Doctor of Letters
Thursday 23 July 2015 at 4pm - Orator: Michael Liversidge
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,
Had you been in Manhattan on Monday, April the twentieth last, there was only one place to be that evening. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, for the first special preview of its iconic new building in the Meatpacking District. It was a glittering occasion for a gleaming masterpiece of contemporary architecture by one of the world’s greatest architects, Renzo Piano, and as befits such an event it was attended by a gilded array of movers and shakers in the art world’s most difficult to please creative powerhouse. Along with the usual billionaires and dignitaries, America’s cultural élite was out in force: critics and gallerists, patrons, artists and collectors made up the sort of stellar cast list which few places can bring together. And among them was Chrissie Iles, one of the New York art scene’s ‘must have’ personalities, a celebrity in her own right, and an English expatriate at that. Why was she there? And why is she here today?
The simple answers are because she is the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Film and Video, and because she is a Bristol graduate. Behind those simple answers lies an inspiring career as a critically acclaimed scholar and museum professional who is known around the world for her pioneering and perceptive interpretations of some of the most radically modern art and visual culture of our own and recent times. So how did she get to where she is today?
Again, the simple answer is that she has not merely survived, she has flourished, in the shark-infested waters of New York’s often unforgiving art machine; more than that, she seems positively to relish the unrelenting scrutiny to which curators in New York are constantly subjected, especially from the critics who are by no means always benign about what is put before them. It is, after all, their job to be critical, and it is much easier for a critic to find fault than actually to do it. The problem they have with Chrissie Iles, whom they almost invariably describe as “the Whitney’s English curator” as if to justify their incredulity, is that they find so little to denigrate, much less to sacrifice on the altars of their own incomprehension. They like her work. They respect her judgement. They admire her flair. She has accomplished something difficult to do in America’s ‘art now’ scene: she has become a high visibility inside outsider.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, curating contemporary art is a perilous business. Artists are sometimes mercurial, the public can be sceptical, and it is a fiercely competitive world in which your latest offering will be minutely dissected by academics convinced they know better, fellow curators who want your job, commercial gallerists who have a vested interest in what you show, collectors who must be courted and, of course, the critics. Lining all those ducks up on the wall is not an easy thing to do, but it is what Chrissie Iles does with singular success.
You do not become a leading Whitney curator without a solid reputation behind you, much less one head hunted from England as young as she was when she started there in 1997. It began here when she graduated from Bristol with her Bachelor of Arts in History and History of Art in 1979. Then followed a diploma in arts management at City University in London which she chose because it was a new course designed around what was then a pioneering concept of cultural institutions as business enterprises, and with it she embarked on her career in a new, young organisation which has since become a pillar of this country’s contemporary art scene, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. It was an exciting place to start from for two reasons: at the time Oxford still needed convincing that the term ‘contemporary visual culture’ was anything more than an oxymoron, so it offered a character building challenge; and, secondly, it had a visionary director who encouraged his young colleague to go her own way. There she began her involvement with the world of artists’ experiments in new media, Minimalist and Conceptual practices, projected images, film and video, installations and performance which were reshaping conventional concepts of art and the gallery space. At Oxford she made a name for herself with some ground-breaking exhibitions, among them the first retrospective of the now legendary international performance artist Marina Abramovic, and it was her record there that led directly to New York.
Museums can sometimes make spectacular mistakes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York certainly did in 1929 when it declined a collection of six hundred works by modern American artists offered to it by Mrs Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, so she went away and founded the museum that now bears her name. Since then it has grown into the astounding institution it is now. It has been at the Whitney in particular that Chrissie Iles has acquired her world-wide reputation. There is time today to single out only one or two highlights. Her first major show there, “Into the Light”: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, made New York sit up and take notice, and it was judged the best exhibition of 2001 by the International Association of Art Critics. One of them was so startled by it that he described it as ‘unashamedly intellectual’. It was followed in 2004 by co-curating the Whitney Biennial, the biggest show of current American art held every two years. The Whitney Biennial is a notoriously unruly beast: critics wait for it like a pride of sabre-toothed tigers salivating at the sight of their prey. But this time they were non-plussed: they could only find positive things to say about it, and declared it the best in living memory. It was so successful she was asked to co-curate the next one in 2006. There have been plenty more landmark successes, including a series of major retrospectives: Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Yoko Ono, Paul McCarthy, T.J. Wilcox to name a few at random. Her work regularly takes her abroad, too: she was one of the Tate’s Turner Prize jurors who selected Grayson Perry in 2003 to universal approbation, something almost unheard of in Turner Prize history. She is a familiar presence at major art events across America, and around the world from Bergen and Berlin to Beijing – far too many to name, but they have included Bristol’s Arnolfini. Columbia University in New York has made her an adjunct Professor, and she has advised or participates in art and curating programmes from Rutgers and Bard College to Goldsmith’s in London. She is an advisory member, nominated by the Governor, of the New York State Council on the Arts. And as well there has been a prolific output of scores of publications, with many more to come, among them a major monograph on art and film. All of which explains why she is here today as Bristol’s first art history graduate to receive an honorary degree.
So what of her time here when she was a student? In fact, nothing extravagantly out of the ordinary, but she says it was Bristol that made it all possible in the first place and we are happy to take the credit for that. Certainly we could not then have predicted where it has led, and at the time she was no different to her contemporaries, just another student fitting her degree around all the distractions of life in Bristol. Then, too, academic life was very different: less pressurised, time to reflect, deadlines which were more like polite reminders than nuclear deterrents. Those of us who knew her then would agree, I think, that she has the same qualities of stamina and personality now that marked her out then. Nor have we forgotten that a tutorial with her was always something to look forward to, like a very good gin and tonic: refreshing, effervescent, never too long. Probably we could all do with one very soon – a drink, not a tutorial - so I conclude.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Chrissie Iles, graduate of this University, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.