Open and Closed
The last few months have been pretty tough for the Center for Visual Art, the LoDo mini-museum operated by Metropolitan State College of Denver. In a shocking move this past spring, the school's Republican-dominated board of trustees cut the center's funding in half ("New Directions," May 5). No surprise there: De-funding the arts has been a Republican goal for at least the last twenty years.
Apparently, boardmembers saw the CVA as a source of free money for their budget wishes, not as a key part of the city's cultural hierarchy. In particular, the board needed to come up with the enormous amount of money needed to cover the staggering salary and ridiculously generous benefits package awarded to Stephen Jordan, Metro's new president ("Figures, Facts and Fountains," May 19). To make that happen, several key CVA positions were eliminated. As a result, the gallery lost its well-respected director, Kathy Andrews, and Amy Banker, the head of its award-winning educational outreach program. That leaves only program coordinator Cecily Cullen as a carryover from the old regime.
I went to the CVA last week for the first time since the changes went into effect, and I must admit, I had some trepidation. I wanted to talk with Cullen to find out what's going on, and meet with interim director Jennifer Garner -- who is not to be confused with interim executive director Greg Watts, the chair of Metro's art department.
I found out that widespread rumors of the CVA advisory committee resigning en masse are not true -- but the truth is pretty close. According to Cullen, three members did resign in protest over the budget cuts, and the others decided to "step back," with future meetings canceled indefinitely. So the advisory-council members didn't resign; they simply decided to stop meeting. That strikes me as a distinction without a difference.
Garner seems like a good choice to shepherd the place during this difficult time. She has her undergraduate degree from Metro and has taught art there for the past ten years. She is in charge of the BFA thesis program, in which students present their work in exhibits. In addition, Garner has been running the Emmanuel Gallery, an on-campus facility operated jointly by the three colleges at Auraria. This fall, a search will be launched for a permanent director of the CVA, but Garner has not yet decided whether she'll apply.
Garner believes that if the art department had not stepped up to the plate to bail out the CVA, it might have closed. And that's still a possibility, since the lease on the current space on Wazee Street is up in April, and it's not yet clear whether the gallery will remain at its current address. Garner hopes it will, and she assures me that things will be peachy-keen there. God knows I want to believe her; however, she is the third director in approximately that many years to dismiss my concerns. But given what's happened, I would say that being concerned about the CVA's future isn't being paranoid -- it's being realistic.
The current show at the CVA is Japanese Design Today 100, the last of the big-budget exhibitions to be hung there. It opened on former director Andrews's last day, which is appropriate, as she booked it and oversaw its installation during her final few weeks.
This was clearly a difficult assignment, because Japanese Design has certain immutable aspects that are not an easy fit for the CVA. For instance, each piece is given a number rather than a label, and viewers are asked to tour the exhibit by using a brochure that details the works numerically. As a result, viewers will often find themselves scanning the room to find the next number and will frequently have to cross the gallery to find it. Of course, you can always just walk through and flip back and forth in the brochure instead of following the numbering exactly. The best demonstration of the bad fit is that the show begins in the space behind the information desk instead of in the entry up front.
The Japan Foundation organized the traveling show, with selections made by a jury comprising design professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, designer Makoto Koizumi, the Nippon Design Center's Nobuko Shimuta and design curator Masafumi Fukagawa. The four chose a group of thirteen post-war objects to provide context for the nearly 100 contemporary pieces that make up the bulk of the show. The use of the historic pieces at the beginning makes Japanese Design a primer on the topic, which is necessary, because the landmarks of Japanese design are little known in this country.
Surely that's why the jurors chose to put Isamu Noguchi's work in the historic section, even though most of it was designed in New York, where he lived (actually making him an American designer). Noguchi's "Rocking Stools," from 1954, in black lacquer and chrome-plated metal, are among the first things viewers will see in the show.
There are other interesting pieces in the historic section that look as American as those stools, though these items were actually designed in Japan. For example, check out the 1960 Sony TV by Sou Shimada and the 1955 Toshiba rice cooker by Yoshiharu Iwata. One early piece that does look more Japanese than American is one of the best known in the show: Sori Yanagi's "Butterfly Stool," made for Tendo in 1956.
Almost all of the recent pieces in Japanese Design reflect a neo-modern aesthetic -- there's no post-modern of any kind -- which doubtless reflects the taste of the jurors. As is no surprise coming from Japan, the display includes many high-tech gadgets made of plastic and metal. I loved the elegant Sony PlayStation 2 from 2003 by Teiyu Goto and the chic-looking "Telephone 610" from 2000 by Ichiro Iwasaki for Mutech. Both have more than a passing relationship with contemporary Italian design and could have come from the desk of Mario Bellini. Then there is 1999's "AIBO ERS-111," Sony's famous robotic dog, which doesn't have a drop of Italian rationalism in it, even if it is slick-looking.
There are also a lot of utilitarian objects, including a beautiful but ominous clear-plastic police shield, colorful hard hats, a sleek Kikkoman soy sauce bottle and a couple of sharp-looking motorbikes.
Japanese Design Today 100 goes a long way toward laying out the contours of the contemporary scene in Japan. Even if you know quite a bit about international contemporary design, I guarantee there are items here that you will never have seen before.
Cultural conservatives absolutely love to hate art. The most recent example of this is the censorship of Tsehai Johnson's "Large Implements on Hooks," alternately titled "Twelve Dildos on Hooks." That second title was more or less a secret, which makes me wonder how it got out.
Until last week, the ceramic-and-steel installation had been displayed on the website of the Colorado Council on the Arts. In 2003, Johnson, one of the region's leading ceramic sculptors, had been awarded a modest $5,000 fellowship from the CCA, and that's why the piece and her biography were there. (The CCA no longer gives individual grants to artists.)
When Channel 9's Paula Woodward broke the story (with a follow-up, co-bylined article in the Denver Post), she reported it with the sanctimonious tone that could be expected of her; after all, the topic was state-sponsored eroticism. According to Woodward's various reports, the Independence Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Golden, came across the Johnson piece while looking for examples of government waste. That's believable, but what is unbelievable is the idea that the group found out about that original title on its own, since it wasn't on the CCA site. And let's be serious: It's the no-longer-secret title that makes the piece controversial, since the forms are highly abstract and really don't look like dildos at first sight.
Woodward is a muckraker who has often examined questionable government spending, but she is not someone who ordinarily reports on the arts. So here's a funny coincidence: For the past several months, Woodward's been looking at art in galleries around town. (I ran into her myself at Havu.) Turns out she's been putting together an art collection for her home. It immediately crossed my mind that she may have found out about the Johnson piece independently of the Independence Institute, since the artist's erotic ceramic sculptures have been widely exhibited at such high-profile art venues as Studio Aiello and + Gallery.
Whatever the case, Woodward's story put Johnson on the hot seat and ultimately led to her piece, as well as her biography, being taken off the CCA's website. Even Governor Bill Owens weighed in on the matter, calling Johnson's exquisitely made work "offensive and in extremely poor taste," as quoted in the Post.
Last month, young artist Miguel Flores had his very well-executed portrait of Saddam Hussein removed from a show at Diedrich, a Capitol Hill coffee shop ("Off Limits," June 16). This was not an example of censorship, because last I checked, Diedrich is a private business. A necessary component for censorship is the intervention of the government. That makes removing the Johnson from a state website a stone-cold example of the stifling of free expression, as was the removal of one of Gayla Lemke's pieces at the Lakewood Cultural Center earlier this year by the City of Lakewood ("Artbeat," March 3). I think this growing trend is kind of scary.
The Lemke was ultimately put back on display, but I doubt that's what's in the cards for Johnson's piece -- without a lengthy court battle, anyway. One of the most troubling aspects of the latter situation is the nagging question of whether an ambitious TV reporter was the one who made the whole thing happen. (For more on Tsehai Johnson, see page 13.)
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