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Museum Walls Are an Issue in Any Show

October 02, 2000|CHON NORIEGA | Chon Noriega is an associate professor in the UCLA Department of Film and Television

In his review of the "East of the River: Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous" exhibition ("A Collective Effort," Sept. 21), Christopher Knight argues that I--as the curator--did not give due attention to the quality of the work on the museum walls, which he considers paramount.

But he makes this argument by misreading my statement from the catalog: "The goal is less about what you see on the museum walls in and of itself than it is about an act of collecting taking place somewhere else." The crucial phrase that Knight ignores here is "in and of itself."

Indeed, art exhibition is never just about what you see on the museum walls. It's also about those very walls themselves and the social activities that result in selected art objects hanging on them.

This insight is nothing new. Nearly 25 years ago, Brian O'Doherty wrote an influential series of essays in Artforum on the "white cube" of the gallery space, describing that space as a social context that subsumes the art object itself. He writes: "The white wall's apparent neutrality is an illusion. It stands for a community with common ideas and assumptions." And what would be the color of that community?

Knight seems outraged that the Santa Monica Museum of Art would entertain the notion that art could be the basis for a dialogue between the museum and the Chicano community, thereby sullying the museum walls. And he supports this position by conflating the civil rights era with Marxist philosophy. The Chicano movement was more about education, equal employment opportunity, voter rights and social equity, including access to museums and other cultural institutions.


Knight's other strategy is to characterize the collectors as engaging in "informal accumulation," since he sees their collection as a social activity rather than an engagement with works of art. Knight's distinction between accumulation and collection is a sound one, but it is inappropriate here, as I made quite clear in the catalog. The collector group itself distinguishes between its social activities and individual collectors' engagement with works of art. But there is no pretense to an either/or choice, as if such a thing were possible.

So what is on those walls at the Santa Monica Museum of Art? In the first instance, it is art taken from the walls of seven collectors' homes. There are also installations that re-create portions of two of these homes. When Knight concludes, "it just feels fake," he is actually correct, albeit for the wrong reason. The exhibition is not an ethnographic display for the Chicano middle-class home.

What the installation design allows for is an exchange between the home and the museum that is self-reflexive, or what Knight calls "fake." This gallery space is not a white cube; in fact, the walls are painted various colors that resonate with the art, rather than with the museum itself. Let's face it, there is a chasm between Chicano art collection and the contemporary museum. But Knight would like to pretend otherwise, exhorting me with, "Why not conceive of the galleries as a fluid and inclusive social space?" Why not check the "inclusive" track record of most arts institutions, from employment to exhibition to permanent collections? Instead, Knight offers a whitewash, suggesting that it could be the basis for a "good" Chicano art show.

It is almost comical, then, when he ends his review, "I'm not quite sure what such a show would look like." He seems sincerely befuddled as he stares into the white cube and sees only whiteness.

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