USA Visual Arts Panel for 2008

Valerie Cassel Oliver

Curator, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX

Aimee Chang

Director, Academic and Residency Programs, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA

Adam D. Weinberg (Chair)

Alice Pratt Brown Director, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Hamza Walker

Director of Education and Associate Curator, The Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL

Daniel Joseph Martinez

Artist and USA Broad Fellow 2007, Los Angeles, CA

Statement by Hamza Walker

On July 4, 2008, exactly a week after my service on a United States Artists panel, Senator Jesse Helms died. Ironically United States Artists arguably owes its very existence to the man who initiated the so-called culture wars, a decade-long series of controversies spanning from the 1989 scandals surrounding photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe to the 1999 uproar over Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung in a painting of the Virgin Mary included in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Needless to say, a Helms obituary is not forthcoming on USA’s website, which instead credits as its inspiration a far less colorful source, namely, a comprehensive report on support for artists published in 2003 by the Urban Institute. The extent to which the culture wars are tacitly rather than openly acknowledged as part of USA’s founding narrative suggests that those conflicts are behind us, out of sight if not quite out of mind.

Unapologetically peer-review-based, the process of selecting USA Fellows was a straightforward affair. The panel clocked in at 9:00 a.m. and clocked out at roughly 4:30 p.m. with nary a bone of contention over a pool of artists that was everything plus the kitchen sink. This would allow for splitting hairs between, say, senior figures and established artists, and between emerging but established and just plain emerging artists. Pluralism would be too tidy a word to describe the more than 100 artists who were considered. The only thing that was consistent was in fact the quality. And it wasn’t simply a matter of good apples versus good oranges, but gooseberries versus kiwis, or cantaloupes versus prickly pears. There was conceptual work of the most rigorous order and American naive painting. There was unbridled zaniness, calculated zaniness, and garden-variety zaniness. There was no-punches-pulled politics, and there was formalism for formalism’s sake. Questions of race, gender, and age were ultimately folded into, if not outright overshadowed by, the eclectic nature of the work.

Given the heterogeneous nature of the applicant pool, “diversity” need not have been an explicit mandate. At the end of the day, when the list of finalists was drawn up, there was no mention of race, age, career level, or gender. It was only over the issue of region that diversity reared its head. My sense, however, is that the burgeoning network of regional artist awards will make this anything but a systemic problem.

With a name to live up to, United States Artists, full of verve and gusto, has embarked on a challenge born of what was once a raw nerve. The organization, however, supports artists out of a belief in what they contribute to society and not as a restitutional measure for the loss of government support for individual artists. Independent of USA’s efforts, the central question raised by the culture wars remains unanswered: could the government, through direct support to artists, champion artistic speech in a fashion robust yet neutral enough to be said to critically reflect this country’s broad range of values? And at the heart of this question is yet another, more fundamental one: to what extent does or can peer review reflect public interest in arts funding? USA, however, is not accountable for questions of national cultural policy. Its mission is to fund artists—plain, simple, and direct, no ifs or ands (there may be some butts, however). Even though privatizing direct support to artists is a conservative’s dream come true insofar as it gets the government out of the arts, the folks at United States Artists have proven fearless in letting those ideological chips fall where they may. So say it loud—I’m private and I’m proud.