Renee Vara is an art advisor, professor and curator who lives in New York City. Her passion for art www.varaart.com dates back to her college days. She easily recalls the New York City art scene of the 1990s, what art means today and why contemporary art needs no defense or justification whatsoever. Here’s our cool chat …
MICHAEL: Hi Renee, I am madly passionate about contemporary art. Your website certainly reveals that you are as well. Are you still passionate about it? When did this first happen for you? Your earliest memory?
RENEE: I remember my first Documenta in 1992. I was just out of college. I was looking at artists like Jeff Koons, Rachel Whiteread and especially a David Hammons installation - it was so memorable. I realized the potential of contemporary art to be a communicator of larger political and social issues. As undergraduate and even in the beginning of graduate school, I was studying Italian Baroque art because I loved the intersection of art, religion and politics. Also, the patronage really intrigued me, which in today's world is not far off from mega collectors. Many art world friends told me I should choose to study either Old Masters or Impressionist in order to have a career track in the market (as in art historical circles, contemporary art was still not considered "serious studies”), but a second event also changed my ideas of what art could be - the first "Armory" show which was at the Gramercy Hotel. That show with artists installed in hotel rooms - it was pretty radical to a kid who was Pre-med and Baroque studies.
MICHAEL: Ahh … college days!
RENEE: Sometimes I do get cynical these days, but when I see the art world rise up and rally behind artists like Ai Wei Wei - and see how art can still have meaning beyond commodity and social indicator in society - to try to create real political change, I become familiar again with that idealism I had when first seeing those two shows.
MICHAEL: There's that word again. "Idealism." Despite reality, we might not have art, were it not for idealism. No? I've found that when idealism is in question, money (usually lack thereof) is somehow part of the equation.
RENEE: Perhaps when I was just starting out in early 90s - most people involved in contemporary art had day jobs - the art world was very much leery of the "value" of contemporary art. So when people like Kenny Schachter did roves, armory "fair" didn't charge, yeah perhaps. But now - when everyone is obsessed with art tracking - seems that idealism itself when packaged with art is really a market driver. I am not clear on your question, but certainly everyone knows Ai Weiwei is incredibly well-off and seems - especially in China and the Asian art market - where economic success is really a barometer for artistic success (much different perhaps than where you are speaking from, the European avant-garde tradition or anti-art movements of America) - good art in a lot of countries IS something that is economically successful. I myself am not biased against or for art as commodity – it’s a reality that has long collapsed. I also, because I have studied Renaissance history, know that it’s not that much different now than when Leonardo, Raphael or Michelangelo were alive. A really great book which makes our notions that now is SO much different than art in say the 15th or 16th centuries is "Renaissance Rivals" by Rona Goffen. What a brilliant piece of history, but also juicy narrative of what it was like for all of those "three greats" to be competing for patronage and prestige. It sounds pedantic of me, but really, I don't believe it’s any worse now than then. It has just changed as the commodity value is more transparent and purified - but certainly the Medici were interested in art for political and social profit. No doubt … my idealism comes rather from a work which you can't shake, in this overly saturated world. It’s one which sticks as well as an experience - much like me hang-gliding - is one which is etched in my memory. It’s the nonverbal experience of what it can be and how it can play with your memory. That's the idealism I speak of.
MICHAEL: And so, given all that, what do you actually do at varaart? I know from looking at the site, but how do you apply your idealism to what you do every day? This is a tough time for everyone, let alone the art industry.
RENEE: I am private advisor, a professor at NYU and Sotheby's and I publish INPUT journal. The advisory work for clients and companies, which sometimes is not "doing something" to feed my idealism, actually does, because clearly being an adjunct and sharing knowledge is not a profitable endeavor in the art world. Spending time educating and discussing critical issues is not even, especially in the New York art world, what most people want to bother with if they work in the "marketplace." It’s a forum for me to explore and discuss issues and well, I generally like it, so I do it even though clearly I could spend my time in more "profitable" ways - or could focus my educational abilities on pushing product like most do. And with INPUT I fund the journal so artists, critics and interesting people can explore in a noncommercial setting. INPUT is bi-annual and thus I publish it twice a year, choose a creative director, and then fund it. Because we don't have advertisers, there are no limits. Our last one - Second Skin - was attempted to be censored by the Canadian printer due to concerns over US customs - this didn't become an issue. When you have economic freedom, at least in the US, you really can meet idealistic goals. Everyone naysays artists making so much money these days - but one element, which a good friend first coined - is that “form follows funds.” Economic achievement can allow artists to reach idealistic levels - again, not much different from the Old Masters. So basically I run my practice with a non-profit and for-profit arm. A bit of art, Robin Hood style.
MICHAEL: Do you think NYC is still the center of the art world? Does the art world need a capital city?
RENEE: Yes I do. We can read about Asian auction market reports, talk about volume of sales, and the new BRICs. But even if these new statistics are true - auction volume is just one element to the art world. There are the galleries, the museums, the collectors - New York is such an amazing confluence of all these factors which create a landscape. I don't think NY has to be this - in fact it’s quite amazing to me that no matter how much I travel, where I travel to, artists themselves want to have a gallery and show in New York. So I would expect many more artists eschewing this kind of provincial art world limitation - yet this still is an incredibly aspirational city. Even for collectors - I am amazed that if they are from other cities in the U.S. - they still look first to New York people as the market makers, as authorities, as arbiters. It’s not just the commercial art center, it’s really I think the cultural community of artists, curators, gallerists, critics - all here. I think those people have become itinerant - but yet their base camp is here, even if they live out of a suitcase. Somehow, no matter how mobile and global the art world becomes, people want to be associated with New York. I think that type of consensus of sentiment and psychology of art world people make it the center.
MICHAEL: Isn't it such a stark dichotomy how the blue chip market is on fire right now given the rise of the super wealthy in China and Russia and yet, so many incredibly gifted, living artists are struggling?
RENEE: Well yes it is. I guess because I came from a generation of artists, as I said, EVERYONE had day jobs. I have a lot of empathy for the situation now. But I was doing a lot of curating in the midst of the "emerging art" craze before the market popped for them. I think for the new generation of artists, this is particularly difficult because they have such different expectations. In early 90s, many artists were artists not as a cool choice and they didn't expect to be celebrities or wealthy - they expected to choose a different non-traditional creative life. Certainly, if they went to graduate school someone bludgeoned them with the notion they were "not ready" for the MoMA until their late 60s. No one had solo shows out of school. I don't say this to suggest my generation is better than now, but just to suggest that the perspective of artists, as they now say in China "Get rich, make art." I mean most artists, curators, and well even gallerists didn't expect to be art stars within 2 years. So I think a bit of this extreme expectation that the new generation has inherited- including berating themselves of having a day job - it is not healthy. It makes them have such high expectations, they just want to quit. Being a creative is not an easy path - no matter what role you play in the art world. It’s not being a lawyer. So you have to be ready to sustain it anyway you can because it’s not just a comfortable job. Unlike what Matisse had - "art being like a comfortable arm chair" for most it is a struggle. So many young artists crashed in the emerging art economy because they were so young, immature or aesthetically unprepared for all that pressure. It also doesn't fare well for the art - which is this "fast track" which doesn't allow for exploration, and yes, sometimes some failures. If you look at Picasso's corpus or any major prolific artist, they just don't get it all market perfect. So while I think it was great the opportunities afforded out there for young artists - I think they have exponentially increased since the 80s or 90s and thus I think perhaps this more dialed down career trajectory – it’s tougher, but it will hopefully allow young artists to find their way. If for no other reason, it will keep young artists from entering the art world for the wrong reasons. I just think people need a lot of conviction to create great art, run a powerful gallery program or curate amazing shows - and these economic conditions require such.
MICHAEL: Wow. Yes. And yet, we live in this sports and entertainment obsessed, visually over-stimulated culture and ART, the most visual thing out there, struggles because many, if not most people, feel they have to have art backgrounds to even appreciate it. I sometimes want to shake people and say, "Wake Up!"
RENEE: Well, I think that more and more people are trusting themselves. In the contemporary art world, people are pretty arrogant that they can understand everything without any effort. I think this is part of art - any good art takes some effort - not necessarily formal education or training - just effort. The effort to give something a second look, consideration or a chance to experience something unexpected. Too many people nowadays, they expect everything spoon fed and superficial interaction. If there is anything I am hardcore about – it’s that. What maybe makes something art - no matter what the context - is its ability to shape our outside world into a visual language which may not be immediately accessible. I am not into the current 60 second fashion within art - see it, get it.
MICHAEL: Speaking of that, we're seeing a lot more living art, event-oriented, participatory type exhibitions - the type of things that are sometimes suspect in the eyes of laymen. What do you think about this trend?
RENEE: I think it’s really not a new trend - performance art has been a very active area of art making practice for over a century. It was just, especially in the 70s, positioned as anti-art. And now it has institutional support and is now in vogue to exhibit. I think that is great - so many performance artists couldn't sustain themselves. So if fashion makes it finally have a platform so viewers think it’s new or newly challenging, well, I think that's all good. I have always loved non-materialist art forms - what's amazing is how the art market has now even commodified that. As for those who are critical or leery, well, I think they have and always existed. That's part of art - and one can't build a consensus around what the outside world thinks. Then it wouldn't be art, it would be market research or maybe American politics. Art shouldn't be made from a position of trying to please everyone - so I guess I just don't think artists should worry about justifying what they do. Perhaps explaining it and their intentions, but not justifying its right to exist or their right to make it. I don't think art in any manifestation should have to play a particular role - so let the naysayers exist! Maybe a great dialogue will come out of it and well that in itself suggests it might be worthy. It’s the elements in culture no one pays attention to - those perhaps should defend why they exist. Certainly, if it doesn't affect or offend maybe it shouldn't exist. Art existentialism.
MICHAEL: Tell me about "Second Skin" and your publishing projects.
RENEE: INPUT is a journal which as mentioned, I founded and published. So far, we have published four of them, which are executed as limited editions, and are really exhibitions in a book that have appeared in NY Armory, Art Book Fair, Printed Matter. We never follow the same format, each one is created around the central concept – and we don’t have any commercial pressures because we don’t have any advertisements. The next one is likely to be funded by the Spanish Consulate and is called, “Blockhouse” – including a lot of artists who participated in the Havana Biennale. “Second Skin” was the 4th Edition of INPUT and was curated by Victoria Bartlett, the designer, who has a particular fascination with the body as her label – VPL is short for Visible Panty Line. We invited 16 artists to submit – a really amazing group of intergenerational artists - from Collier Schorr to Ugo Rondinone to Genesis. You can view here http://inputjournal.org/journal.html. The book was censored by a Canadian printer due to its content as they felt the U.S. Customs authority would perceive it as problematic. They had issues with John Giorno and Jessica Mitrani’s work. Clearly, I would never agree to change content of an artist to meet some custom agent's idea of what is and not 'appropriate content in art' – we were shocked this could still happen. So we brought it into the U.S. and found an amazing firm which printed and handmade each book. It is pretty incredible. People kind of ooze over it when they see and feel it – it is hand bound in latex.
MICHAEL: Finally Renee, What's your best argument for art and why it deserves a larger audience? What does contemporary art do for you?
RENEE: I think we don’t make arguments in our society for music, for sports, for literature, for politics, for theater, for design, for writing – so I really don’t believe I have to make an argument. Art is simply culture – and now it’s the most apparent and one of the best conduits to communicate culture in a global landscape. Like sports (yes I know art world people are cringing at my analysis) but does anyone at this moment suggest we need to make an argument for the Olympics? Art isn’t limited like other forms of culture because you don’t need language. So that’s my argument, it so elemental it doesn’t need an argument. As for me, I can’t begin to explain what it does for me. It is so embedded in my ethos, because everything to me can be art, even disciplines like science, when executed with creativity, can serve as art. I just can’t and I don’t think really most people in society, can parse it out. Even their Nike shoes have some elements of artistry – it actually is amazing design that came from Greek art – that no one really can do without art. It’s everywhere – from your gum packets to your iPad – people who insist it should be outside the everyday just want to use very traditional and very anachronistic definitions of what art should be, not what it actually is. And why burden art with a particular function? Music doesn’t. Literature doesn’t. Art doesn’t.
MICHAEL: Well said! Thanks Renee. This has been really great.