Chelsea Spengemann

The text below was written as my contribution to “Talking Guston” hosted by Helen Molesworth and Laura Raicovich on November 19, 2020. The other participants in the Zoom panel were Gregg Bordowitz, Nikki Columbus, Alison Ferris, Coco Fusco, Charles Gaines, Pablo Helguera, Steve Locke and Terence Washington. We were asked to speak for five minutes. Over 600 people joined the event. The recording is accessible here

Hello, thank you Helen and Laura for organizing this gathering and inviting me to share my questions. 

Thank you to all the participants for your incredibly thought-provoking comments.

My name is Chelsea Spengemann. For the past ten years I have had the privilege of working with Sara VanDerBeek as the Director of the Stan VanDerBeek Archive.

In January, Sara and I will launch an artist collective called agency [Soft Network]. I am also the co-founder of AFELL - a network of artist's estates and foundation leaders.

To be honest, the cancellation of the Guston exhibition was not a flash point for me.

As someone who has embraced the nuance and challenge of posthumously re-presenting an artist’s body of work with an extremely limited budget and no endowment - I was not particularly worried about what happened to this exhibition.

From my vantage point, it was only going to stretch the resources of four prominent museums and further uplift the value of a master painter with an extremely supported foundation and blue chip gallery representation - all at a time when so many were in need of so much.

Perhaps I was too wrapped up in the pandemic fallout - witnessing living artists with no financial security struggle through this current moment, seeing many museums across the US still not reopening almost a year after closing, experiencing children losing the opportunity for an education, women without support being pulled from the workforce, people without healthcare, basic human rights being withheld from most, blatant, violent, hate-fueled attacks on black and brown lives never more on full display.

Really — How was it that this issue — the cancellation of a monographic exhibition of a painter at 4! Museums - was the one that prompted 2,000 influential people to sign a petition for change?

Are we really still fighting for blockbuster solo shows? Is Guston really for Now? OR even for two years, or four years from now? If you take several years to plan a show, at what point do you add to the title “Now”??

Who benefits from a monographic exhibition at this stage?

Should this format still dominate?

Might a group show using Guston’s work to uplift other artists shed a more complex light on these works at this moment?

Why are precious resources being spent over several years to produce scholarship, conservation, organization, and capital on artworks that already have plenty of everything?

America’s basements and attics are overflowing with radical ideas and expressions that have been excluded for too long. They are deteriorating and they will disappear. Who will offer care?

Call me jealous or irreverent - what it really comes down to is this cancellation is a perfect example of the fear and avoidance museums have been forced into practicing since public funding disappeared.

This event also demonstrates the complicated reality of our cultural institutions’ servitude to social media. Having worked so hard to invite the “public” in, museums now have to contend with each body being equipped with access to hundreds of others and the ability to immediately re-frame an image a museum worked so hard to fix and fixate upon.

Harnessing a collective has never been easier.

Reactive, protective and afraid of the masses. The calculation is clear - Shock the art world elite and Guston acolytes? Or risk the possibility of an image of a hooded klansman being removed from its academic context and let loose on social media- with it all traceable back to your institution? I would also choose the former.

An interest in the layers of the collective in this issue are ultimately what drove me to reflect on the cancellation and ensuing response.

The power of the collective - seen this past year harnessed in social uprisings on the left and right; as needed for pandemic control; as used to out and "cancel" abusers; with the potential to make someone a millionaire; as we are told is necessary for democracy; - and in our small art world - determining what museums show; being the reason for this event; and hopefully affecting the overhaul of institutional museum practice that is long overdue.

Collective power, at its best, drives progress.

The alternative of singling one man out, of continuing to uplift individuals via a painting show or even the farce of a presidential election, yields the pathetic figures we by now all recognize in Guston’s hooded cartoons themselves. Alone, separated from a group, cloaked in whiteness, they are powerless.

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