Drawing Connections

Asking artists to curate museum shows invites controversy but makes stimulating parallels between old and new

MUSEUMS are full of art. But they are not run by artists. The directors and curators who operate museums are either art historians, administrators, or both.

Since artists originally made what these professionals now care for and display, in recent years the question has come up: Shouldn't living artists be allowed more direct influence on museum practices?

To let artists "into" museums, even to place their own fresh or difficult art next to the time-honored artifacts given sanctuary there, may be to risk the controversial. But some institutions are finding the input of artists a welcome - and challenging - stimulus.

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) - a little weak, in the past, on contemporary art - opens the fourth in an exhibition series called "Connections" on March 28. It explores this question of modern artists vis-a-vis old museums by inviting artists to select and even stage exhibitions.

Trevor Fairbrother, Beal Curator of Contemporary Art, says the "Connections" shows have prompted considerable public interest, some controversy, and, in positive ways, stimulated the museum staff.

Museum professionals can give the impression they think artists are a different species: unpredictable animals, perhaps, or distant deities; either way probably best kept at arms' length.

Not so Mr. Fairbrother. He's one of a growing breed of curators keen to invite working artists into the museum's domain. Not just to learn like Cezanne in the Louvre copying Old Masters. They are asked in to teach, to inject fresh outlooks, to make work that responds to the collections, to be "artists-in-residence."

In some museums, artists serve as trustees (along with a cross section of other people). Three do in Britain's Tate Gallery. Their ideas can be surprising, director Nicholas Serota says.

But the most stimulating invasions of museums by artists occur when they are asked to curate or co-curate special shows, as in the MFA's "Connections" series.

This still unusual kind of exhibition has something of a history. One delightful precedent was at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, in 1970. It was called "Raid the Icebox with Andy Warhol." Warhol chose whatever he liked from the museum's stuffed storage vaults. He was a clever choice, because obviously he had a fascination for objects but would not behave like a museum curator in choosing them.

In addition to paintings and sculpture (none of them modern), Warhol selected shoes and hat boxes, baskets and parasols, wallpaper and chairs: not precious antique chairs, but second-rate chairs used to supply "spare parts" for better pieces.

The Rhode Island museum still invites artists and craftsmen to select exhibitions today. Director Frank Robinson enthuses about such shows. "Wonderful for us, absolutely no question. That's why we keep on doing it," he says.

Mr. Robinson points out that artists may well have a more first-hand awareness of what is being made in their special field - textiles, ceramics, or furniture, for example - than does a curator, with a wider range to cover.

Warhol's "Raid the Icebox" show was more idiosyncratic than a series at the National Gallery in London, running since 1977. But these exhibitions have also made their mark. Called "The Artist's Eye," there have been 10 so far, the most recent in 1990.

The premise has been simple. The artist - David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Anthony Caro, or Bridget Riley - has been asked to make a personal choice from the collection, "a few of my favorite things," as it were.

The selections have been gathered in one gallery, breaking traditional arrangements by period or nationality. Only one or two works by the selecting artist are shown nearby, allowing the Piero della Francescas and the Leonardos to take center stage.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York began its version of the game in March 1989. It has now held three "Artist's Choice" shows, the latest being of portraits, hung unconventionally near one another, selected by Chuck Close, a painter of large-scale portraits.

The artist in the MFA's "Connections" show is American sculptor Richard Artschwager. His best-known structures are a kind of off-beam furniture. Somewhat minimal, slightly Pop Art, but mainly all his own, these smoothly finished, Formica-surfaced objects have strange, skewed perspectives and rather unnerving presences.

Previous exhibitions in the series have been selected by Martin Puryear, Louise Lawler, and Brice Marden. In every case the artists' own work accompanies their selection from the museum's holdings, though display strategies have varied considerably.

Fairbrother talks thoughtfully about this series of shows. It is clear the museum has developed the genre imaginatively. One of the main aims was to "make contemporary art literally connect itself to the rest of the museum," he says. The emphasis at the MFA is largely historical. But, he points out, "living artists like art from the past. Anything in the present is always feeding on or reacting against the past."

The shows, then, confront the old with the new in appealing or thought-provoking ways. If "someone off the street" finds, say, an abstract painting by Brice Marden "a little alien," Fairbrother says, they may like Chinese calligraphy or a textile woven in a certain way" (which were things Mr. Marden chose). The familiar may offer people access to the unfamiliar.

Mr. Puryear was invited as a sculptor and also as an African American with "a very interesting world view of culture." He trained as a cabinet maker; worked in the Peace Corps; lived in Africa. He is also interested in falcons.

"So he did a project that involved his sculptures of falcons, Audubon prints of falcons, a Persian miniature painting of a falcon," Fairbrother explains.

These connections amounted to "a global reference in the way that these birds are also migratory," he adds. "Quietly evoked," therefore, were "issues of race and origin." The birds and the sculptures had different colorations and materials - steel, raw or painted wood, blown glass.

Ms. Lawler was chosen because, using photographs and installations, her work was already designed to ask questions about museums: about the way they invest objects with mystique, the way they are becoming a kind of "culture industry," and the way they turn art into "decoration."

Mr. Artschwager's choices and how he decides to display them remain to be seen. Whatever his show is like, it seems certain to continue the unexpectedness of the three earlier "Connections" shows.

In Fairbrother's words, these are "exhibitions plus questioning." People are right to suspect that they mean: "not business as usual."

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