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New Museum’s Richard Flood Equates Bloggers with Prairie Dogs

The New Museum’s chief curator Richard Flood

Referencing prairie dogs and Mussolini, yesterday New Museum chief curator Richard Flood wound up his talk at the Portland Art Museum on “Creating Networks: The New Internationalism” with some bracing criticism of his own directed at online critique of his institution. Unlike the rest of his talk which very sharply traced American art world’s relationship with work by international artists 1980s to present from his vantage points at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Artforum, the Walker Art Center, the New Museum, his final comments were wildly out of touch with the ways we have conversations about art now.

Perhaps it was because he was in the provinces and felt he could speak freely, but Flood spoke cuttingly about the controversy the New Museum has faced over Jeff Koons’ curation of the exhibition Skin Fruit from the collection of museum trustee Dakis Joannou. Flood stepped sideways into the subject of online arts journalism through the portal of discussing the way that what he called “laptop culture” is changing the way artists throughout the world interact with US arts institutions and dealers.

“I just found out about blogs three months ago,” Flood said referring to the time questions were being raised, particularly by Tyler Green on Modern Art Notes and James Wagner on JamesWagner.com, about ethical conflicts for the New Museum regarding Skin Fruit. “The internet is still a ghetto.” Flood said he was trying to learn more about them via Lauren Cornell (executive director of Rhizome, affiliated with New Museum since 2003), but he says:

Blogs are like being out on a prairie and one prairie dog pops up; none of the others can see it, but they can feel the movement in the earth. So another pops up. And another. They are not communicating with each other. They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them. They have no mechanism in place for checking [facts].

In the three months since Flood has become aware of blogs, it’s surprising that he appears not to have noticed the hyperlinking that is integral to the blog as a tool for communication. He might not be expected to be aware of the dynamic back-channel communications among arts bloggers via twitter and other platforms, but the linking is front and center. But the analogy shows a more fundamental disdain for the practice of online arts journalism. A blog is just a tool, a platform. It’s what’s built on that platform that we should be talking about, and that may be a gossip rag or it may be considered, rigorous, accurate reporting and/or criticism.

The Portland Art Museum (photo by P. Vanderwarker, ArchNewsNow)

What Flood, from his dealer/glossy mag background, misses is that conversations about art and its institutions no longer only happen in person or in the pages of the big dailies or those of a handful of art magazines — but if you’re reading this on this art blogazine, you probably already know that. Can it be that the man with a history of not only embracing the new, but the transgressive can so completely have closed himself off from a great swath of contemporary discourse? Particularly as he complained that when he was at the Walker it was a one-newspaper town with one “arts writer, not art critic” who had been PR for the Walker and left under less than ideal circumstances, one would think he would relish a lively and multivariate conversation about his institution’s programming.

He reveals what I think is his true concern — loss of public funding for institutions — via scathing comments directed at New York Magazine critic, Jerry Saltz.

You may have heard of this critic named Jerry Saltz. He has a second career on Facebook. And it’s terrifying. He has 5,000 subscribers. And he calls them, “My Thebans,” “my children,” “my army.” And we’re looking at it and asking ourselves, “How did we get to Benito Mussolini’s website?”

These scare tactics. I think it’s dangerous. He has no understanding of what he’s enabling his people to do … with the aggressive spirit in this country. Culture is seen as a luxury. If you have been hit by the economy, by unemployment, it’s very easy to get riled up about the culture and the money your government spends for it.

Equating whatever Saltz & “friends” are talking about on Facebook with tea party rhetoric and Palinesque crosshairs seems extreme, and of course the Mussolini comment is over the top. I can understand that one who saw what the culture wars did to the National Endowment for the Arts budget in the past is concerned about bloggers riling up anti-art institution sentiment, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here, is it?

Flood had spoken earlier in the lecture about commissioning Jeremy Deller’s “It Is What It Is” (2009) with its program of generating conversation about the war in Iraq both inside the institution and on the road. It’s a shame that Flood can boldly embrace difficult conversation in the context of an artist’s project/exhibition while brushing aside equally difficult conversations about the art institution itself as a product of chatter by so many siloed prairie dogs.

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