Joining Joanne Heyler are Kristin Sakoda, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, and Bettina Korek, the new chief executive officer of the Serpentine Galleries in London and former executive director of Frieze Los Angeles.
Joanne HeylerPerhaps you could start by telling me about your early experience with the arts and the path your career took.
Kristin SakodaMy first exposure to the arts happened when I was very young, four years old, taking dance lessons. My parents moved us from the South Side of Chicago to the suburb of Oak Park, where I was fortunate to find myself with access to ballet lessons, public schools that taught visual art and music, and a town rich with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. My experience with the business side started when I was an artist: I was a professional performer at the early age of seven years old, in large-scale professional ballet productions and local dance performances. And while I never thought of it as a career, when I was graduating college I decided, “I’m only young once and this is my opportunity to experience being a dancer.” And so I danced. That led me to the renowned dance company Urban Bush Women, as well as to work in off-Broadway and then Broadway theater. Later, I went to law school, which is what I’d been planning to do all along, but by then I knew I wanted to stay in the arts or entertainment. Other than that, I was completely open. I was just as interested in being an artist in the nonprofit sector as I was in being a music lawyer at a record label. There was a great fellowship program at New York Theatre Workshop, which is an off-Broadway company that produced Rent and other amazing shows. They had an arts-administration fellowship, which they only offered a few times, though their fellowship program has for many years supported writers and directors of color. It was the most amazing opportunity to look behind the scenes at what’s really going on when you’re running an arts nonprofit.
After that, I actually decided I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run a nonprofit. So a friend introduced me to the general counsel at New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who was looking for someone to be her deputy counsel. People there were doing great work, supporting incredible institutions with government funding. That’s how I got into this work.
Joanne, I’m curious how you started your career?
JHI grew up in LA. My family had nothing to do with the arts, they ran an auto-repair shop, but my sister is an opera singer and I’m an art historian [laughs].
My career is a testament to the value of the cold call. In the 1980s, when I was attending Scripps College, just east of Los Angeles, an internship was a requirement. There was a predetermined list of law firms and other kinds of businesses where you could go, but I didn’t really see anything I was interested in. I’d been reading in the paper about this new museum of contemporary art that was being built in Downtown, and I’d been to the Temporary Contemporary [now the Geffen Contemporary], the forerunner to MOCA’s Grand Avenue building, which was under construction. Anyway, that all sounded more interesting to me than interning at a law firm [laughter]. So I called the main line at MOCA and basically said, “I need an internship.” I had no connections—zip, zero, nothing—I mean, I was studying art history, but other than that I had zero qualifications. Yet I ended up in an interview with Kerry Brougher, who was an assistant curator back then. We had an amazing conversation, luckily he saw something in this college student, and I ended up working part-time with him for over a year and a half. The Grand Avenue building opened while I was there. That I would be opening The Broad across the street many, many years later is a full circle of major and completely unanticipated proportions. Eli Broad was the founding chairman of MOCA, but I didn’t meet him at that time.
After the MOCA internship, I went on to the Courtauld Institute in London for graduate study. When I came back to LA, after I finished my degree, I asked Kerry for his advice about what to do next. For a short while I worked for a start-up art magazine, but long story short, it was Kerry who first told me about a new art space in Santa Monica called The Broad Art Foundation—thirty years ago [laughs]—and I could never have dreamed what was in store for me there, which really in a way started with me as a college kid making a cold call.
it’s critical for institutions to make themselves more open, more relevant, more inclusive. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s actually way beyond that: it’s a business imperative.Kristin Sakoda
Bettina KorekThough I started at LACMA in the Prints and Drawings department, I eventually moved into Development and Communications for the museum. We’d done a lot of research about audiences and on how hard it can be to get people interested in something new. As a result, I became really interested in encouraging temporary public art in LA. In New York there are many established organizations, such as Creative Time and the Public Art Fund, that consistently present public-art projects. Because public-art projects were a big part of Lauri Firstenberg’s program at LAXART, I began working with her as she first launched it, in 2005, and also with Emi Fontana, who’s a dealer and a curator and was always open to working in different modalities. My experience with Emi early on gave me a lot of confidence in terms of wearing different hats in the art world and seeing how these various approaches could be interwoven. It was incredible working with her and being a part of the Women in the City project, which was about recognizing women artists of the 1980s, the first generation to break through the market—
JHWe worked on that at the Foundation with you because of Barbara Kruger, which we helped make happen [laughs].
BKOf course. You were the hero of that project, getting Barbara’s screen on top of LACMA West [laughter].
From there it was a very organic procession. While I was working at LACMA, people would ask me about what art to go and see. I began ForYourArt very informally from these conversations as an e-mail newsletter. From there, many people in the city wanted an international art fair to establish roots here, and Frieze LA was the perfect opportunity to create an annual moment on the art-world calendar for our city’s community. We already had the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, but those happen less regularly. Of course, the Getty’s work on Pacific Standard Time laid much of the groundwork for the success of Frieze LA, in terms of elevating the general consciousness about how much a city-wide collaboration benefits the landscape.
And of course The Broad has also had an amazing impact on the cultural landscape of LA, it’s been a huge milestone for the city. It feels like everyone in the city knows where their museums are now, and every museum plays an important and complementary role in this effort.
JHOne of the most interesting recollections I have from the opening of The Broad is that I kept getting the same question over and over again from so many people in the media and in the community: “Why would LA need another contemporary art museum?” It’s wonderful to be four and a half years in and seeing our attendance surpassing 900,000 people last year and growing by 100,000 visitors every year. It feels like proof that there was and continues to be an appetite for art in Los Angeles. There’s a great untapped audience for contemporary art—while I’m superproud that we’ve got these attendance figures, it’s still true that the majority of people living in LA or LA County don’t know about us. So there’s more work to do.
I’m curious to hear about the differences you see between the nonprofit and for-profit initiatives, the private and the public sector.
KSMy career has comprised work in both. In fact, public/private partnership is key to a lot of what I do. I’ve dealt with that in my personal career, as a dancer, as well. The economy of being an artist has changed over time: we’re probably old enough to remember when, if you were a performing artist and your song was in a commercial, you were “selling out”? It has blended a lot more. But I’ve never felt any hierarchy, or that somehow the nonprofit sector is more “true.” It’s also not true that nonprofit artists are all struggling, or that a higher level of sophistication is possible in the commercial world. It’s actually one big ecosystem—though it does feel as though there might be more experimentation in the nonprofit sector, like somehow it can be an incubator for talent.
JHYes. That’s true in many fields beyond the arts, actually.
There’s always been this understanding of how collecting can be a creative practice, but in the past two decades, the activity of ownership and taking care of work is seen as part of a greater activity of patronage.Bettina Korek
KSLos Angeles in particular, from an outsider’s point of view, was traditionally perceived as being dominated by Hollywood, which is clearly commercial. Artists of earlier generations may have thought that if you wanted to be an artist then you had to go to New York.
JHYes, that’s a really interesting point. Thinking back on so many artists who became influential, to make a living they had to be entrepreneurial. They were in an environment where they had to patch things together—teaching at CalArts, for example, like John Baldessari. But when you take the long view and see how many students Baldessari influenced, it’s fascinating. What would LA look like today if there was never a CalArts? That’s an abstraction, but would the city be as interesting and vibrant as it is now? Would different artists be celebrated?
KSThe market can be such a dominant force, it can impact who’s valued and can literally place value on a certain style or perspective. In some ways that’s what we’re seeing now with so many African American artists being recognized as seminal, but their work has always been great American art, right? There’s this evolving valuation, which is external, that’s happening now. It’s not the values of the artists themselves, or the values the communities placed on them.
JHThe market can have its own language, and it’s not always a language completely anchored to the values that were part of the artmaking to begin with.
BKRight, and the relationship between symbolic value and market value is constantly in flux.
BKOne of my favorite things John wrote was, “I enjoy giving books I’ve made to others. Art seems pure for a moment and disconnected from money. And since a lot of people can own the book, nobody owns it. Every artist should have a cheap line. It keeps art ordinary and away from being overblown.” He wrote that in 1970, and it is still, fifty years later, so prescient. Earlier, you made this point about selling out, but I would say that in the past decade there’s been a turning point where collaborating with a brand is now seen as a signal of success.
KSFor some artists it’s not just about collaborating with a brand, but really almost coopting a brand. Just look at Lauren Halsey and her Nike shoe: she’s integrating her own message and putting it forward with things that reflect the iconography of a Black urban neighborhood, right?
BKIn the same way that there’s more openness to collaborating with brands, I feel like there’s more of an appreciation for how important it is to work in the civic realm as well.
KSYes, many artists are shifting toward a more social practice, and thinking about the civic nature of how the public encounters, engages with, or is even part of the development of the work.
I love that we’re increasing opportunities for encounters with art, and pushing civic conversations through art, but it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes there are funding restrictions where you can only use the money to create a hard asset, an object. And that has set up interesting challenges and opportunities for us in terms of how we find support for different ways and mediums and approaches and social structures and everything else that artists actually want to use.
JH So Kristin, you’re running a county commission. Can you talk about LA County’s Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative?
KS A few years ago, the LA County Arts Commission—now the county’s Department of Arts and Culture—was asked to lead some constructive conversations about diversity and access in the arts. We had town halls, working groups, and an advisory committee and we were able to reach hundreds of people and stakeholders throughout the arts and the county and asked them to come together and think about what would be needed to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts. In the end, in 2017 we released the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative report, which has thirteen actionable recommendations. Right now we’re implementing five of the recommendations that the board approved and funded.
One of my big goals has been to look at how we can ensure value across audiences for the work that we do at the department for the whole county. I think a lot of large institutions, and museums in particular, feel off-putting to a lot of folks, whether it’s because they don’t see their cultural background, or where they live, or their income level, or their race represented there, or just because they don’t have a habit of going to museums, or they don’t feel welcome. Traditionally there’s been a position of “We’re the scholars and we’re telling you what’s important and we’re not going to explain it to you and don’t touch anything.” People don’t feel like a museum is their institution, or it doesn’t feel relevant to them. So it’s critical for institutions to make themselves more open, more relevant, more inclusive. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s actually way beyond that: it’s a business imperative.
Coming to a museum is a social experience. . . . It isn’t just one person connecting intellectually with one object. We encourage visitors to talk about the art while they are going through our galleries as much as possible.Joanne Heyler
JHWhen people walk in the door at The Broad, we want them to feel that this place is theirs. I’ve had the luxury, because Eli and Edye Broad fully fund the museum, to pull back all the things you see that people probably don’t even consciously register but that are there, like donor walls, all sorts of signage, lots of little things that sometimes add up to visual static, to an underlying sense that the museum is not for you, the ordinary visitor. When you walk into The Broad, you have agency as a visitor. There aren’t a lot of signs telling you where to go or in what order to see the collection. It might even feel a little disorienting for those who prefer structures, but people find their way, and encounter the collection on their own terms, and get drawn in very authentically—which is what you want in the end, right?
KSWe have a small research and evaluation team and we just released a new report on arts audiences. We talked to people from all walks of life throughout the county who self-identified as loving the arts. And what we learned is, people were talking about how much it affects them when they feel culturally represented in art. If a particular organization isn’t speaking to them or their experiences or their backgrounds, they aren’t drawn in. And if they don’t have somebody to go with, they won’t go—truly, that was one of the top reasons for not going, apart from things like access and cost.
JHThe social piece is very important. Coming to a museum is a social experience. It sounds like such a basic thing to say, but I think some institutions forget that when they think too academically. It isn’t just one person connecting intellectually with one object. We encourage visitors to talk about the art while they are going through our galleries as much as possible.
How important are collectors for each of your institutions?
BKIncredibly important. For collectors, it’s often quite straightforward to be a patron for a project that relates directly to their collections, but there are also opportunities to partner with civic entities and to support organizations that are more ephemeral.
JHDo you think the old-school idea of a collector, as someone assembling a cabinet of curiosities, is changing? Do you see a trend of collectors more attuned to cross-fertilization in the arts?
BKYes, I’ve been seeing that happen in LA. There’s always been this understanding of how collecting can be a creative practice, but in the past two decades, the activity of ownership and taking care of work is seen as part of a greater activity of patronage. Lately I’ve seen more collectors participating in conversations and supporting interdisciplinary projects than ever before. It makes sense: the art world is such an inspiring, exciting context that being part of it fosters all other areas of your life.
KSI love that as a mission—to expand the conversations around patronage, what it looks like, how you support artists, what this creative economy is and what that actually means. Of course, artists themselves are often also collectors. It’s interesting to think about how collecting is quite personal but can also be political when it intersects with civic engagement.
The Broad is an example of that, and of course Agnes Gund recently established the Art for Justice Fund, with $100 million from the sale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting, to support criminal-justice reform. That is such an amazing example of philanthropy, with a connection between the arts and a specific civic issue. We probably need to highlight more incredible examples of patronage and of collectors being philanthropists. Just imagine if we could inspire a few more collectors to sell a work of art and donate the proceeds, or even part of the proceeds, to a community in need of support.
It’s also important for collectors to realize that their patronage is supporting the talent of tomorrow.
JHRight, there’s definitely a growing group of mission-driven collectors. That’s not unprecedented; certainly, collectors have always had areas of interest outside of the objects themselves. But maybe there’s a difference between a personal curiosity and a passion that connects to the wider world that you can see in Agnes Gund as one example. The Broad collection contains so many artists whose work is political and about social justice, and we’ve tried to complement that thread through some of our special exhibitions at the museum like Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983. Today, many collectors, including prominent celebrities such as Sean Combs or Beyoncé and Jay Z, are collecting with a particular mission in mind: to advocate for artists of color. And of course, collectors have the privilege of being able to offer opportunities in unexpected ways to young talent coming from lots of different perspectives. Collectors usually collect because they’re intellectually curious; well, this is a great area to get curious about as well. There’s a growing knowledge bank, including the two of you, of people thinking very innovatively about how to widen and strengthen the art world through diversity. I hope collectors will take advantage of that.