With his wife, Judy Moran, San Francisco Bay Area curator and poet Renny Pritikin was the first director of New Langton Arts (NLA), a seminal alternative space founded in the 1970s. While at NLA, Moran and Pritikin worked with dozens of now iconic artists, including Charles Ray, Chris Burden, Martha Rosler, and Allen Ruppersberg, as well as experimental organizations like The Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Pritikin left New Langton in the early 90s to become the first Chief Curator of Visual Arts at the newly founded Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). There, he mounted important exhibitions that helped define the 90′s, including exhibitions by artists Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Amy Franceschini, Harrell Fletcher, Jon Rubin, Fred Tomaselli, Wim Delvoye, and
Over the course of his career, Pritikin has organized exhibitions of material culture and the work of fringe-culture artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Don Ed Hardy, Ricky Jay, and Syd Mead. Pritikin is currently Director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and Collection at the University of California, Davis, and a professor of Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
We spoke over Diet Pepsi (Pritikin’s favorite beverage) at his home in Oakland, California, interrupted briefly by a small earthquake.
Joseph del Pesco: During our recent conversation with the MFA students at UC Davis, you outlined a prescription for a healthy art scene: a constellation of conditions that might help define and sustain a group of artists in a given city. It struck me as a useful reference point for anyone thinking critically about how to build an active art ecology.
Let’s start there…
JdP: This overview sets the stage for what I really want to talk with you about, which is possible futures. You’ve become well-known for inventing institutions. I’m thinking of your pioneering alternative-space work at New Langton Arts in the 80′s, and your work with material culture, alternative exhibition formats, and fringe-artists at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts when it first opened in the 90s. What kinds of institutions do you imagine appearing on the art and culture landscape of the next ten years?
Renny Pritikin: My friend Anne Focke, who started and/or gallery in Seattle around the same time we were building New Langton Arts, was visiting recently, and we asked ourselves: “if we were starting again today, what would we do?’ We came up with a few ideas. One was a combination public/private research center, where art is just one of the disciplines. It could be a residence where people develop this research, with a public component to accommodate talks, presentations, performance, etc. It would involve culture, broadly, and maybe science, but with a goal of breaking down the separation of art from the rest of society. This kind of work is easier now because of the fluidity of digital means. Artists today bridge disciplines without thinking for a second about it. The fact that you can put together a complex project and distribute it to thousands of viewers using a website is a huge change. One that we shouldn’t underestimate.
I think that the art institution has to change from being a warehouse to being a site for potential action. The recipe is:
safe place, money, bringing diverse people with ideas and energy together, resources, curatorial leadership, and shake well. The identity of the art institution has to be as fugitive, constructed, ephemeral, changeable, collaborative, responsive, fractured and dynamic as an individual’s identity. What I love about movies (especially sci-fi) is that when the lights go out, anything can happen. I want to go to museums where that’s the same feeling walking across the threshold. It’s not like an amusement park where the terror is predictably codified. It’s like a dream of utter possibility.
JdP: For over two decades, you’ve been working with an unusual strain of artists who defy easy classification. I’m thinking of people like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Don Ed Hardy, Ricky Jay, and Syd Mead. Along the same lines, you also came up with one of my favorite exhibition ideas: The Hall of Fame Hall of Fame, which selected kiosks from fifty-two Halls of Fame from across the US. This kind of populist approach recurs in your curatorial work. How do you see this strategy going forward?
RP: OK, I am not an art historian, that’s my confession. I like to think that I think and curate like an artist would.
I recently got an email from an artist friend with a link to a web site with dozens of images of an indigenous African tribe that made the most amazing head adornment out of plants. Image after image was incredible – who would’ve thought you could see anything new in the field of hats? – and a testament to human ingenuity. I take this kind of experience as a metaphor for what turns artists on. So besides art, it’s the leaps of imagination that get my mind racing – Roth’s reinvention of the notion of the car (hot rod) and the notion of cartoon (rat fink). Ricky Jay turns freaks, magicians, con artists into individuals of historic worth, contributors to a parallel and outsider tradition, teachers and innovators, artists of deception and encouragers of fantasy and amazement.
I was running an institution that opened in the early 90′s, full of rhetoric about openness to so-called “other voices.” What I learned was that that was only opening the door halfway, that to do that and omit material culture, visual culture, was reform and not revolution. Finally, I found that diverse audiences did not flock in to see avant garde art from other cultures but they would come to see Star Wars costumes and props. So the solution to the situation of fifteen years ago, say, was to always have a rigorous thread of popular culture in the cumulative exhibition narrative. Of course as I’ve said to you before, being populist doesn’t necessarily make you popular. The Hall of Fame Hall of Fame was incredible for me but not many people came to see it. So defining success is hard. There’s aesthetic, experiential success, and then there’s financial, popular success and critical reception.
The triumph of the internet hasn’t changed the fact that people still enjoy being in the presence of cool stuff. But the problem is making this relevant to your generation and people younger than you. I think that computer screens in museums is probably not going to work. And commissioning installations of landscapes from Second Life probably won’t work, but I’m not completely sure. Most likely it’s working with the people who invent those things to see what they would like to do in a real world context.
There’s also lots of ideas I’ve never got around to trying. I think it would be a thrill to have a major league pitcher do a performance in a museum gallery with a real mound and catcher demonstrating the power of a 95 mph pitch and the grace of the delivery. What would Robb Nen think of that opportunity? How about turning the gallery into a rehearsal facility for the SF Ballet? I’ve always wanted to commission an artist to collaborate with one of those guys who puts 100,000 lights on his house at Christmas…
Certainly I believe you’re in trouble when you curate from an idea rather than from art works or artists you support. I fear that that is the opposite of what my students are taught by other teachers, but for me, picking the theme “pickles” and then finding all the artwork of pickles you can find is a recipe for a lousy meal. Now, what you’re supposed to do, I guess, is pick a theme like “archival impulse.” So what you have are some good shows with some good work but lots of shows where the curator and the artist are having a conversation and recognizing their tribe but it feels eventually like a mass hypnosis has passed through the community and everyone is convinced they have the symptoms of the same disease.
So for me, curating experimental work doesn’t lose sight of an audience broader than one’s peers. I believe that excellent art, and relevant and important art, does not have to keep an interested audience at bay.
JDP: Over the course of your career, you’ve privileged the audience’s experience and presence and facilitated the development and retention of newcomers in various ways. Can you talk about what you think might be successful strategies for developing a crossover audience for contemporary art?
RP: I’ve always believed that, given the exposure, a much larger percentage of the general public would enjoy contemporary art than the percentage that currently chooses to engage with it. I know this from my experience of seeing people, especially young people, come away from projects I’ve been a part of, really excited, and it seems to me that the excitement is only partially about the work, and in large part it’s also about the discovery of the work, and the discovery of the work in an institution where that excitement was not anticipated, and that excitement doesn’t stop at the exit but continues into an excitement about the possibilities of the urban experience, or, more grandly, life itself. To offer surprise and new ways of seeing. That’s what I live for.
Working at a large university, I often think about what would get the 85% of the student body that never comes to the gallery to come in. Besides the banal truth that we don’t have any money for advertising, or that there are just some people who will never be caught dead in an art gallery, how do you speak to them? There are lots of predictable ways – cultural identification, or movies/tv/pop music et al, but I want to not be too proud to try speaking new languages like hip hop, or digital forms like gaming or the web, subcultures like tattoo, or food or sports, or birding for the old squares like me. So it has to do with stepping aside from your authority and control and turning to the expertise of others that may not be reflected in formal education.
Ultimately these things always come down to power, don’t they? If you’re willing to relinquish some, you get it back, often/usually in unpredictable ways. You can’t be afraid of failing, but you do have to acknowledge that you too bring an expertise to the table that needs to be reckoned with.
by Joseph del Pesco