Nato Thompson (photo credit: Alyssa Maloof)

A prominent voice in public art, Nato Thompson announced this week that he will be leaving the Creative Time arts nonprofit to take on the role of artistic director of the still unbuilt Philadelphia Contemporary. It’s an exciting project that is sure to build on his decade of experience at Creative Time, which he joined in January 2007.

Thompson is moderating a panel on Thursday, October 26 at the Hirshhorn Museum with artists Laurie Jo Reynolds, Pedro Reyes, and Paul Ramírez Jonas about “Awareness, Action, and Dissent.” The series, one that partners with the Newseum in the nation’s capital, complements their current Ai Weiwei exhibition and builds on his commitment to drive social and political change. To get a taste of what to expect on Thursday, I interviewed Thompson about socially engaged art, which is no longer the newest kid on the art world block, and its role in society today.

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Hrag Vartanian: You’ve been really pivotal in terms of promoting socially engaged and political art. I’m wondering what you think the ‘state of the union’ is in terms of those types of art?

Nato Thompson: If you do take 10 years as a marker, just for the sake of something, I would say that you certainly see more institutional interest in the field. I would say not only institutional in terms of art museums per se, or even galleries, but also city governments. I think there’s a certain kind of interest, and it’s complex because I don’t want [to] play into some boosterism around it. I’ll just say those invested in these conversations have grown infrastructurally.

You’ve got everything from Art Place, and a certain kind of language around placemaking, to more conferences on political art and open engagement. Different things like that.

Also, it’s a commercial embrace — again, I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is a reality. I mean, 10 years ago, there wasn’t the same awareness. There wasn’t. I walked through Chelsea [recently] and I saw a Kara Walker show, a Trevor Paglen show, and the Duke Riley show, and I thought, “Well, things have certainly changed.” You know what I mean?

HV: Yes. At the same time, as much as there’s been change, certain people have also criticized different kinds of initiatives, particularly the placemaking initiatives of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). And I’m just wondering what you think are some of the disadvantages the field has faced and, now that we’ve seen it evolve, are there any challenges you see as particularly relevant for our time?

NT: Well, I mean, it’s mixed. Let’s go to the critique around placemaking. It can be a kind of slapdash form — there was an early interpretation of it that read much more like a Richard Florida “Rise of the Creative Class” kind of model, which [goes] extraordinarily hand in hand with neoliberalism, kind of an end idea that cities needed to be beautified or made more vibrant by way of artists to make standards of living go up without any kind of critique around urban development or gentrification.

But I would say that the conversation has shifted quite a bit in the last few years. And in that sense, I think it is productive. I do think a critical conversation around the role of cultural production in urban environments is essential. And, in fact, it’s good to think of museums as part of that conversation. Not just that public art is the only one facing them. But, in fact, the entire development of our cities is part of that. Not only how artists make work, but where artists make work. And those fault lines have been messy.

You’ve got the situation happening right now with Omer Fast, in Chinatown. And so the battle lines around gentrification, in some ways, are crucibles for thinking through how artistic production is also conflated with urban development.

I would say another thing you see, and it’s kind of a post-occupy moment, but we’ve seen it very much, and you guys have been covering it, but everywhere from the Dana Schutz controversy to the controversy at the Walker Art Museum and Sam Durant, to even the Omer Fast show, again. Because it seems to be quite within the vein of those two things. There is a real push back on institutions and trying to hold them accountable. I think that’s very healthy, and that is a political spirit that’s very much in the air.

That said, I would also say all of this is happening under a tyrannical, fascistic leader and in some ways I see a lot of this as a certain kind of getting up to speed on neoliberalism. And I am curious, [to see what develops] in the next few years, against the backdrop of [what is] basically white supremacist fascism.

HV: After the election, a lot of people, particularly in the “art world,” woke up to the reality that the art community turned a blind eye to neoliberalism. And I’m wondering what you think of that. Has the art world been sort of blind to this slow creep? This is particularly relevant because even artists who often say they’re addressing it still function within the system. So, there are a lot of questions about how effectively people can tackle a topic like that from within the system.

NT: Well, it’s always useful to bear in mind a majority of the art world is locked out of any form of power, right? I mean, most artists are not showing in major galleries, most artists aren’t paying their bills with art. Most artists are not those who are considered the art world when you say the art world. But it, in fact, comprises the dominant amount of people in it.

Those that are actually making cash off it, those relative few people, that is a much more complex arrangement of people. And certainly, it’s a sad thing to say, but there are plenty of those who benefit greatly in the art world from neoliberalism. Obviously.

HV: Sure.

NT: A vast discrepancy of wealth means that there’s more luxury money spent and art is a luxury commodity. So, in terms of a kind of crass private market, unfortunately, those kind of politics work well. That said, it does not work well for people loaded with student debt or basically can’t afford to live in their apartments.

So, I think in that regard, and that’s a majority of the people, neoliberalism has shown its teeth quite early on. And that kind of practice I also think has [meant that] a lot of political practices [don’t] have a lot of teeth. Because if you looked around the commercial world, you wouldn’t see tons of socially engaged art, [but] if you just go out in any city of America and start talking to art programs and artists, there are so many people doing this work in their neighborhoods. Forget whether or not it’s great work, or important work, it’s work being done.

So, for me, that’s something I’m very invested in. It’s also that we have a scale imbalance out there. And for most people, particularly young people, neoliberalism is a total disaster. I’m 45, right? I went to UC Berkeley as an undergrad for $7,000 a year. As much as I’ve got student debt, I don’t have the kind of debt that most kids have, you know? But I’m just saying I feel like the political stakes are high for a lot of people.

HV: Totally. You mentioned the commercial art world when talking about the art world, but it does feel like neoliberalism means all museums nowadays.

NT: Oh, yeah.

HV: Because those people on the boards and because of their relationship to the galleries and paying for shipping and all these other little things that blur that boundary. So, what does that mean for museums, in terms of social practice, and are they becoming our community centers? Are they doing the things that our social programs are not able to do? How would you address that? Because that’s also one of the conversations I hear again and again.

NT: I hear that a lot, particularly for Europeans and socially democratic states. Where they’re like, you guys only have that because you’re in capitalism and the state is supplying social needs. But that is also a giant-scale misunderstanding, because as much as there’s aesthetic, socially engaged projects happening, we’re not talking about urban development. We’re not talking about the Department of Transportation.

HV: Theaster Gates is working with buildings.

NT: No, he is. But I mean to say scale-wise.

HV: Gotcha.

NT: He’s working with, like, what? Fifteen buildings?

HV: Right.

NT: Housing and Urban Development is dealing with millions of buildings. So, just to say, I think I don’t actually believe socially engaged art is filling the need. I do think, nevertheless, there is a certain kind of interesting grounding meaning in a practice. That is, artists want to resolve their kind of tension between saying something and doing something. And so there is an investment.

Because if you look at the art of the 1990s, you know, political art, representation was a different way of working. But I feel like people are less and less invested in representation as a political project. And so they want to ground it in a certain kind of practice that says, “Hey, look, this really is happening.” There’s an end game to this that I think is problematic because we’re still confronting some large forces like Wal-Mart. Who don’t care if your art is meaningful. You know what I mean?

I would also say it’s a bizarre moment we’re in and particularly in New York; it’s pernicious and it always has been. But have you ever worked on social movement stuff and everyone’s too busy working on their project about social movements?

HV: The reason the art world works the way it does is this connection between artists and different sorts of institutional structures and commercial structures and all these types of things (curators, critics). Now, where does that put the artist within the bigger scheme of things? Do you think that their power is growing? Shrinking? How would you perceive that, because I know you’ve been working with a lot of artists in this field?

NT: Well, I don’t think that their power is growing. Certainly they’re part of an important conversation. And they always have been. Look, what are we going to compare ourselves to, the Constructivists in [Soviet] Russia?

To what degree are we talking about the role of artists in civil society? I do think they have a huge role to play in terms of dream makers. And I don’t mean this even tangentially, like you certainly could look to Occupy Wall Street, there were artists directly involved. So that’s more literal. But certainly you also couldn’t have Bernie Saunders without having Occupy, right?

You can’t have Bernie Saunders without completely changing the political landscape of America in terms of what the horizon of politics can be. But on a very different level, too, I think Theaster Gates is an important figure insomuch as I hear more city people, who know nothing about the art, mention Theaster Gates, right?

HV: Yes.

NT: Even people realizing that what Theaster Gates does is an art project, is leaps and bounds beyond when everybody thought was just Abstract Expressionism.

So, I do think there’s also a kind of popular learning curve that’s happening. And also a kind of interest in social work. When we did that Kara Walker project — and I always glibly joke that it was like our platinum album — it was like, “Hey, you did that Kara Walker.” It’s like you’ve only done one thing in your life, but … I’m glad that’s popular. Maybe it’s too popular. But it’s funny because on that level of popularity, it transcended a certain kind of art worldness, you know?

HV: Right. I also wanted to talk a little bit about Ai Weiwei. There was a moment this year, when I realized the ubiquity of Ai Weiwei. In the last two months, I traveled to Jerusalem and Istanbul, where he had major museum shows in each city, then returned to New York, where I saw his new film on migrants and his public art project, and I realized he was everywhere. I’ve been wondering about him in terms of an artist who seems to function so readily within the kind of commercial and institutional structures, but also has a very strong sort of political consciousness. What is your perception of that?

NT: Oh, I think you’re quite right. And he’s not alone. I remember when Banksy came on and everyone was like, “What is a Banksy?” And I’m like, “Who is Banksy?” Where did this guy come from? He certainly didn’t go to the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP).

HV: That we know of.

NT: Right. It’s true. It cannot be confirmed nor denied. But, it’s kind of related to what I was saying about Kara Walker — there’re just different games to be played with art in politics. And certain scale is one of them. And there are certain figures, like Ai Weiwei, like Kara Walker, like JR or Banksy, people whose audiences are extremely big.

I do have a soft spot for the fact that they introduced people to a certain kind of political production, that is, when you talk about talking to a mass scale.

HV: I’m just wondering what you think when artists speak to this much larger global audience. How does the message change? How does social practice and how do all these things change and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages?

NT: Well, you’re right that politics are local. For example, if I worked on a project around neo-capitalism, right? That could be supported by every rich person on the planet, I’m just saying.

HV: Right.

NT: It’s ironic, but because it has no teeth, you know?

HV: Right.

NT: There’s a certain amount of abstraction of politics that doesn’t hold anyone accountable. That can feel really radical, but nevertheless, doesn’t actually help political stakes.

HV: Right.

NT: Whereas I do think the stuff that’s tougher is the stuff that’s local and I do think that’s something to read into the work, which I think you’re alluding to. It certainly does in internationalism, and that can be kind of problematic. To be fair, too, the world is a very complex place. I grew up in the ‘Left art world,’ where everyone refers to the Left as though we know what we’re talking about.

HV: And assuming everyone’s in the Left.

NT: Yes, it assumes everyone’s in the Left and also that if you are in the Left, we’re speaking the same language. But, in fact, it’s just entirely untrue. And the Left in India is a very different Left than the United States. And frankly, the Left concerns in India are different than the Left concerns in the United States.

And indigenous people’s concerns are not necessarily the same concerns as people in the [mass-oriented] Left in the United States. So, I think there can somewhat be a facile way of discussing political discourse on an international level. I think the only way to bring that into relevance is to be somewhat qualified, nuanced, and speak to some kind of local concerns where art and politics tend to have more teeth.

HV: Right. So, what is the urgency for contemporary art right now in this Trump administration moment?

NT: I’m very schizophrenic, as maybe all of us are, because there’s a part of me that remembers that there was a social justice, pretty radical platform that almost made its way in the election this last time.

HV: Right, in the Democratic National Convention?

NT: Yes. And there’s the growth of Black Lives Matter and there was Standing Rock and I just feel like there is a real movement and a real sophistication on political discourse that’s been happening. And Trump is just so overbearing it can easily wipe that memory away. But I think it’s useful to know that because it’s in the water.

For the first time ever, I see young people invested in elections. I grew up thinking that everything, that elections were useless, you know? So, I find it kind of gratifying. That said, I do think that this Trump situation is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than I thought. And I do think, also, that social movements in this country have a ways to go.

In terms of a push back on Trump, I remember when George W. Bush got elected and it wasn’t until the 9/11 stuff happened and then the Patriot Act came and the war in Iraq, but it took a while for social movements to move away from what was, at the time, the globalization movement and then readjust towards the fascistic policies of the Bush administration.

It took literally four or five years. So, I think in some ways social movements at this point in America have been built on a reaction to a kind of neoliberalism. And so it’s going to take some time to adjust. But we have to adjust, because this guy needs push back seriously.

HV: What are you excited about in contemporary art right now? What are you looking forward to?

NT: Well, I’ve seen it. And you’ve probably seen the same thing — we all have. Which is, we’re in a bit of a Wild West in the arts for a variety of reasons. I think the Web 2.0 has produced a broad spectrum of introduction to artists and as well as different art tastes that are in the world.

It used to be that it was either in the New York Times, Artforum, or the Whitney Biennial. If it wasn’t one of those three, it didn’t matter in the United States. That’s clearly not the case anymore.

And it’s also the way that art visibility is not necessarily by way of New York City. That the art is a very international spectrum with different interests and allegiances and biennials and festivals and institutions. And so, it’s interesting, because everyone’s always looking for who’s the greatest artist right now. But I just don’t think we’re working like that right now.

HV: I agree.

NT: It’s a great era for criticality. One is forced to actually choose based on what they’re interested in rather than what people tell you is important. And the other part is, as much as social issues are embraced, I think the implications are coming where they will be imbued in institutions themselves.

Institutions are more aware of the demographics of their staff as well as programming. There’s an investment, at least a rhetorical investment, at this point, in community engagement. Now, the next step is to actually do it. And I think that’s healthy for our institutions. And I think it’s going to change the way artists produce.

It used to be that art and politics had to get funneled through the education department.

HV: Right.

NT: And then suddenly, I think curators looked over their shoulder and realized education departments were doing the most interesting work. So I think that’s translating into how institutions think about it. I’m seeing it. And that’s clear across the world. So, I do think it’s real. I find it extraordinarily exciting in that regard.

HV: I wanted to ask you about your new position. What can people expect from that? How might things be different? If you have any projects in the works? Or anything you’d want to announce?

NT: I don’t have anything in the works. I haven’t left Creative Time. I’ve got two more weeks there. Certainly, the goal is to build this museum and it’s building from scratch. I’m working with Harry Philbrick, in Philadelphia, a place I’ve lived for eight years — a city I deeply adore, there’s just a lot of artists here who are very civically driven and imaginative and wild. So the big thing for me is I’m excited to produce a new kind of institution with Harry that is both locally sustainable and connected but also in cahoots with great stuff happening internationally.

Nato Thompson will be part of In Conversation: Awareness, Action and Dissent (Part I) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, on Thursday, October 26, 6:30pm, along with artists Laurie Jo Reynolds, Pedro Reyes, and Paul Ramírez Jonas. Hyperallergic is a media sponsor.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.