Sunday, July 27, 2014

Interview with Dan Cameron (Part I)

Dan Cameron

Dan Cameron is currently Chief Curator for the Orange County Museum of Art since early 2012. Since that time, Cameron has launched the California-Pacific Triennial, a series of international surveys that will focus on art from countries that border the Pacific Ocean; and the exhibition Sarkisian & Sarkisian. He has also been instrumental in reexamining the museum's collection and presenting multiple exhibitions highlighting significant works in unexpected ways. Prior to his work at OCMA, in 1988 Cameron was the first-ever American commissioner of the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, and later the curator of the landmark exhibition Cocido y Crudo at the Centro Reina Sofia, Madrid, in 1994. He then spent eleven years (1995-2005) as Senior Curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, where he organized retrospective exhibitions of such renowned artists as William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy, Cildo Meireles, Marcel Odenbach, Pierre et Gilles, Faith Ringgold, Carolee Schneemann, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong, along with several influential group exhibitions. Cameron served as Artistic Director of the 2003 Istanbul Biennial and the 2006 Taipei Biennial, and from 2007 to 2011 he was Founder and Artistic Director of the Prospect New Orleans biennial, as well as Director of Visual Arts at Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) of New Orleans from 2007 to 2010. Cameron has published hundreds of texts in books, catalogs and magazines on contemporary, lectured widely at museums and universities throughout the world, and served on the graduate fine arts faculties of Columbia University, New York University, and School of Visual Arts.

This interview is Part 1 of a 2 part interview. In the first part of the interview, Dan talks about his early career as a curator, his tenure at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and his relationship with its founder Marcia Tucker. 

Mario Vasquez (MV):     For those who are not familiar with your work, where did you begin curating? Was there anything that lead you to want to be a curator?

Dan Cameron (DC):         I began curating professionally in New York City in the early 1980s. The first exhibition I ever curated at a US museum was at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC in 1981, and by 1982 I was organizing my first exhibition as a guest curator at the New Museum, where I would later work as senior curator from 1995 to 2006. I survived off of art-world day jobs from 1979-83, then in 1984 I decided to throw myself full-time into independent curating & writing, and, except for the occasional travel article for a travel magazine during the early, and various stints teaching and lecturing, I’ve never done anything else.

I wasn't aware that 'curator' was the name for what I wanted to do until about 1979, the same year I graduated from Bennington College, but I know I liked to organize exhibitions (I'd been doing it since high school), and I was really completely absorbed by recent U.S. art history, the study of which is where the initial impulse to exhibit artists' works originated.

MV:       The show in 1982 you organized at the New Museum was "Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art," which was considered the first exhibition dealing with gay and lesbian art. What were some of the challenges you faced in organizing that show? The show opened at the eve of the AIDS crisis and the rise of the gay rights movement. Looking back 32 years later, what are some of your reflections and thoughts about the impact of that show?

Installation view of "Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art"

DC:         The biggest challenge to organizing Extended Sensibilities was being told repeatedly that this would be the last museum exhibition I would ever curate. So much of the art world was 'safely' closeted at that time, with most discussions of sexual identity still taking place behind closed doors. Even openly gay friends inside the art world thought I was committing early career suicide, but Marcia Tucker had a way of persuading those around her to take risks, and she got the Board's full approval to produce this exhibition by a largely unknown kid.

As for a direct connection between AIDS and Extended Sensibilities, it feels in retrospect like the exhibition was one of the last cultural investigations of gay culture to take place prior to AIDS becoming a full-blown emergency. By the end of 1981, there was certainly a shared awareness that something unsettling was taking place, but its severity was almost impossible to comprehend. Between the time when the New Museum catalog texts were finalized in spring of 1982 and the exhibition's opening in October, the term AIDS first came into use, and the cultural shift was indeed dramatic. I remember people telling me that perhaps in light of the apparent discovery of a connection between sexual promiscuity and transmission, I should reconsider one work set in a fictitious gay bathhouse, and, not surprisingly, much of the subsequent discussion in the press and the New Museum's public events centered on the growing health crisis.

In terms of my own biography, the Stonewall riots in 1969 were much more consequential in terms of giving visibility to a gay community within the US that had previously been largely invisible. Post-1969, there was suddenly broader access to a history, a bibliography, and other forms of documentation of a gay subculture that had always existed, and as a pre-teen -- I turned 12 that fateful summer --, my antenna were everywhere. I was interested in the anti-war movement, the drug culture, & music, and gay rights seemed part & parcel of that societal transformation.

What happened many years later with AIDS, particularly in the art world, was the growing realization that the closet was no longer a safe place for anyone, and that it was preferable to be in the streets pushing for more resources to be applied to treating the disease. AIDS also brought a lot of societal homophobia out into the open, and I think that huge numbers of LGBT Americans were taken aback by how many of their fellow citizens seemed to view them as less than human. That in turn inspired a lot of soul-searching, and I think the success of today's marriage equality movement is one of the direct results.

Besides being the first museum exhibition of its kind, I have little sense of the broader impact Extended Sensibilities may have had. I know it gets cited pretty regularly when other thematic exhibitions of a similar nature take place, and I do feel good about having been the first to frame the work of artists such as Scott Burton, Gilbert & George, and Harmony Hammond in terms of sexual identity. Personally, I learned from this experience never to shy away from an artist's work or any subject matter just because it might ruffle a few feathers.

Installation view of "Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art"

MV:       After Extended Sensibilities you continued to work with the late Marcia Tucker throughout the 1980s and 90s, first as guest curator and then eventually as senior curator at the New Museum. Tell me about working with her. What are some of the fondest memories you have? How did she challenge you as a curator to organize and to look at contemporary art?

Portrait of Marcia Tucker by Barbara Parmet.

DC:         Thinking about Marcia Tucker nearly ten years after her death, I’ve developed a new level of appreciation for how significant an influence she was on me personally, and equally on the field of curatorial practice in the U.S. If these evaluation have taken some time to develop, it’s because working for Marcia, especially in her last few years at the New Museum – I was hired in 1995 and she was gone by 1999 – could be a challenging experience. By the mid-1990s, even her greatest supporters recognized the core problem at the New Museum: Marcia had founded a museum that became & continues to be a very important cultural space in New York City, but its roots were in the radical self-questioning that was key to Marcia’s own ethical integrity. However, after twenty years the gap between Marcia’s ideals and the day-to-day role of managing a staff and Board of Directors just couldn’t be reconciled, and by 1995 she was pretty unhappy. Ultimately she needed to entrust the museum’s curatorial vision to somebody who had an equally strong vision, and I’m proud that for more ten years I was the person Marcia chose to maintain her legacy within the New Museum.

In the end, however, Marcia’s radical integrity turned out to be her hidden strength.  It’s hard for anybody who didn’t experience it directly to imagine, but for years she intentionally turned the top-down institutional decision structure of the museum on its head, lobbying incessantly for all staff to be given a say in important program matters, and for everybody at the New Museum to be paid an identical salary (both measures had been reversed by the time I arrived). Her radical inclusiveness had nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with preparing herself and everybody around her for a future that is dramatically more inclusive than the recent past. In the end, Marcia’s insistence that we study how artists make their decisions, and then learn from that process, has been one of the foundations on which I’ve built my own practice, and I’m convinced I wouldn’t have been nearly as confident about trusting my own instincts today if Marcia hadn’t paved the way.

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