@JackSkelley read and get back to me #KeepArtElite RT @LAWeekly Hammer Museum's experiment in art-world democracy http://t.co/cA88Bbdm
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Philbin and Mohn eventually brokered a deal to give the award at the next five biennials. Mohn conceived of it as a jury prize; it was Philbin's team that suggested a vote.
The culture is becoming participatory, Philbin thought. We "like" things on Facebook. We vote on American Idol. We identify new stars on YouTube. We're all curators now. What if we brought this philosophy to an arena that is considered a little more serious?
They settled on a jury narrowing the field of 60 artists in the biennial to five, then the public voting on the winner. "We hoped the process would be twofold in that the public would first ask themselves, 'Why did the jury select these five particular artists?' " Philbin explains in an email. "Then we hoped it would invite them to drill deeper, engage more actively and ask more questions about all the works in the exhibition."
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In March, at a cocktail party for the "Made in L.A." artists, Philbin announced the award. She'd assumed they'd be thrilled. "We didn't foresee the concerns of the artists as we probably should have," she acknowledges.
Artist Lisa Anne Auerbach sums up the L.A. art-world reaction: "People were really pissed."
Auerbach is not in the show but is co-chair of the Hammer's Artist Council, an advisory group of artists that meets with museum administrators a few times a year. Some on the council were fine with the award; Auerbach and others were not.
Many were upset that the museum hadn't consulted with the council beforehand. A bigger issue was the competition — that the award would make the supportive environment of the L.A. art world more cutthroat by handing a too-large sum of money to only one person. Auerbach snipes that it turned the show into a "capitalist spectacle."
"We were surprised," Philbin explains, "because the art world is already a fairly competitive place. Getting a gallery and selling work — that's all a form of competition as well. I suppose they felt they didn't need another place to compete."
The public vote was another point of contention. Philbin remarks, "Frankly, this was confounding to me. When I asked why, no one could really answer that question. It is hard to answer without implying that the public is incapable of knowledgeably and meaningfully engaging with the work — which of course is not true."
"Sometimes the most difficult work is the most interesting," Auerbach responds, and "maybe it's too academic or people don't think they understand it."
The announcement came too late for artists to change their exhibits. After the party, though, Liz Glynn says, "There was a flurry of text messages, like, 'I'm adding a snake to my exhibition.' 'You haven't seen my trapeze walk I'm adding to my painting.' There was a little bewilderment around what it was asking the work to perform.
"Working toward being the best at being something is so different from what artists are engaged with in their practices," she adds.
Meg Cranston, an Artist Council member who made the two colorful murals on the entryway stairs for "Made in L.A.," was generally in favor of the prize. She felt the public voting scared artists whose work focused more on the subject matter, the process and ideas, rather than the execution, the visual or visceral appeal. "Artists are just saying, 'Well, the public is just seeing if it looks good.' Well, maybe they're right. That's what the artists are afraid of. Their reactions might be a little too accurate," she says.
The first Artist Council meeting after the announcement of the prize was contentious but civil. Some artists objected to the word "prize." Prizes are for children, it was thought — "what you win when you're throwing balls through a net in a county fair," Auerbach says. The Hammer later changed it from a "prize" to an "award."
Other art prizes — especially the Turner — have been met with carping. The public complains about the artists. The artists complain about the scrutiny. Some chosen as finalists have turned down the honor. In 2002 the U.K.'s culture minister, Kim Howells, called the entries "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit." Martin Creed won in 2001 for his Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, an empty room in which the lights went on and off. An angry artist threw eggs at the wall.
The Hammer has welcomed dialogue about the award, and has been forthcoming about its criticism. Perhaps it can afford to be, as Philbin's years of well-received shows and focus on local artists have engendered a lot of community goodwill. At another museum — say, MOCA — the award probably would have met with more indignation.
Part of the Hammer's effort in winning over the artists involved helping them learn about the main donor. "When you get to understand or get to know him as a person," Hammer senior curator Anne Ellegood says, "you can see what his intentions are." And Jarl Mohn is not your average art collector.
In 1986, just after Jarl Mohn joined MTV Networks, he attended a company retreat in Boca Raton. His colleagues were trying to do flaming tequila shots, but blowing out the fire before drinking. Mohn had owned a radio station in El Paso, a border town. He knew how to do flaming tequila shots.