Tag Archives: reliable narratives

Pardon our dust / statement of repurpose

27 Jun

Now that my Art League Houston residency is finished and I’m done exhibiting for the year, I’m ready to get back to blogging regularly about art — in Houston and beyond. I enjoy writing my stories for Arts + Culture magazine, such as this review of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Things in the World exhibition and my Loose Ends column on the reunification of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s European galleries, but they always leave me with more to say than I can fit on the page, and I end up kinda-sorta blogging on Facebook or the comments sections of other writers’ posts — e.g. Harbeer Sandhu’s welcome Houston Is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind screed — so I might as well try to systematize things.

Henri Matisse, 'The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay,' 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, ‘The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay,’ 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art

Ideally I’d go through a site redesign and “rebranding” before reemerging, but as has become my custom every time I do a performative art-meets-art-criticism thingy, I’m about to embark on another road trip, so this blog’s early history as a travelogue will be revived minus the sex-worker part (I’ve been re-retired from the world’s oldest freelance gig since February). I’ll be flying to St. Louis on Saturday to start this one. Tentative itinerary: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Des Moines w/the folks (unfortunately the museum will be closed while I’m there), Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Institute of Arts, possibly museums in Madison, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS OR BUST, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

The trip was inspired by the possibility that Detroit’s creditors might try to force the city to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ by-all-accounts superb collection. This article by Nicholas Wapshott explains why that move would amount to giving up on the city:

… [E]ven if the estimates reflect only half the money that may be raised, it is only going to provide half the money the city needs to become solvent. If there were no other considerations apart from monetary, however, putting a collection of publicly owned art up for auction would be a sure, if undignified, way of raising cash.

Economically, however, it would be a disaster. Art is not like gold, which has few uses except as a store of value. Sell gold and you can buy back gold. Sell rare masterpieces and they can rarely, if ever, be recovered. Fine art has a value way beyond its mere price. To liquidate the DIA’s art would be a short-term fix that would soon redound on those who say they have Detroit’s best interests at heart. …

To sell off the DIA’s collection in a hurriedly arranged fire sale would send a clear signal that Detroit is washed up, a dead end, an urban experiment that did not survive the rigors of the market. Could Detroit endure a long and virulent campaign by art lovers all over America portraying the Motor City as the broken-backed capital of philistinism? Investors would conclude that Detroit is finished and take their money elsewhere. …

As Tom Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, put it, “Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table — never considered an asset that might be cashed-in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet.”

Unfortunately, cries of “save the DIA’s art” are all too easily satirized, as Detroit Free Press business columnist Tom Walsh demonstrates:

Many attendees at the Detroit Regional Chamber gathering were buzzing with anger Wednesday evening over earlier statements by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr that DIA artworks could possibly become entangled in a Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding.

Rich people will stop bequeathing art to the museum, they wailed. Swell traveling exhibits will skip the DIA, which will cease to exist as a respected art house if its treasures are peddled to creditors at a bankruptcy garage sale.

Really? Is it possible, I thought, that otherwise intelligent Michigan people still don’t get it, that a massive financial collapse wreaks drastic change throughout the institution?

Do we not recall that the General Motors had to ditch its Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab brands, fire its CEO and wipe out all of its common stockholders as part of its bankruptcy and bailout?

For years and years, as Detroit kept piling on debt to an unsustainable level of $16 billion, it was popular to blame the mess on mismanagement, intransigent labor unions, poor employee morale and assume those culprits would pay the price when the reckoning finally came.

But, gee, now it has suddenly dawned on the C-suite executives — and their foundations that support the arts — that some of their pet interests are endangered, too.


It takes some nerve to advocate total capitulation to the unregulated market, which has been fueled by the same creditor class that screwed Detroit and is now turning the screws on Detroit, and then to try to paint that viewpoint as the stick-it-to-the rich position. But Walsh is joined by Virginia Postrel, who tries to sound like less of a philistine by advocating that DIA artworks be sold to the Getty, which gets more tourists, as if tourists should take precedence of a museum’s service to the people of its city.

But why wouldn’t Postrel take that view when the interdependence of the travel industry and arts organizations, whose funding is often tied to their ability — perceived or actual — to put heads in hotel beds? Why wouldn’t she advocate selling off the DIA’s holdings when she can point to statements by its former director?

In 1931, the man who built the collection, director William Valentiner, argued for continued city funding by citing how much the works’ value had appreciated. “The Brueghel painting we purchased for $38,000 is valued at more than $150,000,” he said. “If the city were to sell, piece by piece, the objects of art it has purchased, they would realize more than five times the amount paid for them.” Valentiner certainly wasn’t advocating such sales, but his statement demonstrates that they weren’t inconceivable.

As Postrel shows, when art boosters use economic arguments to talk about the importance of art, it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes along and says, “Hey, you know what would really make an economic impact?”

Still, if ever a city could use some cultural tourism right about now, it’s Detroit. And people who were tweeting their support for the DIA from Venice in between shots of the fabulous time they were having at La Biennale shouldn’t wait for someone to organize a biennial to get to the Motor City, visit one of the country’s best museums (and what appears to be an interesting emerging art scene) and spend some fucking money in Detroit and make sure Detroit knows you’re why they’re there.

I expect the ways in which cities use and misuse art to tell the world stories about themselves to be one of this blog’s ongoing motifs. Another will be looking at what museums are and aren’t doing to make their collections more accessible to their cities’ not-so-well-heeled residents. Another will simply involve posting pictures or videos of, and thinking out loud about, the art I see, sometimes relating all of the above to what else is going on in journalism and in the world. I’ll probably do a fair amount of cross-posting on A+C’s website, especially as we work on retooling things for the fall. Follow me on Twitter (@dbhypend) to keep up with it all. In the meantime, pardon our dust while I gradually repurpose this blog, taking away some pages and putting up new ones and fiddling with the appearance.

Media roundup: Responses to the Menil Collection/Art Guys tree vandalism

8 Dec

Since, despite what blogger Robert Boyd of The Great God Pan is Dead — fancy! — describes as my vanity, I only got around to setting up a Google alert on myself last night, I may be missing a few posts here or there. If so, you know where the comment button is, though I’m not sure you know how to use it. (Background on the ongoing saga of The Art Guys Marry a Plant here, here, here and here. If you’re new to this blog, probably the most concise intro is here.)

Reliable Narratives. Advertising photo for Devon Britt-Darby, 2011. Jpeg taken from an upcoming XTube video.

CultureMap editor Clifford Pugh, unsurprisingly, got the scoop. Pugh was one of the best in the business during his days covering the waterfront for the former Houston Post and the shadow-of-itself Houston Chronicle, which probably explains why Chron laid him off during the March 2009 massacre. (Less impressively, Pugh parrotted the Menil’s feeble attempt to link the planting of the tree to the recent drought. As I wrote in a draft of an as-yet-unpublished essay, How marrying a woman made an honest gay man of me, “If you care about the trees that Houston has lost, plant groves, not kisses on the backsides of Nina and Michael Zilkha — the latter is a Menil trustee — to whom the tree is dedicated.” I’ve never met Nina Zilkha, who is Michael Zilkha’s wife, not his sister, as I mistakenly assumed when I first met him.)

In Miami for the art fairs, I was next with this post, which I initially wrote in the Sunday morning wee hours — dinnertime, as Miamians call it — and updated twice in rapid succession after catching a few hours’ shut-eye. I bashed the vandalism as “a shameful, cowardly act that only makes a bad situation worse” before conceding in an update that “we can’t yet be totally certain s/he or they were from the art community,” though I long ago lost count of the number of people who threatened, with varying degrees of jest in their tones, to chop down the tree. I also turned up the heat on the Menil:

“The fact that it was so easy for one or more vandals — and, in all fairness, we can’t yet be totally certain s/he or they were from the art community — to perpetrate this cowardly action tells you everything you need to know about how seriously the Menil took The Art Guys Marry a Plant,” I wrote, before recounting my various warnings, both public and private, to the Menil Collection about the obvious lack of protection being given to an artwork the museum claims is worthy of its once-high standards. (This point would get The Great God Pan’s goat, as we’ll see below.)

Glasstire’s Bill Davenport had the best photos of the damage to the tree, which is now basically a stump but apparently will survive.

Next up: The Houston Press’ Meredith Deliso finally put a few teeth into her previously beyond-bland coverage and was good enough to quote my denunciation of the vandalism and the Menil’s lack of security for the tree, though apparently too busy or proud to deal with my request that she call me Britt-Darby, not Darby, on second reference. (Hey, at least she didn’t accuse me of being on meth in the headline, marking an improvement over Richard Connelly’s recent coverage of my departure from the Chronicle. Connelly refused to undo the smear in the hed but did deign to quote my denial in an update at the bottom of the story, which he knows as well as I do almost nobody will notice. In an email, he admitted to somehow missing my reference to the Zilkhas in the video “rant” he embedded in his own post, despite the fact that I mentioned them both verbally and in captions. Way to keep journalism alive and kicking, Connelly!)

The attention from Pugh and Deliso may have been what forced the Chronicle, on it’s embarrassingly named entertainment site, 29-95.com (Houston’s lattitude and longitude — get it? Get it?) to bust out a five-paragraph recap that did acknowledge my post-Chron existence but not the Menil’s failure to protect the tree. The Menil must have recently purchased an ad at the Chroincle, where every other sentence in the features newsroom is a noun, a verb, and advertising. No one at 29-95 wanted his or her name attached to this story. Can you blame them?

Meanwhile, by far the best place to find real discussion of the damage to the tree was Facebook page, where a range of thoughtful responses, including dissents from my point of view, played out in an actual — gasp! — critical dialogue about art in Houston.

Boyd, to his credit, paid attention to that dialogue and drew on it in what has, sadly, been hands-down the best local critical response to the tree vandalism. Read the whole thing.

It shows the drawbacks of working without an editor — it’s the Menil Collection, Robert, not the Menil Museum, and artist daniel-kayne hyphenates (and possibly still lower-cases his name, though Facebook probably doesn’t allow that) — but also the advantages: Other than yours truly, Boyd is the only writer with the stones to call out the Zilkhas by name. That alone makes the post a must-read.

His interpretation of why I’m on this road trip is oversimplified but reasonably well grounded in what I’ve actually posted, which is admittedly confusing for the uninitiated and the initiated alike. (Unfolding artworks-in-progress can be like that.)

Here’s where Boyd gets it flat-out wrong. After recapping my recap of my warnings to the Menil about the possibility of damage to the tree, he writes:

I hope readers will see how scuzzy this is. Britt’s repeated (and sometimes intemperate) criticism of the piece was what put it into the news. Warning the Menil that it might be vandalized and demonstrating how in a video shown on a public forum was an invitation for someone else to vandalize it. This is a strategy used by anti-Muslim bigots (for example) who warn about how a new mosque in a neighborhood might be vandalized and it would just be better if it weren’t there. I don’t equate Britt with anti-Muslim bigots, but he has to accept the possibility that his words and guerrilla video may have given someone ideas. His anger at this action therefore seems frankly insincere.

Sigh. For the umpteenth time, it’s Britt-Darby, not Britt. It’s fine to clarify for readers that I was previously known as Douglas Britt, but I am now Devon Britt-Darby and will be legally changing my name to reflect that after the road trip and divorce are finalized. The simplest way to address the naming confusion is as Davenport did, in a Glasstire post whose headline, like Connelly’s also suggested I’m currently on meth — by calling me “Devon Britt-Darby, né Douglas Britt.” See how easy that is? (Full disclosure: I am a collector of Davenport’s, having spent $72 on two of his painted liquor/beer bottles at Glasstire’s booth during the Texas Contemporary art fair.)

More importantly, Boyd’s analogy to anti-Muslim bigots, and its implication that I incited the tree vandalism by criticizing the Menil accession and making art in response to it, is flawed. A better comparison would be with hackers who inflict benign attacks on corporate security networks to point out their vulnerabilities. The problem with his anti-Muslim bigots analogy is not that it’s inflammatory — hey, I called vandalizing the tree a Taliban-style response! — but that it distracts attention from whose real responsibility the tree’s safety is: the motheringfucking Menil’s. The Menil is the museum, not me. The Menil, by virtue of its accession and permanent display, says the tree is an artifact of a great artwork, not me. And how has the Menil treated this allegedly great artwork? By making it a sitting duck for vandals. I repeat:

The fact that it was so easy for one or more vandals — and, in all fairness, we can’t yet be totally certain s/he or they were from the art community — to perpetrate this cowardly action tells you everything you need to know about how seriously the Menil took The Art Guys Marry a Plant. The Menil, which had rejected the accession previously, accepted it into its collection earlier this year as quietly as a thief in the night, in stark contrast to the orgy of publicity that had accompanied The Art Guys’ “engagement” to the tree in 2009. The Menil was counting on so few people noticing or caring that the museum could have it both ways, humoring its new curator, Toby Kamps, and patrons Nina and Michael Zilkha — the latter is a Menil trustee — to whom the tree was dedicated, while hoping most people in Houston would say, “Eh, what’s the big deal about adding another tree to the Menil campus? It’s just a tree.”

The Art Guys’ plaque, of course, is doing just fine.

If my willingness to marry for social sculpture, lose my job in this economy and set out on the road as a 42-year-old escort — advertised age yet to be determined — as another form of social sculpture haven’t convinced Boyd of my sincerity, I can only ask that he stay tuned.

But I won’t comply with his suggestion that I stop going shirtless, which, believe it or not, most clients prefer. If Boyd wants me to put more clothes on, he can hire me to do so.

Reliable Narratives. Advertising photo for Devon Britt-Darby, 2011. Jpeg taken from an upcoming XTube video.

I’m not suggesting that we have sex, mind you. Escort rates are for time only. Whatever goes on between consenting adults during that time is up to them.

UPDATE: Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City serves up a recap of the whole affair that’s so good it reminds me why she was my third choice for a bride. Thanks for the wonderfully cohesive summary, Paddy, and for turning me town. If I’d had to fly you and your boyfriend down for the wedding, it would have made financing this trip a lot harder. And I wouldn’t have met the best random wife a gay could ask for.