Part networking opportunity, part reunion, part art fanboy/ fangirl convention, the College Art Association’s annual conference is an overwhelming four-day marathon of panels, presentations, discussions, speeches, and meetings. Not to mention the book fair, the interview coaching, the MFA recruitment, and the off-site gallery tours and opening night party.

By Blair Murphy

With panels ranging from The Experience of the Studio: Master-Pupil Relationships in Europe and China, 1400-1700 to Not I: The Desire of the Nonsubject Queer, the conference is an amazing overview of current scholarly and artistic practices across the fields of art history, contemporary theory, curatorial practice, and studio art. Name a continent, century, or art movement and there was probably someone talking about it at some point during the conference.

As a first time attendee I learned, amongst other things, that International Art English is even more opaque when spoken and that four days of sessions, from 9:30am to 7pm is enough to exhaust anyone, even someone whose pulse quickens at the thought of panels like Art in the Age of High Security and Cultural Negotiations of the “Readymade”. In the interest of summarizing a packed four days, filtered through my own particular viewpoint and vexing inability to be in more than one place at a time, what follows is a very brief look at what I enjoyed about the conference.

1. Conversations between artists, curators, art historians, and theorists bringing their different perspectives to a shared context or set of experiences.

In my experience, the most coherent sessions were those where the panel participants shared enough mutual ground to segue into a productive conversation. This was the case with Re-framing Post-Black, a session exploring the history of and fallout from Freestyle, a consequential 2001 exhibition curated by Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the catalogue, Golden described the 28 African-American artists in the exhibition as “post-black”, arguing that they were “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.”

The CAA session included artists Kori Newkirk and Shinique Smith, who were both included in Freestyle, Kalup Linzy, whose work was included in Frequency, a later Studio Museum exhibition of emerging African-American artists, Naima J. Keith, a curator at the museum, and Tavia Nyong’o, from New York University and was devoted to looking back at the dialogue triggered by the exhibition.

While the artists gave a general introduction to their work and place in the exhibition, it also gave Newkirk and Smith a chance to discuss their own, somewhat conflicted feelings about the show. As Newkirk pointed out during the session, the exhibition was an important milestone in his career, but also had repercussions that still affect the way his work is viewed. Newkirk’s presentation was tongue in cheek – he stated that he was still waiting to see a panel on post-whiteness and displayed an image of Michael Jackson as a potential example of post-blackness. At the same time, his humor communicated the frustration he feels at still having his work identified, twelve years later, with a curatorial premise he isn’t entirely comfortable with. As an arts administrator and curator, it was a good reminder of the complex and sometimes conflicted relationships between artists and curators and as someone who was familiar with but didn’t see the original Freestyle exhibition, it was valuable to hear multiple, often conflicting, perspectives on the exhibition and its premise.

2. Enjoying the slight confusion that ensues during a session with panelists who interpret the session’s title in vastly different ways.

The Artist as Ethicist: Who is Responsible? represented the other end of the spectrum, featuring a disparate group including artists Jeffrey Gibson and Dread Scott, critic Martha Schwendener, and curator Sara Reisman, Director of New York’s Percent for Art program (and co-curator of Contain, Maintain, Sustain, co-sponsored by WPA, Washington Sculptors Group, and Artisphere). They all brought their own perspectives and expectations of how ethics overlaps with their own role as an artist, writer, or curator and while their individual contributions were enlightening, they approached the topic in vastly different ways.

Sara Reisman discussed the delicate balance required of public arts administrators trying to uphold artistic freedom while also considering community concerns about public space. Jeffrey Gibson, a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor talked about working with traditionally trained Native craftspeople and the importance of acknowledging their work and their training as artists when he works with them. Dread Scott began by showing a video of a performance piece and discussed the ethics of participatory work that’s meant to create discomfort for the audience, but also discussed the political content of his work more broadly and eventually veered into a pitch for a new documentary about the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. I don’t think the last part was meant as a performance piece (but I could be wrong). The first audience question came from an attendee who had expected the panelists to address the ethics of art preservation.

That said, I was happy to have learned about Jeffrey Gibson, an artist I wasn’t familiar with before and Reisman’s experiences with Percent for Art felt relevant to the issues WPA faces in much of its programming.  In some ways, the session was a more accurate representation of the art world’s divergent experiences, varied opinions, and unexpected personalities than some of the more tightly organized academic panels.

3. Practical advice on very real issues faced by artists and arts organizations

On the more practical side of the spectrum, the National Coalition Against Censorship sponsored the session Art Institutions Facing Controversy: Fear, Self-Censorship, and the Commitment to Curatorial and Artistic Freedom. In addition to discussing several recent controversies, including the removal of work by artist Wafaa Bilal from an exhibition at Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute, the panelists provided a short document outlining best practices for museums and arts institutions managing controversies that was put together by a working group in advance of the conference. The brief but useful document covers how to prepare in advance for potential controversies and what to do if a complaint is made and the press starts calling.

4. Learning about innovative new projects

While CAA certainly has its fair share of historically oriented sessions, the conference also offers the opportunity to catch up on current trends and innovations. The session Pieces and Bits: Hybrid Art that Combines Physical Forms with Internet Components featured artists, theorists, and gallerists who are all creating and examining new platforms for web-base and new media art. Robert Hult, the co-founder of Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery, described that gallery’s foray into exhibiting and monetizing internet art, During’s first season, the website premiered new work by emerging and established artists in the form of two-week-long online solo and group exhibitions. The exhibitions, which highlighted work by artists who engage with and create work for the internet, were accompanied by events at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, a physical gallery space in New York’s Lower East Side.’s second season, bearing the title Klaus_eBooks, will be devoted to publishing and distributing a new series of artist ebooks.

These four anecdotes are a tiny snapshot of my experiences at CAA. Just a few of the other things happening during the conference: CUNY Queens MFA candidates staged an intervention in a hotel room, artist Pablo Helguera presented A General Theory of Last Night (a staged panel using actors) and CAA President, Anne Collins-Goodyear (also well known to Washingtonians as Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of WPA’s 2009 OPTIONS Exhibition) presented awards to Ellsworth Kelly, Hal Foster, Claire Bishop,  TJ Clark, Martha Rosler, and Elaine Sturtevant, among others during the conference’s opening night Convocation.

The 2014 conference takes place in Chicago, making attendance a little more difficult. Travel and registration costs add up, but CAA offers some travel grants for graduate students and PhD candidates.  If you do have the opportunity to attend, I would definitely recommend it - just pace yourself, drink lots of water, and let me know how it goes!

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March 21, 2013