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Nonprofit Groups' Credibility on Line With Dealer Shows : Commentary: Private and public boundaries blur when an art dealer acts as guest curator at local spaces.

August 12, 1995|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

It would seem axiomatic that art dealers shouldn't be acting as guest curators for nonprofit art spaces. At stake is the institution's credibility.

Why? Because its charitable purpose vanishes behind a dark cloud. The audience can't know whether the art being shown has been chosen principally to satisfy a dealer's private commercial ambitions, rather than the public interest that is the mandate of all nonprofit spaces.

Axiomatic or not, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions are two smaller nonprofit spaces that have lately forfeited curatorial independence to commercial appearances, putting their credibility on the line. Today the Santa Monica Museum opens a group exhibition organized by art dealer Sue Spaid; also today, LACE closes a show likewise organized by Spaid, one that has been on view since mid-July.

The two institutions thus join Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts, which in January presented a group show also organized by Spaid, working in tandem with artist and critic Michael Anderson.

Dealer-organized shows at nonprofit venues are not wholly unique, but they are extremely rare. To count three such shows in the last seven months amounts to a virtual avalanche, which may be a bellwether of a disturbing shift in our cultural life.

About a third of the 13 artists participating in the new Santa Monica exhibition, called "Action Station: Exploring Open Systems," previously showed at Spaid's Beverly Boulevard gallery. That small and energetic storefront business, which opened in the summer of 1990 and was dedicated to promoting L.A.-based artists, closed at the end of January.

The slightly smaller Pasadena show, "Under Construction: Rethinking Images of Identity," was proposed to the Armory Center in 1993, when the gallery was in full swing. It also featured an artist then represented by Spaid, in addition to 10 others who were not.

By contrast, none of the artists in the just-closed LACE exhibition had shown at Spaid's gallery. Yet the exhibition at LACE, a long-established, artist-run nonprofit space now located in downtown Hollywood, was presented as part of a distinctly commercial enterprise. The Absolut International Biennial is a citywide event, partly underwritten by a liquor company, in which commercial galleries are hosting summer shows featuring artists from other countries.

The LACE presentation, titled "Par Avion," included five artists from Europe. Frankly billed as "A Mobile Gallery at LACE," it was the sole Absolut International exhibition to have been mounted at a nonprofit space, among 49 others at commercial galleries.

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With this show, LACE seems to have come full circle. One reason artist-run spaces were invented in the 1970s was that some artists were disturbed by the economic focus intrinsic to commercial galleries. Such spaces flourished, ironically becoming a source of new artists that fed into the voracious gallery system of the booming 1980s.

Now, in the 1990s, LACE is one artists' space that, for at least the last month, has looked very much like the commercial galleries to which it was originally meant to be an alternative.

Times of course have changed dramatically since the '70s and '80s, and practices necessarily change with circumstances. The current flirtations with dealer-organized shows at nonprofit spaces should therefore be considered in larger terms.

The terms are these: By inviting a dealer to assume a role traditionally held by a curator without commercial ties, these three institutions have tentatively embraced privatization as a worthy substitute for previously public activity.

In the ongoing culture wars, one big battle is being waged over privatizing the public sector. Privatization is a major goal of the new conservative doctrine that holds sway in Congress, and from which the arts are not immune. The sudden eruption of three privately organized shows at publicly funded spaces around L.A. is a clear sign of how effortlessly that doctrine has grown in influence since the Age of Reagan.

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Is the sudden institutional embrace of this conservative philosophy deliberate or is it unwitting? I'd guess unwitting. The apparent ease with which it has occurred might be accounted for by a whiff of institutional desperation.

LACE, directorless since January and thus without a point-person to oversee program decisions, has had well-publicized financial and organizational problems in the past few years, which it has worked hard to resolve in recent months. Originally, LACE was to have been dark for most of July and August, until the leadership slot was filled. (A director was named on Wednesday.)

At the Santa Monica Museum a last-minute cancellation, caused by lack of funds, of a planned touring exhibition from the University of Washington left a hole in the museum's program schedule. A previously rejected exhibition proposal from the dealer was hastily revived, to plug the sudden gap.

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