Street Art Versus Museums: A Conversation

Apr 01, 2011
The Kindle blog closes this season’s Art theme with a conversation between some great minds and artists. For us, dialogue is at the heart of how we explore what it is we do.

Most of us working at Kindle Project are artists in some form or another outside of our work. Over wine, caffeine, sleepless nights, and under porches, we have spent years building art theories and breaking them down. We’ve stenciled sidewalks and shown in galleries. We’ve been inspired by JR, Princess Hijab, and dreamed of walking the streets of Valparaiso, Chile. We’ve been impressed at MOMA and wowed by Launchprojects.

Recently, we’ve been asking questions about accessibility to art, the tension/cohesion between institutionalized art and street art. To help further this dialogue, we’ve solicited insight from four very diverse individuals in the art world to give us their candid reflections on a series of questions based on the broad debate of Street Art versus Institutionalized Art. We are pleased to present to you the perspectives of Cyndi Conn – Founder of Launchprojects, Pablo Acona – artist, Yozo Suzuki – artist, and Liza Mauer – founding member of Partners in Art.  A special thanks to all of you.

Help keep the conversation moving and share your perspective with us.

Do you think that street art has a place in the context of modern art?

Yozo – I am certain that street art has its place in art. From cave painting to the digital displays of the Sony building on Ginza street in Tokyo artists have been showing art on the street and in public arenas since the earliest evidence of art itself. Of course such familiar names like Basquiat, Haring, Banksy and Fairey have had very successful careers indoors as well as out.

Liza – Street Art absolutely belongs in the world of contemporary art. It is an honest reflection of what is happening at a most basic grassroots level. If anything Street art holds an important entry level place for youth and a younger generation of artists. Have you seen the Banksy film, Exit through the Gift Shop? Every person I know under the age of 25 was transfixed by the film and related to its energy. I know young artists who are making street art today after learning about Banksy. Artists operate in many mediums and arenas. Street art is just one place to show and make art. Also, there isn’t much of a difference between the mass market production of Bansky, Shephard Ferry and Andy Warhol. They are all responding to mass culture. LA MOCCA is currently showing the first NA large scale show of graffiti art.

Pablo – For many years I did not think street/graffiti art had a place in the modern art world because of the fact that is inherently a rebel culture that defied structure within that scene. It’s hard to argue these days that it doesn’t. Even back in the early NYC downtown art scene it had a place. The only difference is now it has become recognized as a tried and true profitable form of art so its blown up and everybody is doing it and can get a share of the market. Back in the day you had to prove yourself in the streets first, today you don’t. I think graffiti/street art always could be considered an art form it just didn’t always fit into the art world because it was made for the streets. That is where it was meant to be seen and that is where it made the biggest impression on the viewer. Now graffiti/street art is so watered down that it really doesn’t matter and most people that create it are thinking about galleries, museums and books anyway.

Cyndi – Absolutely. Street art is and always has been a critical voice reflecting the reality of our times, not simply pandering to the demands and whims of an increasingly rarified art market. Street art also incorporates disparate facets of society that are not always addressed in traditional art making – music, film, politics, design, fashion, language –  that creates an incredible synergy. It can be the impetus for and foreshadow movements to come in the larger art and cultural market.

What is the role of street art in molding public perceptions?

Yozo – On the most basic level street art exposes people of all social strata to personal and political expressions. The strong tradition of social commentary in street art coupled with the freedom of showing outside of commercial venues allows for an unvarnished view point to come forward in a mainstream way.

Liza – Street art generates a dialogue. It introduces a whole different constituent base to art. Art can be everywhere. It’s our era’s equivalent of the Arte Povera movement of the 1960’s in Italy.

Pablo – In its purest form it is still catered to shocking and amazing the public and challenging peoples pre-conceptions of what art can or can’t be. Sparking debate, emotions and perceptions. However the form I see it in most often nowadays is in the role of commercial art. It has molded people’s perceptions as to what can be profitable and commercial.

Cyndi – As i mentioned in the last question, street art can reflect the social pulse as it is transforming and becoming a larger movement or issue. Street art has both the benefit and detriment of anonymity, which gives the artist the capacity for absolute candor. I think the anonymity can be an important factor in reflecting the truth of our times.  The flip side, the side that most who oppose street art would point to, is that anonymity also gives lesser minds with a spray can and time an opportunity to vandalize and debase public venues. As Nick Douglas of MOCA-latte describes the recent incident at LA MOCA, “The incident piqued my interest, not due to the issue of censorship, or the removal of Blu’s work, but the existence of a newly engaged public talking about art in Los Angeles. Deitch and his actions served as a lightening rod for debate regarding the role of the museum and art. It was exciting to see this level of discussion about art in Los Angeles – a pretty rare occurrence in this city.” Street art begins conversations. That is always a critical function of the arts.

What is the role of institutionalized art in molding public perceptions?

Yozo – Art institutions tend to function as a type of sieve. Whether its in a museum whose goal is to present art historical content in the context of timelines and traditions or contemporary museums and galleries who distill contemporary art through the eyes of a curator, institutions of art tend to present a selective version of the art world.

Liza – Most people see art only in traditional art institutions-galleries, museums, public spaces. Institutions are critical to maintaining a cultural life in a city. Even a great street artist would be feel honoured to have an art show in a museum space. I dare them to argue the opposite.

Pablo – I don’t really have an opinion on this.I almost feel institutionalized art is more authentic then most graffiti/street art these days. You go to school and you learn and develop a skill within a system. It can be limiting but that is what graffiti/street art was there for. It was an outlet from that side of art. Graffiti also was a system that artists used to work, learn, paid dues and developed in. It had rules and values that have been lost in newer generations. I think institutionalized art molds peoples perceptions as to what is viable as modern art in a classic sense.

Cyndi – I like the expression of institutionalized art. I am picturing little paintings in straight jackets in white padded cells. Art housed in institutions such as museums functions to demonstrate important works of art and fundamentally why art matters.  Ideally, art opens minds, reminds of past mistakes and accomplishments, encourages us to continue pushing boundaries and taking daring risks for the sake of betting our community, country, world.

Does street art have a responsibility in education or informing the public? If so, what is that responsibility?

Yozo – I don’t believe that artists have a responsibility to educate the public.  One of the great things about art is that it can function as inspiration for thought; however, placing a burden on artists to serve any societal role negates its greatest strength.

Liza – No, it has no responsibility at all. It is art!! Art for Arts sake!

Pablo – Within education I think it can play an important role in teaching younger generations alternative ideas and techniques to approaching creativity and art. It also has a responsibility to teach the history of this form of art which will keep it in a context that separates it from other art. Right now the lines are blurry and there is not much difference between modern commercial art and graffiti/street art. The history is what really separates it and makes it special. Yet on the other hand street/graffiti art really has no responsibility to the public. In its purest form it is a creative backlash at the system and society that it was born and escaped from. Its anti-responsibility, anti-establishment and if its done correctly it can’t be labeled. Maybe vandalism fits.

Cyndi – I think by its very nature the genre of street art should not have a responsibility in educating or informing the public. “Street Art” is a genre of radically diverse individuals with a wide-ranging intentions.  I think that if street artists should be held accountable to anyone or anything that accountability should be dictated within their own system.

Does institutionalized art have a responsibility in educating or informing the public? If so, what is this responsibility?

Yozo – I wouldn’t call it a responsibility.  Having said that, I do appreciate seeing the greatest works of art through history even as determined by a consensus of so-called art experts.  I guess if one is going to stand up and say “this is great art,” then that person creates their own obligation to champion and preserve that art.

Liza – Yes, it does because institutions receive funding from the government and other arts organizations so are responsible for exposing, educating and supporting the arts. If we don’t support the cultural life of our city through funding the arts, Toronto (and every other city for that matter) will be a wasteland. Art institutions primary responsibility is to expose and educate.  Art shows, panel discussions, lectures, films all enrich our lives. We’d be no where without our cultural institutions.

Pablo – I think institutionalized art has a similar responsibility. To educate about history, techniques and movements. Unfortunately support for art is diminishing within the educational system. This leads to the lack of unique and creative thinking and inspiration that exists today.

Cyndi – It does because it is so defined. I feel the greater question is if institutions are currently doing their duty and fulfilling their responsibility in educating and / or informing the public, and how that might or could be changed to a changing public with changing needs in relation to arts and culture.

Bio’s of our conversationalists:

Yozo Suzuki’s work challenges notions of identity and power. Suzuki is represented by Linda Durham Contemporary Art in Santa Fe New Mexico.

Pablo Ancona is a DJ and multimedia artist from New York. He specializes in photography, collage, graphic design, audio /video editing and graffiti. He has lived and worked in Santa Fe, Chicago, Boston, New York and Sao Paulo. He graduated in 2008 with Bachelor of art in Documentary studies and a minor in art from The College of Santa Fe. For his senior project, Pablo produced a documentary on a Samba music band in rural Brazil that he filmed, photographed and recorded during a semester there. Since that time, Pablo has worked with local community artist, Chrissie Orr on the “El Otra Lado” project recording and editing the stories of immigrant and native communities in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pablo has illustrated the covers for three children’s books, Murals ,Barrio and Olé, Flamenco, which were written and photographed by his father George Ancona. He is frequently involved in exhibitions and art projects such as a benefit for Haiti and a piece for American Friends Service Commitee’s Reflections on the war in Afghanistan project. As a DJ he specializes in Rare groove jazz,funk,soul,Disco,Latin and Hip Hop music. He plays a wide variety of events as well as producing mixed CD’s music and parties. Pablo is currently living and working in Sao Paulo,Brasil.

Cyndi Conn is currently the co-founding Director and Curator of LAUNCHPROJECTS. Conn has fourteen years of expertise in the field of contemporary art. An independent curator and consultant, Cyndi held the position of Visual Arts Director and Curator of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe until founding Launchprojects in 2008. Based in Santa Fe, Cyndi curates, lectures, and advises clients throughout the United States, Latin America, and Europe. She has lead art tours to Venice, Basel, Cali, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York.

Conn holds a Masters Degree in Curatorial Studies and Arts Administration from Skidmore College in conjunction with the Tang Museum, a BA in Latin American studies from Tulane University and studied at the Universidad Ibero Americana in Mexico City. She has lived in Paris, Mexico City, Austin, and New Orleans.

Liza Mauer is a founding member and past president of Partners in Art (PIA), a not-for profit organization that fundraises and educates its members in the arts. Over the past 7 years of its existence, PIA has raised over $750,000 and supported institutions such as the AGO, MOCCA, the ROM, Imageworks, OCAD, the Powerplant, the Gardner museum to just name a few. Several months ago, Liza resigned from being a Sr Development Officer at Sick Kids Hospital Foundation and is currently Vice President of the Powerplant Art gallery. Liza’s busiest job however, is raising her four children.