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Arts Beat

Curator's Line in Sidewalk Costs Job

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page C05

What price pandaphobia?

Curator Philip Barlow's policy on automatically excluding PandaMania and Party Animals participants from consideration for Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran's 2005 Options exhibition has cost him his position.

The survey of emerging Washington area artists will now be curated by Libby Lumpkin, an art historian and critic who lives in California.


Panda statue. (DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities via AP)

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The move came after Arts Beat reported Sept. 23 that Barlow did not regard the city-funded sculpture projects as art. The artists involved "made a bad choice, and there are consequences to bad choices," Barlow told The Post.

WPA\C Executive Director Annie Adjchavanich issued a statement last week announcing Barlow's resignation and condemning his stance as a violation of "basic ethical norms of curatorial practice." Barlow calls the statement a "complete distortion." He says he was fired for taking a stand that was approved by Adjchavanich and WPA\C advisory board members in May at a dinner meeting before he was hired.

"I told them all the things I wanted to do and they expressed no concerns," Barlow says. "I was surprised there wasn't even any discussion. They all seemed to be supportive. . . . I didn't want to surprise them with it later."

Adjchavanich does not remember it that way: "If Philip Barlow said in May, 'I'm not going to include these artists,' someone would have said something. There would have definitely been a discussion about it."

But WPA\C board member George Hemphill says Barlow was perfectly clear about his intentions from the start. "I sat at a dinner with other board members and heard Philip Barlow say he would exclude Party Animals and PandaMania artists," he recalls. "I was there. I heard that. That's a fact. Nobody brought up an objection."

Jennifer Motruk Loy, WPA\C board chairman, also acknowledges that Barlow's curatorial positions were known to the organization when he was hired. "We trusted he would use his best judgment," she says. "At no time did we say to him, 'No, you can't not look at these artists.' "

The problem wasn't Barlow's policy against PandaMania and Party Animals artists, says Loy, but his decision to discuss it publicly.

Barlow wonders, "What's the point of having a position if you're going to keep it a secret?"

After an initial interview, Adjchavanich declined to answer additional questions. Some members of the arts community suggest the quagmire is rooted in WPA\C's affiliation with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and suspect it was the Corcoran that was keen on Barlow's ouster.

"Washington Project for the Arts' history is alternative space," says Hemphill. "Now that [it's] couched within the Corcoran, WPA\C's power begins and ends with the Corcoran. WPA\C's board of advisers is just that -- advisers -- not directors. The real people to look to are the Corcoran, not WPA\C."

Interestingly, the original Washington Project for the Arts had perhaps its highest-profile moment in 1989 when it hosted a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit after it was canceled by the Corcoran. But it was also the Corcoran that provided a financial bailout to the organization in the mid-'90s, resulting in the current WPA\C structure.

Loy says WPA\C received "advice and guidance" from Corcoran President and Director David C. Levy after Barlow's statements to The Post last month. "To preserve the integrity of the show, it was best to replace Philip," she says. "It was not an easy decision for us, but it was ultimately what we had to do."

"I did not direct them to take any specific steps," says Levy, although he did refer Adjchavanich to the institution's Freedom of Artistic Expression policy -- cited in WPA\C's statement last week -- which he felt Barlow had clearly violated. "The business on the animal projects crossed a very different line," he says, and overstepped the bounds of curatorial choice.

New Options curator Lumpkin, reached at her home in Long Beach, where she teaches art history and directs the museum studies program at California State University, says, "Any position a curator takes is a valid one," although she promises to be inclusive in her consideration of artists.

According to a WPA\C statement about Lumpkin's appointment released Monday, guidelines for emerging artists who wish to be considered for Options -- which has no dates or venue -- will be posted at www.wpaconline.org on Nov. 1. Lumpkin plans to review all submissions before scheduling studio visits during upcoming curatorial trips to Washington.

"I've been forgiving of artists who've painted dreadful cows in my part of the country," adds Lumpkin, "so I can be forgiving of artists who've painted dreadful pandas in your part of the country."


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