The entrance to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA) was bathed in an eerie purple light for their 2014 exhibition “Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns,” curated by Claire C. Carter. Against the wall glowed Jenny Holzer’s 2010 work, “Holzer’s Ribs”, eleven curved LED signs in a bright, visual chorus, which scrolled through lines of text from various declassified US government documents. The installation was one of 37 works which examined ideas of spying and surveillance in our contemporary world, uncovering the secrecy and disclosure found in government operations and other high-powered agencies.
The Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award gave SMOCA the opportunity to produce the museum-wide exhibition, which was only the second time the institution had mounted a show of this scale. “Covert Operations” presented a deep exploration of the subject matter, allowing audiences to fully grasp the themes presented by thirteen visual artists and collaboratives.
“Receiving the award allowed us to really think about using up the entire museum, and explore the idea in greater detail,” said Tim Rodgers, former director of SMOCA. “I think it also allowed ‘Covert Operations’ to be presented with more emotional depth and intellectual heft. During the exhibition’s run you were really able to experience this topic. By the time you left the museum you were well-versed in this notions of surveillance, spying, and counter-spying.”
While planning the exhibition, Rodgers didn’t believe the exhibition would receive funding from the local or national government due to its themes. In order to make the large-scale exhibition a possibility, he looked towards other sources that might support a more controversial exhibition.
“We needed to work with a foundation that thought outside the box and was willing to take a risk by supporting an exhibition that would shake up how people were looking at this issue of surveillance,” said Rodgers. “We found the Tremaine Foundation, and appreciated that they were willing to recognize that not everybody would agree with what was presented, but would appreciate the opportunity to be engaged in the conversation.”
Since 1998, the Tremaine Foundation has granted awards to curators in order to challenge preconceived frameworks. One of the main focuses is on documentation, which preserves each funded exhibition as a source of study both within and outside of the institution. The award has not only opened the minds of the public to challenging ideas over the last 20 years, but also shifted the ways institutions consider themselves as a platform for both local and international audiences.
After his time at SMOCA, Rodgers was hired at The Wolfsonian—Florida International University where he still serves as director. His appointment occurred just after the institution had received the award, allowing him to experience back-to-back exhibitions funded by the foundation. The museum’s exhibition “Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern,” curated by Christian Larsen, explored how the Philodendron plant has influenced art, design, and architectural realms over the years, while also digging into the history of the migration from its native habitat to homes in the United States and Europe.
“Philodendron, like Covert Operations, was a very large-scale, large concept show,” said Rodgers. “The Tremaine money allowed us to explore this topic during a really wide course of time, which normally we would not be able to do, and would not have attempted. That set the show apart from many of the others that we have done.”
The award’s first recipient, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, also used the grant to expand outside of their traditional exhibition parameters. The 2000 exhibition “Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art and the Millennium,” curated by Christian Eckart, Osvaldo Romberg, and Harry Philbrick explored how several contemporary artists examine religion and its traditions, focusing on Jewish and Christian methodologies. The exhibition produced several off-site installations housed in three local churches and one synagogue, and also built a chapel within the exhibition’s own walls. “Faith” engaged the surrounding community on their own terms, inviting the audience to access contemporary art by participating through their own beliefs and backgrounds.
“We needed to work with a foundation that thought outside the box and was willing to take a risk by supporting an exhibition that would shake up how people were looking at this issue of surveillance.”
“By engaging thoughtfully with religious issues we invited different churches to come and hold their services in the museum as part of the exhibition,” said former Museum Director and Curator Harry Philbrick. “There was a little chapel that an artist had built within the exhibition that really brought a lot of people into the museum who wouldn’t have come in otherwise. In some ways that was an unconscious first step in the direction towards the kind of work that is very prevalent now, working to make art engage with social issues and people that lie outside of the art world.”
These strategies of engagement influenced many other shows at the Aldrich during his time as director, including “Bike Rides: The Exhibition,” which presented bicycle design alongside fine art that incorporated bike parts. The exhibition drew an audience of cyclists and bike enthusiasts in addition to contemporary art fans that might have visited the museum regardless of the exhibition’s theme.
The former Aldrich Museum director points to his work on “Faith” as a formational curatorial experience that continues to influence his thoughts on community outreach in his role as Founding Director of Philadelphia Contemporary.
This long-term impact is also seen institutionally at the Renaissance Society, which received the award in 2006 for its exhibition “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” curated by then Associate Curator and Director of Education, Hamza Walker. The exhibition addressed the creation and deconstruction of racial identity, providing a unique position in the on-going contemporary art dialogue surrounding the cultural production of race. The experimentation seen in this formative exhibition encouraged discussion long after its close.
“‘Black Is, Black Ain’t’ had an impact on our institutional attitude,” says Solveig Øvstebø, the Renaissance Society’s current Executive Director and Chief Curator. “The institution is like a muscle: it gets better and stronger with each project it undertakes, and ‘Black Is, Black Ain’t’ certainly has bolstered our confidence to deal with complex issues head-on and further fueled our desire to do so.”
The award’s traveling stipend supported travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, both providing further context for the works included in the exhibition, as well as more attention for the Renaissance Society outside of its hometown of Chicago. Like previous award recipients, the grant also provided funds for extensive documentation of the exhibition. For “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” the Renaissance Society specifically chose to record and make publicly available all related lectures and panels which remain online today.
“When I arrived at the Ren in 2013 the BIBA catalogue was just about ready to be published, and this book was a very important aspect of the project, in that it expanded the inquiry undertaken in the exhibition through scholarly texts, and created a permanent record of what had taken place here,” said Øvstebø. “We planned a symposium to coincide with the book launch, and revisiting the topics and questions five years later proved just how relevant the conversation continued to be and how it had shifted and progressed in the interim.”
Whether the award helped an institution tap into a new audience like “Faith,” dig deeply into a controversial topic like “Covert Operations,” or prompt a discussion that extended years into the future like “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” the award continues to provide curators the ability to expand their ideas further than other awards might support. The award not only impacts institutions, but curators themselves, removing limitations so an exhibition can exist far beyond a museum’s walls.
“This is exactly the kind of grant we need in contemporary art,” said Øvstebø. “It is exceedingly generous, and it really opens up possibilities for the institution and the curator. Grants often place limitations or expectations on us, which don’t always go together with producing ambitious artistic expressions. The opportunities these grants offer truly align with the uncompromising and free approach that we take to working with artists.”