A work of astonishing economy and monumentality! Andrea Fraser plays museum docent Jane Castleton. Her performance is captured in a video in Elles at SAM.
In the winter of 1989, Andrea Fraser appeared repeatedly in the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art playing the role of Jane Castleton, the officious, wickedly funny, and slightly batty volunteer museum docent. She savaged the museum—with charm, and not letting herself off the hook, either—using its own words, history, and conventions. She wandered from room to room, speaking in the grand terms of the museum's own almost century-long campaign of public betterment achieved through presenting the "best" things—the most valuable art, clean habits, refined architecture. As an artist playing a volunteer, she compares herself to trustees—also powerful but unpaid people in the functioning of any given museum.
To write the script for the performance, Fraser rifled through Philadelphia archives, going back to the early decades of the 20th century when this museum (and others around the nation) were created.
But an art museum is not just a building, not just a collection of objects. An art museum...is a public institution with a mission, with a mandate.... What was that policy? Well, writing about The New Museum and Its Service to Philadelphia in 1922, the Museum wrote that, uh, they wrote: "We have come to understand that to rob...people of the things of the spirit and to supply them with higher wages as a substitute is not good economics, good patriotism, or good policy.
You can see where this is going: into the tangled, tumorous nexus between wealth, art, civic pride, national ambition, do-goodism, and the status-quo-maintaining function of aesthetic discrimination programs.
"The museum's task could be described as the continuous, conscientious, and resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity."
She continues with an astonishing real-life list of institutions (from 1928) set up for the "betterment" of the public, including "the Zoological Garden and the Aquarium also, of course, in Fairmount Park; the new free library on the Parkway; the new municipal stadium; Camp Happy, "for undernourished children"; Brown's Farm, for "dependent and abandoned children"; the new House of Correction; the new Hospital for Mental Diseases at Byberry; the new General Hospital at Blockly; the Hospital for Contagious Diseases at Blockly; the Hospital for the Feeble-Minded at Blockly; the Home for the Indigent at Blockly; the Commercial Museum next to Blockly, where homeless men were sometimes housed, 'dedicated to economic education'—now the Philadelphia Civic Center; the poorhouses of Germantown, Roxborough, and Lower Dublin..."
After this exhaustive list, she walks to a window and leans against a grand piano to get a framed, sweeping view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway outside. "Just look at this view! Magnificent! If we do not possess art in a city, or beautiful spots in the city," she continues, using a line she dug out of the archives from a 1928 address given to the Fairmount Park Art Association, "we cannot expect to attract visitors to our home town." She seamlessly moves into another address, given more than half a century later, in 1986, by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation: "You can choose from 5 professional sports teams, a world class symphony, 100 museums, the largest municipal park system in the country, and a restaurant renaissance the whole world is talking about."
Fraser published the script in a series of essays in book form. She also turned the live performances into a recorded video, which is playing for the next few weeks at Seattle Art Museum, on the fourth floor, as part of Elles. You should see it—it's one of the most pointedly funny works of art of the 20th century. Is it a problem that it's so entertaining? That it's playing in a museum, coopted?
"It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution," Fraser has said. "It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to. Because the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, of ourselves.”