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ask an art critic

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About Museum Design and Self-Promotion

In his weekly column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to artcritic@nymag.com.

Dear Jerry,

Last week you wrote about how you love getting to the Met’s permanent collection right after you walk in the front door. (So do I.) You alluded to other New York museums that don’t work so well. What about them?

—Kent Conaway

Dear Kent,

New York being what it is, our museums are vertical, not horizontal. That means the stumbling blocks to architectural clarity are unavoidable — but certainly surmountable. I have to admit that I was being circumspect about other New York museums because one of them is just so bad.

Let’s take the big institutions one at a time, from north to south. Even if you don’t like seeing art at the Guggenheim, you have to admit that it’s breathtaking to walk into Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical interior tornado. The instant you enter, the space corkscrews, contorts, zooms away, gets bigger than it looked from the outside, evokes nostalgia and failed utopias. Strictly speaking, however, the Guggenheim isn’t primarily a museum with a permanent collection. It’s more of a Kunsthalle for rotating exhibitions. The former director, Thomas Krens, spent much of the past two decades developing branches rather than creating a guiding vision, and it hurt the institution. However, he had one strong suit: If Genghis Krens said something should be done, it got done, no matter how craven and confused. The new director, Richard Armstrong, might want to take this one page from Krens’s evil playbook and make more bold decisions. (At the moment, the Guggenheim is in the same position as the Mets: once great. Will the board do what the Mets did, and give their new general manager total dictatorial powers?)

We’ll skip the Whitney for now, because it’s in flux. The new downtown building is still somewhat mysterious, and if it’s designed even half-right, the Whitney could easily up being the art world’s favorite museum. Fingers crossed.

I’m an art dealer. Last week you freaked out about a hundred of us when you wrote about not wanting us to talk to you about the art in our galleries. Should we keep our distance? Not talk to you at all? You seem pretty talkative to us.

From here you go back and forth up the escalators until reaching the fifth floor. You get off, turn a corner, go through a narrow hall, over a narrower walkway that looks down at the boxy atrium below, then pass a restaurant where there’s usually a line snaking around another corner. Welcome to the entrance! Once you're inside, the conditions are so crowded and cramped that … well, good luck.


Dear Jerry,

I’m an art dealer. Last week you freaked out about a hundred of us when you wrote about not wanting us to talk to you about the art in our galleries. Should we keep our distance? Not talk to you at all? You seem pretty talkative to us.

—OneOf100s

Dear OneOf100s,

I got a lot of e-mails from irked art dealers on this one, so let me explain. I never said dealers shouldn’t talk to me. I’d be crushed if they didn’t. I wrote “I love dealers. Art dealers are my favorite people in the art world,” and added that the one thing I don’t want dealers to do is guide me through their shows, pitching me. When they do this, it destroys the experience. After I finish looking at a gallery show, I love chatting about exhibitions we’ve seen, news, gossip, Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch’s latest zany idea, and how annoying curators can be. Yes, the dealer-critic relationship is tricky, and I know that many critics want to be told by dealers and artists what the work is about. I’m not one of them. I like to look on my own.

Dealers, please don’t stop talking! Your galleries are special to me: They are wormholes, time machines, matter transporters, gardens of delight, shtetls, hellholes, mediocrities, meritocracies, Dixieland tunes, places to get to the bottom of things, voting booths, fun fairs, tranquilizer bullets, big trees, missing links, states of grace, secular temples, travel bureaus, shallow ends of the pool, deep ends of the ocean, shelters from the storm, nails in your back, stones in your shoe, vicious circles, and burning rings of fire.


Dear Jerry,

You said that dealers should save their sales pitch for the clients. I’m an artist. Couldn’t a tactful artist pitch a critic without being obvious?

—Brian Sherwin

Dear Brian,

Nope. And don’t try, because we can see right through you. As it is, about 75 percent of everything an artist does or says in connection with his or her work is a “sales pitch.” That’s precisely why you shouldn’t give it to a critic. You're already thisclose to being craven all the time. You may think you're being subtle, but you’re not. It's like when you're stoned and you try to act straight: You just come off like some nut with crumbs on your shirt.

If you’re obnoxious and clueless enough to come out and say, “Write about my show”:

1. You sound like an annoying nag.
2. You’re telling someone else what he or she should do at work.
3. You’re saying something that goes without saying.

Artists: You can and should let critics know your show is up, and express a desire that we’ll see it. Remember that weekly critics at magazines like New York write only about shows that are currently on view, only about shows that will be up for a while after the review is published, and only about shows that are in public locations with regular hours (not your studio!). I’ll save for another column my follow-up advice: things artists and dealers can, should, and shouldn’t do after receiving a good or bad review.