From time to time, I’ll be inviting various faculty/staff/students to write for my blog. Nina Felshin is the curator of exhibitions at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. When she told me about meetings she’s been having with various students about her current show, Emergency Response Studio, I asked her to write about it. She and I invite your comments:
The first time I learned that a group of students had raised questions about the show was when Argus writer Sarah Lamming ’13 came to interview me in the trailer on September 22. One week later her thoughtful review appeared in the paper.
I was actually delighted that she didn’t beat around the bush. Right off the bat she told me that certain words like “privilege” and “classist” had been used to characterize the artist and the project. “Privilege” in reference to artist Paul Villinski, perceived as a rich white guy who could afford to create the trailer, and “classist,” referring to a perceived insensitivity toward the community that suffered the most in New Orleans, many of whom are still living in formaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers.
Alexandra Provo ’10, this year’s CFA intern, also shared with me that she, too, had some initial concerns before learning more about the project and the artist’s intentions. Alex, an Art History major with a special interest in environmental issues, proposed that we organize a student forum near the trailer, a little “dejeuner sur l’herbe” sans lunch and nudity. At Alex’s suggestion dessert would be on the CFA.
Later that same day a sign went up near the ERS declaring it to be “Classist,” “Condescending” and “Useless Art”. It was definitely time to plan the forum—hopefully one in which students would feel comfortable expressing their views in the presence of the curator, yours truly. It took place the same day the Argus article appeared. Thirteen students showed up in addition to me and Alex.
Our conversation reminded me that it’s critical to see things in context and not assume anything without first digging deep. Paul Villinski, for example, like most other artists in the world, is not rich. At 50 he is just now beginning to survive off the sale of his work. He had to raise every penny that went into the trailer whether it was through grants or through in-kind contributions. Interestingly Paul’s trailer cost approximately $86,000 to complete. Each no-frills, off gassing FEMA trailer in New Orleans cost $85,000. As for rich, white male artists: relatively speaking, only a handful of artists get rich from their art. And yes, while most of them are white males, to assume that Paul is one of them is just that, an assumption.
I was probably most deeply moved and disturbed by the characterization of “classist.” In my view, Paul’s work is as an attempt to demonstrate that in post-disaster settings those who are left homeless deserve humane and respectful treatment and that if an artist could design and produce a truly livable and sustainable space for the same price as a FEMA trailer, why isn’t the government planning in advance for future natural and unnatural disasters? Could it be that planning for poor people, especially poor people of color, is not a priority in this country? If the trailer is classist how come FEMA trailer inhabitants wondered aloud to Paul why the government didn’t hire him as consultant?
At the forum, students shared their perspectives with me and I hope that more students will take advantage of the opportunity to discuss their points of view. Art at its best should provoke and inspire. I look forward to continuing the dialogue.
Curator of Exhibtions, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery