In an otherwise straightforward discussion of her curatorial practice, what stood out in Ute Meta Bauer’s presentation at the State Library of Victoria in March, was an improvised series of comments on the state of contemporary art.1 These comments followed a line of thought evident in a series of articles in e-flux journal published in 2009 and 2010 — namely, what is contemporary art? More exactly, as the editors of the journal conceived it: if contemporary art has ‘matured’, i.e. if the basic pattern of its organisational and cultural life is now established, then what is it that makes it unique and, where do we turn to clarify the values that this culture embodies? Towards the end of her presentation, Bauer suggested — though it was almost an aside — that contemporary art had become ‘over-institutionalised’ and that it might be time to consider ways in which it could become ‘more inaccessible’.
To illustrate her point, Bauer spoke of inviting Andreas Gursky, at an early stage of his career, to hold an exhibition at the Stuttgart gallery where she was curator in the early 1990s. Gursky agreed to the exhibition on the condition he would have a full year to work towards it. Bauer went on to say that, until then, she had assumed that artists — especially up-and-coming artists — would be more than ready to take such an opportunity whenever it would present itself. In other words, she assumed the priority of the institution. Gursky’s response made it clear, on the other hand, that the reverse could be true.
The illustration is simple but it points to a broad, but relatively under-explored, approach to contemporary art that looks at the relation between practices and institutions. If we think of institutions as organisations that are, in principle, open to the general public, and are organised around and involved in the presentation and production of contemporary art, and for the most part resourced by a government tax base, then contemporary art institutions include a significant portion of the overall network of today’s art world. Notwithstanding the size and influence of the commercial sector, the scope of institutions — from government-funded museums and galleries, biennales and triennials, university departments and art schools, to local, state and federal government bodies that distribute money to artists and other organisations that support them — is obviously important.
But what would ‘over-institutionalisation’ mean in a context where contemporary art has emerged along with this institutional structure itself? In Australia, government funding for the arts was ‘virtually nonexistent’ until the 1970s.2 The cultural policy that was first developed then, which was reinvigorated in 1994, continues to shape the arts today. The basic outlines of this policy — to raise the standards of practice, to make art accessible to everyone regardless of socio-economic barriers, and to encourage the production of an Australian cultural identity3 — remain part of the symbolic background to the main trends in the changes that have taken place since the 1970s, such as the expansion of higher degree courses in the visual arts and the expansion of funding opportunities for artists practices’ and exhibitions. As much as it has a truly global scope which is driven by market opportunities, real and imagined, and as much as it is bound up in more localised, informal networks, connected around the world, contemporary art is for us an art that has become democratic — democratic in the sense that it is, as a whole, inseparable from this national institutional structure.
‘Over-institutionalisation’ might therefore suggest that of all the countless individual activities that contribute, day by day, to this contemporary art world, the typical and predominant kind is shaped, whether we know it or not, by those policy goals based on standards, access, and the national interest. On the other hand, however, there are different kinds of activity, based on different values and interests.
What Bauer has called ‘inaccessibility’ would be one alternative. I think of ‘inaccessible’ as wherever something embodies a preference for informal over professional networks, for a private language over the conventional academic languages or those of marketing and public relations, for reducing administrative procedures to a minimum, for an invitation-only exhibition program, reading or discussion group. There are probably many more ways to conceive of activity based on a principle that withdraws from the idea of a transparent, accessible public space. ‘Inaccessibility’ may be a shorter way of saying, for example, that the principles behind the ‘measured approaches’ of ‘knowledgeable audiences’ who share similar ideas and values are what make contemporary art gratifying — not only as a lifestyle, but because it is only in such contexts that the real cultivation of practice can actually take place.4
Alongside ‘inaccessibility’ there seem to be two other alternatives (though there might be others). The first of these would be based on a more dogged and individualistic principle — that of practice as ‘vocation’. Such a way of working shares the value that practice always has the last word, however, in this type, the corresponding idea of the public turns out to be more of a pragmatic concern. Like long hours spent in the studio, time and commitment surround and protect the singularity of a practice; all the same, hard work might be complemented by the intermittent engagement with institutions that cater to a public need.
The second is based on the principle of critique. Critical practice conceives public space as a kind of battleground, rather than something to be avoided, or as a necessary evil. In this way, critical practices seek to articulate the tensions within and between individuals and the operations of institutions. They tend, in fact, to be parasitic of the tensions and conflicts they represent; since tensions and conflicts are opportunities to show that contemporary art is also built out of relationships of power and domination. But, at the same time, even critique has to come back to an ideal of practice; to some form of intuitive and singular way of working.5
Michael Ascroft is an art writer who is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne.