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Art In Conversation

Phyllis Braff and Marek Bartelik WITH PHONG BUI

On the occasion of AICA (The International Association of Art Critics), USA section, 25th Annual Awards, which will be held at the Guggenheim Museum on March 2, 2009, Rail’s Publisher Phong Bui spoke to its current Co-Presidents Phyllis Braff and Marek Bartelik about the organization’s history and mission.

Lynne Cooke and Kinaston McShine at the 2008 AICA awards. Photo by Larry Litt.
Lynne Cooke and Kinaston McShine at the 2008 AICA awards. Photo by Larry Litt.

Phong Bui (Rail): Looking at the list of past Presidents, which includes James Johnson Sweeny, George Heard Hamilton, Rosalind Krauss, Dore Ashton, Irving Sandler, and Eleanor Heartney, along with many other distinguished past and present critics, historians, curators, and scholars, I realize how long and rich a history AICA has had. Would you retell us briefly about AICA’s genesis, its mission and whether it has modified its ideas or operations since its inception; how is it structured now, compared to how it was structured initially?

Phyllis Braff: AICA was founded in Paris around 1948/49, in the wake of WWII when the Cold War was rapidly gaining momentum. There was a real need to create an organization that would protect, preserve, and encourage critical discourse and communications between countries and in turn help to promote the awareness of the value of art criticism, while serving the needs of the critics and the public. AICA USA is the U.S. section of the International Association of Art Critics, originally affiliated with UNESCO as a non-governmental organization; currently there are 64 participant countries around the world, representing more then 4,000 members.

By organizing conferences, panels, symposiums, programs and lectures on a regular basis, we provide information about what is timely in our field. For example a couple of years ago we organized a panel at the New York Public Library called “Double Talk and Double Politics of Language,” and a year later, when everybody was talking about Christo and his “Gates” (2005), we did an all day symposium, called “Art, Democracy and Public Space.” That event brought many different opinions on how art affects public space and how it reflects social concerns. The Annual Awards, created in 1984, acknowledge highest achievements in curatorial excellence. This year, there are two new categories, university galleries and performance, which have been given their own individual recognition.

Marek Bartelik: AICA USA’s program is very expansive because we are actively involved in promoting criticism throughout the United States, while bringing it into the international context. That way our activities here and our colleagues around the world are in constant dialogue. We welcome our first representative of Africa, Yakouba Konate of the Ivory Coast, who was elected new President of AICA International at the Congress in Barcelona in November of last year. The Board of AICA International consists of critics from Central and South America, North America, and Europe. Hopefully we’ll be able to expand our involvement with Asia, where AICA International held two congresses in the 1990s.

Rail: What are the requirements and qualifications as far as how a new member is selected?

Braff: To qualify the person has to be writing regularly and analytically about the art of the 20th and 21st centuries and has to be active as a critic for at least the past three years. It’s just a way to show that our members are really committed to working in the field and contributing to the field on a long-term basis. The organization is also open to those who write on the Internet. All members of AICA USA become members of AICA International.

Rail: What is the percentage between older and younger critics?

Braff: One of our goals is to attract as many young critics as possible. We create varying forums and events so they can attend and feel encouraged to voice their views. Since 2006 we have had a mentoring program in collaboration with the CUE Foundation, which selects emerging writers to work with accomplished critics and publish their writing in conjunction with an exhibition. Annette Grant (one of our distinguished Board members) was the first to guide the program. Now we are very fortunate to have Elizabeth C. Baker directing the program, and young writers will benefit from her directorship immensely. There are several programs scheduled during the CAA Conference in LA for the end of February that will involve younger critics, including a panel called “Just Another Critical Day in Paradise: Art Writing in Los Angeles.” A long time AICA member, Peter Frank, will be the moderator while the rest of the speakers are younger critics. Similarly, though in a broader context, a couple of years ago we co-sponsored a multidisciplinary conference which included dance, theater, and music critics; we talked about the different critical tools and approaches useful to critics and how the publication opportunities are evolving in our fields. The conference was heavily attended by younger critics.

Bartelik: Critics who just enter the field are very often discouraged since opportunities to practice art criticism are so limited and there are fewer and fewer places in which they can publish their writings. We want to create a wider support both locally and internationally. AICA exists as a vital community for younger critics, while the entire organization serves to further the importance of art criticism.

Rail: So criticism is a way of life for all you?

Braff and Bartelik: It certainly is.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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