Interview with Allison Agsten, Director of The Main Museum
Can you talk a bit about how you became interested in art and in curation? I grew up in a family that was interested in art but not in a collector type of way. My dad is an elementary school teacher. We grew up in a very rural area but my dad always subscribed to Artforum, publications like that, and when we went into the city he would take us to museums. From a young age, I had a curiosity and interest about visual culture.
My first job out of college was as a producer at CNN here in Los Angeles. Everybody else was very interested in covering movies and TV, but I found myself being able to carve out a nice little niche writing about the arts because nobody else was super interested in doing that. Then through that, I was able to weasel my way into museums, and then the curating just happened accidentally. I have a B.A. in English, so I’m still not quite sure how I ended up here. I guess I was just trying to find the most direct access possible to ideas, and that’s how I ended up curating, but it wasn’t really on purpose.
Was there an evolution from more object-based conventional art to public engagements? No. Everything that I’ve ever done, from my time at CNN to when I was at LACMA as Director of Communications, related to accessibility in some way. For example, when I was at LACMA, this was ten to twelve years ago now, I was scanning rare books and putting them online for free, something that now seems pretty conventional but that literally no other museum was doing at the time. Though I love objects, really love objects, I was never interested in following that work in a curatorial way.
You’re the director of the new Main Museum opening in Downtown L.A. in 2020. Can you speak a bit about The Main’s mission and also Beta Main if there’s a distinction between them that needs to be made? Yes, The Main will open sometime around 2020. The idea with Beta Main was to begin working in the spaces that already exist. Since it’s an adaptive reuse project, the buildings are here. So it struck me very early on in my time working on the project that, instead of waiting until the whole thing was complete, we could start working bit by bit in the spaces that are part of the museum, and actually make a lot of intellectual progress with the space, and really get to know the community—our neighbors—well. That’s what we’ve begun doing. We opened at the end of October with a project by Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers. Even just in these first couple of months, it has been extraordinarily generative. The things that I’ve learned just by doing this I will apply to our next phase . . . I can’t actually imagine not having that experience now. This model will take me very far in making a better museum. As for the mission of the museum, it’s to engage the public with the most important ideas of our time through the art of Los Angeles.
I understand that one of the things that sets The Main apart from other institutions is that instead of a traditional collection, the museum will have at its center a residency program. Can you talk about in what ways a residency can serve, and I’m not sure if this is the best word, but serve as an “alternative” to a collection? If those things are interchangeable in some way . . . I’m actually not sure if they are. I’m thinking about that. I’d like to think that perhaps they could be. I’m operating under that assumption, but I could be wrong. We’re trying this out, and even if they don’t end up being interchangeable or having a one-to-one kind of relationship, I think that the residency program has extraordinary value. In my mind, I’m trying to think of the best possible ways that we can support artists in Los Angeles. In doing a scan of the environment based on my years of working here—through visiting studios, organizing projects, and talking with artists—I really believe that finding studio space for artists, and sustaining that space, is really, really necessary, especially as our city is going through lots and lots of changes—extraordinary growth. Studio space is in greater demand, and is more expensive. How can we play a part in alleviating that demand—in what will ultimately end up being a small way, considering how many artists we have in the city? What can we do? Also, in looking at what other institutions are doing, we’re so lucky here in L.A. We have all of these incredible museums and they collect; they have extraordinary collections. It seemed to me that if we’re going to make a new museum in a city with many great museums, it’s probably best not to duplicate those efforts, not to do what others are already doing so well. What can we do instead that would have a value that could be equal? When I thought about it, it seemed like a residency program could really serve that purpose.
It seems that The Main’s mission is a good approach to making institutions more open and egalitarian. I think a lot of institutions are trying to do this, but it seems that, oftentimes, the ways in which they do fall short of actually facilitating meaningful engagement between artists, viewers, and institutions. The Main represents an alternative approach to the conventional art institution. Do you see ways for these more traditional object-based spaces to increase openness and engagement, and if so, how? I think engagement can’t just be a marketing tool. I also think institutions have to really interrogate what they mean by community and how much they’re willing to engage in community. I’m extremely invested in the place that artists have in this institution, but I’m equally invested in the place the community has in the institution. The reason why this can be really hard for museums is because it takes so much labor. It takes so much work for everybody to do the community work.
I just finished a project called Office Hours, where I met with fifty downtown L.A. artists on a one-on-one basis over the course of two weeks. I just saw one of these artists, the first artist that hung her work. She walked in as I walked out for lunch. I met her granddaughter who’s named Bianca. You have to do that; you actually have to be willing to meet people where they’re at and build relationships with them. You can’t do one community program on an occasional Sunday and think that the work is complete. You have to really get in there and do it. Also, I think it’s not just about programs. What else are you doing? Do you close at 5 p.m.? What about people who work? You have to be willing to interrogate the entire system. Everything. Just because your social media has a friendly tone isn’t enough. What do you do to truly, truly open yourself up? There are so many things that have to be addressed—the museum in total. Engagement is not just a gesture.
I understand Office Hours was like an open portfolio review or studio visit? It was first come, first served.
First come, first served. With something like that, do you think it’s useful for you to think of yourself as a curator in terms of genres like intuitive art or folk art versus established academic art? Are you interested in all of those types of art? Or is it necessary, for curatorial purposes, for you to make distinctions? No, I didn’t think about that at all this time. I guess I did think about it with work like Suzanne and Andrea’s project or the things I did at the Hammer. I consider myself to be a curator of socially engaged art, I suppose, because at the end the day we usually end up with a specialization of some sort. But the artists [for Office Hours] brought in stills from films, and there were sculptors, photographers, you name it.
I’m interested in this concept as an artist and maybe as an anarchist or something like that. The art world is very hierarchical; that’s problematic, and it seems like The Main is a good model to combat that to some extent. But I guess what I’m wondering is, at some point, is the hierarchy, or something resembling a hierarchy, useful to contextualize certain types of work for certain institutions? Yes, it’s always helpful to have a framework, I guess. If you can’t explain what you’re doing, you’re in trouble. If I can’t tell people, “This is what this is,” or “That is what that is,” I’m never going to be able to raise money, and by the way, I do need to raise money. This thing is not fully funded. It’s not handed to me on a silver platter. People told me I was crazy for starting out with this feminist durational performance [by Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers].
A lot of people also thought that doing something that wasn’t really curated [like Office Hours] was nuts. It was about something else entirely, but if there is truly a hierarchy, and everybody’s trying to do this thing up high on the hierarchy, and you don’t even acknowledge the hierarchy, that can work out for you, too, in its own way—people are like, “What is that chick doing?” and that can be good, too.The first two projects really worked out.
Can you talk a bit about the differences between object-based and nonobject-based artwork in terms of what kinds of experiences they can generate and the extent to which one method might be better suited for public engagement? Sure. Of course, it varies from work to work, but something about participating in the making of something, or being in the midst of something, is that it becomes your own. Once you have that personal experience of it, there is a relationship, in a way, that we can sometimes have with an object, although perhaps not easily. Like for me, there’s a little netsuke—it’s actually a replica that somebody gave me of something that was in the collection at The Met when I was a kid—and I have this relationship with this little rabbit netsuke that is extremely emotional and precious. So I’m not saying that we can’t have a relationship with an object. But part of the reason I have that relationship is because I can hold it. But that’s what socially engaged art does. There’s something about doing it—and we all know that power, too—whether it’s from getting your hands dirty, or from the way we learn by performing the thing itself versus just seeing the diagram of it, that’s irreplaceable to me.
Yeah, it seems like there’s a kind of ownership involved. Without a doubt.
As opposed to a painting on a wall which is often privately owned; it precludes a kind of personal relationship . . . Absolutely.
So, in 2017 Beta Main will be exhibiting the work of photographer Star Montana. Yes.
Can you tell me a bit about Montana’s work and why you’ve chosen to exhibit it at Beta Main? Sure. Star grew up in Boyle Heights, here in L.A., East L.A. She had a great show that I saw earlier this year. It was at the Vincent Price Art Museum. It tells a story of her family growing up in Boyle Heights. Some difficult aspects of family struggling with addiction, the death of her mother, eventually, and her brother having his baby, Baby Louie. It was an incredibly powerful show.
I found out about it as I was doing a studio visit with Shizu Saldamando, who’s known for her drawings, and we were talking about artists, things that come up during studio visits, and she said, “You’ve got to see this great photographer named Star Montana.” So I got in touch with Star, and Star led me through the show. And I’ve got to say, this is how you often, in my opinion, how you find out about the greatest work. If one artist tells you, who you respect, that you’ve got to see the work . . . there’s never been a time that an artist I respect told me I need to see another artist that I didn’t follow up on it. Not once, because it always pays off.
So Star walked me through the show and at the end of the show, I was just like, “Oh my God.” The photos are incredible, but Star’s an incredible storyteller. She brought a laptop with her, and she said, “I’ll show you what else I’m working on.” We went down to the conference room, and she showed me these portraits. I really love the pictures of her family, but when I saw the portraits, it was like a tears in your eyes kind of thing. I was so moved that it took all of my self-control, which I sometimes don’t have enough of, to not say, “Let’s do a show immediately.” I gave myself forty-eight hours to just sit on it and not be super impulsive, but I found her work to be so powerful that I just felt I needed to not only show the portraits, but I needed to find every way I could to support Star from here on out, so that she could keep making her work. She also has a studio here. It’s on the other side of this wall. She’s never had a studio before, so she can finally pin up her things next to one another. Whatever she needs to do, she has space.
One of the purposes of a collection is to serve as a record of an institution’s activities, research, etc. In the case of an object-based exhibition such as Star Montana’s, how will you preserve this activity and other activities at The Main? Is that a concern or a goal of yours? Yes. It is one of my biggest concerns. With Star’s, this will be harder for me to figure out, because as I said to you earlier—and I’m happy to say on the record—I have no business curating a photography show. And thinking about how to document a photography show is going to be really interesting to me. Since I usually work with artists who are not object-makers, documentation is going to be extremely important. For my artists, I’m really devoted to finding ways to record their work properly.
I spent an amount of money on documenting Suzanne and Andrea’s project that’s more than I have ever spent before and in a proportion that I have not seen spent on documenting a project like that. Multiple photographers, many photographers. We can have many different viewpoints of the work, and a very robust videography budget, so that we have a great record of it. For Star’s work, of course, it will be photographed. It will become part of our record in that way. I’m so accustomed to considering alternative documentation for alternative projects that it’s going to be—I’m kind of confounded in a way with how you document something so traditional, because obviously I’m going to photograph it, but that just seems so straightforward to me in a way that photography seems so straightforward to me. About three-quarters of the way into Office Hours, I met one of the artists who makes drawings and prints. She’s Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly. She and I began talking about ekphrastic poetry (poetry about visual art), and I said, “Oh, I love ekphrastic poetry.” She said, “I do too, and I write it.” I then said, “I’m going to commission you right now to write an ekphrastic poem as a thank you to the artist and as an alternative form of documentation about the art.” So I’ll go anywhere with documentation, but then I’m thinking, “Here I have a photo show. What am I going to do about that?”
I think that’s a wonderful idea. Because of the nature of some of the more atypical work I’ve done, I’ve come up with other strategies. Now I’m going to have to think of what to do with something quite conventional, in a way. There’s some really extraordinary narrative that goes along with Star’s story, Star’s portraits. I have a feeling that some of the kinds of documentation that go along with her work will be related to narrative, but I don’t have that sorted out just yet.
I think it’s a really interesting problem to have to solve. Maybe it’s kind of a headache for you right now, but . . . No, no, I love it. I love it.
It’s interesting because I think documentation has become so essential to contemporary art. I don’t know if you know Artie Vierkant’s work but . . . We’re friends on Facebook.
Oh, OK. So you know that the documentation of his work as it’s exhibited in galleries is manipulated, and that then becomes part of the piece. Absolutely.
I think a lot of it stems from the fact that everything sort of lives online. So do you expect your documentation to have a home online that would be easily accessible? I’m not sure, but it’s always been part of the ethos of my work, and it’s part of the ethos of the museum to be accessible, so to have all this documentation and lock it up just seems antithetical. But I also know about the particular pickle of having tons of documentation, and then having to sort through it, and then trying to find the place for it. I’m working with an incredible videographer on this project, who I’ve asked to make a few different videos, so that we can get some of it out right away and online immediately, but also have the rest available if somebody needs it. Because there’s this horrible thing that happens when you make it all, and then it might as well be locked up in a vault, because it’s not being processed in some way. You have to think about those things from the outset. Otherwise, it goes into a black hole, and you never see it again.
I have one final question, and it has to do with photography. What role do you think photography might continue to play at The Main, not only as documentation but also as something that goes onto the wall? And what role do you think photography can play in public engagement, specifically in terms of raising questions and highlighting issues of social justice, humanism, empathy and so on? Public engagement and socially engaging art does this beautiful thing that we’ve been talking about where people can develop personal connections to it. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about photography enough to maybe think of some ways in which it might also do that? I love and admire photography so much. The entry point for Star’s work that showed me an intersection between the socially engaged work I usually support and what Star does, is her process. What she does with these portraits is, she will approach somebody on the street. Particularly for these early ones. She’s trying out some different ideas now. She will approach somebody on the street, or at a swap meet, or whatever. She will talk to them for two, sometimes three hours. Then at the end of this, she will say, “Well, I’m wondering if maybe I could take your picture?” She said it was not uncommon at the end of these conversations for people to cry, because they were so moved that she would ask, or to say things like, “I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for somebody to ask if they could take my picture.” That dialogical process is so connected to the work that I’m most interested in, and then the output, if you will, is just magnificent, majestic. Somehow she tells you the story of each of these people, and you just can’t even . . . I showed them to my assistant, Cat, and she cried when she saw the first portrait that I showed her. This woman has her head held high. She’s smoking a cigarette, and Star’s telling me the story of how she talked to this woman for a while. Things weren’t always easy for her. You see this woman, and she radiates serenity, badassery, beauty, and Star said, “But you know, what you don’t see is that on the other side she has a black eye.”
It’s also these choices that Star makes as a photographer of what to show. It’s not that this woman also doesn’t project some vulnerability in her picture, because she does. You actually can’t quite totally place the emotions on this woman’s face. Which is why I’m saying that I think narrative will probably have a big part in the documentation—how we tell these stories, which parts of the stories we tell. Those kinds of things. This is the way that I can see an intersection. For example, there’s also a writer and photographer named Gemma-Rose Turnbull, do you know her? She is Australian, and she writes and thinks about this a lot—about the intersection between photography and social practice—and I am thinking about photography a lot lately related to the social justice aspect you’re talking about.
All of this work to me is socially engaged, and it could manifest in very different formats. I go to a lot of gallery shows, so I see photography probably as much as anybody else does, but because it isn’t my area, I’m just looking for those moments when it’s the right work that makes the right connections. But I also don’t necessarily think it has to be related to socially engaged art for it to have a place in the museum.
What’s interesting is that the process you’re talking about is like using photography in the same way you might to document a performance. The photograph is the result—I’m sure Star’s work is more artfully done than a simple documentation—but it’s essentially the culmination of experience and dialogue. I think that harkens back to another generation of photographers, the Post-Modernists, who were interested in the photograph for its apparent neutrality, as opposed to some over-aestheticized object. Yes, process is really important to me. If you look at all these things that we were just talking about, I’m making the museum in the same way that I’m considering all these other things in which I value the process on the same scale as the thing that results from it.
Well, let’s see what happens if we just open that up and expose it to the world. Do this part, and then we’re going to do that part next, and then we’ll connect all the pieces, and at the end we’ll have a museum. Just thinking about it, I have this incredible opportunity to consider what a museum could be from scratch, so why not try to do it in a different way?
Interview and photography created January, 2017 by Zachary Norman
Find out what is happening at The Main Museum by visiting their website, The Main Museum