From Christo’s Gates to the Statue of Liberty, New York is a tough place to compete in the realm of public art. But one organization, Creative Time, has been doing it, boldly, for 33 years, bringing fantastic explosions to the skyline above Central Park, moving images of Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton to MoMA’s facade and a Chinese artist’s quiet intervention — delivered with a pot of water and a Chinese calligraphy brush — to a downtown sidewalk.
At the helm for these projects by Cai Guo-Qiang, Doug Aitken, and Song Dong was Peter Eleey, who left Creative Time in March to become the Walker’s new Visual Arts Curator. Eleey took a moment away from organizing his first show here, a multidisciplinary exhibition of Trisha Brown’s dance and visual art scheduled for April 2008, to discuss his past projects, “magical thinking” in art, and the question of success and failure in a curator’s work.
Your last job was at Creative Time, an organization that since the early 1970s has used public spaces and spaces not often used for art to present temporary installations. This challenges what we traditionally think of as the art-viewing experience.
It’s true, unless we expect art to be shaking up exactly those expectations. There’s a great thing that happens when art surprises us, and that drama can often be easier for artists and arts presenters to create outside a museum. But in some ways the key to surprise is just understanding what people’s expectations are in a given situation, and of course we have all sorts of expectations inside a museum. Though I was working over the last few years largely outside of those institutional frameworks, I gradually became curious about the challenges of curating with those “ interior” expectations in mind.
As seen from New York, what was it about the Walker that you found appealing?
For one, the Walker strives to be “ more than a museum,” and this sense of the institution as something more porous, with fluid boundaries, was very attractive. Most importantly, perhaps, the Walker is known as a place of unfettered experimentation and commitment both to artists and to audiences. So often arts presenters talk about giving artists the space to experiment and try new things, and we forget that the best contemporary museums should also be places where audiences feel they have the opportunity and support to challenge themselves. I think that’s something Kathy [Halbreich, the Walker's director] in particular should be credited with — an even-handed commitment to this kind of experimental risk-taking relationship on both sides of the table.