Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fanfare For The Common Denominator

If the Philadelphia Museum of Art wishes to lower its standards to appeal to broader audiences, Philadelphia Assembled (currently running at the Perelman Building through December 17, 2017) is literally the ticket.

In our politicized age museum administrators and donors feel enormous pressure to reach out to their surrounding communities, embrace and underwrite art and artists they have traditionally shunned and engage previously disenfranchised audiences in terms to which they can relate.

Locally, the headlong rush into community outreach began in earnest with the Zoe Strauss retrospective of a few years ago, continued more recently with the “Wild” exhibition that just completed its run and currently reaches its apogee in “Philadelphia Assembled”, an exuberant, muddled assemblage of folk art, fine art, indigenous commerce, ethnic memory, community activism and polemic.

One cannot help suspect these efforts may boost the Museum’s attendance bottom line in the short term but not engage the new audiences when more traditional exhibitions are mounted.  (“Old Masters Now,” a celebration of the museum’s justly famous Johnson collection, will be an immediate test.) One thing is certain:  the pay-as-you-wish policy in effect for this exhibition won’t help the museum’s financial bottom line.

Cultural institutions must evolve to survive.  Whether or not they need to turn their backs on their traditional roles is another matter.  The staff, donors and organizers would have us believe the doors to the Museum no longer secure a forbidding fortress set upon the hill but rather are permanently thrown open, becoming a supersized community center albeit one that predominantly houses priceless objects we still dare not touch!

Philadelphia Assembled, organized by the Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswjick, gives voice to the dispossessed and oppressed populations of Philadelphia, principally but not exclusively peoples of color.  (I have no problem with outsiders coming to town, staying for a while to take its pulse and then mastermind an exhibition.  However, it is presumptuous in the extreme to believe a year or even two in residence is adequate to claim any meaningful understanding of such a large, diverse urban population.).

If nothing else, the exhibition confronts the viewer with imagery that is unfamiliar in museums and with voices unheard except in the streets.  This is the real thrust of Philadelphia Assembled, displacing alternative visions from their originating communities into a setting where one expects to see art.  It’s a form of illusion and if we grasp the idea, the objects become mere souvenirs of the occasion.  One might test this theory by trying to recall in detail most of the imagery from the exhibition.

Anyone who drives through parts of this city other than its glitzy center cannot have avoided seeing the neighborhoods “re-assembled” in the museum.   Philadelphia has huge expanses of these depressed neighborhoods whose populations have been marginalized and rendered mostly invisible to outsiders.  Museum Director Timothy Rub envisioned an experience “… when our galleries are appropriated to become a stage for the city itself.”  A “period room” reconstruction from a Kensington home that houses the Alumni Ex-Offenders offices is a prime example of Rub’s vision.  So, too, is a wall of street signs proclaiming “We Buy Houses”, all of which display the identical phone number that connects to a voice mailbox where visitors can record messages about personal stories of gentrification and displacement.  In fact, the entire undertaking is a two-way street since Philadelphia Assembled began with a series of community events and participation outside the museum’s walls such as the lighting of an underpass in Nicetown last spring meant to draw attention to mass incarceration.  The second phase is comprised of these installations at the Perelman.

The most striking example of the stark contrast between low and high art is the wall of polaroid photos of Philadelphia prisoners serving life sentences in Pennsylvania and Jeffrey Stockbridge’s photographs of drug addicts and prostitutes in the Kensington neighborhood.  The polaroids, with their frontal flash lighting, centered compositions and inherent small format, are of record-making at its most simple and direct.  Their sheer numbers overwhelm any individuality they might achieve despite being accompanied by statements and names.  

Stockbridge’s photographs, on the other hand, are carefully composed and lighted and in a few instances printed very large.  They are very individual.  Their polish seems strangely out of place here and indeed the images were not made with Philadelphia Assembled in mind.  This last point also dramatically underscores the clear racial distinction between Stockbridge’s nearly all white subjects and the peoples of color that predominate the rest of the exhibition.  His are the very few images that expand the notion of Philadelphia in its greater diversity assembled. (Stockbridge’s photographs also belong to that huge category of images of long-standing presence in museums and galleries that allow viewers who would normally cross the street rather than confront these subjects to feel safe if not compassionate about facing them in a setting of art.)

The museum’s website states the exhibition is organized around five principles: 
Reconstructions: How do we rewrite our histories?

Sovereignty: How do we define self-determination & unity?Sanctuary: How do we create safe spaces?Futures: How do we reimagine our tomorrow?Movement: How do we share knowledge?

All of these beg the larger question of how we begin to arrive at answers, however tentative, in the context of art and the museum.  After all, the Museum is the nexus of assembly.  According to the museum’s website, the “Sovereignty” working group “is exploring the concepts of the marketplace and cultural exchange as they relate to histories of self-determination and the preservation of community wisdom. PHLA will partner with various businesses along the 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia to offer spaces for creating unity and cultivating economic sovereignty.”

To that end, events were organized in West Philadelphia such as “Jewelry Making with Esau” , “Knitting for Unity and PaPosse Crafts”, and Essential Oils and Incense Production.”  In the end, however, displacing artifacts, symbols and signs into a museum does not address the fundamental question of what are our expectations of the institution.  And if the ultimate goal is the complete dissolution of boundaries, why move into the museum in the first place?  Why not simply declare Philadelphia an open museum city?

Denise Valentine, a Philadelphia storyteller collaborating in the exhibition, had this to say in Hyperallergic, a “forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York”: “We intend to re-imagine the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a place to unearth stories hidden deep in the soil of Philadelphia. We envision a place where narratives of the enslaved, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised are held in as high esteem as Eurocentric ideas about art, history, and culture.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art cannot be all things to all people unless, of course, it seeks to preserve and present the lowest common denominator.  Even then, however, if everything is art, nothing is art.