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Curator Robert Storr on Sowing the Seeds of American Contemporary Art Abroad


Curator Robert Storr on Sowing the Seeds of American Contemporary Art Abroad
Curator Robert Storr

Curator, critic, painter, and art historian Rob Storr is Dean of the Yale School of Art and former senior curator in the painting and sculpture department at the Museum of Modern Art. Famously outspoken in expressing his views, he is also, in fact, a diplomat—at least, as close to one as the art world is likely to get. On the side, Storr chairs the Professional Fine Arts Committee of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), a nonprofit organization that places permanent installations of work by American artists in U.S. embassy buildings across the globe, working closely with the State Department to realize its mission of cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange among the international community. 

This summer, for the first time, FAPE's handiwork is receiving the retrospective treatment, in a show taking place at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The exhibition, which is on view through July 27th, includes works from FAPE’s collections of original prints, photographs, and site-specific installations by such acclaimed American artists as William Wegman, Jackson Pollock, Sol Lewitt, and Martin Puryear

On the occassion of the exhibition, Artspace spoke with Storr about maintaining the purity of FAPE’s mission, what happens when art and policy intersect, and the political dimensions of American art abroad.

Could you explain what your position with FAPE entails, as the chairman of the Professional Arts Committee?

The basic arrangement is pretty simple. We have a group of advisors we call on for input, and I'm called on in turn by the organization’s leaders. Basically, we try to brainstorm and think about artists who might work in the context. We aim to have fresh, lively, contemporary work, but it also has to be affordable in terms of fabrication costs; it has to be something that can be there for a very long time, for multiple generations, and we try to calculate who the best candidates for that might be.

Because FAPE does not pay these artists to do these projects, we also have to think about people who would like to essentially donate their time and their energy and their creativity to making things for these situations. Not every artist is inclined to do that, and not every artist is economically in the position to do that. So those are the sort of things we have to move around in our mind to come up with a list of people to approach. I’m the principal person for navigating that approach and trying to enlist them. 

FAPE’s official mission is to enhance the United State’s image abroad. That can’t be as simple as it sounds, can it?

The United States embassies are multi-purpose entities. They’re there to do work in the commercial sphere as well as in the political and diplomatic spheres. They are also, quite simply, a presence of this country in foreign places. The art is not there to do foreign policy itself. Policy changes, presidents change, even states change, and so on. And most artists aren’t interested in making patriotic declarations—and if they did, of course, the liability of those declarations might change dramatically in the space of a few years.

So, basically, what we would like is to have work from the United States be seen in foreign places, and we hope that the people who work in the embassies, as well as the people who come to do business in the embassies, will simply get an understanding of what the United States stands for beyond its political realities. What kind of a culture does this country produce? How diverse is it? How various in terms of media style, orientation, et cetera? 

Are there limitations to the kind of work you can select, other than budgetary ones? 

We haven’t run into a situation where an artist approached the project with something we thought would be problematic. You know, that may come up, but it hasn’t. I think most artists understand that this is a situation where we want good work, but it’s not about starting arguments—it’s about making something that’s valuable in its own right. 

Would you characterize FAPE’s project as one of cultural exchange, or of influence?

Not of influence. The purpose is not to be influential. The purpose is, quite simply, to show people who don’t know this country firsthand the range of art being made in this country. Obviously we can’t cover it all, but we try to spread out the types of works so the people looking at pictures up in the embassy will identify a range of points of reference. For example, in 2012 in Berlin we installed a whole group of lithographs by Jackson Pollock, who is well known in Germany. We also have an enormous project by Sol LeWitt and another by Ellsworth Kelly. And then lots of other work by artists who are less well known but are equally important.

I think FAPE’s role is also interesting because of the funding situation for art in the United States right now, and the relationship between art and government, which since the '80s has moved farther and farther towards a privatized model based on philanthropy and the market than on government support. Can you describe FAPE’s relationships with galleries, and how the organization’s partnerships with galleries or auction houses like Sotheby’s works? 

Auction houses offer their services because they have a certain amount of philanthropic interest, and because we work with artists who we’ll probably see a good deal of in their sales. We don’t deal with galleries per say, but we go directly to artists and say, “Listen, would you be willing to make a project, which could be anything from a photograph to a print multiple to a unique piece?If you would, we will pay the entire cost of doing it, but there will be no commercial transaction.” We don’t make editions that are then sold, so there's no business in it for the galleries. Gemini GEL, for example, has voluntarily produced quite a lot of our prints, but it’s not business for them. 

Do you get feedback from the people who actually work in these embassy buildings about the work you place? 

Absolutely, yeah. By and large, people are very happy with what we place, even if they're sometimes puzzled by it when they first encounter it. I had done this kind of job before as a corporate art handler, and I know the phenomenon well. People initially say, “What is this, and how come it’s suddenly over my desk?” Then they become quite possessive about it, because it’s their workspace that we’re dealing with. But to be able to come to work and spend a full day there with something to look at on the wall that's not related to your job or the travails of the moment, but rather is, if you will, disencumbered by the world? That’s great.

How long do the works stay installed?

They’re all permanent. There have been other embassy art programs, which were based on borrowing from artists, and there have been difficulties with that because sometimes the work didn’t get back to the artist in the same condition in which it was loaned. Also, the other side of it is, it could be more or less changed at the whim of the ambassador. In the case of FAPE, these things belong to the embassy. Once they’re there, they’re there, and they don’t come up and go down according to the curatorial tastes of anybody within the hierarchy. If the State Department accepts them, then they stay put. 

Is there a dominant style or medium in the overall FAPE collection? Looking at the website, there does seem to be a lot of red, white, and blue.

Early on, during the prints program, which was probably the oldest component of this entire enterprise, a lot of the artists were in the generation of Pop and formalist abstraction, because that was the generation of artists who were in the position to make this kind of gesture. But we’ve long since moved beyond that—now we have work by artists from the current generation. And yet Ellsworth, for example, has given us a number of major projects. Ellsworth is 91 years old, you know, and he’s still at it. I hope some of our mid-career artists will still be at it when we get to that point. 

What’s included in the current show at Guild Hall?

We’re showing FAPE’s entire print portfolio, and we’re showing all of the photographs that we have thus far commissioned—that’ll be one gallery. Then the rest of the material is basically drawings, maquettes, and in situ photographs of the big commissions we’ve done at embassies from Istanbul to Dar es Salaam to wherever. We have a model by Martin Puryear, for example, for the original project he’s doing for Beijing. We have models by Joel Shapiro both for the first thing that was ever done by FAPE of this nature, which was done for the embassy of Ottawa in Canada in 1999, and a more recent one done for Guangzhou in China in 2013. We have Odili Donald Odita who did a series of murals for the U.S. mission to the United Nations in 2010 and the original drawings, as well as in situ photographs of the finished project. Sol LeWitt was very generous, and his family has also been very generous, so we have two major projects, one for Berlin and one for USUN, and we have the drawing for the project in Berlin. 

You’re an artist yourself, as well as a critic, curator, and historian. Has working with FAPE influenced the rest of your work in any way?

I wear many hats, and these activities do quite naturally blend into each other. I have generally not done things for governments, but with FAPE I was drawn to the idea of something that is precisely non-ideological, non-contentious, and not chauvinistic in any way whatsoever. Also, it was something that I was interested in doing, to deal with the problem of how you make art work in public spaces. I’ve been involved in the placement of Louise Bourgeois’s piece in Paris in the Tuileries Garden, I was involved in getting Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna—I’ve done a lot of stuff with public art. So it’s an area of artistic practice that has interested me a lot, and it’s a situation where one can, sort of, do it right. So that was the incentive.  

I wonder if you ever get the sense that there are decisions being made behind the scenes that you are not aware of. I’m thinking of the situation in the 1950s when the CIA funded the promotion of American Abstract Expressionism abroad during the Cold War. 

That was a grave mistake. The big incident was in 1958. There was a show organized by the Museum of Modern Art where there was funding from behind the scenes. That was a huge mistake made by everyone concerned—by the museum, by the government, and so on. It's not wrong for governments to spend money to make it possible for people to see art from their country. What’s wrong is when you do it surreptitiously. What’s wrong is when you try to interpret the art in light of current policy. The ways we avoid that here is, number one, it is all transparent, and number two, nobody tries to label the art in terms of any particular ideological fair.

When I’m asked about things that point in that direction, I try to put on the breaks, because thinking about art in relation to diplomacy is not the same thing as using works of art for diplomacy. Diplomacy goes out in embassies, and the purpose of embassies is to do diplomacy—there’s no shame in that. But the art isn't there to argue for our foreign policy, and since our foreign policy changes all the time, it’s kind of a ridiculous idea that you could do that at all, because then you’re stuck every time the policy changes.

I think that in the ’50s the argument was basically that we were promoting ourselves as a country of enormous freedom, and that Abstract Expressionism was the emblem of our freedom, which is a pretty dramatic misreading of Abstract Expressionism. It’s not what the painters themselves thought, and it’s not what anyone with any sense thought. But somebody came up with this notion and propagated it and I think they should be really sorry they did.

Nelson Rockefeller called Abstract Expressionism “free enterprise painting,” right? 

If that’s what he thought, that’s what he thought. But that’s not what Bill de Kooning thought. [Laughs] I will say this, since I did work at MoMA for a long time and since I knew a lot of people involved in the ’58 show. The situation was actually an interesting one. In the late ’40s the government had a program for sending American art around the country and around the world. It was fiercely attacked by conservative senators who basically said, “Oh, this is propaganda made by communists. Modern art is communism.” So that response killed off the government programs, which were open and above-board. 

At which point MoMA stepped in and began to do some of this itself. And there was nothing wrong with that either; that’s where the National Council came from, it was to set up circulating shows and so on and so forth. And there was nothing wrong with that. What was wrong was when government money began to flow back in, but not straightforwardly, so that you ended up having a private embassy acting as a surrogate for a public entity, for a government. 

But you know, years ago, I served on the committee for French American exchanges and we met with our French counterparts, who were curators and so forth. At one particular meetings in Paris we were taken to the Quai d’Orsay, which is the headquarters of the State Department there. We sat down at tables and the dossiers were all stamped with the French diplomatic crest, and we realized that, more so than we imaged, we were, in fact, a government agency. 

Do you think the combination of art and government can be effective for purposes beyond the interests of ideology? Or, do you think it's necesarilly a bad thing when they come together?

The French very actively promote their art, the Germans very actively promote their art—everybody does it. I remember going into the house of the German president in Berlin at one point, and one of the things that impressed me very much about him—this is Roman Herzog—was that you walked into this neoclassical palace and it was full of paintings by Jorg Immendorf, for example, who’s an ex-Maoist. Or Sigmar Polke. So the most daring of the German painters of that moment were on view in the house of the president of Germany. I thought that was good. If a Maoist artist ever shows up in the lobby of the White House, then maybe we'll be able to say that people can look at art without being blinded by ideology.


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