Tom Eccles, who has been Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York since 2006, recently delivered the annual FORART lecture in Oslo. As director of The Public Art Fund in New York City between 1996–2005, and in his position at Bard for the last ten years, Eccles has been a central figure in the realm of the high-end New York art market and the public and critical issues surrounding contemporary art. During a time when New York has been challenged as “the centre of the art world”, Eccles has worked to develop and fundraise for two major institutions.
In his lecture he took the audience at Kunstnernes Hus through many of the projects he curated and facilitated at The Public Art Fund, as well as other projects he has been involved with. Starting with the humble installation of Ilya Kabakov’s Monument to the lost glove (1998) on a traffic triangle near Madison Square Park, right in front of the iconic Flatiron Building, and later pointing towards the increasing addiction inherent in the spectacle and event culture with the help of an anecdote: When a representative of the Rockefeller Center asked “What would you do if you could do anything?” Eccles’s response in 2000 was to place Jeff Koons’s Puppy outside the Rockefeller Center.
He continued to describe other concerns relating to audiences and political instrumentalisation in projects, exemplified by the production and reception of two projects in particular: Ernesto Neto’s anthropodino (2009) and Paul McCarthy’s WS (2013) in the Drill Hall in the Park Avenue Armory, the largest indoor space available in New York, twice the size of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Neto’s playground-like installation set the tone for the engagement with the space by evoking a sense of the Drill Hall as a family space, while McCarthy’s work – mixing a “disneyfied” landscape with a “danteesque” story – made a dramatic break with what had become expected of projects in this space; now determined by the number of visitors attracted, meriting the investment in production. However, his job at CCS Bard was markedly different: here, he sought to foster a critical programme in an institution that is fully financed by private sponsors.
Anne Szefer Karlsen: You’ve been the Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies for 10 years. What changes have impacted the CCS during this period?
Tom Eccles: Well, part of my remit was to make the CCS completely financially autonomous from the college, and today we don’t receive any funding from the college for any of the activities we undertake. Working intensely on fundraising has naturally been a major part of my job over the last ten years. We’ve tried to be creative, to not overreach ourselves, and we’ve been cautious about our future: We don’t have tenure, which gives us a certain level of freedom as well.
This model has grown over the course of the last ten years, and it is made possible by the fact that there is recognition of the different curatorial studies’ alumni and their education today, which ten-fifteen years ago there wasn’t. I would say that ten years ago potential funders were deeply suspicious of curatorial schools. Even I was suspicious.
When the education was set up in the early 90s I think there was insecurity about what a curatorial school was, especially since the MA at Bard was set up as an American masters course with its particular validation system – as opposed to the other models of curatorial education in Europe that were set up around the same time, like at deAppel in Amsterdam, École du Magasin in Grenoble and the Royal College of Art in London. Being a masters course, the questions that needed to be asked were: “What is going to be taught, and what do students learn?” meaning “What is it that you accredit?” The course was out of sync with what artists were doing and other models of curatorial practice.
How did you set about changing the education to respond more directly to its surroundings?
It was an international course, but it needed to become even more international. Because ultimately what makes a school successful is building a community of practitioners. I wanted Bard to take some things from what an art school is, while refreshing and re-thinking the course itself.
The place needed a moment of rupture, so I invited curator Maria Lind to run the curatorial programme. She further internationalised the programme and introduced a new form of curating, questioning traditional models as well as thinking a lot about mediation. She made the students think critically about their role as mediators as well as curators. She was re-thinking the theoretical component of the course, which at the time seemed to be devised as a defence mechanism to gain accreditation from the State. I would call it “the Plato to Nato”-model with two classes of Hegel etc. which I would say wasn’t very productive in terms of thinking about art and exhibitions today.
You mentioned other curatorial courses that were set up around the same time as CCS Bard. Has anything changed in relation to them over the years?
Curatorial schools were quite competitive towards each other before, but I think that over the last few years we’ve been able to reach out to other schools to work collaboratively. One example is that we are currently working on a series of conferences in collaboration with the LUMA Foundation in Arles, and we are sharing the private resources we have with schools such as deAppel in Amsterdam, Central Saint Martins and Goldsmiths in London, as well as Valand in Gothenburg. By doing that we are trying to flip the competitive model on its head. The students that go to these courses have already made distinct choices. So the challenge is to make ourselves distinctive to attract students, but also bring everyone together to create a broader community.
The distinguishing factor for CSS Bard could maybe be that you have the Hessel Museum on your campus?
Yes, at the time when I took over there was a proposition to build an art space, and it already had a collection attached to it. I came in at a moment of crisis where the funding might be pulled, and my job was to secure this project. It wasn’t called a museum at the time, but calling it that forced certain things to happen. All of a sudden you had a school with a museum, and a museum with a school. There were challenges to the operation of the place – as there is after huge investments in new buildings, and also the donor had stipulated that the museum would only house the collection she intended to give to Bard.
Throughout the last ten years we’ve worked on integrating the museum and the collection with the educational programme. This has meant critically looking at how the course structure could use the collection as an asset.
Have you been able to maintain the integrity of both the museum and the education?
Throughout the years, we have been thinking about the support mechanisms in the school, so we have put in place researchers within our faculty, and we have emphasised and put resources towards the library and archive. We’ve just expanded the library, and it has grown from 10,000 to 30,000 volumes, connecting it also to our archives and collections storage.
Ultimately the goal has been to have the students make exhibitions on a regular basis on the basis of the collection and with invited artists, involving them in each aspect of exhibition making. They have to engage actively with the collection throughout their education.
The collection we have is idiosyncratic because it was built by an individual. We are still collecting, and the collection is influenced by the students as we usually buy one or two works from their exhibitions each year. They often look at and bring in works from their own generation, and the politics of the work they are looking at is the politics of today, obviously. So that’s a way of refreshing what we do.
Have any of your students criticised the relationship between the school and the museum?
I think all the students are critical, in a positive sense! I don’t think they are being educated into a system of private capital. I do think they are highly aware and in fact interrogate the conditions of the institution and the world in which they work, as they should. But paradoxically, the very private nature of the origins of our collection and the funding of the institution actually gives the students much greater freedom to experiment and in fact be critical. And we have resources that many other institutions don’t have. My attitude to that is “great, let’s use them”. And in terms of other U.S. museums we are probably the least instrumentalised by private capital.
Do the collection and the funding mechanisms of the school mean that your students get involved with the art market?
We are not encouraging the students to collaborate with private galleries. We don’t even include the sector of private galleries in the education. But, as you know, most of the important conversations in a college happen outside of the curriculum, and the art market would be part of the conversations I have with students and graduates outside of the classroom. Of course, we’ve had writer Suhail Malik with us for three years, and he is very interested in the market place and the role of art fairs. But he would approach it from a more socio-political/sociological/theoretical/economic standpoint than from the angle of “a practical guide to financing in the art world”. We are not training people to go into the art market. That’s a clear objective. We have a more theoretical and political impetus in our teaching. The “art world” has changed, and one has to adapt to that and at the same time keep a criticality and distance to it, too.
You mention that the course was out of sync with current artists’ working methods and curatorial practices when you arrived at Bard. Can you elaborate on the changes that you have observed?
The most obvious one is the acceleration of information and exchange via the Internet. This has its pros and cons. The Internet is now a primary research resource. It creates a certain culture that you need to counter or at least question.
What other topics are your students interested in at the moment, apart from curatorial practice and discourse?
A lot of questions of gender arise at Bard: 78% of our students are female. The injustice of pay scales for women curators and career options for female curators, particularly at the beginning of their career, is discussed. It is amazing to me that far less qualified males are hired on a regular basis in institutions across the board, and I know very definitely that women are paid less. I try to raise this issue as often as I can outside of the college, and the responses are often heads to the floor.
These days there are political figures emerging on the national scene in the US, such as the socialist Bernie Sander. And in Norway we have had a huge debate on public versus private funding for the arts this autumn. I was wondering if you could speculate on whether there would be a change for you as a not-for-profit institution if the US veered towards more “socialist” policies?
Well, there would be a big change if the government were to take too much money away from the rich. [laughs] It’s not always the case that public spaces are better maintained by public authorities. In fact, in the US private foundations protect some of the great public spaces. Of course there are things that individuals and foundations will never be able to do, like maintain National Parks, but on a micro level the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the not-for-profits and their role within what one would call public services; something that many in Europe would say should be organised by the government. It is also not the case that public government is always more democratic. It’s still made up of individuals.
Speaking of the impact of individuals in politics: Your last years with the Public Art Fund were also the first years of the business magnate Michael Bloomberg’s time as Mayor in New York. Did this political change influence the move to Bard?
My time at the Public Art Fund started during the years of Rudy Giuliani, and it was very much like a “cat and mouse” game with that administration. I was actually quite close to everyone at Bloomberg, and my experience is that the embrace of power is very different from being in opposition to power. There was a much more antagonistic relation with the Giuliani administration, and the art didn’t have to symbolise anything. However, with the change in administration I was getting questions like “Tom, what does this mean for us?” While I didn’t know what I was doing was “for us”, you know? I didn’t think I was representing the Mayor’s office, in any form whatsoever. I did not want to be a face for the city administration – which, by the way, I thought did a remarkable job. So it’s probably just as well that I left at that moment. There was a heightened instrumentalisation, and art had to stand for something political even if it never did stand for anything political.
One example is Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls (2008). I discussed this work with the artist a long time ago, and it was manifested in a totally different way than we discussed. We talked about it being removed from the city, on the back of Governor’s Island, so that one could only hear the water. But when it was realised it became this spectacle – branded as “ecological”. But there is nothing ecological about pumping water up a scaffold and pouring it down. And on top of that the East River is actually pretty polluted. The press release framed it purely as an “ecological project” in an urban ecology context. It is fine as an agenda for the city of New York, but it’s disastrous for art. It becomes insidious. I don’t think it is because there are malevolent forces, I think it is because you slip into a semiotic mode that you can’t remove yourself from. At one point we had a series of Julian Opie’s Animals, Buildings, Cars and People at City Hall Park in 2004, and the commissioner of Park and Recreations said to me: “this is off-message”. My response was “What’s the message? This is a park, and parks don’t have messages.”
You were central to the development of public art during a period where the role of spectacular art projects within the experience economy was increasingly criticised by the critical left. I guess that – together with biennials – big public projects, like the ones you helped facilitate, were seen as an integrated part of the globalised economy. How did you relate to these issues at the time, and how do you see them today?
An integrated part of the globalised economy? Maybe. Maybe not. I thought many of the projects were actually quite antagonistic and specifically not spectacular. And I was working closely with artists to realise their projects, not mine. If a manhole cover by Lawrence Weiner, or a translucent water tower by Rachel Whiteread is criticised as “being part of the globalised economy”, then I’ve lost the thread of the argument. Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable balloon dog at Frieze New York last year was spectacular, but also a biting satire of the whole system. Big doesn’t mean bad and small doesn’t mean good. But maybe you disagree.