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Vol.25, No. 23 May 17, 2000

An Interview With Bruce Ferguson, Dean of the School of the Arts

By Ulrika Brand

The giant ceramic pineapple that greets visitors to the office of Bruce Ferguson was a gift from the mayor of Mexico City. Ferguson explains that the traditional craft object was given in thanks for his role as guest curator of the American section of the Second International Salon of Painting at the Museum of the City of Mexico.

Ferguson, dean of the School of the Arts, is not only an experienced arts administrator and educator, but also a sought-after curator who has been active on the international front since his twenties. He has regularly toured the world looking at art, seeking patterns in the production of artists and helping create opportunities for them to show their work. "I have spent most of my professional life in one way or another facilitating artists," Ferguson says, noting that his work as dean of Columbia's four graduate programs—in writing, visual arts, film and theatre—continues this mission. Since taking the helm of Columbia University's School of the Arts last fall, Ferguson has been working to improve and integrate the curriculum, facilities, funding and organizational structure for the school's student and faculty artists. By maintaining his activities as curator, he is able to stay on the cutting edge of the contemporary art world, which contributes to the breadth of vision needed to lead one of the nation's preeminent schools of the arts.

Over the course of the last year, Ferguson not only contributed to the Salon of Painting in Mexico, but also interviewed Cornelia Parker for the exhibition catalogue that accompanied her show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last month. In addition, he co-curated an exhibition that explored recent developments in abstraction, "Postmark: An Abstract Effect." It was presented at SITE Santa Fe, a 20,000-square foot exhibition space he founded in 1993, directed through 1996, and describes as an international "Kunsthalle" (art hall). Ferguson comments, "A lot of women artists were in the show. This, by implication, revisited the history of women's exclusion from modernist abstraction."

One of the artists Ferguson selected for both the Mexico and Santa Fe exhibitions was Linda Besemer, a Los Angeles painter, whose brilliant chromatic works are created by painting on one side of a plastic sheet, removing the plastic, and painting on the other side. The resulting objects are hung over towel bars and look both like textiles and like paint. Ferguson points out "the casualness of presentation" and adds that the work "comments on women's traditional role in producing textiles without being didactic." Besemer was subsequently chosen for this year's Whitney Biennial.

Ferguson's interest in art developed at an early age. He grew up in a small provincial town in Canada where he read a lot of books. "It always seemed to me that artists led the most interesting lives in the most interesting cities," says Ferguson. "I equated urbanity with artistic endeavor."

And when Ferguson went to the University of Saskatchewan intending to be a pre-law student he instead discovered art history. His first job after graduating entailed teaching drawing and painting at an art center. As part of the assignment he inherited a small art gallery, "I had to fill it" he says. Thus, a career as a curator was launched.

Ferguson was director of the Dalhousie University Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then went on to become assistant curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. He has organized more than 30 exhibitions at institutions including the Vancouver and Winnipeg Art Galleries, Canada; The Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston; the Barbican Art Gallery, London; the Louisiana Museum, Denmark; and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. He has also worked in many of the international art Biennials ( Istanbul, Venice, Sydney, and São Paulo) as curator of the Canadian sections. He has identified many of the world's leading contemporary artists at early stages of their careers. For example, he curated Eric Fischl's first one-man show and more recently brought the work of Francis Alÿs to international attention.

"Being a curator is close to being a producer in film and theater. You take talent and some narratives and through a venue bring work to an audience," Ferguson notes. "It's like being an intellectual entrepreneur."

He explains that one develops as a curator in the same way one would develop as an artist. "At first, you curate through received ideas. It's a little hard to get beyond the models that exist. Exhibitions tend to be extremely conservative—one seldom sees cross-historical exhibitions, for example. Typically, there are exhibitions that focus on one artist, a region, or one artistic medium, like video."

"Exhibitions have become the medium through which most art becomes known," says Ferguson, a conclusion he came to in the 1996 anthology Thinking About Exhibitions, which he co-edited under a Senior Getty Research Fellowship (and which is now a standard text on the subject). He continues, "But whereas in language there are hundreds of genres: rap, detective novels, romantic novels, to name a few, in the visual arts there are the same number of voices but far fewer genres of exhibition, of means for artists to reach an audience."

In his own development as a curator, Ferguson gave up traditional exhibitions and began to work collaboratively with other art scholars, specializing in exhibitions that are less expository, more interrogative.

For example, Ferguson joined with a friend, Sandy Nairne, now associate director of the Tate in London, to organize a show called "Space Invaders," in Regina, Saskatchewan, which featured sculptural productions that used vernacular objects. In his travels, Ferguson and Nairne had realized that a lot of young sculptors were using non-traditional materials that overlapped with pop culture. The exhibition grew out of the curator's question, "Why are these artists doing this and what does it mean?" Their speculation: "They were tired and bored with formalism and seduced by, but critical of popular culture."

Ferguson notes that the motivations for producing art are multiple and varied; some artists create in response to social phenomena, some are hermetic, some engage in a dialogue with the history of art.

Ferguson has been intimately involved with the training of young artists for some time, formerly as president and executive director of the New York Academy of Art and as a teacher at institutions including the University of Pennsylvania; The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Parsons School of Design; and Concordia University in Montreal.

Now, as dean of the School of the Arts, Ferguson says his goal is to offer an environment conducive to the development of artists in all mediums. He says, "I want to create a supportive atmosphere where students can gain confidence, but it should also be critical so they don't become self-indulgent." He points to Columbia 's location in New York City as a real boon to its students. "They have access to great artists and art institutions here. And the relationships they can develop with real living artists fast-tracks them in a way that wouldn't be available in another place."