Q&A: Anne Pasternak, president of Creative Time, on the artist's role today

Anne Pasternak makes decisions most curators are too afraid to make. At Creative Time, she's proven the unthinkable is possible.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

Anne Pasternak is the woman joyously holding up the inflatable car, both literally and metaphorically. She’s been keeping enormous-scale public art projects afloat in New York City and beyond for 20 years. No small feat.

Pasternak is the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, an organization that has commissioned ambitious public art projects, staged for free, since 1974.

Pasternak is behind some of the most risky big-budget art projects of the past two decades –- greenlighting artist Vik Muniz drawing clouds over Manhattan with a crop duster and sending Paul Chan to post-Katrina New Orleans to stage Waiting for Godot, for example.

Trevor Paglen’s golden disc is currently out there, orbiting the earth in “virtual perpetuity.” For Grand Central Terminal's 100th anniversary, Chicago-based artist Nick Cave brought in a herd of 30 life-sized horses, which danced for thousands of travelers and spectators alike.

You get the idea.

“If Creative Time ever gets static, then it’s time for me to leave,” Pasternak said. It’s hard to imagine that ever happening. The organization is perpetually redefining what “public space” means and pushing the boundaries of where public discourses take place.

SmartPlanet sat down with Pasternak to talk about Creative Time’s ever evolving vision and the state of the art world today.

You’re coming on your 20-year anniversary of Creative Time. Could you tell me about the organization and your role there?

The short of it is that we commission adventurous art projects by visual artists in the public realm. The longer part of it is the three values that have defined our work historically. One, artists matter in society and should be weighing in on the times in which we live. There is no door an artist shouldn’t kick open. Number two, it’s important to give artists opportunities to experiment and broaden the ways in which we think about art and how art engages with culture and society. Three, that idea that public spaces are places for people to come together and have free, creative, open expression, whether it’s about beauty, wonder, joy, sorrow, mourning or provocation.

What are you most excited about at Creative Time right now?

We’re trailblazing ways in which artists are engaging with the important issues of our times. Artists all around the world are concerned with aspects of climate change, revolution, how global economies have impacts on local communities, human trafficking, prisons in America –- all kinds of things -- and artists are participating both directly and indirectly in these issues from a local to international level.

How do we as an organization help foster those practices? We’ve done a few things. One is we’ve started what has become the biggest art and social justice conference in the world: the Creative Time Summit. It’s a way for artists to share best practices and elevate the conversation about what artistic practice can be today.

It’s a very exciting moment. Artists are breaking through the traditional boundaries of thinking about an art object as something you hang on a wall or put on a pedestal.

We’ve also started a pilot program –- our own news media organization called Creative Time Reports. Because of digital technology and social networks, we’re now able to create conversation and build community in an unprecedented way.

While museums like the Guggenheim are franchising, we have other ways to build community that don’t require that kind of investment, overhead and infrastructure.

Let's talk about Creative Time Reports. Artists from around the world take on the role of journalist and report on current issues and events. For example, in a recent article Molly Crabapple argues that Bradley Manning, a 25-year-old Army whistleblower facing a life sentence for “aiding the enemy,” in fact only betrayed the military out of loyalty to humanity. Artists as big as Ai Weiwei weigh in as well. And journalism is a very specific context for artists to be engaging with -- to be speaking on current events. How are people responding to this?

First of all I want to say an artist is not any more or less important than a trained, professional journalist. We’re not trying to take over journalism.

There’s a whole new turn toward citizen journalism. One because so many newspapers have folded -- they aren’t making profits and they aren’t sending people to places of crisis as it’s so expensive and difficult to ensure people’s safety.

We have artists contributing to important issues they are very well versed in -- either because their work is based on a great deal of research, or it might be an aspect of their work ignored by the art world.

Again and again I see retrospectives of major artists whose activism is left out of the museum. How is that possible? This is supposed to be a retrospective of their work! But I diverge.

People like to put artists in a box. Artists don’t want to be in a box. Creative Time Reports gives artists an opportunity to weigh in on the important issues they are very well versed in. It’s also the only opportunity out there for artists to not have their work interpreted and judged by critics. Now, critics are very important. I’m not going to say that they’re not. But all artists should also have opportunities to speak for themselves. Finally, it’s the only opportunity in the art world where artists who are extremely well known -- from New York, London, Berlin, Beijing --  work on the same playing field as artists who are not well known -- from Ethiopia, Nairobi, Burma. That’s very important to us. To expand who can contribute to public information and dialogue.

I’m thinking about the very political and outspoken nature of what you do. Historically, if you are outwardly political it’s terrible for cash flow. Yet a huge aspect of your work involves raising money. How do you navigate that? How have you been so successful?

Well we’re not apolitical but we don’t have a political voice. We provide platforms for artists to communicate what’s important to them using public spaces for free expression. The same is true for Creative Time Reports and the Summit. We believe in free expression. Anything that would shut down free expression is, in my opinion, un-American, unpatriotic and unthinkable. We may not always agree with what the artists are saying, but nevertheless we provide a free platform for expression.

Self-censorship is alive and well in American institutions -- from corporate to educational to cultural. Our supporters love that Creative Time is a place for free expression. So if you feel uncomfortable about having certain conversations, Creative Time is not an organization you want to support.

Here I'm about to do the very thing I'm criticizing -- but I want to talk about being a woman in the art world today. You run Creative Time, you have a tremendous about of power, the organization was founded in the 1970s by three women: Susan Henshaw Jones, Anita Contini and Karin Bacon. On one hand I want to talk about the rarity of this, on the other hand I'm sick of reviewers constantly noting, "This artist is a woman." You’ve been at the center of art in New York City for a long time. Have you noticed a change? Where are we at now compared to when you started your career?

I am a child of the third wave of feminism and the culture wars. When I started out in the late 1980s, I ran a gallery. I remember major collectors -- who will remain nameless -- saying things to me like, “Oh, we don’t buy women artists,” and “We wouldn’t pay that much money, that’s a woman artist.”

If you look at the percentage of women who are curators in our cultural institutions, the vast majority are women. That’s great. But take a look at our major institutions. They are all run by white men: the Whitney, Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art. It’s as if we still only trust our major institutions to men –- and white men in particular.

But I do believe there is a glass ceiling. If an institution closes for example, and a mid-career woman in her 40s or 50s loses her job, it’s a lot harder for her to find another job in the art field than it is for a man in the same position.

So, do I think we’ve come a long way since I’ve entered into the field? You bet. Do I see progress? You bet. Do I think we still need to have a conversation about opportunities for women and particularly people of color? Absolutely. The issue of racial equity within our felid to me is an even more pressing conversation.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short time. Is there anything you’d like to end with?

Creative Time is an ongoing experiment. For me, it is about always expanding our horizons around who an artist is, what an artist does, and how an artist can engage in shaping culture -- and I mean culture with a small c.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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