Conversation with Alex Baker

Alex Baker, seen last February at Art in the Armory in New York where we ran into the PAFA Curator checking things out.
Alex Baker, seen last February at Art in the Armory in New York where we ran into the PAFA Curator checking things out.

I met Alex Baker at his office at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Oct. 25, about a week before his last day at the institution on Nov. 2. The outgoing Curator of Contemporary Art was cleaning out his office in preparation for his move across the globe to Melbourne Australia where he will be Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. That’s a big move geographically and a big move up in the small world of museum curating.

Baker and his wife, the performance artist Martha MacDonald will be in Philadelphia until early January when they take off for the coastal city in southeast Australia with a population of close to 4 million people (metro Melbourne); a temperate climate (average temperature highs of 77 F in the summer and 57 F in the winter); a residential building that bills itself as the tallest residential tower in the world (the 92 story Eureka Tower; and where the largest industries are business services and parks and recreation. There’s a culture of surfing and cute beach bungalows, says Baker–an avid surfer — and there’s a thriving art scene fueled in part by government support of museums and artists.

Here, of course, most government support of the arts is missing and museum curators spend a large part of their time searching, searching, searching for funds to mount shows. Baker says he’ll still have to fundraise but not to the extent he did here.

Baker’s tiny, windowless office upstairs in PAFA’s Furness Bulding was a mess of boxes, filled and half-filled on the day I was in there. One of the boxes was filled with Laylah Ali catalogs, just arrived, a follow-up to Ali’s Morris Gallery show last spring. The catalog includes a lively Q and A between Ali and Kara Walker, two brainy friends who talk frankly about race, culture and art and sound all conflicted about their roles and responsibilities as black artists. It’s a great read and at $20,the nicely-printed softback, Laylah Ali: Typologies, with Ali’s black and white drawings as well as a sampling of her Greenheads paintings, is a real steal.

Baker told me that he has done a lot of cleaning out and boxing and storing stuff in the last several years. His parents both died in the last ten years and he’s had to “deal with the accumulations of a life.” And two years ago, he and Martha had to clean out the basement of their Fitler Square rowhouse because of water issues. (They installed a drainage system).

The day before I met him there was a Robin Rice story about Baker in City Paper. Baker was worried that the story made him seem like a snob and so part of his mission with me was to correct that impression. In the Rice article Baker is quoted as saying that Melbourne is “way more sophisticated than Philadelphia.” Here’s more on that and other things:

Baker: The art scene in Melbourne is more sophisticated. It has to do with government support of the arts. The museum is state owned so all the salaries are from the state. Sophistication for the arts…it’s more than anything in the US. It’s something the Europeans do too. I’ve never been in a situation where your program doesn’t think of money first….

They cover everything?

I will still need to fundraise for exhibits and acquisitions. The state supports some but not all costs covered.

So that will change the job, with less time spent on fundraising.

So much of the (curating) job here is administrative. It’s curatorial but…so much time is spent on implementing. So the intellectual side is not what I do as much as I’d like. (The creative side of curating) comes out when I write….and actually when I did a major job push. It’s something I needed to do, i couldn’t just go out there and say hire me. I had to have proposals and power point presentations — Heres’ 3 group shows and 10 artists I’d like to work with.

How long have you been looking?

I’ve been on the job market for three years.

Wow, is everybody on the job market?

Ah, yeah!

It’s a bad thing. You can’t really build up community. There’s a range of issues. The budget is a major stress! Once you find an ideal job then moves are lateral. What’s next aafter you’ve hit that???

Have you been to Melbourne?

I’ve been there for the interview.

What kind of museum are you going to?

It’s got several buildings. It’s encyclopedic like the PMA (Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art). There’s one bulding with brutalist aesthetic architecture that was updated in the 90s with new light from more windows etc. Then about a half mile away there’s a super new building in a plaza. It’s super-deconstructed, Gehry-esque architecture. Lab Architecture Studio, did it –it’s trophy architecture. It’s a smart building and it has the collection of Australian art. It’s in a super modern town square (Federation Square–Lab architecture studio did much of the work on the entire square). There’s a government building with an led screen on it that shows Australian things–rugby etc. (in the plaza).

Will you be in the smart building?

No I’ll be in the updated brutalist building.

What’s your job going to be like? And does the museum collect contemporary art?

They want me to do one major show/year and 2 smaller shows. That sounds really exciting.

They want to have a project space. Something with higher turnover (like the Morris Gallery). They do do projects. Barry McGee did one on the water wall (a 60 ft. long glass wall with a waterfall in front of it. Barry had them turn off the water and he painted on the glass.

They want to have artists come and work with the collection…(Fred Wilson, Kara Walker…Ellen Harvey)

What do they collect?

They just got a Yayoi Kusama. Other things but they’re off the record for now. They show video–early Peter Campus. They have an Eva Hesse painting–that was unexpected; Patricia Piccinini.

Their focus on contemporary art is there. But they never had a senior curator of contemporary art so that’s new. They have a history of hiring international talent.

How did you find out about this?

I blindly applied with no leads. it was on the AAM website (Association of American Museums).

Isn’t there a connection between PAFA and the museum you’re going to?

Derek Gilman used to be Director of the Victoria and Kim Sajet was mentored by someone at the museum…Kim was a reference for me.

Talk a little about PAFA

I’ll be diplomatic here. It’s great that we have new director and president.

The Academy needs to focus on its exhibition program. In terms of acquisition we need to do that. We’re doing ok at that. We have a budget — it’s not humungous but we have one. There’s no endowment for exhibitons, except for Morris…that’s endowed. We need to think more about large-scale exhibitons that will bring people to the Academy.

Several changes at PEI (Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiatives) will help. They’ll fund traveling exhibitons now (exhibits coming to town from out of town). That’s great because those are hard to fund-raise for.

We need to figure out fundraising aspects for the future.

The new director (Dr. David R. Brigham) is the first museum director. He has experience in contemprorary art. He’s a Peale scholar (Charles Wilson Peale). He wrote a book on Peale.

The other hire (Dr. Edward T. Lewis) is president of the institution and the school.

How about your own replacement at PAFA?

As far as i can tell there will be a curator of contemporary art. David (Brigham, the new Director) seems invested. There has been a shift here towards the contemporary and modern.(A check with the AAM website shows a job posting for Curator of Contemporary Art at PAFA, posted Nov. 7)

Talk a little about Philadelphia.

I’ll miss being a local yokel. Knowing everybody and being here. …The ease of being here is why I have to go. I’m too comfortable. It’s important to move on. I’ve done all the non-profit things. I love my job, it puts food on the table…there are no other jobs i can do here….

My friends are my family here. I’ve been here 20 years. It’s my home and community. I grew up here.

I’ve tried to include Philly artists in all the programs i’ve done. In part, they make great art and in part if you’re in the community you have to interface with them. The big difference (between Philadelphia and New York) is that in New York curators don’t say they’re working with New York artist so and so. Here, we say we’re working with Philadelphia artist so and so.

When you were in Melbourne, did you get out of the museum and see the rest of the art scene?

Yes! Laylah Ali (whom Baker brought to Philadelphia for a Morris gallery show) married a Melbournian and they split their time between here and there, and she hooked me up with an artist, Christian Capurro — he was in the Venice Biennale. We went around together. The galleries are spread out. There are commercial and non-profit collectives, kind of like what we have here.

What’s the town like?

Melbourne is not a seat of international global commerce. Sydney might be. But they have big festivals, visual arts, film, fringe fest. There is definitely vibrancy, festivalism. Some might argue against that but it seems pretty great.

Australia is very far away.

They wil travel me alot. Australians travel alot because they have to.

Did you have expectations before you went?

I didn’t know much about Australia…it sounds dumb but wow. There’s a whole other thing there. iI’s so similar and different at the same time.

What’s Martha going to do in Melbourne?

Next to the museum is an art school. it used to be part of the museum. Martha might be taking costume and textile classes. She’s naturally talented in that. She might go to grad school. Melbourne’s a fashion scene. Not that she’d participate in that. It’s known as a fashion centered city. Lots of indie fashion stores.

The museum will give her career counseling training. My salary’s pretty good so maybe she could concentrate on her art! I told Martha (about the move) that it’s like going to college again. She said, “But we’re not young, we’re old!” (They’re both 40-something)

I’m excited but nervous.

Are you coming back?

We might be back. We’re not selling the house….the market’s bad….(and they found a friend to rent to).

You have to leave in order to come back and be seen as something other than the guy from Philly. All institutions hire outside their home town. It’s the glamour quotient.

Where else did you look before you decided on Australia?

California but it’s too expensive to live there. Portland — there’s nothing open there. Harrel Fletcher is in Portland. …i’d like to do a project with him in Melbourne.

How about New York?

It’s more fun on the periphery. I’m not a New York guy. Salary-wise and new-experience-wise Melbourne’s the place.