I’m standing on a hillside in Wuppertal, Germany, in an ever-heavier misting rain. I’m holding an umbrella over my camera guy as he films large, gorgeous, undulating forms made of marble, wood, and bronze rising out of the landscape. I know this place from the documentary Pina, and it’s completely surreal to be here in person. An hour from now it will be thunderstorming, but we’ll be safe inside Tony Cragg’s massive studio speaking with him about his concept of “radical materialism.” This is our second week of moments like these. I stop and realize: I’ve got a pretty interesting job.
In 2013 the museum closed its doors and our program went On the Go, collaborating with partner institutions on exhibitions and events around the Bay Area. And as the museum went On the Go, so did the Interpretive Media team. This is the story of how our video program grew and evolved, and how I ended up on that hillside.
One of the greatest things we do in Interpretive Media at SFMOMA is interview artists who have works in our collection. Our team has one of the longest-running artist interview programs in the field. It goes back to the mid-1990s, before anyone really understood the impact that computing technology, and the Internet, would have on how museums, and all people, communicate.
Back then it was a smaller operation, one visionary staff person (my program’s inimitable founder, Peter Samis) and an army of interns and volunteers. In the first years, videos could only be shown in-house at the museum or distributed on a still-groundbreaking technology: the CD ROM. After 2000, the so-called broadband Internet finally accommodated videos the size of a postage stamp, allowing SFMOMA to introduce a wider audience to the artists as we knew them.
It was a priceless opportunity to get to know these artists—to see their faces as they explained their inspiration and passion, and to understand that artists are really cool, sometimes very quirky, human beings. They can be amazing, passionate weirdos who invent things out of an obsession from the beyond. They picked something up out of personal interest, curiosity, or the need to express the ineffable, and never put it down.
In 2010 I set a goal to increase the scope of our video interview program. It was right after we had lost some visionary artists we’d filmed in the past, such as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Conner, which redoubled my belief in what we were doing—not just for our audiences now and not just to get feet through the door of the museum, but for all people and for all time.
Our efforts were largely opportunity driven: artist A is in town for exhibition B and talks with us about collection works C, X, and Q. We had invested in a video camera that used SD MiniDV tapes (the standard at the time) and a big old Arri lighting kit. We spoke to some amazing people, almost always against a gray backdrop in whatever relatively quiet space we could find at the museum. The field’s interview standard at the time was precisely this: a talking head in front of a neutral background, and a three-point lighting setup. Film is a visual medium, though, and our editors would take this talking-head footage and intercut it with slow pans across still images (the Ken Burns effect). The clips were pretty great.
But we knew we could do more. Looking at a series like Art:21 or KQED Spark made that abundantly clear. We had done a few select studio visits over the years with legends such as Robert Bechtle and Olafur Eliasson , but those were major filmmaking initiatives requiring intensive staff time and multiple days of shooting. I began to wonder: could we find a sustainable way to incorporate artist studio visits into our video program on a more regular basis?
We started local, and our first efforts included a great interview with Will Rogan. The artists seemed to respond well. In the past, we’d found that interviewees could be intimidated by the museum context—the bright, interrogatory lights, the unfamiliar surroundings. The idea of “Importance to Art History and the Museum’s Archive” could weigh heavily on the conversation. Being in their own spaces brought a new ease and comfort to the interviews. Plus, it was really cool to get to see the studios.
We also started collaborating more intensively with local filmmakers, involving them more deeply as full creative partners in both the concept and visuals. SFMOMA has always had a strong practice of commissioning work from, and deferring to the expertise of, local creative professionals. It was time to involve them more completely in the filmmaking process.
Then the museum closed for expansion. In the absence of exhibition-related interpretive needs, I took the opportunity to start an ambitious studio-visit interview program.
We had several criteria for selecting and prioritizing subjects:
Beginning in fall 2013 I hit the road. Since then I’ve been to New York and Los Angeles several times, and all over the Bay Area. I have also been to Boston, New Jersey, Astoria (Oregon, not Queens), London, Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Wuppertal.
The ability to capture footage in situ of artists at work, with their collections of things and in their own environments, has created an incredible opportunity to introduce our audiences to an extraordinary range of creators.
So here I am on that hill in Wuppertal, jetlagged, mud on my boots, somewhere in the middle of an exhausting and exhilarating ten-day, ten-shoot international production tour that has taken us across Europe. My camera guy and I are both “knackered,” as the Brits say.
The new program costs more. It takes more time. It takes so, so much planning: pre-production planning, production planning, post-production planning, et cetera. Also, to be perfectly honest, traveling all the time for work is not as glamorous as some would want to believe.
But when you see the footage, it’s all totally worth it. Just listen, just watch, and you’ll hear and see a legendary artist such as Ellsworth Kelly, in his incredibly spacious and light-filled studio, reflect on what has driven him to make abstract work for all these decades. Check out the extraordinary collection of objects in Fred Wilson’s studio. You’ll see why we do this, and you’ll fall in love too with these artists and their work. You’ll fall in love all over again with making, and with looking.