MAKING THE MUSEUM MINE: AN INTERVIEW WITH FRED WILSON

By Donald Garfield

 

Fred Wilson is the ultimate outsider, but with a twist. He is an outsider invited inside and given the keys to all the closets, trunks, and other private places that traditionally have been strictly off-limits to the uninitiated.

 

"The museums don't know where to put me, because I'm not a registrar. I'm not a curator," says Wilson, the 38‑year‑old artist who has suddenly become a leading force in a new movement by museums to reexamine themselves, their past roles, and their present places in society. "I'm just a person in the middle, outside the various systems museums have set up to run their institutions . . . . I wouldn't say what I do with museums is a collaborative venture. But it isn't an antagonistic one either. Everyone who opens up to me becomes part of the project and feels it."

 

Between April 1992 and February of this year, 5,000 people experienced Wilson's remarkable exhibit, "Mining the Museum." at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. What they saw shocked many of them: Wilson resurrected such long‑hidden items as slave shackles and a whipping post, then displayed them in context with other, more conventional objects and art from the historical society's collections. The exhibit spoke volumes about the power of museums to influence community attitudes, both by what they show and do not show. And the ambiguous irony of the show's title speaks of the effect of Wilson's approach: not just to mine a collection like a deposit of ore, but also to lay a minefield of potentially explosive controversy. Or, perhaps closer to the artist's heart, to enable disenfranchised communities to at last call a part of the museum "mine."

 

Other museums have not been slow to see the value in this. Following the Maryland show, Wilson has completed similar work at the Seattle Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, as well as pieces at the Whitney Biennial in New York and the Cairo Biennial. Projects with the Smithsonian Institution's Experimental Gallery and the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art are planned for next year. And perhaps the ultimate compliment of institutional acceptance has now been bestowed on him: the coining by critics of the term museumist art."

 

A visit to Fred Wilson's dark, book‑lined studio in the East Village of New York brings home the seamlessness of art and life, a concept that informs much of the artist's work

 

Donald Garfield is senior editor of Museum News.

 

Museum News: May/June 193

 

and his thinking about museums. Behind a colorfully graffitoed door amid the sounds and smells of Lower Manhattan, a less‑than‑confidence‑inspiring staircase led to his studio where he spoke about his past, his recent successes, and future plans to shake up tradition-bound museum displays.

 

Wilson grew up in several sections of the New York City area‑the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Westchester. He credits his mother, an artist and teacher, with opening his eves to art and taking him to the bounty of museums in the area. His awareness of the issue of race in museums dates to his teenage years when he visited an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of African American artists Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt.

 

"It was the first time I saw African American artists being celebrated in a museum." he says. "At the time I didn't know there were black artists, I assumed there were some somewhere, but I didn't know of any." Although he did not put it into words at the time, Wilson sensed "an absence, an emptiness" in his museum visits.

 

At college he was the only African American student in the art program of the State University of New York at Purchase. He remembers thinking that he would be the first black in a white‑dominated field. "In actuality, however, there have been hundreds of African American artists, it's just that no one talks about them. There was no one in the art history books. My professors didn't know of any."

 

 

Wilson unearthed a whippingpost. among other artifacts from Maryland's slaveholding days. for "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society.

 

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His familiarity with the workings of museums derives in part from the fact that at Purchase his art classrooms were located in the campus museum, the Neuberger, where all the arts‑art, dance, theater, film, and music‑comingled. There Wilson did a performance for his senior project and also worked as a museum guard.

 

Out of college he began doing very large, outdoor sculptures that people could climb on and be involved in. He continued his contact with museums by working in them during the late 70s and early '80s. "To support myself in New York I, like a lot of artists, found employment in museums. For a while I was working as a free‑lance educator both at the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum, running back and forth across Central Park. That was during the late 1970s and early '80s. This, in retrospect, was a really linchpin experience."

 

Wilson also worked at the American Crafts Museum and at an alternative gallery space downtown. His wide-ranging experience included a stint as art handler for MoMA and "running a program called the Business of Being an Artist in which I brought in people from all different facets of the art world. From that program I learned a great deal about the inner workings of museums and the art world in general."

 

Turning from sculpture to museum issues, Wilson had the ambitious idea of installing an exhibit of contemporary art at three different museums in Manhattan. "That was in the mid‑80s when artists were making works that looked like they could fit into any one of several types of museum spaces." He got his chance at a gallery in the South Bronx, where he installed work into three different museum settings‑ethnographic, Salon style, and a modernist, white cube. Curiously‑ his show opened one month before the Center for African Art's exhibit "Art/Artifact," which raised similar issues on how context determines the meaning of a museum display.

 

At the Seattle Art Museum: a fresh perspective on traditional installations of European, Asian, Egyptian, Native American. and African art.

 

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Wilson credits James Clifford's 1988 book The Predicament of Culture as an important source for his thinking on the representation of non‑Western cultures. "Ethnographic displays," says Wilson, "create a distance between cultures that doesn't need to be there. This difference cuts off any connections and flattens out the complexity of our relationship in favor of exoticism. Even though I am not from the Third World, I felt myself both on display and not on display. When I was a museum guard I felt on display, but also invisible."

 

Security guards, for Wilson, represent the presence of difference within the museum hierarchy. Not only are many (in large urban museums) African American, but they also reflect, he says, "a certain world view, being interested in security and militaristic matters. That creates a gap. The guards who have worked in a museum for a long time know a lot about the art‑they look at the same things every day, so in order to make the job bearable they become aware of everything. When I go into a museum to create a work like `Mining the Museum,' they are part of the process of getting to know everyone who works there." Wilson also created an installation piece on the subject, "Guarded View," at Metro Pictures gallery in New York in 1991, in which he displayed four black, featureless mannequins dressed in the uniforms of four New York City museums.

 

Before being invited to come to the Maryland Historical Society, Wilson created faux museum pieces from contemporary artwork or high quality museum reproductions, which he would then manipulate and deploy in terms of setting, lighting, labeling, and juxtaposition. They include the installations. "The Other Museum" at White Columns in New York, "Panta Rhei: A Gallery of Ancient Classical Art" at Metro Pictures, and "Primitivism: High & Low," alluding to two controversial exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

 

The idea of bringing Wilson to Baltimore came from Lisa Corrin, assistant director of that city's peripatetic producing organization The Contemporary, after a talk the artist gave at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Wilson recalls, "Lisa asked me to come to Baltimore to look at all the institutions and pick the one I wanted to work with. I looked at a lot of them and chose the historical society because it seemed the archetypical museum that hadn't changed. New thoughts in museum display had not affected that institution for one reason or another. I thought it would provide the right raw

 

Museum News: Mav/June 1993

material for me to work with.

"I originally felt completely alien in that en­vironment‑which intrigued me. I wanted to know why, which is another reason I chose it. Before going in I had no idea what I was go­ing to do. I didn't know it was going to be African American history. I just wanted the paintings and objects to speak to me, let them tell me what I should do. And they did. That is pretty much how I go about working with these institutions: I go in with no script, noth­ing whatsoever in my head. I try to get to know the community that the museum is in, the institution, the structure of the museum, the people in the museum from maintenance crew to the executive director. I ask them about the world, the museum, and their jobs, as well as the objects themselves. I look at the relationship between what is on view and what is not on view. I never know where that process will lead me, but it often leads me back to myself, to my own experiences."

The success of the project depends on es­tablishing trust with the museum staff. This is a gradual process, which in the case of the Maryland Historical Society involved intermit­tent trips from New York over the course of a year and six weeks of intensive research at the institution.

Wilson capitalizes on his position as an out­sider to the museum structure, which implies that an exhibit like "Mining the Museum" would have a different dynamic if it were done by someone on staff who has to stick around after the show comes down.

For him to function it is imperative that he have the freedom to operate. "The museum quickly realizes that I respect the materials in its collections and in the archives. I respect the staff and their jobs, and for the time I am in residence I feel like part of the museum. I have worked in museums so I don't feel sep­arate from that experience. It is never a ques­tion of an us‑and‑them situation. What limita­tions there are decrease as a relationship develops. It is really important there be no censorship involved in what I do, otherwise it would not be worth my coming."

The wide acceptance of "Mining the Mu­seum" is overwhelming for its creator. When it finally closed at the end of February, there was an outpouring of affection for him and the museum from "average people who brought their families. It shows me how art is just not that separate from people. It also shows museums can make a difference in so­ciety and make a change." And that to do so the budget doesn't have to be huge `Mining the Museum" initially cost only about $25,000 since it used the museum's holdings and dis­play cases.

 

 

Museum News: May/June 1993

 

The key element for Wilson is to let the shared humanity of the museum, its collec­tions, and visitors come through. "Even the most standard exhibition can be more human. Because you are human. The people who or­ganize exhibitions are human. If they tap into that and not into the systems of display and scholarship, tap into what led them to get ex­cited about museums in the first place, and put that out there along with the schol­arship, that is how to reach people. That is what art does: artists aren't afraid to risk opening themselves up, because they have to. It's not about putting Marx­ism in museums, it's about humanity."

Wilson hopes that the perspective he brought to "Mining the Museum" will af­fect future exhibits and grants at the his­torical society. He does not see his role, however, as a knight in shining multicultural armor saving neglected and distorted cultural damsels from Eurocentric dragons. He says, "I am not long enough anywhere to do anything like that. I hope to spark something to lead people to asking how things can be done dif­ferently."

Three other U.S. museums have felt the Wil­son touch. He participated in "A Museum Looks at itself. Mapping Past and Present at the Parrish Art Museum, 1897‑1992," which looked at the Southampton, N.Y. museum as an arti­fact. At the time Wilson was approached by Lisa Corrin of The Contemporary, Patterson Sims of the Seattle Art Museum extended an in­vitation for him to come to the recently opened museum to work with its collection. The result, "The Museum: Mixed Metaphors," drew work from separate galleries to examine conven­tional installations of European, Asian, Egyp­tian, Native American, and African art. On a smaller scale, Wilson created "The Spiral of Art History" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art combining works from the museum that nor­mally reside in separate galleries with their (Please turn to "Wilson, "page 90)

 

Examining the fall of Communism and the rise of consumerism in Warsaw, Poland.

 

49


("Letters," continued from page 86)

 

point relates to working with color digital images. Imaging is available from a wide array of manufacturers and each has their own method of "looking at and defining" color. Therefore it is important to calibrate your system so that the color you see on the monitor will be accurately delivered at the ouput device or storage medium. Without calibration software do not be surprised if the final output (print or film) does not exhibit the same colors that were displayed on your monitor, or for that matter, the original art.

 

Gary G. Steele President Digital Techniques, Inc. Norcross, Ga.

 

In the "Letters" section of the March/April issue, the name of John R. Hensley, director of the Missouri State Museum, was spelled incorrectly. Our apologies.

 

'N     ! E, 11

 

90

 

("Wilson, "continued from page 49)

 

own conventions of display. In both the Seattle and Indianapolis examples, Wilson says he wanted to raise awareness of "the encyclopedic nature of art museums and how they define the differences between cultures."

 

Wilson created a micromuseum in Indianapolis, compressing everything into one room. He explains, "It involved putting the whole museum in this one little room to show what it was doing on a larger scale that visitors might not be able to see."

 

Wilson respects the expertise of museum professionals; he just wishes it were more effectively shared with the public. "They know the history of objects, contemporary art professionals know the artists, curators of ethnographic art know the cultures in their complexity, but when they display a work in the museum, all the complexity and richness of art goes by the wayside. The public that could benefit from all that knowledge is completely clueless. Curators should understand that what excites them can excite the public as well."

 

As for the public having a voice in Wilson's creative process, he avoids thinking about the audience as he works in the holds of museums. "I just try to tap into my humanity and my excitement on a personal level. Those are the things that the public can tap into as well. Instead of asking how can we get those people in the door, museum professionals need to realize they are no different from them. If professionals put themselves in what they do instead of relying on a system that doesn't have a human face, they would be reaching a wider group of people."

 

For some visitors to this year's Whitney Biennial, the only time they felt they were in a museum was in Wilson's installation, "Re:Claiming Egypt, 1993," which deploys highqualiy and rare reproductions from Egypt with Afrocentric books and ephemera like T‑shirts and leather medallions. Wilson recognizes the controversy of the subject. "I am questioning in my Whitney piece, and in a similar installation in the Cairo Biennial, who were the Egyptians in relation to us? There has been no major scholarship done on the relationships between Egypt and sub‑Saharan Africa. I wanted to start at least raising some of those questions. I also put Egyptian stuff in the African collection in the Seattle exhibit just to make that point." Wilson's personal history links Egypt, which he visited 20 years ago, and Africa. After college he studied art and dance in Nigeria and Ghana.

 

An exhibition Wilson created in Warsaw, Poland, last summer incorporated current social issues comparable in explosiveness to the issue of race in the United States. There the minefield revolves around the country's Communist past. Called "Muzeum Impossible," it was installed in a contemporary art space that formerly had been a castle. "I ended up borrowing objects from five different museums. It had been a Soviet‑style Communist museum of the past, the kind they are now trying to get away from. I brought up Social Realist paintings from the basement that they didn't want to think about and put sculptures of Lenin with dinosaur bones. I found a museum of devils, and I included these devils in the installation. The show was about Communism and how consumerism has taken its place now."

 

Of his forthcoming project at the Smithsonian, he says: "What I would like to do there is an exhibition on the history of museum display in light of the social history of the time." And the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art is bringing Wilson down in 1994 to do a piece in conjunction with the decorative arts museum on the grounds of Old Salem, the Moravian village. "Both SECA and the village are located in Winston‑Salem, which is where my grandfather is from. It will take `Mining the Museum' one step further in being more personal by looking at my own family history in the village and museum."

 

On his wish list are a historic house and offers for him to apply his method in a permanent installation. But among his most ambitious plans is one that would move this outsider about as far inside as one could hope to go: the creation of his own museum.

 

Museum News: May/June 1993