like, feel more confidence at art museums. We’d have spinoffs of mixed taste, like, Feminism and Company, where we compare completely unrelated subject matters, or speakers, both related to the ideas about gender. So, in this one, we had contacts boards, and we had actually roller girls in the gallery, demonstrating what they do. And we, sort of, put them in dialogue with defence experts from the 1960s, think about generations of feminism. You know, and our fund raiser for our feminism programme was, of course, an all men’s black-tie dinner, with only meat and no utensils.
So, our programming was getting more and more momentum, to the point where we actually had to move it to another venue. And, while our lecturers convey the seriousness of our, like, belief in the subject matter always, we always would make sure that there’s some kind of gag involved. So, therefore, like, at a lecture [unintelligible 00:13:58] we’d have a raffle, and the winners would receive … so, for example, we would raffle off one day, two free tickets to the Denver Art Museums exhibition of King Tut. And, all you have to do is redeem these two used tyres, in order to be able to claim your ticket.
Of course, I mean, just so you know, like, we didn’t tell the Denver Art Museum about this, like, it was a gag. I guess, like, don’t worry we won’t play gags on you, but the idea was that we would give away, sometimes, like, a cinder block, or, you’d get a half price meal, you just have to bring this giant inflatable palm tree to the restaurant. Anyway, we thought it was funny.
So, we would have our gallery talks and, you know, like, our curator would produce our exhibitions, and we had artist talks as well. But, we would have programmes like, a Bartender in Residence, and we insist on museum quality drinking. Now, of course, I want to say that there is something about this that is a joke, and there’s something about it which is not a joke. And, that is that, we know, of course, that it’s funny to make fun of the artist in residence, which is what a traditional cultural institution would have, by having a bartender in residence, on the one hand. So, there’s something that is, like, fairly tongue in cheek about saying, museum quality drinking.
But, on the other hand, we do want to connect to those very aspects of creativity in our culture, that are outside of the museum. Because, you know, if you lured a search on your hashtag for art, like, in your Instagram, I’m sure that 90% of what you’ll get, museums don’t even consider in the category of a museum object, it’s not even, like, museum art, it will be something like a lot of tattoo. It will be a lot of people who make, like, designs in their cappuccinos, and it might even be a certain kind of mixology.
And, I’m not saying that, you know, mixologists are artists, or people who make latte are the same as the people who have a studio practice making paintings. But, I’m saying that, in our cities the large majority of the way that people think about expressing themselves creatively, is not the way that museums think about creativity, when they think about art, especially.
And so, therefore, I’m interested in drawing a relationship between the formal aspects, the tradition of art, and the ways in which cities express themselves creatively, and people express themselves creatively in a city. So, it’s half like a joke, and half not. But, this is a joke, we also have, in addition to a Bartender in Residence programme, we also have a Nixology programme, which is guest bartenders who don’t know how to bartend. And, I was the guest bartender that night, we have different celebrities, figures doing it.
But, the point here, is it relates more to, like, I’m going to stand behind the actual idea of the gag, like, the joke. And, I say to my staff, I say, if you are professional, then you are not connecting to our visitors as a human, like, you’re connecting to them professionally. And, this doesn’t mean that you should always be unprofessional, but you need to know when to not be professional, and when to engage with somebody personally. And, that’s, I think, what humour does, is humour is a way of connecting people with people, on a very, very human level.
So, other programmes that we would do, that actually connected to the, sort of, artisanal aspect of culture at large. Like, Art Meets Beast, is a programme there, we take a bison, that had been slaughtered just three weeks before, from a local ranch and, in the museum, we have it butchered by an artisan butcher. And, over the course of three days, we have, like, talks related to food, and we have, at the end, a meal where we 300 people sit around and eat the bison. By the way, while this butcher is butchering the meat and talking about it, we have a guitar player performing, and he happens to be a vegetarian, so we called it the vegetarian option.
But, when I say to you that the programming that we do, does not define our essence. The programming that we do is, maybe, a part of our essence, and that’s, actually, crucial to realise. And, you start to get a fuller picture when you start to see, not just the programming, we don’t want our visitors to, sort of, think of us through one point of contact, but through the whole, through a relationship. Which is why, like, our exhibition programme was, equally, an important expression of that.
So, for example, we exhibited the artist, Fred Sandback, I don’t know how many of you know Fred Sandback, but those of you who do know him, maybe you love him. He’s the kind of artist who I simply … whenever anyone says his name, I say, oh, I love Fred Sandback, like, that’s how much I love Fred Sandback. And, his work is very simple, it’s simply bits of yarn stretched across the room, that’s all there is to it.
But, I believe in this work so much, I believe that, because there is so little there, it resonates enormously. Because, he takes up so little space, it’s as if it reverberates in the entire atmosphere, in the entire volume. And, I believe that its significance is, it truly reaches to the level of creating a separation, between what is the mundane, and what is the sacred.
And, this all sounds pretty highfaluting, but this is the level at which I believe in this artist’s work. And, when my curator proposed, oh, maybe we should exhibit Fred Sandback, I said, yes, we should exhibit Fred Sandback. But, we can’t just give him one gallery, we can’t just give him a series of galleries, we have to give him the entire building, every inch of the building, including the public spaces. Because, that’s the only that we could truly say, like, how high the stakes are with this artist.
Like, if we were to just give him a gallery, or a series of galleries, then the stakes would remain at the level of curatorial. And, I wanted the stakes to be at the human level, at the level at which we say, something like, it’s about the personal belief here. And so, he actually had every space in the building. And, maybe people didn’t buy it, maybe they just thought that was … you know, we did our best to be able to interpret it, but they might not have got it. But, at least people appreciated the conviction. We wanted to put skin in the game.
Putting skin in the game, I think, was much more evident in another exhibition that we did, which is, in some ways, like, the counterpart to this idea of believing in an artist like Fred Sandback. And, that was an exhibition I did called, Orphan Paintings. And, Orphan Paintings, did not include this painting by [Unintelligible 00:21:45], which is nearby at the [unintelligible 00:21:47] Museum, and that’s, actually, you know, a legit painting.
Instead, the Orphan Paintings included this painting, which was painted by, I don’t know who exactly, but I know that some guy came to my office, carrying this painting under his arm, and said, would you be interested in exhibiting this painting. In fact, he bought it over eBay, just like 180 other paintings that he bought, that I felt were really extraordinary. And so, this is what another one looked like.
And, I went to the bank vault, that he kept all of these works, and I found it to be the most powerful experience of a, kind of, uncanny experience of looking at things that looked so good, looked so much like the authentic things, but yet they were bought off of eBay from an unknown person. They had no provenance, they were unauthenticated. And so, when I exhibited them, at the museum, I exhibited in one room, a gallery that looked a lot like the Museum of Modern Art, completely boutique style. And then, the rest of them, the remaining 180, were hung salon style.
And, what it raises is, the question of, what is authenticity? Why do we care that this was painted by the hand of a master? Like, it’s to raise the question of, what are we talking about, when we say that this is an authenticated work? And, does that affect our experience of the work? If we can’t notice the distinction, then where does the idea of art lie? And, I think that, actually, the idea of art, that does require something more than just the immediate experience, it requires, like, you realise how much the sense of believing in the hand of the artist, is actually a part of our experience.
But, you go back and forth, as you look at these things, believing and not believing, and this creates this, kind of, excitement that, to me, was incredibly interesting, and asked the fundamental questions about, why we have art in the first place, why do we have that field in the first place. And, I wrote a book, which explored that, and there was somebody who even thought it was number one.
You know, and so, our exhibition programme is a big part of how we explore these values as well. And, I feel that we’re able to, sort of, do what we do, because we take the entire picture seriously. This is an exhibition I curated, a retrospective of the founder of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh, it was exhibition of travel to six US museums. And then, at the last night of the exhibition, we had the museum open all night, and my exhibition manager even gave a tour at 4 o’clock in the morning, wearing a bunny suit, because he loves to wear bunny suits. And, even here, he’s returning art wearing a bunny suit.
And, we had, for example, an exhibition of Marilyn Minter, that travelled to three other museums. This is a retrospective that we also co-organised with the Contemporary Museum in Houston. And, this is something that, again, like, so this exhibition that we developed travelled to the Brooklyn Museum. This is what my father would call, a real museum.
And, what I think is amazing is that, here we are, we are a 25 person institution, we’re small, and we’re creating content that, so far, 22 museums have taken, since I arrived there in 2009. So, the content is serious, and the catalogues are serious, but my staff, when they were de-installing this exhibition, like, when they got to the pornography series, they thought it would be funny if they dressed in their underwear, so I said, sure, that’s fine. And so, here they are de-installing the art in their underwear.
So, I believe very much in the gallery experience, and especially, like, what happens here. But, I don’t believe that this is, in any way, near the totality of what matters in my relationship with our visitors. I think that the gallery experience, and all the interpretation that happens in that, is only one point on a line, that includes a much deeper relationship with the museum.
And, I think it’s really the question of, it gets to the question of excellence. Because, a friend of mine, he once said to me, you know, museums seem to be really great at excellence, but they don’t think very much about being awesome. And, I think that that’s true, because I think excellence is about quality, and it’s about certain standards. But, awesome, is about something that’s palpable, something that you just feel, and you’re so excited about. It’s feeling more awake, when you’re in a place, feeling like when you leave you want to go do something exciting. Feeling, that’s what awesomeness is.
And, I think we need to be excellent. We need to have, as a baseline, excellence, because that’s intrinsic to the definition of a museum. But, we also need to have awesomeness, that feeling that we are just doing something that is powerful, palpable, human, and energising to the people in our city. Which is why I care about, like, just the fact that people, how we are part of the life of the people who visit us.
And, I think it’s relevant, the fact that, we can have an exhibition of an artist, like Adam Pendleton, who you just saw in the last slide, and we’ll have lines around the block for that exhibition. Because, when there is something that’s palpable, then it has an automatic gravitational pull to it. You don’t need a marketing strategy to get people to come to it, they want something that’s palpable. In today’s age, in a digital age, that’s when authenticity matters, more than anything, that’s when people care about authenticity. And, that’s what we need to present.
Maybe that’s why, maybe that’s not why, I don’t know. We had a camel come to the museum, because we can, because it’s our museum, and so my staff thought it would be great to bring a camel in, when we did our Christmas video. And, I think it’s relevant also, that most of our audience, 70% of our audience, is under the age of 45.
And, the highest category of our audience, is 25 to 34, like, we are speaking to the next generation, the people who are actually are the ones who are making their cities more interesting places. And, I think that, they don’t want a place that takes itself seriously, they want a place that actually has the creativity that they are themselves striving for, someone who is not just pointing to the creativity of artists, and other people, but actually speaks with a creative voice.
And, that’s also, sort of, relevant, why our team programme is so incredibly popular. So, 13% of our visitors are high school students, or teenagers in 13 and 18, here’s their art show. And, we give out scholarships every year, for high school students who are willing to demonstrate failure. So, it’s open to anyone in the State, you get a college scholarship up to $10,000, if you can demonstrate your willingness to risk failure. Because, so much of your life is going to be about achievement, we want to create a space where it’s okay to fail.
And, that’s also what we model for people. Because, you know, we believe in the perfection of craft, and we, like, in this beautiful work by Kim [Dickey] that we exhibited retrospective. But, we also, sort of, believe in the DIY element of crafts. Like, in this craft fair, where people would make erotic Christmas gifts, we called it the XXXMas Craft Fair.
So, I think that, to speak to that next generation, it really helps to be somewhat, you know, of a museum, and somewhat of a lab, and that’s why we keep The Lab in our logo. And, I believe, very much, that the museum is a found object. So, an artist takes a found object, let’s say, a car door, you know, it’s up to the artist to decide how much of the original meaning of that found object you want to keep, right.
And, we believe in keeping a lot of the original, kind of, intention behind the idea of the museum that we inherited. But, we also, as artists, as creatives, we want to do something with that, we want to model creativity for our visitors, by doing something interesting with the found object we received, that we call museum. And, that’s why we want to, sort of, be more like artists ourselves, so that when we say, this artist teaches us, we are actually doing it, we’re demonstrating it, we’ve got skin in the game.
And, we want to show both the gravity, and also the energy. Which is also, you know, to say that we believe in tradition, but we also need to publicly question that tradition. And, we show our strength, by actually showing our vulnerability here, by showing that we ourselves are willing to examine our own tradition, that actually shows, in some ways, like, we’re more confident, we’re more comfortable with our relationship to the tradition of art.
And, I think that, more than anything, the idea of always maintaining the fact that we have our gags, because we also have our belief, that actually the two of them go hand in hand. That, in fact, our faith in art, is what allows us the freedom to experiment, to be able to be more like artists ourselves, we are able to, sort of, connect to people more humanly. Some fundamental connection between believing in art, and also making fun of, and creating and using humour, I’ll say.
Which is why, I think that, you know, we believe that, overall, like, the museum needs to be the best museum that I can be, and we strive to make the museum the best museum. But, also, we need to think about how it is that the museum can make a better city, can make the lives of the people who live there better. And, that’s what we feel like that dichotomy that we strive for is all about.