November 10, 2005
The first trip Emerson Jacobson made out of the house, at 7 days old, was to see German artist Wolfgang Laib sift pollen for an art project he was making at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. It was the first of many art happenings, openings and exhibits, from Japan to Italy to Australia, that Emerson attended. Emerson, now 5 years old, helped break down one of the more obscure barriers in the contemporary art world. Following his lead, parents are now more inclined to bring their young children along to gallery openings and museum shows.So it is especially irksome for Emerson’s mother, Aspen Art Museum director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, to hear the assertion that she is callous regarding children’s participation in art. But Zuckerman has heard just that – or more accurately read it, in numerous letters to the editor of local newspapers – since it was revealed last month that the Art Museum had canceled its Valley Kids show. Valley Kids, a 25-year-old spring tradition at the museum, featured work by hundreds of local schoolchildren in the museum galleries. Among the more stinging passages, which seems burned into Jacobson’s memory, claimed that the museum director – and mother of two – “would never know the smile of joy on a young child’s face.””I single-handedly changed the way kids were allowed to come to the museum in Berkeley, just by bringing my kids to the openings,” said Jacobson, whose youngest child, daughter Oleana, turns 2 this week. “I’m a pioneer, or a role model, in letting people know you can have a career and a family in the museum world. I’m one of the first of my generation of curators to have children. Anyone who knows me has seen me with my kids, looking at art.”Jacobson arrived in Aspen in July, after six years as curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, with three immediate goals in mind. (Drawing the ire of a few handfuls of letter-writers by eliminating a long-standing art exhibition was not among those goals.) The first item on her agenda was to expand and reorganize the museum staff, which stood at just five full-time employees under her predecessor, Dean Sobel. The staff now comprises 11 full-time and four part-time employees, and jobs and office arrangements have been shifted for enhanced efficiency.Task No. 2 was to rebuild the board of trustees. In four months, Jacobson has drafted seven new board members, accompanied by pledges to increase their annual contributions beyond those of the trustees they replaced. In addition to the financial boost, Jacobson says the board got a lift in both experience and prestige. The board, according to Jacobson, is now the place to be, on a level with the historically more prestigious national council.
The third pressing item was, in Jacobson’s words, “to highlight the program and focus on the program and make it as succinct and comprehensible and clear as possible.” That meant putting the emphasis on “all contemporary art, all the time.” And that, in turn, meant cutting the Valley Kids show. (The show, under the same name, has been picked up by the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts.) When I asked Jacobson in her office if the museum would be reduced in that mission by continuing Valley Kids, she hesitated, gave a grim smile, and nodded her head.”I think we’re an educational institution. And we decided we didn’t think the Valley Kids show was educational,” she said. Jacobson added that the termination of Valley Kids had been raised by the museum board and leadership long before she arrived, and that she engaged in long discussions with the board about the decision. Among the information she provided the board was that Valley Kids occupied a third of the time of the museum’s education coordinator, and that research showed that many of the people who attended the show never returned to the museum. Valley Kids, she concluded, had “run its course.””I was hired to take the museum to the next level,” continued Jacobson. “Our stated goal, approved by the board, is to be the best midsize contemporary art museum in America. And that means having the best exhibitions. I think that’s a really attainable goal. But it means we have to be prudent and specific about every choice we make. From our programs to our exhibits, to how we treat our visitors, to our graphics, to our fund-raising system.”In eliminating Valley Kids, which allowed artists as young as preschool age (or their parents) to claim that they showed on the same walls as de Kooning and Warhol, the Art Museum raises the specter of elitism. One of the common threads that ran through the letters criticizing the decision was that tossing Valley Kids would mean alienating a good-sized segment of the museum audience with it. But Jacobson is of the opinion that the work of the significant artists of the day is not just better than kids’ art, but just as accessible.”That totally goes against my philosophy,” said Jacobson of the idea that contemporary art is for the select few. “My philosophy is we’re here to serve the community. That what we have is for everyone. And that what we show is our contemporaries – people who are watching the news, reading the papers, traveling, living and breathing as we are today. And the issues they’re addressing in their work are the same things we talk about around the dinner table at home. Despite the fact that some of the work, on the surface, may take a nontraditional form.
“I’m all for art for the people. To be portrayed as a child-hating elitist – that’s so not who I am.”In fact, well before the brouhaha over Valley Kids, Jacobson had events in the works meant to “bring art to the people and the people to art” – one of her favorite phrases. One audience she has shrewdly targeted is skiers: Jacobson has arranged for all Aspen Skiing Co. lift tickets this year to bear an image by Los Angeles-based artist Yutaka Sone, titled “Ski Madonna” and bearing the downhill-skiing likeness of Christy Sauer, the museum’s annual fund manager. Sone is also the creative mind behind “Mt. 66,” a happening set for Feb. 19 that will have a helicopter transport a pair of 8-foot dice from the museum grounds to Buttermilk for a roll down the halfpipe.The midspring time slot previously occupied by Valley Kids will be taken by two new programs designed both for interaction, and to draw audiences of all kinds to the museum. In the new artist-in-residence program, Javier Téllez will turn the upstairs gallery into an open studio from mid-April to mid-May. The Venezuelan artist is planning to collaborate with residents of a Colorado mental institution to make a Western film, to be exhibited at the museum in August. The public is invited to watch the film being made, and there may even be opportunities for participation in the process.In the downstairs gallery, the museum will present Four Thursday Nights, designed to give the term “arthouse theater” a new twist. The weekly event will feature four presentations of film or video work, with the public invited to eat popcorn and have a night at the movies. Two of the video artists are scheduled to attend their screenings and discuss the work.Jacobson is noticeably on the inside of the contemporary art world. She recently spent several days at London’s Frieze Art Fair, returning with a 45-minute video of the cutting-edge work she had seen, which she presented at last week’s Artists Breakfast at the museum.But also among her professional pleasures has been introducing youngsters to that world. During her five years in the mid-’90s at New York’s Jewish Museum, Jacobson worked with Judith Siegel, an educator who has been instrumental in developing object-oriented learning – education that starts with actual art objects, rather than books or photos. Part of her curatorial background includes guiding children’s tours and creating exhibits aimed at children (but not, she emphasizes, of art made by children).
Jacobson came to Aspen with youth programs in mind, a thrust of her directorship she believes has been largely lost on her critics. In the works is a program that would bring curators, museum docents and artists into the schools. Free Family Saturdays, an idea which came out of a meeting last month between museum staff and the valley art teachers who collaborated in the Valley Kids show, will allow free access to the museum for families with children. The program will feature “art carts,” stocked with supplies for families to do projects inspired by what they see at the museum. “ArtMaps” will guide the young visitors through the exhibitions and teach them about the work. The museum also plans to beef up its current school outreach programs that provide transportation for classes to the museum and offer after-school classes.Jacobson is particularly enthused about two programs that will give high school students extensive hands-on experience with art. An internship program will educate high schoolers about contemporary art, and will teach them how to instruct other students about the work.Finally, there is Young Curators of the Roaring Fork Valley. The free program, open to children age 13-18, will have students work with artists, curators and museum professionals to learn about all phases of curating an art exhibit. The course will end with a midspring exhibit at the Aspen Meadows’ Kresge Building. To Jacobson – and a decent number of letter-writers who have voiced their support – the immersion in art involved with the Young Curators program will produce far better returns than the relatively unfocused Valley Kids.”I believe the skills we’ll be propagating will encourage kids to think critically about the images we’ll be bombarded with in the world, and will empower them to ask questions and have opinions,” said Jacobson. “These benefits greatly outweigh what the Valley Kids show at the museum offered. I’m sure it was thrilling for kids to come to the museum and see their work. But ultimately, I think that experience was superficial and short-lived compared to the long-term effects we hope to have.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org