The Administrative Artist (2003)

Pablo Helguera


The Administrative Artist:  a Statement on Behavioral Museum and Artistic Practice


A few months ago, I was invited by the Carrillo Gil museum in Mexico City to propose an artist project. My proposal was entitled “Administration”, in which I, the artist, would work for a period of time at the museum doing the various administrative chores, from xeroxing to balancing the books, to cleaning the bathrooms to running the meetings at the director’s office and making decisions on the hanging and acquisition of the works. The exhibition would consist in displaying the results of the administrative work that took place in that period of employment. (The project was never realized).

I have spent the full fifteen years or so of a professional artistic life in between the museum work and the artistic practice, to the point that both of them have come close to fuse into one and the same. Through these experiences, I have constantly dealt with the annoying question on how compatible a museum practice is with an artistic one. I have been simultaneously mortified, annoyed, conflicted, and finally fascinated and embracing about the subtle contradictions and ironies between being an artist and working within a museum.  I have attempted to respond to that issue both as a museum programmer ( recently organizing a symposium entitled The Museum as Medium) and as an artist, having created fictional artists, museums, historical contexts and dilemmas of display.


In my view, although the artistic and the administrative practice do tend to always collide, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a necessary aspect of the constant frictions that promote new ways of practicing and thinking about art. Furthermore, I believe that the difference between administrative and artistic practice is more nominal than fully substantial in some respects that I will try to describe.


It must be noted that we basically operate under conventional, and ever-evolving notions on what a museum is, and within this transformation, the relationship between the artist and the museum evolves as well.  Museums are a cultural construct but they are not an end onto themselves. Thus an artist should be able to set the relationship between himself and the institution in his/her own terms. Particularly since the 1960s, with the work of Marcel Broothaers and his fictional Musee d’art Moderne, Department of Eagles, as well as in the works of Daniel Spoerri, the appropriation of the administrative, curatorial, interpretive, political, economic and promotional structure of the museum has become common practice amongst artists.  Places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA (which is basically the work of a single person, David Wilson), the Salon des Fleurus in New York, the Museum in Progress in Vienna, are some of the many current examples of artistic appropriation of the conventional museum model. Other artists like Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, Mark Dion, Michael Asher and many others actively incorporate the language of the museum into their work.


But we don’t have to look only at artists whose subject is the museum to argue that the question about the conflict of different artistic roles in the art world has to do more, with performativity than with actual substance.


We can start by examining the role of the artist. In the complex process of building the myth of an artist, it is not glamorous to imagine the star artist making xeroxes or sending faxes in an office – and this is, without a doubt, an activity that most artists today, even the most famous, have to engage on, as the administration of an individual art career is comparable to the administration of an art museum. Yet we maintain, through the various layers of institutional and commercial protection, the myth of the ethereal artist.  The museum worker, the gallerist, and finally the educator and the security guard, are at the lower end of the echelon of banality in the attainment of the ethereal stardom. Immediacy and availability are at odds with stardom, and the figure of the artist is a product that needs to be carefully protected to the eyes of the public.


Thus it it not surprising as we see that prominent artists today mimic inasmuch as possible, the behavior of glamorous movie or rock stars. This public behavior is critical, because today the public is concerned not only with the images created by the artist, but by the “image” that the artist projects, as if this was necessary for reinforcement to the art. Artistic ‘handlers” have the mission to serve as buffers between the civilian public and the art star. By and large, prominent and not so prominent artists regard the perception of their persona quite seriously (and not without anxiety), and, with only rare exceptions, their demeanor is highly calculated, as if in a politician. Every aspect of the artists’ persona (their background, their ethnicity, their personal history, their nationality, and the way they made it to the top) can be critically important in the evaluation of their work.  Furthermore, artists know that their attitude towards the public can further, or undermine, their future, and for that purpose they select a behaviour, honest or not, that may best suit their work (rebel, intellectual, fashionable star, compassionate guru).


Art is an activity of human elevation, or at least we still regard it as such in a social context, and we expect when we visit a gallery or museum that we will be somehow elevated to a better place from the trivialities of our everyday office lives and the routine of our problems.  When we meet the artist in person, we expect no less than the embodiment of that elevation. If we find that this person may be someone just like us, this may be disorienting.  But we are conditioned to not expect this: artistic biographies, for instance, have the tendency to glorify those moments of the artists that  may show them in more exotic light (re. the recent Frida and Pollock movies).


Yet, regardless to these general perceptions, the boundaries between the institution and the artist are continuously blurred. Today, some of that ambiguity lies in that the institutional representatives like the curators, the museum’s architect, the museum director, the exhibition designer, and even the art collector seek more and more to be in the limelight, slowly stealing the cache of the artist.


On the other hand, and while museums are widely criticized for their increasing corporativization, artists are much less scrutinized for the same reason, yet the artistic practice has more and more developed into the formation of small businesses or corporations. In some cases, single artists like Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney, or Bill Viola, run small production companies of their own that in budgets, staff, funding, and resources are by far superior than many small museums, and it is also in cases like those where it is the institution, not the artist, who is pursuing the other in exchange for an endorsement by the art world.


We all are artists, as Beuys said. What Beuys didn’t say is that we all also are administrators. As far as the art world is concerned, whether we administer our art careers, an art-related job or interest, or an entire museum does not make such a difference when we have something to say and the right means to say it.  Ultimately, the notion of the art world is an artificial one, and with it, every category attached to it is equally artificial. It is not beyond a socioeconomic game that we play, and it almost feels like art happens anyway, in spite of it.  If we agree that the bottom line is the persuasiveness of artistic ideas, categories don’t mean, not will they mean anything in a hundred years. All that it matters are those works and those ideas that will remain, coming from whoever produced them, regardless the role they played in the intricate fabric on our exchange system of understanding and evaluating art.