Kevin Buist, ArtPrize’s Director of Exhibitions recently chatted with veteran arts journalist and ArtPrize Seven Juror, Robin Cembalest. Buist and Cembalest discussed the role of social media within the world of contemporary arts journalism, the importance of activism in art, and the huge cultural gaps in global art history that we are slowly filling in.


Kevin Buist (KB): You’ve been in this position to really witness firsthand the shift from print to digital. How do you think arts journalism and arts criticism is handling that generally?

Robin Cembalest (RC): That’s a big question. In recent years we have seen the migration of a lot of print people to the web. There is really good writing across a huge spectrum of venues. You still have your legacy art journals (Art in America, Artforum, etc.), but you also have great writers at many daily newspapers, legacy blogs and magazines, and in the new sector of sites selling art, like Artnet and Artspace.

KB: Would you say there are more opportunities now for arts writers than there were maybe ten years ago?

RC: There used to just be big magazines and there were a lot of zines and smaller magazines, but now one can self-publish. There are a lot of places you can write for. Whether or not you can make a living doing it is whole other question...

KB: You’re really active on social media. How has that changed your experience of viewing artwork—your ability to photograph it and then share it instantly?

RC: I think it definitely makes me remember so much more closely what I’m looking at, because I think about it and I think about what I want to tell the reader about it. It imprints a different way in my brain; if I’m going to write a couple of sentences to accompany an image on Tumblr, for example, I often read a lot of things in order to inform those two sentences.

The negative may be that, say I’m at a show and there is a lot of glass covering work, I may not be paying as much attention because I see I can’t Instagram it, but I am aware of it. Instagram feeds into this desire to share and say, “Hey look everyone, this is cool!” That can be very fulfilling.

KB: How long have you been using Instagram?

RC: I didn’t really want to use Instagram initially, I was already spending a lot of time on Twitter, so at first it was sporadic, but now I use it consistently. I began to really appreciate the different kinds of conversations you have with people whilst sharing—it has this kind of diaristic flow. It’s self-publishing. You interact and meet people over social media.

KB: How is your work with social media informing the consultancy and writing you’re doing now?

RC: In the past the only way to get word to the world was to pitch your stories to an editor; with social media you no longer need that filter. It’s all very much your own voice.

I learned journalism from the ground up. I spent a lot of time poking around Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram—seeing what kind if things people share and what happens to them. Those discoveries inform the consultancy. Conventional wisdom doesn’t necessarily apply to visual art and people get very obsessed with the numbers but it is more important to get the nuance and tone right—“the aboutness,” as I like to say.

Horace Poolaw: Eula Mae Narcomey Doonkeen (Seminole) in the American Indian Exposition Parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1952. Courtesy of the Horace Poolaw Estate.

KB: Your social media approach is interesting because you’re looking at a lot of ancient work from all over the world and blending it with contemporary. It certainly contains more dynamism than some of the other feeds I follow that are focused on only contemporary. Is that simply where your personal interest lay?

RC: I think I am definitely more interested in older and more global stuff. It’s certainly part self-education. I might read a catalog or poke around for a long time when I’m writing about a show.

When I was growing up the art world was mostly focused on America and Europe but what’s happening now is that people are beginning to look at art history not just in terms of nations but in how objects and ideas moved around the world. There are all of these interconnections happening—it’s very interesting to follow that. I like sharing that with people who follow me and draw attention to shows they might not usually go to see.

I think that because there has been a real absence in the pages of art history from many groups that are outside the US and Europe there is a hunger for all this information that is coming out now. For example, some of my Tumblr posts fly against conventional wisdom, because Tumblr posts are supposed to have hardly any writing. Yet one of my most successful posts was about Horace Poolaw, an Indian photographer at the National Museum of the American Indian. Another post was on a show at MoMA [100 Years in Postproduction: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History] where they restored footage of a century-old feature film with a black cast. These posts had big fat paragraphs and tons of links, so what appears to me is that people are really hungry for this kind of content.

Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. 1913. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams

KB: I think it plays into this notion that the more I look at the old art history canon—Art History 101, the photos in those textbooks—that those images might be there because of political machinations and certain accidents of history, as opposed to being the most genius things ever created. There’s this sense that there are big holes; there were entire groups of people doing things that had much—if not more—to say about being human, that just aren’t part of the story.

RC: Right, and that is one of the big trends in art history that these big museum are now thinking about and trying to expand. I tell people, if you go, wander upstairs in the Met around the Asian galleries. Look at the maps and see the movements of objects and styles, see how forms and styles developed. It’s not just about memorizing different times, it’s about learning how these styles evolved in terms of what was going on in the world.

KB: What did you think of this year’s Venice Biennale? I know you have seen a few of the previous ones and I’m wondering how you think it stacks up.

RC: In Art in America I put together a list of highlights of national pavilions and collateral events. There were some very interesting pavilions, including the Belgian pavilion, bringing forward stories from history across the world.

In terms of the main show, given that the theme was the state of the world, there were a disappointingly small number of people who are out there trying to make a difference in the world through their actions. I know it’s hard to show social practice, but there are a growing number of artists who are really out there trying to do something in terms of the environment, in terms of poverty. It would have been interesting to see more of that.

KB: On that topic, it’s then interesting that later in the summer they’re going to host the Creative Time Summit as a part of Biennale, which tends to lean much more in that direction, highlighting artists that are much more active in the world. At the same time, that is just one event in a months-long biennale.

Part of Robin Cembalest's Venice Biennale Highlights: Installation view of Fiona Hall's "Wrong Way Time"; at the Australian Pavilion, Giardini, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Courtesy Australia Council for the Arts.  

KB: You haven’t visited before, but just from what you know about it so far, what is interesting to you about ArtPrize?

RC: Earlier in my career I covered a lot about public art. I recently moderated a public symposium at the Madison Park Conservancy on the theme, “Who best interprets your art in a public setting?” Most of the artists basically said they were really trying to engage the public, and if they even changed just one person’s life, that was the goal of the work. I felt like, that’s true, but maybe a bit disingenuous—don’t you want the catalogue essay and the Art Forum review also? Or is the implication that they’re mutually exclusive?

The art world is a very hermetic world and it’s very interesting, the ways in which this prize has evolved in terms of the art world and the public and the preconceptions and stereotypes on both sides. It is this urban event that’s acting outside—it hasn’t gotten the canonical blessing from the art world, whatever that means. What can I say? I haven’t seen it, I’m very excited though.

Stay tuned for further ArtPrize Seven Juror interviews throughout the lead up to this year's event.

By Kevin Buist on