The Project as Institution and Individual
When one thinks of intersectionality, they typically think of identity. My thoughts around this term have been complex and frankly resistant because the term is an attempt at explaining humanity to those who have ardently tried to rob others of theirs. But alas, that is for another essay. I would like to take intersectionality outside of the scope of individual identity, and apply it to institutions and the professional landscape of our beloved and ever-expanding “Art World.”
In recent conversation with a friend who is entrenched in the global art market, we discussed the positioning of a new category of work, and tried to figure out where to place this venture within our respective practices. The debate was centered on whether or not we should form an organization or structure the presentation as a project. At first, the idea of a “project” felt light and non-committal, but as her argument unfolded it quickly solidified as the only condition appropriate for the time. As we swirl and sway in the rip tide of change, structures that are masculine, narrow, or rigid no longer evoke power or resonance. The moment calls for curvaceous expansion, flexibility, agility, and dare I say “intersectionality.” The concept of rigor is being redefined as the ability to pull from many sources and directions rather than an antiqued definition worshiping myopic categorization and singularity. This evolving phenomenon is placing its demands on the very epicenter of a formerly insular world. “The Project,” in its flexibility and experimentation, is the future for the institution and the individual.
Over the past two decades culture has shifted and the weeds of change have started to break through the concretized intellectual foundation of the museum establishment. These shifts have ushered in scores of new BIPOC art historians who are beginning to mature and amass the power to challenge the accepted canon by slowly and consistently entering people of color into the conversation through their writing and exhibition making. This stream of change intersected the election of American’s first Black-identifying president and first lady, who had an open and unabated interest in sharing African American art and culture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the First Family’s presence in the White House, upended and challenged notions of Blackness all over the globe. Their hypervisibility and superhuman excellence evolved the consciousness of many cultural gatekeepers and sparked the examination of long-held raced-based assumptions about creativity and capacity, unearthing the many demons of a white supremacist mindset.
Although tense, the cultural groundswell was further ignited with the countervailing forces and the election of Donald Trump, whose rabid transgressions against women catalyzed a new generation to resume the fight for equality. This renewed quest for change sparked a second wave of intrepid investigations into the gender and racial compositions of museum collections. These studies exposed the egregious disparities in representation in museum collections—the very collections that are used to assign value to our humanity.
We also need to call attention to the reconfiguration of society through a quiet restructuring of power in the United States. We are in the era of corporate or billionaire rule, where the cultural institutions disproportionately depend on private dollars for their existence. This condition changes the architecture of power and absolves a democratic government of its cultural responsibilities.
Lastly, social media has given voice to the voiceless and is the unexpected medium of choice for the disruption of positions, policies, and people who no longer serve the greater good. This wave of people-induced justice has brought many feet to fire with urgency and zeal. This phenomenon is just beginning and is moving full speed ahead.
Since the beginning of the American “Awakening,” institutions have come face-to-face with the social, cultural, and financial realities of the moment. Many institutions are arriving from a position of fragility after struggling to maintain relevance in the face of a new world. The least prepared are haplessly resistant and unable to face the demands of their publics, which run the spectrum from an overwhelmingly entertainment-focused mainstream to a growing body of vigilantly active, educated, people of color and their allies on the other side of the demand. The museums best suited to deal with these demands have been the most experimental, cross-disciplinary, and diverse, working through a rolling series of projects testing the boundaries of new missions and ideals. The culmination of these projects becomes culture.
The same set of factors have permeated market-driving galleries, auction houses, and the matrix of individuals in the system causing them to bend in photosynthetic response to the stress fractures thereby breaking open new light sources and untapped opportunities outside of the current system. Galleries are collaborating on projects to challenge auction houses, museums, and art fairs. Auction houses have been challenging galleries with private sales. Systemic extremes like museums and art fairs have proved most vulnerable in the moment. The project is the enzyme; the public is the substrate. The ability to react to the project and its need for unexpected, cross-pollinated perspectives, disciplines, and ideas, has become a means for survival.
Albeit at the microlevel, individuals within the neural network of the “Art World” are facing the same set of circumstances. Transform or be ejected. The necessity to rapidly evolve into multi-disciplinary entities affects a specific segment of people within the system. This segment most presses those without personal endowments. To survive they are being asked to bring a full suite of renaissance-level talent and ingenuity to the table to meet the vortex of the moment.
This is the end of the road for Henry Ford’s assembly line citizenry. After over 100 years of mass-produced thinking, we’re returning to a more natural state of complexity demanding a many skill sets to secure survival on both practical and esoteric levels. Creativity, curiosity, self-possessed individuality, and cultivated interiority, beyond the crass nature of the personal brand, are essential tools of the trade. The individuals who most embody this renaissance way of being are the masters of “The Project.”
We are in flux. Although the presumed insurmountability of the moment can be disorienting, “The Project,” a metaphor for the fractal, makes these changes more manageable. The many experimental and interdisciplinary happenings are collecting incremental value and eventually take shape to form a new system.