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.

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?

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.

DAVID REINFURT Just in regards to people, audience capacity?

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.

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?

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.

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.

PHOTO: James Kuhn

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.

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?

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.

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.

SARAH BIEMILLER Yeah, that makes sense.

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?

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 --

SARAH BIEMILLER And when you talk about borders, just borders.  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.

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.

[ end conversation ]

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