We’ll be looking specifically at what is being done within Temple Contemporary to break these expectations of a gallery’s use as a site whose meaning and purpose is equated with exhibitions. So to start off, I’ll introduce a few methods we’ve created at Temple Contemporary that carves out a new public model for gallery reform and curatorial accountability.
The first, and most immediate alteration for a lot of people, is changing the name. We're no longer called Temple Gallery, which is what it has been since the early to mid '80s. It's now called Temple Contemporary. And the way that we decided to make that change is because a lot of time when you have a place called "gallery", it has a different sense of expectations associated with commercial interests or grounded in a steady calendar cycle of solo and thematic exhibitions. But with the move to the idea of contemporary, we've instilled a more relevant or direct correlation between the way urgent decisions are being made in the world and in the space.
Our need to be publicly relevant is based on our foundation as a public university. We exist for and contribute to public education. This broad need for our programming to be of public use is, in essence, a larger opportunity than I alone can provide for with my limited knowledge-base as an upper middle-class curator of contemporary art. Given this context I appreciate that the public potential of Temple Contemporary can only be achieved and shaped from a range of influences that recognize the urgent needs of contemporary society from a multitude of perspectives.
To get to that potential, we've come up with a four-tier Advisory Council comprised of 35 members. We have a tier of neighborhood high school students, a tier of college students from all different Temple majors, a Temple faculty/staff tier, and then a fourth tier of cultural or civic leaders across Philadelphia. All of these advisors come to two meetings per year with a question they don't know the answer to. And they each throw their question up for debate. The debate tends to determine which of the questions have some sense of local relevance or international significance.
At the end of the meetings, the council votes on which questions have the most urgency. All the questions are very, very good. But we usually find that some of them are actually quite urgent locally and/or nationally.
JON RUBIN I know she's wrestling with how the university is re-inserting itself into programmatic expectations and it's a challenge of keeping what it is she's created, which is a vision that's actually become national and international and this throwing into the mix like yet another thing that kind of dilutes in some capacity that vision.
DAVID REINFURT I'm sorry, what school?
DAVID REINFURT An example I was thinking of is a silly restaurant in Brooklyn that, in the morning is called Egg, and in the afternoon it's called something else. I mean it's not that complicated. It's a model we know from lots of other places. Things are different at different times and they still may come from the same people. Just like bands - you play in five bands, they all have different names; they have different agendas.
SARAH BIEMILLER That's the thing, I don't think it's easability, I think it's just that it's North Philadelphia.
DAVID REINFURT Well, it's something that you just said about trying to be everything for everybody. Having such a large board, are you trying to be too many things for too many people? Are you trying to take on too many really large subjects and just touching on them, just hitting them sort of softly and then bouncing on to the next thing. Does it have to be a smaller board in looking at these subjects for a longer period of time?
But, because the project was this other thing imported into architecture, and with the legible coherent communication around it, it becomes more interesting than simply a project which exists in criminal justice. And it's not just because it hasn't been communicated well in there, it's that displacement I think, you go to one place, you're expecting to see one thing and you see something else, right?
JON RUBIN That's a very programmatic collision, or movement from one type of idea into another sphere and then actually, producing in relationship to both.
JON RUBIN I'd like that you follow something that's got energy. But I think when we get back to how do you communicate what you're doing, even if you say these six themes, and the two that we ended up really following, that the ones that you are actually seeing right now come from an advisory board that it's just - it's too complicated. Simple structures allowed for organized chaos. I think complicated structures just allow for unorganized chaos. And I think your meta structure could be way simpler. But I need an entry point that I cannot have to spend more than a sentence on so that I can then enjoy this complicated set of chaos.
JON RUBIN I think you could get that across by doing, by consistently doing. And again, I don't think it's consistently doing everything.
SARAH BIEMILLER And just to interject, some of the votes, with those particular topics, were across the board. So the students, the faculty, and the civic leaders - which was sort of interesting to see that those questions are relevant for all those populations, which I thought was an interesting piece of that.
This conversation between
Jon Rubin, David Reinfurt, Daniel Fuller,
Sarah Biemiller, and Robert Blackson took
place at Temple Contemporary on
Thursday, May 9, 2013.
JON RUBIN So, is that something you guys came up with?
SARAH BIEMILLER The funeral will be apart of a broader program around housing surplus including trolley tours of historic row home architecture throughout Philadelphia, a bus tour of reclamation facilities, and history of demolition lectures.
DAVID REINFURT The performance of that funeral – will not be represented in this space?
JON RUBIN Now the MFA show is dictated to you, you have to do an MFA show. What about this summer, the distinguished alumni and grad pairing, is that dictated to you as well in some capacity?
DAVID REINFURT Okay, yeah.
SARAH BIEMILLER It's a challenge for us because it feels to me that by February people are finally getting the hang of what we're doing at Temple Contemporary, and then we close the doors for the MFA shows. And we become this typical exhibition space. For September we go, go, go, go, go - we send out weekly e-blasts and calendars, and then February 14th hits and it's like phht, we're done till the fall, so it's just hard to communicate that schizophrenia.
DAVID REINFURT Why don't you take it at face value? I hear you describing this and you're describing it so much in terms of the space, but the space is not relevant. The new model you're trying to set up has to do with leading by these questions. When I read the background, I was dubious on it because you ask a bunch of people from different backgrounds to tell you what's important and then you gather consensus and respond to that. It's an art institution and the fact that you're making speculative things and putting out questions that people gather around rather than the other way, the way the rest of the world works, which is to respond to things that other people think you need.
But, although I was dubious of it when I read it, then hearing your specific responses to it, I'm totally convinced. It's a model that might be generic for others to follow who aren't so savvy about how you respond to it. Like hey, if it's about empty housing stock and you do a funeral for a house, great. But somebody else could take that same problem and do it very flat footedly.
It's not the model but your specific reaction to it that seems more convincing. But then when you're talking about this whole thing, you're talking about it in relation to this space and the ways in which you have to compromise for uses of this space. But it seems that the calendar that has all the events and their equivalent, like that starts to do it.
DAVID REINFURT I'm suggesting maybe the space itself is a red herring. You have this great space, it looks like a gallery, but you say we're not running it as a gallery, we're an institution in some ways that has programming that exists outside of here and it's organized around questions rather than exhibitions. I’m suggesting taking the whole situation at face value and exaggerating the strangeness of it.
So if you stop February 14 and you make a big announcement on February 14, "We're closed", you know, or we're stopping the question ends on February 14. It's now time for this other thing. And you just directly communicate that rather than try to sweep it under the rug. You replace it. University art institutions have a privileged position, but it's compromised too. But when you play to them rather than try to hide them, it might make more genuinely strange situations - and those might be productive.
So if you just imagine that yes, you issue these calendars, and maybe you even trump that up in some way so that it's a calendar that comes out on this date, it's released, and you just make something of the schedule and of the pace of the schedule that makes the distinction crisper.
JON RUBIN I think that could be difficult in regards to having to play along with the university saying, okay, we finish on this date and now starts the institutional stuff. So that could be problematic.
My question is, why does it have to end there? Why does the programming have to end? You could look at any number of things out in the current alumni show and create programs around what's out on the walls right now.
JON RUBIN In past conversations with you about how traditional galleries put together the exhibition and then their programming follows. And you guys are putting together the programming and then the exhibition follows. So I mean it flips things around for one - for just the summertime or from the MFA shows on to let the exhibition sort of dictate what the programming is. But you can still do your programming.
DAVID REINFURT Just in regards to people, audience capacity?
JON RUBIN I'm very interested in this advisory board and the idea of a question in the creative capacity you've taken as curators in addressing that question, in creating a platform that artists can also be collaboratively creative. So you've taken a much more creative role than a lot of curators, and closer to you know, like Mark Allen's role perhaps.
And then you've got, essentially, this bullshit stuff you've got to deal with. That to me take away from what is this utopic model that you're trying to develop. And I find it is dragging it down.
And from being here when I came to visit in October to now, one of the things I can say, and then having material come to me and just keeping an eye on your guys, there's too much ADD to what's happening. It's just too clusterfuck when I see it. So I don't know what you do, and I'm getting plenty of stuff. And I'm interested - when I look at each thing, I'm like, that's cool, that's cool. But the meta uber identity, which is really stuck at simple, and really elegant, I think, that you've set up in terms of this Advisory Council and this question and then the way in which that gets addressed in a pretty open format. That's like beautiful and all that's needed to do a tremendous amount of work. And that's like one little pyramid. And then you've got this like circle over here, and a square over there that are you trying to kind of like stuff into the pyramid shape. And that's where clusterfuck occurs, because they're kind of like holding in some Venn diagram where they don't really belong.
JON RUBIN The MFA show, the distinguished alumni thing. They're not necessarily the core of this great pyramid you're building.
DAVID REINFURT I wouldn't suggest at all erasing that tension, but if you exaggerate it rather than kind of smooth it over, then maybe you might make some weird resonance. Or what you're doing that's distinct might be clearer to communicate. So you could imagine, I mean I think the density of a season, it's great, just practically, then you could just like focus all your efforts on the fall, or whatever. And you kind of do a very coherent, intense programming. And also that might match your audience who's willing to tune in at a certain time and less willing to turn in at another time.
JON RUBIN I feel it's unclearly schizophrenic. I mean, I think that maybe there's a possibility for like your multiple personalities to be accelerated and amplified and clarified.
SARAH BIEMILLER Well, can I just ask, in terms of the schizophrenic thing. Are you saying that the schizophrenic thing is coming from the programming that we do from September to February? Do you feel that that's the clusterfuck?
JON RUBIN I like that programming. I'm interested in that programming. When it gets mixed with these other things like MFA or Alumni shows then it seems like something you have to do. It dilutes.
But just from the outside, and knowing the things you guys do - everything I've heard that happens in this kind of question answering programmatic first ways has been more interesting to me than anything I've experienced or witnessed in the space. And maybe that's another separate kind of question, this question of this space and what you do beyond that.
DAVID REINFURT I guess that's what I'm wondering, in regards to the funeral project is all happening outside - outside of the space --
DAVID REINFURT Why not just have that happening when this is going on, and then your calendar never really has to end. You never have to have that cutoff date because we just shift everything from the base of operations being here to where the funeral's happening --
DAVID REINFURT -- or whatever that big project is that's happening outside of these doors. Well, I am living in New York and there are lots of cultural things going on all the time. When things are focused, under some sort of rubric, it helps me file when I engage with that thing. And it's not like I follow certain institutions in particular, I think I follow events. And so I think people don't use those kinds of various temporal scales quite as effectively as they could. I'm always excited when the when the fall season starts, or whatever that might be.
And I think there's some room in that that might make this question easier to deal with.
JON RUBIN I get the calendars each month when you guys send them out and I look at them and it's just, Jesus, there's a lot going on here and it all looks exciting. But you know, sometimes I wonder if you guys are competing against yourselves. If there's just too many activities, too many programs.
Even like you doing that calendar, you’re afraid of an empty day, so you'll put in something - that's an ongoing program, and you'll highlight it in that day, as if perhaps it's that day.
I have the same response. It almost seems like an insecure response. Like we've got to prove that we're amazing, we do a million things when again, I'm back to this pyramid of your question, you know the high school, college, faculty, community advisory group, and that's like, phew! that's it. That's all I need and I want to know what those questions are and I want to know how you're addressing them and I want to know the clarity of how I can see that. I showed it to my wife, and she's a great arbiter of BS meter. And I asked her is this just trying to hard or is it doing what it needs to do? And she's just like, that's just crazy.
And again, I think what gets lost are the wonderful things within that. This is a question, how do we convey these wonderful things to the public. This seemed like a real core question you have. And how do you communicate difference? The rubric of having your question overlie everything is far more interesting. If this summer distinguished alumni show was also addressing these questions. I mean, if you took the questions of student debt, neighborhood borders, school closures as broad themes, and you keep your meta structure going the whole year round, and there's clarity.
SARAH BIEMILLER Some of the Advisory Council meetings have been in the gallery and open to the public. I don't know how successful it is all the time, but there is that opportunity. And we've also been talking about how to bring those questions physically out into the space.
JON RUBIN Just go where people already are. Your advisory meeting could be in the middle of another meeting that's interesting to you. Or the foraging event is already amidst another set of audiences that you don't have to coax, you're just parasitic or symbiotic or co-existing. I think, Mark Allen and Machine, after years of doing what they're doing, they've built like a hacker community that comes to certain things and the film community comes to other things and social practice-y artists come to other things. But then they also do projects that just insert themselves into constituent bodies and - then by doing that, some moss is accumulated that goes back with them when they do their future events. So there's the build.
PHOTO: James Kuhn
JON RUBIN But even there, in Echo Park. They're not even their space. I mean that's maybe the model in some ways because they're keen not to have exhibitions, per se, they'll have like projects, they'll have events, they'll have --
JON RUBIN Yeah, they'll have sets where things can happen. But they also do things like, when they go out into another institution or out into the public sphere and they can then pull upon this diasporic set of both producers and followers. It’s more of a food truck model.
SARAH BIEMILLER What I think it's interesting too, when we talked about Machine Project is how, you get those emails from Machine Project, you instantly know - or I instantly understand what it is that they're doing. So if Machine Project was to put themselves in Rittenhouse Square, in Center City, you would know it was Machine Project. If Temple Contemporary did that, we're not there yet.
JON RUBIN Well, what do you know, when you hear that they're going to be in Rittenhouse Square, what would your expectation be?
SARAH BIEMILLER That I understand that Machine is a unique model of programming that I don't know what it would be, but it would be - I understand what Machine is, it's like a different, you know sort of --
DAVID REINFURT You think it would be some things, right?
JON RUBIN They do have a kind of vibe or identity that is - really important --
SARAH BIEMILLER Oh, definitely. I'm just saying that if Temple Contemporary were to do that right now, we're not there. I don't think that we're recognized as that.
JON RUBIN I mean I look at the hourglass model that you know, you get the big community input that then boils down to you guys synthesizing and then gets output in a variety of ways. To me, that is an instance in which it works to have - as long as it's focused and it's not big community input just going unfocused. Because you - listen, I've worked with different curators, you've got a hands-on role, which to me is about that synthesis.
DAVID REINFURT I'm sure that's what I was suggesting when I said, when I had read about the model and, read your email before coming here. And then when I hear your actual response to how those questions generate form, they generate programming. It’s that specific point of view is what's valuable, rather than the model. And the fact that you're inserting yourself more as curators. So if the goal is to have that be more legible, then it seems like that needs to be communicated again and again and again.
And maybe it's useful to think about terms that aren't already exhausted, like exhibitions, or whatever. And so you might - your communication might always lead with that question, it might be much more explicitly thematic in that way, like a radio program, like you know, This American Life, or whatever, where there's three stories in three acts and they have this overarching metaphor. But maybe that just needs to be more explicitly leading with that rather than leading with the events. Because something like those calendars where we see a ton of events going on, I mean that's the message you get, it's a ton of events, but you don't understand that they're centered around something that's one level up. And that one level up is what I'm going to care about.
JON RUBIN Yeah, me too.
SARAH BIEMILLER Yeah, that makes sense.
JON RUBIN Astria at the Miller Gallery is doing a Riot Grrrl show; she did Yes Men for a show. They're all about social change. That's her interest as an individual, also as a curator. And it's turned what was a gallery that basically just showed faculty from other institutions, which is a pretty standard thing, to a place that a lot of people, to be honest, understand and are clear about and then some people frankly have problems with on the university campus. Because they're like, that doesn't serve the painting department and the ceramics and the video and the architecture and the this. And to my mind, it's like, fuck it, what you want is a completely open vague whatever space to put a line on your resume. Or do you want something that honors, curators as producers of culture along with the artist that they engage with?
And so, what we were talking about with Machine, Mark has an attitude, right. You meet Marc; he has a certain way of seeing things. His attitude gets played out in the programming. It’s very much a reflection of him. It's not a mega maniacal one, it's just he's not everything for everyone. He's got things he likes and things he doesn't. And he's really firm about saying that. The same with Adam Lerner, at a much larger institution with a lot more responsibilities, but that place has an attitude to it that is very much not a reflection of the institution it's a reflection of Adam and his history before. But honoring that is this spot. It’s this thing that I think creates an attitude out of this general input from the Advisory Council. And then allows a lot of other people to expand. And you know what? They're probably not going to expand like that far out. They're probably going to expand inside a zone that still is in concert with the attitude that you've established.
DAVID REINFURT Have you done that simultaneously where you have someone from criminal justice and someone for art, who's dealing with the same issues?
JON RUBIN But are those lectures happening the same night, the same time?
JON RUBIN I was invited to this symposium at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. They do this global studies symposium; they have a theme. Food was the theme. And it was the former head of the FDA, this guy who was a global farmers' rights advocate - and then me, I felt completely inadequate and naked. And I was mostly invited to talk about the Conflict Kitchen project in relationship to this theme - and it was packed. And most of them were not artists, because they don't really have much of an art program. And I felt silly, but I did my spiel and it got a very good response. And these were not the people who show up to my lectures. I'm a lightweight compared to what these guys are doing, but there was some crossover. And if you want to bring different student audiences together, I think you can.
JON RUBIN I think they're doing that already. I mean, I think you're there, it seems --
SARAH BIEMILLER Right, and that's sort of what you were talking about when you were looking at the calendar. It's not necessarily the specific events, but it's more --
JON RUBIN What's the big question. I'm wondering even if you have too many big questions. I think like two questions for a year that have like a strange --
JON RUBIN You could go with one, certainly. One seems fairly conventional. I like two - maybe having a resonance, you know, whether it's student debt and neighborhood boundaries. If you took any of these two, you'd find relationships. You take all three, and all of a sudden, I'm lost.
So, whether it's one or two, I feel like you could probably clarify and hone that down. And when I come into the gallery, I know this question or two questions are being asked. I've got a conceptual context in which I can approach these disparate works.
SARAH BIEMILLER And when you talk about borders, just borders. It's huge --
JON RUBIN It's huge -
SARAH BIEMILLER So I mean that - there could be - sub things over one question. We have this one question and then there are these things that fall from that.
JON RUBIN I like the idea of two because it's weirder than one. But I wonder also if it could be stated more specifically. So then you generalize from the specific case rather than the other way around. So you say that in the neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, the borders are switching on this street and this street, you know, or whatever, like this - you identify one specific thing that's actually happening right around you in this case. And then by focusing on that problem, you're able to generalize. I wonder if that could be another way to do it. I think it might break down in any specific example. I wonder if that might be a productive way to think about it so it doesn't become like we're talking about student debt. Although student debt is usually focused - I think it's something we heard.
I think it's just are they interesting questions and if you're asking from an advisory board and getting consensus, you're not going to land on something that's so precise. You might map the general territory, but then it's up to your specific point of view to get a very precise or interesting question out of that.
JON RUBIN I could see that. Like I can give us 12, and the one that's hot, we follow. I feel like there needs to be an ingenuity in how you commit to say soil, and reinvent it so that it is relevant. Or just even stick to your guns and just say, this is what we believe in, so yeah, so it's got smaller viewership. It's relevant.
JON RUBIN Well, can't you do simultaneous? Can't you simultaneously do a student debt and soil?
JON RUBIN I think you could clusterfuck soil. That would be maybe confounding, even, when people come in, they're like, that has to do with soil? Again, I wouldn't be single theme. Because sometimes people stretch that theme so far that it's like you know, you don't need the theme. But if you've got dual themes that seems like plenty to me. That allow you multiple investigations and there's point in which they're running separately, and then there's points in which these things that might seem separate or have some friction.
So one of your desires, which should also be honored, is the clusterfuck. I think you could have your cake and eat it too. I think you could have that - I don't think that has to happen at the top level. I think the top level has some clarity.
SARAH BIEMILLER I do think, what you were talking about in terms of explaining what it is we do. It's just too much. People ask, in a casual conversation, well, what does Temple Contemporary do? And I get tired even just thinking about explaining to them what we do because you lose people. I feel like what we've been trying to talk about and think about is how we can communicate simply and succinctly.
JON RUBIN We beat it into our students all the time, the elevator speech.
At Carnegie Mellon we've developed this new kind of major in relation to the art, it's called a BXA. And so it's a Bachelors in Blank and Art. It's kind of confusing because we have art school and we've got humanities program, biology, computer science. It's kind of complicated to present - it's not a double major, it's not a double minor. But it's a really interesting model of a program. Golan Levin teaches in our art department. He's a computational wizard, that's his world. He made an infographic that lets you know, visually how this program works, and it's given out to all the students and now almost 40-percent of our students are applying for this program. They come into the School of Art, and they want to do this thing. But a lot of it is because it's been really clearly explained to them in just a graphic. He's got a math brain that can make sense of things that have lots of tangents. That’s the contemporary elevator pitch. And it's usually not even verbal.
JON RUBIN But you could do that if you had a thousand themes.
JON RUBIN I would say there's more - I think there is an attitude. I have an attitude that I take to everything I do. I just use different methodologies.
[ end conversation ]