Interview by Althea Viafora-Kress
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“wrestle” (installation view), hessel museum of art, 2006-07

During Art Basel Miami Beach 2006, I did a live interview with Tom Eccles for WPS1 Art Radio inside a shipping container at the show “Art Positions.” We talked about “Wrestle,” an exhibition that he co-curated with Trevor Smith at Bard College’s Hessel Museum, which now features more than 1,700 art works by over 900 artists, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Kara Walker. android application development . If you don’t already know Eccles’s curatorial work, you’ve most likely come across it without knowing it was his. He was the director and curator of the Public Art Fund from 1997-2005, for which he organized projects featuring work by such artists as Francis Alÿs, Louise Bourgeois, Wim Delvoye, Dan Graham, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Vik Muniz, and others. Since 2005, Eccles has been the executive director of The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. In this interview, we discuss the challenges of curating in private collections, a living outdoor museum like the Public Art Fund, and traditional museums like the Hessel or the Museum of Modern Art. How do curators wrestle with the multitudes of identities? How does a collection reflect the collector, the institution, the curator, and the artists?

Althea Viafora-Kress: Among other achievements, you were the Director and Curator of the Public Art Fund from 1997 to 2005. If ever there was a living museum, it’s the Public Art Fund. You are now the Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at Bard College. If traditional museums are containers of art, the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard is now a carrier of a living museum and a traditional museum. You’ve been entrusted with ideas and things, art, and this will be viewed and taught to future curators. Today, let’s talk about personal collections and curatorial practices, and also art about collecting and curating about collecting. Tell us about self-representation. How will you teach future curators using a pre-existing collection that was recently donated to your museum?

TOM ECCLES: Collecting is a form of self-representation. You create a portrait of yourself and your interests, and then through philanthropy, hopefully will give that to a much wider audience. There’s a very big difference between having a personal collection in your own domain and putting it out into the public domain. My role is to represent that collection in a way that perhaps is not really a portrait of our donor/benefactor, Marieluise Hessel. It’s about how to work with specific choices that she made over the years. Certainly, with the first show, entitled “Wrestle,” we took a particular slice of the collection-about 5%-and yes, it says something about her, but it has to be much more than that.

“wrestle” (installation view), hessel museum of art, 2006-07

Viafora-Kress: It becomes more than that. When something’s successful, it leaves the personal domain, and it goes into the public domain. You were formerly the curator of the Public Art Fund where hundreds of thousands of people walked by pieces that you installed, and now you’re contained in a museum. Normally museums are like mausoleums-the work is not alive. But your being there today makes this museum an organic, growing, evolving, curatorial process because you’re not only curating objects, but you’re now organizing principles of future curators’ visions and thoughts. How do you bring those two ideas together?

ECCLES: As you put it, we now have this container. We have a new 17,000 square-foot museum. I think one of the big challenges is how we break that container open, both metaphorically and, I hope, literally. You know?

Viafora-Kress: Yes.

ECCLES: One of the big differences between what I was doing at the Public Art Fund and what I’m doing now, and you hit on it immediately, is that I didn’t need to go and get an audience. Also, what’s interesting in the sphere of the museum is that even if thousands of people come, there is a much more intimate relationship with the audience. I watch my audience more carefully now. Also, in curating an exhibition, one of the most important things to consider is how people move through the space. How are you really going to confront them with those works? How are you going to make those works vital in some sense?

Viafora-Kress: You’re actually unpacking a suitcase of a collection, and forgive me, but you’re selling an idea or a curatorial vision through juxtapositions of an original representation of the collector herself with the representation of the curatorial team. Now you collaborated with another curator in doing this show, “Wrestle.” Was that part of the idea of the title of the exhibition or was it the juxtaposition of the pieces themselves?

ECCLES: The title came first because I chose to collaborate. I always collaborate. recycled glass wine glasses . I love working either with artists or with other curators. And in this case, we were working with a collection, so there wasn’t really an opportunity at that time to work with an artist, so working with Trevor Smith, formerly of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, we set up a kind of game, in a sense. The museum as well feels a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. We were turning, twisting, and then would throw it back to the next person and say, “Well you try it.” And then we would try another thing. And out of this dialogue came the idea of juxtaposing works. It was almost like trying a different card and a different card and trying it again and getting it better. For six months, it was a struggle, trying to do something that feels original and saying something specific about specific works. We’re in the sphere of a personal collection. This is not a universal collection. This is not the kind of collecting that, for example, MoMA is engaged in; it’s one single person.

Viafora-Kress: It’s not an institutional idea. How do you make this very fine line available to a general public: Bard is an institution by definition because it’s a university. At the same time, you’re showing works that were highly personalized.

ECCLES: Marieluise Hessel always had this idea that the collection should in some sense represent her time, which is in fact our time, from the 1960s up until the present, and we continue to collect today. She always had this idea, and it’s embedded in the name of the organization, “Art in Contemporary Culture.” So, the show says a lot about art. The art that we chose says a lot about our society and some of the struggles that we have in our society. We didn’t want to do a political show or a show about identity; there have been so many shows about identity, but I think that there is something in the works and in the show itself that deals with a specific idea of identity: that it’s not a given, it’s not a whole, that we’re constantly struggling with ourselves, that we’re within the fragmented self.

Viafora-Kress: There are different ways of representing oneself through curatorial practices. Some people are interested in redemption, some in problem solving-in seeing new visions or new futures or even in seeing new pasts. Men tend to have museums about redemption. For example, Frick was really about redemption. He was a robber baron. Women tend to be more about self-expression. The heiress of the Post family, Marjorie Merriweather Post, has a private museum in Washington, DC, The Hillwood Museum. She allows for near voyeurism. You literally look at the shoes in her closet in her museum. It’s almost fetishistic in that sense of the idea of serialization. Around half of all of the private museums in this country have women founders, even though most contemporary art collectors in this country are men. Do you see self-representation in curatorial practice as something to do with the past or something to with the present or something to do strictly with the future?

ECCLES: I think that it’s about the present actually. What you’re saying about redemption is related to “Wrestle” and the fact that Marieluise is a woman and that it’s a woman’s collection. seo in philadelphia . I was struck by how many of the works have strong images of sexuality and were often very much about male sexuality.

“wrestle” (installation view), hessel museum of art, 2006-07

Viafora-Kress: Could you give us an example?

ECCLES: Marieluise was one of the earliest and most significant collectors of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. We have in the region of eighty works by Mapplethorpe – and not flowers! We have a number of flowers, but Marieluise also bought the “Portfolio X” at a time when nobody would go near that work. And we started with that. There were also two portraits of children. Marieluise got one portrait of a girl named Rosie and one of a boy named Jessie McBride that were absolutely stunning, but also kind of taboo, and that set off the question of whether we could we show that work now. Can we read that work now? Meaning is not static. Meaning is constantly in evolution, and the curator’s role is to tease out new meanings or to suggest new readings of works and sometimes to take some risks. One of the questions in relation to Mapplethorpe becomes whether we can look at this outside the graphic sexual nature of the work.

Viafora-Kress: So it becomes form. It becomes about Modernism which equals form.

ECCLES: Absolutely. And in fact, that’s part of the argument of the show. There’s a lot of figurative work, which plays into linguistic work but also into work defined by more formalist questions. And one of the largest rooms we give over to a double asymmetrical pyramid by Sol LeWitt, which then plays against a candy piece by Felix Gonzales-Torres, For a Man in Uniform (1991), which takes on the triangle. Then we look at Valie Export, a kind of prototypical feminist work showing a woman enclosed in a landscape in Vienna in the 1970s; and then you look at Mapplethorpe’s figures enclosed in boxes, and then you go back to LeWitt, and we have a piece of open cubes. So each of the works … takes something from the surrounding works.

Viafora-Kress: Sounds very athletic.

ECCLES: It’s very athletic.

Viafora-Kress: Visually, intellectually, aesthetically. Often when you bring aesthetics into art, you get into the realm of churches. That type of architecture, those types of ideas. But you’re bringing in the physical as well as the aesthetic; maybe there is a new principle that can be found in that curatorial practice.

ECCLES: We have two central issues that we deal with: one is that we’re at Bard. We’re not in the center of the city, so people have to have a reason to come here. And the second is that we’re a school. So we try things that might not be able to be done in other places.

Viafora-Kress: Absolutely… and there may not be answers. They are open-ended questions. There is even the question of whether contemporary art is compatible with a museum. Contemporary art is by living artists, and museums are institutions. They historically have been about comparing old and new like cabinets of wonder from the Renaissance. Museums are only two hundred years old in our culture. They’re a very new experience.

ECCLES: It’s something which I’m very conscious of from my experience with the Public Art Fund. We did collaborate with museums. We did a number of projects with the Whitney Biennial, and we worked with MoMA on a piece called Modern Procession with Francis Alÿs. Now as museum director, I’m saying, okay can you also work with artists and get artists to challenge the notion of the museum.

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