Institutionalizing single works at IFAA

Looking closely
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  March 7, 2013

IT'S AT HIS HOME IFAA's Christopher Stiegler.
In another look at Portland's growing number of atypical studies within the art world, we spoke to Southern Maine Community College art history professor Christopher Stiegler, founder of the Institute for American Art, a curatorial space he runs from his home on Smith Street in Bayside. This is an edited transcript.

IS THERE SOMETHING SPECIFIC TO PORTLAND THAT MADE THIS IDEA NECESSARY OR WAS IT SOMETHING YOU'VE BEEN SITTING ON AWHILE? It's something I've been sitting on. I'd been thinking a lot about how museums operate and I'd always liked the model of the apartment showroom. And I was constantly looking for the right atmosphere and environment to launch a project like this. When we moved to Maine I saw a good opportunity to present the curatorial perspective. In New York there's just a din. It's exhausting to try to put yourself out there ad infinitum, and after five years of throwing myself at the community — well, I never gave up, I just moved. There is enough of a creative community within this city that's excited about new ideas. For our first opening party we had about 40 to 50 people come through the space, a lot of people from the art world, and it was very nice to see that turnout. Portland's just worked very well for it, and I know that this project is going to be following me for, well, maybe forever.

WHO WAS YOUR FIRST SHOW? The painter's name is Eric Wendel. He's a New York painter whose work had progressed to such a degree that he didn't have gallery representation, which allowed my project to be feasible to him. There were other painters I had talked to whose galleries would never allow them to show in a situation like this. He was just really willing.

THAT'S INTERESTING — THE IDEA OF ARTISTS WITH REPRESENTATION NOT BEING ALLOWED TO EXHIBIT IN A SPACE LIKE THIS. HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANYTHING ELSE LIKE THAT? Yeah, you know, the galleries have to safeguard their investments, and the artists in their stable are their investments. Some collectors might see participation in a project like this as . . .

. . . SOMEHOW DEVALUING . . . Yeah. That said, one artist could have sent me his work if he wanted to, but he opted not to because of that. I think that's because he's at a point in his career where he's really trying to make a name for himself and he doesn't want to sidestep that in any way. So he's kind of following the rigors as they're laid out by the structure of the art world.

AND YOU'RE NOT SELLING ANYTHING. No. I wouldn't sell anything. It's my house. But my background is in the art market, that's what my masters degree is in. So I know how this is perceived by a lot of people. Even though I can publish bibliographies and talk about this stuff with the best of the art critics, people still view new spaces like this as being kind of renegade. Especially the perspectives of somebody within the New York art world, they view other places as being somehow less than — not everybody, but that's kind of the broader view. It's really, really hard to impress that community and get them to respect these kinds of projects. So I was anticipating the reaction that I got from a lot of people. The hesitation, the sentiments of I don't know if I could be a part of that kind of project.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Bayside, Southern Maine Community College
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