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, 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.

Founding editor of ultra, Lisa Radon also writes the Culturephile blog for Portland Monthly. Former associate editor at Portland Spaces, she's written for Portland Monthly, FLAUNT, SHIFT (Japan), and Surface...

30 replies on “New Museum’s Richard Flood Equates Bloggers with Prairie Dogs”

  1. True story: when I was a little girl I had a poster of prairie dogs on my wall. Maybe that’s why I love prairie dog subculture so!!! Great article. I can only mention: 8-tracks, will the witch float or sink, the earth is flat, and we will never reach the moon as some case studies Mr. Flood may want to look into. #adapttochangeorbeleftbehind

  2. Your supposed link to “Modern Arts Notes” actually pulls up a post from my “CultureGrrl” blog, also on ArtsJournal and also highly critical of the New Museum’s Joannou show. Contrary to Richard Flood’s blanket dismissal of bloggers, some of us are very much aware of what other bloggers are writing. More importantly (speaking for myself), truth, fact-checking and knowledge of history are very much part of CultureGrrl’s daily agenda.

  3. This is very very interesting. And disturbing, considering all the left-y democratic rhetoric that comes from the elite of the artworld. (Just read a few contemporary art press releases or museum publicity).

    And ironically, Jerry Saltz ended up defending “Skin Fruit” on Facebook and accusing its critics of being moralists (he used a nastier word, which escapes me at the moment). So much for “Mussolini” fomenting class resentment of the masses.

  4. Lovely Lisa Radon, I count myself as one of Jerry’s children and a proud prairie dog if that’s what it makes me. Your article here is so … so very well written and to the point. I had to pop by and thank you for writing and posting it. Please be sure to put up your press releases on Jerry’s site at New York Mag and elsewhere on Facebook so all Jerry’s 5,000+ and counting dogs can get it hot off the press, Lovely LIsa.

  5. Richard Flood:

    “…I just found out about blogs three months ago…”

    Well, welcome to the brave new world Richard. Hope you’re more up to date on art.

    “…You may have heard of this critic named Jerry Saltz. He has a second career on Facebook. And it’s terrifying….These scare tactics. I think it’s dangerous…”

    No, what’s terrifying and dangerous are Museum Curators who are SUPPOSED to know better kowtowing to their Board of Trustees and filling their museum with what basically is an auction house full of (mostly, but by no means all) dreary/boring art, and to boot, poorly installed by a star artist because the Museum Curators didn’t have the balls to stand up and say anything about it.

    Seriously, Richard Flood, I greatly admire your career, and respect you so much as a Curator and thinker. You’ve earned your stripes many time over. But how can you look yourself in the mirror and wash off the stench after this (most recent NuMu) debacle?

  6. Well, he raises a good question–DO we want government funding for ‘culture’ going toward the kind of dreck that is currently on display at the NM? Is Richard Flood’s salary being paid by my tax dollars, at the same time he admits to being wilfully unaware of my existence? Why is it that a curator at a museum that is supposed to be on top of emerging art trends is totally ignorant of the most tectonic trend to emerge in the arts in the last millennium?

  7. How oh how, does the New Museum associated with Rhizome let Mr. Flood work there?
    It is hard to believe that the New Museum, one the leading contemporary art museums operating today, allows curators such as, Mr Flood to work there. To curate exhibitions about contemporary art, doesn’t one have participate in Contemporary Society? Really, it is astounding. Contemporary art institutions really need to let go of old hiring strategies, which allows people to hired into high positions because they know the right people, instead, they need to hire people who actually have a clue what is happening today.

  8. At the risk of repeating myself, while the NuMu may not have much in its galleries, it has the best bathrooms on the LES. And they’re accessible for free.

  9. I want to challenge one assumption you made in an otherwise brilliant essay. I dont think Richard Flood has been so open to new art. Most of what Ive seen by him and the New Museum has been a continuation of the neutralizing of the art making and showing process( Corporate Model) Even the commissioning of a project BY A MUSEUM strikes me as very backwards?( the king tells you what to paint) but Im shocked that he wasn’t aware of Tyler Greens blog I thought I was the last to get a computer 12 years ago? but I guess not

    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?

  10. I think this exposes the fallacy of what was “institutional critique”, a genera of art that the original New Museum bolstered with it’s real transgressive and marginal focus. At the press preview for the Urs Fischer show, Massimillano Gioni stated (I’m paraphrasing here) “It’s now time to be more invested in the institution than in the critique”. The dichotomy here is: to be successful, you have to switch sides. You can’t be oppositional and institutional (especially if you expect to receive governmental funding).

  11. Prairie Dogs respond to the threat of predation and are essentially diurnal. The quantum communication aspect is quantum baloney. And while I wish these were Jerry’s qualities I’m afraid they’re not. At least not the diurnal part.

  12. Lisa, thanks for covering this lecture. My personal impression was that the blogging bit – the most bizarre of several paranoid personal tangents – was the best evidence that Flood was ill-prepared and under-qualified to remark on Creating Networks in the current art world. What kind of expert on the topic barely recognizes the existence, let alone the importance, of the blogosphere? He shared interesting background on internationalism, and highlighted the current obstacles, however he had precious little to say about the meaning and effect of internationalism.

    Even here in Portland we have blogger friends in NY.

  13. You could always send him a fax, Liam. Or a carrier pigeon. But Jon, I actually appreciated the lecture although it wasn’t about “new internationalism,” but rather a history of the NY art world’s relationship with international and global (his distinction: global=third world) art and artists. What was interesting to me was that he was essentially saying that at a time when we are more aware of the work of international artists than ever (via the INTERNET), the “new internationalism” for arts institutions is going to be “no internationalism” because of post 9-11 insurance rates for shipping that are prohibitively costly and new customs rules that mean any shipped artwork is in danger of being unpacked and possibly damaged by customs agents.

  14. I can see it now…

    NuMu announces its next show of folk art collected from the most obscure corners of digitalia: “Prairie Dogs” (curated by Garrison Keillor).

  15. twitter will blow his mind in five years or so. he might have to access it via google’s cache by then though.

    1. Hi Lee, I didn’t want to change the author’s text after publication unless I really had to. You are welcome to place any relevant links in the comments and people will certainly see them. Thanks for commenting.

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