Jim Pomeroy – Viewing the Museum: The Tale Wagging the Dog
Thirty years ago this fall the artist Jim Pomeroy and SFMOMA curator Suzanne Foley were corresponding about his proposal to include his text “Viewing the Museum: The Tale Wagging the Dog” in her survey of 1970s Bay Area conceptual and performance practices, Space/Time/Sound. In light of recent discussions on Open Space about the New Langton Arts crisis and the role of nonprofit arts organizations, Tanya Zimbardo, Assistant Curator of Media Arts, here revisits Pomeroy’s analysis of modern art museums vs. artists’ spaces. Wonderfully, we are also able to present for the first time a downloadable PDF of his original text and images of their letters.
“To what extent does a larger organization, in absorbing new artistic practices, need to support or point to the smaller institutions that pioneered them?”
In the midst of the debate in August surrounding the pending closure of the San Francisco-based nonprofit New Langton Arts (NLA) writer and curator Patricia Maloney posed this question as part of a larger comment on the perhaps inevitable comparison between NLA and SFMOMA as our blog brought increased visibility to the latter’s predicament. Open Space became a forum for the community to evaluate the struggling institution and speculate on its tactical errors, opening up space for criticism of both organizations.
This end-of-an-era reflection on the blog made me think back to the perceived paradoxes and inherent tensions surrounding SFMOMA’s own attempts, through a two-phase exhibition initiative held thirty years ago, to ‘support or point to the smaller institutions’ that had fostered the breadth of activity associated with Bay Area Conceptual art. In reading Julian Myers’s series of discussion threads on the NLA crisis and the political ethos that generated the emergence of the alternative visual arts space movement in the 1970s, I’ve kept returning to that moment. Specifically, to a text-based piece by the artist Jim Pomeroy (1945–1992) featured in the major SFMOMA survey Space/Time/Sound—1970s: A Decade in the Bay Area (December 21, 1979–February 13, 1980). The work was in itself predicated on dialogues about the fundamental differences between collecting institutions and the parallel system of artist-run spaces. Entitled Viewing the Museum: The Tale Wagging the Dog, the piece consisted of enlarged reproductions of his correspondence with the exhibition’s curator, the late Suzanne Foley (at SFMOMA 1968–81) and Pomeroy’s paper, of the same title, written for The New Arts Space conference in Santa Monica organized by LAICA in 1978. It is worth noting here that Pomeroy lived upstairs from 80 Langton Street (what later became NLA) and as co-founder, had been instrumental in formulating its mission and goals. Back in 1978 Langton described itself as a “forum for art work, which requires a more flexible, responsive context and more direct critical/supportive feedback than traditional institutions can provide.”
Space/Time/Sound represented twenty-one of the more prominent artists/artist groups of the time, highlighting the work that came out of sculptural concerns—performance actions, installations, video art, slide projections—rather than the sculpture (objects), drawings, photography, etc. that we also associate with a number of the same artists and the broader scope of the movement. Pomeroy had performed as part of Foley’s Exchange DFW/SFO (1975-1976) at Fort Worth Museum of Art and at SFMOMA. Several of the artists on the Space/Time/Sound checklist had either been in that or other SFMOMA group presentations, and in certain cases had been given solo shows at the museum. Taken together, Space/Time/Sound was trying to tell a story of how often temporal or site-specific work produced in the Bay Area had inhabited a full range of other arts organizations and non-art spaces—university museums, temporary storefronts, alternative spaces, galleries, studios, streets.
Foley’s colleague Rolando Castellón (SFMOMA curator 1972–81, co-founder of Galería de la Raza) had the overall vision for a Bay Area-centric exhibition series that would include Foley’s presentation and would begin in 1978 with a more direct acknowledgement of the achievements of alternative spaces. He invited the artist-directors of three prominent San Francisco-based alternative spaces—The Floating Museum (Lynn Hershman), Museum of Conceptual Art (Tom Marioni), La Mamelle, Inc. (Carl Loeffler)—to program at the museum, highlighting their roles as producer, promoter, and publisher. Each exhibition touched on a signature aspect of their respective projects including live events, while activating the transformed gallery space(s)—from a zine library of correspondence art to the social function of a simulated bar environment.
Foley’s invitation letter to Pomeroy expresses interest in showing the panel from his sound-based performance Composition in D, 1974, a work she refers to as ‘pivotal’ and which “was important for me, as was the series [South of the Slot]. It would be good to have it represented though this piece.” A group of artists had generated the two-month South of the Slot series at 63 Bluxome in San Francisco, and its word-of-mouth success was partly what informed the desire for a continued alternative space, and the decision by the San Francisco Art Dealers Association to assist with the formation of 80 Langton Street.
I found the Foley/Pomeroy correspondence, and a copy of the conference paper, fortuitously, misfiled in our unprocessed exhibition archives, and after I stopped looking for it. Before this, I’d only ever seen citations of the project, and the full text was absent in related publications. I’m therefore happy to be able to present both documents in full here on the blog, at the end of this post. Whether or not Pomeroy’s piece achieved its potential for acting as “a kinetic situation, inviting dialogue and thought processes on the issue raised” as he hoped, given the text-and-photo-panel-heavy exhibition design, there are signs that his point—that it could not be ignored that one of the major and definitive changes in contemporary art of the 1970s was the self-determination and expanded role of artists in the founding of new arts spaces—was taken. A concern he had expressed in the paper was that “all too frequently, a museum or gallery will represent with massive publicity and documentation exhibitions or performances presented at artists’ spaces and fail to acknowledge the previous source of exposure.” Foley explicitly supported Pomeroy’s pro-artist premise, dedicating a full section of the comprehensive Space/Time/Sound catalogue to the ‘new alternative visual arts spaces’ and to the phenomenon Pomeroy refers to in his paper as the new ‘artist consciousness’, as well as including profiles in the exhibition on all of the Bay Area-based spaces including 80 Langton Street represented in the conference.
If Composition in D involved firing slingshots to silence alarms then Pomeroy’s Viewing the Museum took aim at various art world practices and its individual players. His biting anti-SFMOMA remarks—complete with quoting then-Director Henry Hopkins—go unmentioned in exhibition texts. Exemplifying Pomeroy’s wit and penchant for title punning, the piece was instead contextualized in didactics with the rest of his artistic practice as “approaching the subject much as he examines phenomena and objects, taking them apart, examining them and putting them back together in juxtapositions that make wry parodic comments on themselves.”
While sorting through this material, I came to realize that the way museum staff and colleagues often talk about Space/Time/Sound suggests a positive read of the exhibition, despite being allegedly unpopular within the museum, with the public, and in the press. We tell a tale of an exhibition that was ‘pivotal’ in generating primary research and documentation of how our brand of Conceptual art had manifested in the region. Foley and Castellón’s exhibitions have come to signify for the museum a productive collaboration with Bay Area artists, a bold curatorial risk in comparison to regular museum programming of the time, and an attempt at confronting the challenge of translating peer-oriented work to a museum’s more general audience. Artists speak fondly of the curators who championed them at a key turning point in their careers. Having digested the press clippings right before reading the Foley/Pomeroy exchange, I initially felt a bit protective of Foley, but with each rereading appreciated Pomeroy’s letter and his position more broadly. His assertion that most of the significant activity of the decade occurred outside of the museum was both a point that needed to be made as well as a point of contention for those who objected to—on principle or in practice—the museum historicizing the scene. In fact, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s scathing exhibition review dismisses the survey’s “slight tip of the hat to alternative spaces [that] suggests none of the richness of the network of personal relationships, underground institutions and events that shaped the development of Bay Area Conceptualism.”
Then SFMMA Assistant Director of Art George Neubert summarized in his wrap-up report for the NEA: “The critical response to the series of exhibitions and events was quite mixed and in some cases negative and derogatory. Because it was controversial to be treating “alternative” art in an “establishment” museum situation it was not easy to obtain private or corporate funding support.” Of course some of the complaints were just thinly disguised attacks on idea-based art and the non-commercial object rhetoric of the period, while other criticisms reflected a resentment of the way museum recognition is interpreted as ‘progress’ or ‘maturation.’ The latter anxieties are evident in Pomeroy’s paper: as he put it, the museum’s “posture of benevolent patriarchy” towards artists. In general, a recurrent sentiment of the time was that static documentation of past events was a poor substitute for first-hand experience, and thus despite the best of curatorial intentions, the museum had indeed become the mausoleum for the local avant-garde.
Even back then Pomeroy refers to his original paper as “a real period piece.” In reading it, we can identify obvious shifts in the art world since then, including the art market’s later embrace of once non-marketable artistic forms. There is a general climate of increased opportunities for emerging artists, productive moments of collaboration between museums and other nonprofits, and the rise of other models like artist-run galleries, not accounted for in his schematization, that would also absorb the experimental curatorial methodologies promoted by alternative spaces. Blogs are but one sign of the constant reevaluation of arts organizations in their relationship to artists and their audience. In contrast to this potential to alter one’s institutional image, the case of Space/Time/Sound speaks to the limits of what we might want an institution to represent.
There are certain observations in the paper that are remarkably still on target, regarding fundamental dynamics in the art world and museum commitments that never seem to change. Pomeroy’s piece once proposed that the Museum host a critical forum on these issues. I’d therefore like to use our online forum to host his questions again.
13 September 1979
Suzanne Foley, Curator
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Van Ness Avenue at McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Thank you for your letter and invitation to SFMMA’s exhibition, “Space/Time/Sound-1970’s”. I will be happy to participate. I will, no doubt, be communicating with you shortly regarding the show, but wanted to initiate my proposal in writing, for reasons explained below.
Since this exhibition is described as an “end of the decade” reflection, I feel it is, indeed, appropriate “to take a look at that important aspect of Bay Area creative activity that extended the traditional definitions of art.” Your choice of concentrating “on artists whose expressions come out of sculptural concerns” is well founded, and I agree “a thoughtful look at a few artists can make a succinct statement which then sets the tone for all the other activity in the decade.” The fact that most of the significant activity of the decade occurred outside of the museum context is a point which must be made. To wit, I would like to include a work which I feel is indeed “pivotal” and in the sense that it remain pivotal, I would like to activate the museum and the spectator as co-respondents.
Proposal: Exhibit in the form of enlarged reproductions, my article “Viewing the Museum: The Tale Wagging the Dog” commissioned by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art for the conference The New Arts Space held in Santa Monica in April 1978, accompanied by copies of your letter of invitation to this exhibition, this letter, and your letter in response (as well as any other significant documents relevant to the work). All documents to be enlarged to the same size and exhibited as a suite of prints. The reproduction will be expedient and graphic (Photostat) and something like 11/2 to 2x original size.
Many of the reasons I feel this work to be pivotal or significant are stated in the article itself. For me, at least, it acknowledges a relatively new stature, posture, attitude, or identity for the artist—a position which seizes a responsibility for autonomy, often clumsily but assertive nonetheless, and determination which previously resided in more remote and dominating roles. Principally, these roles were administrator, critic, curator, director, publisher, agent, and significant audience. Most of these were not occupiable by artists, and seem to be closed to many others (like community representatives) as well. The major aspect of change in the arts in this decade is the explosion of considerable alternatives to traditional norms. Not style, as in ‘movement’ but movement, as in ‘away’. The reason that most museum directors and senior critics complain about doldrums in the seventies (and that most museum exhibitions justify that complaint) is that they can’t see the changes, because they’re not stylistic changes, but linguistic changes. If this exhibition is to be accurate in order to “set the tone for all the other activity in the decade”, it must confront that issue.
In the year and a half since I wrote the article I have learned many things to change its utopian tone. One rude awakening has been the realization that not all these new arts spaces are as democratic, altruistic or ethical as I would like. Many are clumsily administered, leaving much of the burden on either the artist or the audience. Yet, despite these trespasses, I still feel that this is my arena and the arena of responsible growth—and I mean growth in the sense of maturity, not in the sense of ‘progress’ as is so often used in our mercantilist hierarchies. Since I wrote the article, it has become clear that profit plays an increasingly important role in museum directions. Programs are filled in around shallow, pretentious, and over-publicized blockbusters like “Tut” and manipulative PR shows with monster budgets and miniscule scholarship and content. All too frequently, selection of important critical functions is made on the basis of this kind of “support”. Meanwhile, there are the built-in responsibilities to trustees and collection, leaving little room, time, or budget to ‘reflection’. Invisible as it may appear to our ‘elders’, this is one of the major crises of our decade.
Reading back over the article, I feel awkward in terms of scattered organization, points which could have been clearer or better made, analysis which settled for “art-world” gripes (and avoided deeper social questions of ‘what exactly is the place of an art-world in our culture?), or the previously mentioned disappointments with more promising milieu. However, these faults, like drips and slips on a painting, are indicative of a time and a process; and comprise an important part of the whole. They are transparent enough to allow at least the intended essence to be read. It’s a real period piece and must (and will) stand on its own. So I swallow my awkwardness. I don’t think anyone else will choke on it either.
I don’t expect the museum to agree with my views or to assume liability for them. I grant the museum its position and take responsibility for my own work. I do expect the SFMMA to reciprocate by hanging this work. After all, if I am wrong or out of place, I risk playing the fool (and the museum certainly commands significant evidence to the contrary). If there is found to be some agreement with my views, then perhaps a productive dialogue will result. I address these remarks to ‘the museum’ because your response in this matter will constitute ‘museum policy’. I do not intend to compromise your position or our friendship; but this is an official and professional relation.
Obviously I have questions about Institutions, Spaces, Alternatives, Criticism, Assessments, Decades, Art, Artists, Audiences, Support, Et Cetera, Et Cetera. I would like these questions to be the sound that is heard in the time of my space.
This is the only work I wish to place in the exhibition.
Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Viewing the Museum: The Tale Wagging the Dog [downloadable PDF]
November 14, 1979
74 Langton Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Needless to say, I was surprised to receive your response to my letter, indicating your wish to be represented in the exhibition “Space/Time/Sound—1970s: A Decade in the Bay Area” by your paper published in the summary of The New Arts Space conference sponsored by The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1978. As I read it, the essence of your thesis is that the artist in the seventies has taken active responsibility for defining his/her place in the art world by assuming the roles previously held by the administrator, critic, curator, director, agent and significant audience. From my research on the exhibition, I can agree with you that this an exceptionally important point in understanding what has happened in the arts in this decade. It is much more appropriate to have your personal conviction elucidate this point than to have it rationalized in Museum reportage.
I suppose the institution, could it but speak with a single voice, might say in response to the thesis of your paper “you are flattering to suggest that the Museum’s sole purpose is to serve the art community; would it were that simple!” As an institution, a Museum is an admixture of an established commitment and the dynamics of all the individuals who make it happen, the staff, the supporters, the visitors and—the artists; it is a sociological phenomenon. As you have pointed out, the artist in this decade has realized, matured to the extent, that he/she, too is a sociological phenomenon. So the place that we—institution and artist—find the most dynamic is where our “worlds” overlap. The Museum is not the be-all and the end-all and it is idealistic to expect that to be true. That’s what the seventies have told us about our idealisms of the sixties.
Here’s to the eighties!
Continuing to be a key spokesman for the artist community, Pomeroy later turned a critical eye to the rigid genre division in art schools, the institutionalization of alternative spaces, and the dependent relationship on the NEA. Before he left San Francisco in 1987 to teach in his home state of Texas, Pomeroy participated in several exhibitions and events at Langton including the seminal performance Byte at the Opera (1977) with Paul DeMarinis, who would later co-organize with then- Executive Director Susan Miller the 1999 posthumous Jim Pomeroy: A Retrospective on the occasion of NLA’s 25th anniversary. The show celebrated from all accounts a much-loved and missed figure known for his work across media—sculpture, performance, new music, sound art, video, and stereography and anamorphic photography—as well as his incisive critical writing on technology in culture. As a testament to a longstanding relationship with an artist, it was the type of exhibition and publication that an old arts space like NLA could do.
–Tanya Zimbardo, SFMOMA assistant curator of media arts
Brandon Brown’s recent take on the SFMOMA survey “Space/Time/Sound-1970s: A Decade in the Bay Area” (1979):
What a sweet face. What a tragic death. RIP.