Berns: Chika, you have opened discussion about an issue that concerns us greatly since like the BM, the Fowler cannot be defined easily as an “art” museum or an “ethnology” museum, so we fall in the hybrid category Chika describes. Starting in 1971 we were called a “cultural history” museum, which aptly captured our approach to expressive culture even if the subjects of our exhibitions and publications have always been the arts of Africa, the Pacific, Asia and the Americas. In 2006 we changed our name to the Fowler Museum at UCLA in an effort to reflect changes in the our programming and to remove a restrictive categorization that was at odds with a shift to showing more work by contemporary international artists. We hoped that by eliminating this singular classification we could allow what we do and its eclecticism to build a distinctive identity for us within the museum landscape in Los Angeles and beyond. We also hoped to underscore our identity as a museum with a global focus and a history of transgressing boundaries—between the local and the global, fine art and popular art, the gallery and the street, and the historical and the contemporary. Suffice it to say, old identities die hard, especially when the campus has made it nearly impossible to remove the old lettering of our name from the front of our building!
Our hybrid identity has certainly had an impact on visitor expectations. We have worked hard to expand our audience’s definition of African art, and no doubt our more “traditional” audiences and those who frequent contemporary art museums understand and contextualize the work of contemporary African artists differently. Moreover, I am sure that these issues of definition and expectation have effected how artists themselves feel about showing at the Fowler. I have two anecdotes to explain the complexities of reception and categorization. When the El Anatsui: Gawu traveling exhibition was offered to U.S. venues after its successful run in Gainesville, I booked it immediately for the Fowler, having been dazzled by the new metal tapestries that were beginning to appear in so many major museums in an effort to “contemporize” African galleries. I also knew that El’s work would resonate with the Fowler’s extensive collections of Ghanaian kente and their fairly recent display and interpretation in Wrapped in Pride (1999). While we sensed that El was inclined to minimize these connections, we felt these associations could only add to the richness and layering of meanings visitors could take from the work. El seemed quite content to be exhibiting at the Fowler. The exhibition opened to large crowds and great enthusiasm, and a strong showing from our loyal audiences interested in a wide range of African arts. Martin Barlow, who had curated the show and traveled to each of its venues, felt ours was the most sympathetic and beautiful installation to date. Our lack of a “white cube” environment meant the metal works could shimmer and sparkle in ways only a darker and more dramatic space could allow. We opened Gawu in April 2007 but it wasn’t until June that the LA contemporary art scene “awakened” to El’s work. This was of course due to the sensation he caused at the Venice Biennale, which I attended. On the steps of one of the pavilions, I ran into one of our LA critics who said to me breathlessly, “Marla, have you seen the amazing work of this African artist?” I had to tell him that not only had I seen the work but at that very moment a solo exhibition of El’s work was at the Fowler Museum! He of course reviewed our exhibition as soon as he returned as if he was the first to “discover” it in his own backyard. The buzz about El in the press and in the art world yielded some of the highest attendance figures we had had in many years. It became the “must see” exhibition of the summer. But, as is so often the case, it took the validation of the international art world to propel El to the forefront despite his long career as an artist. It is hard to say whether an art world discovery would have occurred locally had El’s work been shown instead at the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Hammer Museum. It seems unlikely to me that their curators would have assumed the risk.
The second anecdote concerns our hosting the 2010 exhibition, Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Like El, Nick was at the cusp of stardom, having gained a reputation for his remarkable “soundsuits.” A blogger, Claudine Ise, who had been an assistant curator at the Hammer, wrote when she learned that the show would come to the Fowler, “My quibble is with what seems a questionable location of Cave’s work in terms of ‘material culture,’ when it is really better understood in terms of contemporary artistic practice.” This revealed a lot to me about “art world” expectations—narrow and elitist and without a broader understanding of the multiple influences and experiences an artist could bring to his or her practice. My response was simply, “Why not the Fowler?” What could we add to break free of prescriptive expectations, to give audiences the freedom to draw their own associations from Cave’s work and its obvious and oft-noted resonances with masquerade, ritual, transformation, and other dynamic forms of global performance. Showing his work at the Fowler opened up far more possibilities than a “white cube” might have closed down. Again, this exhibition broke attendance records with a culminating evening event drawing more than 6000 people over three hours who saw the exhibition and experienced the soundsuit “invasions [performances]” we had staged. The attention and impact of both these shows have expanded the Fowler’s identity and profile. It may just be that possessing a hybrid and fluid identity is a benefit rather than a liability, freeing us from the hegemony of singular discourses that can mire institutions and artists with fixed expectations.