The Theme of Displacement in Contemporary Art


This essay discusses images and ideas of displacement in recent works of art. The theme of displacement is considered in the context of the globalist aspect of contemporary art, itself a reflection of globalisation. The intensified movement of goods, information, capital, images – and people – around the world provides the setting for contemporary artists’ treatment of displacement in a wide range of contexts.

Theorising Global Art

2Contemporary art has increasingly been conceived as global art. Art theorists and art historians searching for a successor term to modernism and postmodernism have proposed, among other terms, network culture and globalism, as cultural conditions reflected by contemporary art. The critic and theorist Rex Butler has suggested that the “new style or movement of art that comes after postmodernism” should be called globalism (Butler 58), incorporating both the impact of globalisation on the concerns and content of contemporary art, and the international circuit of major art events at which the most recent artworks are showcased. 

3The art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud proposes as the successor to postmodernism an “altermodernity” comprising a “translation-oriented modernity” (Bourriaud 2007: 43). For Bourriaud such a conception of contemporary culture corresponds to the globalised world order, a modernity “born of global and decentralized negotiations, of multiple discussions among participants from different cultures” (43). Such a culture must be “polyglot”, because “the immigrant, the exile, the tourist, and the urban wanderer are the dominant figures of contemporary culture.” (51) Altermodernity for Bourriaud embraces the styles and techniques of modernity as “one phenomenon among others”, to be explored in a “globalised culture busy with new syntheses.” (186) The global network becomes a space of exchange, of diverse representations of the world, in which translation of ideas and representations places a crucial role in “discussions that will give rise to a new common intelligibility.” (188)

4Bourriaud cites as exemplary artists in this regard Gabriel Orozco, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jason Rhoades and Francis Alÿs, all of whom express the wandering aspect of modern urban life first defined in Baudelaire’s figure of the flâneur. This artist-figure becomes “one flesh” with “the multitude, among the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite”; such an artist is “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” (Baudelaire 6-12, cited in Bourriaud 2007: 92). The nomadic function celebrated by Baudelaire is intensified in the global age, as artists wander not just through cities but across continents.

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Beyond the Head: The Practical Work of Curating Contemporary Art

Sophia Krzys Acord 

Abstract In contemporary art, the curator plays an important role in the production of artistic meaning through exhibition-making. Although sociology has tended to see this work as the exercise of tacit or embodied knowledge, curatorial knowledge and plans may be elaborated and altered by the situated actions of exhibition installation. While curators know a successful installation “when they see it,” this depends on the indexical particularities of artworks and environments which cannot be predicted in advance. In demonstrating the practical ways in which culture is mobilized in situations of object (inter) action, this paper emphasizes the “making” in artistic meaning-making.

Keywords Culturalsociology.Distributedcognition.Actor-networktheory. Object-interaction


Speaking at the outset of the 21st century, art critic David Sylvester suggested that the most important people in the cultural world are not artists but curators, “the true brokers of the art world” (Millard 2001, p. 118). Curators have risen to prominence in the contemporary art world because of the increased importance of mediating between institutional bureaucracy, market forces, artistic representation, and public taste. In particular, the crux of curatorial practice in contemporary art is the construction of artistic meaning through the exhibition. As Greenberg et al. (1996, p. 2) describe, “Part spectacle, part socio-historical event, part structuring device, exhibitions—especially exhibitions of contemporary art—establish and administer the cultural meanings of art.” Yet, little is known about how curators go about creating these meanings in the physical process of exhibition installation.

S. K. Acord (*)
Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, 771 Evans Hall #4650, Berkeley, CA 94720-4650, USA


448 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:447–467


As a form of artistic mediation, curatorial work is traditionally seen by sociology as tacitly structured by “conventions,” “internalized dialogues,” and artistic “codes.” Particularly in contemporary art, this expertise is developed through a curator’s widespread familiarity with the international art world (Moulin and Quemin 1993; Octobre 1999). A curator’s knowledge about how to present contemporary artworks to the public is generally assumed to be part and parcel of their knowledge of the artwork (Tobelem 2005). This reduction of curatorial work to the exercise of tacit knowledge, however, overlooks the role played by artistic objects in their own mediation, and in doing so, fails to provide a documented, explanatory model of how culture enters into action. If something goes without saying because it came without saying, how, when, and where can it finally be said?

In order to look in depth at the practical and material dimensions of curatorial meaning- making in action, this article draws on comparative video-based, microethnographic studies of the exhibition-making process at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and ARC/ Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, supplemented by visual interviews with 34 other elite curators of contemporary art. This paper also draws on useful theoretical concepts in human-object interaction, distributed cognition, the sociology of affordances, actor-network theory, and learning to illuminate the extra-verbal dimensions of curatorial work. In particular, by examining how curators build successful installations through their physical orientations to artworks, this study demonstrates the reflexive and process-oriented ways in which tacit knowledge, aesthetic codes, and meaningful conventions are born, communi- cated, and mobilized in situations of (inter)action. In doing so, it argues for a more dynamic understanding of curatorial mediation, and the central import of object-oriented qualitative research to the sociological study of culture and action.

Dawn of the curator of contemporary art

The curatorial profession became standardized in the nineteenth century, hand in hand with the advent of the modern museum. As Bourdieu (1993 [1987], p. 204) explains, among an array of “specialized agents” (e.g., curators, critics, art historians, dealers, collectors) who shaped the economy of cultural goods, curators became crucial actors “capable of imposing a specific measure of the value of the artist and his products.” The combining of artworks by different artists to give selective readings on art and on the history of art is one of the fundamental principles that has underwritten curatorial practice since the mid-19th century. As traditional art curators overwhelmingly hold advanced degrees in art history, they generally mount exhibitions that are scholarly in nature (Alexander 1996; DiMaggio 1991; Zolberg 1981). This scholarly nature is reflected in the art historical nature of museum display, where exhibitions generally display artworks in a linear fashion within an overall historical perspective.

The 1960s and 1970s, however, witnessed the emergence of a new breed of curators in the burgeoning contemporary art world, including Harald Szeemann, Pontus Hulten, Lars Nittv, and others. Rather than base their approach to exhibition-making in art historical conventions, these curators engaged in critical curatorial practice, experimenting with the very nature of the exhibition format. In other words, the avant-garde movement among artists was met by an avant-garde movement in curating. This new breed of curator, akin to a stage producer or orchestra conductor, became sought out by institutions, often those dedicated to contemporary art but others as well, for their wide personal networks, effective


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social abilities, expertise on a particular subject, and powerful visions, rather than an advanced degree in art history.

Key here to the new museum curator’s role is the planning of temporary “ahistorical” exhibitions (Meijers 1996), often arranged thematically or contextually (Staniszewski 1998), in which the curator plays a role not unlike “author” of the exhibition (Heinich and Pollak 1989a). The exhibition is a way to validate the originality of the curator’s point of view, his or her aptitude for discovering new talents, and the artworks themselves by exhibiting them in a dialogue with each other to an initiated public (Octobre 1999). In contrast to the taxonomical or art historical approach to exhibiting traditional art, the exhibition process in modern and contemporary art is integral to the meaning of the art work (cf. Caillet et al. 2002; Ducret et al. 1990).

Significantly, the exhibition of contemporary art communicates the object by contributing another layer of meaning or interpretation to the artist’s original intention (Davallon 1999), which may be hazy to begin with. Practicing artists and performers have long recognized that artistic creation is an experimental and emergent process, involving input from traditions and intentionality as well as physical objects and spaces (Elkins 1999; Becker et al. 2006; Jarvis 2007). In contrast, as I will now examine in the following literature review, sociology has tended to see artistic mediation as distinct from the creative process, based on theories and guidelines rather than situated knowledge production.

Literature review

In their review of work in the sociological study of culture, Wuthnow and Witten (1988) describe two distinct views of culture as an “explicit” social construction and an “implicit” feature of social life. While the sociology of the arts continues to be driven in the main by the “explicit” conceptualization of culture as a recorded product or symbolic good, the specific study of the mediating activities surrounding explicit cultural forms is a window onto broader sociological conceptions of implicit culture (Acord and DeNora 2008). As demonstrated in this brief literature review, the study of knowledge production by mediators in art worlds (i.e., what informs curators’ decision-making) sheds light on how culture operates in general (i.e., to inform general patterns of individual and social meaning-making).

In the dominant “production of culture” approach in the sociology of the arts (cf. Peterson and Anand 2004), meaning-making is seen to be an outcome of institutional structure or the values held by particular actors. The artistic value of an artwork resides not in its material properties, but in the individuals, institutions, and processes that mediate between artist and spectator (cf. Crane 1987; Heinich 1998; Moulin 1967, 1992; White and White 1965; Wolff 1981). These different groups have a highly interrelated existence; for example, museums buy what galleries promote, and critics justify their value.

As Bourdieu (1985, p. 728) describes, the position of a mediator in this social space— what he terms the “field of cultural production”—plays an important, structuring role by suggesting the cognitive “‘filling-in’ strategies” by which he or she makes meaning. Using the example of a manuscript submission to a publisher, Bourdieu (1993 [1976], p. 134–135) observes how the publisher explains his choice to accept the manuscript with an absolute kind of “flair,” what Bourdieu describes as the “ultimate and often indefinable principle” behind his choice. This indefinable principle is explained by the fact that both parties have


450 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:447–467


what Lamont (2009) terms a “shared sense of craftsmanship,” which led the author to prepare his text based on what he perceived the publisher would want to read. In his “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception,” Bourdieu explains how such tacit “codes” play a central role in artistic knowledge:

An act of deciphering unrecognized as such, immediate and adequate “comprehen- sion,” is possible and effective only in the special case in which the cultural code which makes the act of deciphering possible is immediately and completely mastered by the observer (in the form of cultivated ability or inclination) and merges with the cultural code which has rendered the work perceived possible. (Bourdieu 1993 [1968], p. 215)

Artistic meaning-making, then, is the reference to and propagation of cultural codes, as linked to the mediator’s position (and strategic position-takings) in the cultural field. It is exercised through the mediator’s habitus, the set of “objective” dispositions he has by virtue of his place in the social order (Bourdieu 1979). As Bourdieu (1972, p. 79) notes, “It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know.” The power of the habitus as a reproducer of cultural codes (in the explicit cultural sense of the codes by which one encounters art) comes from its tacit mastery (implicitly acting through the habitus). 

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Curating with a Click: The Art That Participatory Media Leaves Behind


Bonnie Ruberg

Abstract: At a moment when technological participation seems to promise to bring innovation and democratic access to the contemporary museum, the results from one community-curated exhibit suggest that conservative cultural biases continue to shape the American public’s taste in art. In 2013, the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania collected more than 10,000 online votes for their People’s Choice exhibit. Voters were invited to choose their ‘top’ three artworks from among 125, and the twenty-five artworks that received the most votes were then displayed, while those that didn’t make the cut stayed tucked away behind closed doors. Rather than promoting diversity by making curatorial practices interactive and accessible however, the People’s Choice voting process rendered difference invisible. The result was an exhibit that appealed to the largest number of voters, yet excluded artwork that challenged dominant norms of gendered or racial privilege. Voters consistently chose realistic paintings of landscapes and white female subjects over abstract works, pieces by women, and images of people of color. The People’s Choice exhibit serves as a valuable lesson about the use of participatory media in museums, and about the potential pitfalls of crowdsourcing in new media cultures more broadly, demonstrating the importance of self-reflection as a key component of participatory cultural programming.


Artist Garret as Growth Machine? Local Policy and Artist Housing in U.S. Cities

Cultural Policy and Development: Who, What, and Is It Effective? 

Elizabeth Strom1 


Journal of Planning Education and Research 29(3) 367–378
© 2010 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning

While artists have always lived in cities, never before have city governments so actively sought to court artists, most notably by supporting the development of subsidized artist housing. This article relies on a survey of municipal officials, interviews, and secondary sources to document the spread of publicly supported artist housing.The article argues that artist housing programs can be found even in cities not known as cultural cities. It further demonstrates that in most cities, artist housing programs are considered part of an economic development agenda. It concludes that the unique class position of artists ren- der them well suited in the eyes of public officials to play a transformative role in urban neighborhoods.


artist housing, economic development policy, creative economy, subsidized municipal housing, urban development 

About ten years ago, officials in Paducah, Kentucky, desperate to revive their struggling Ohio River city of twenty-five thousand, placed ads in art magazines urging artists to relo- cate to their historic Lowertown district. The city altered its zoning to encourage a mix of residential and commercial activities and offered packages of loans and grants to in- moving artists. Today, Paducah claims about seventy artist households (several of which maintain blogs singing the praises of artist life in Paducah1), a number of galleries and cafes, and favorable publicity from outlets such as the New York Times Style Magazine (McGlinn 2008).

The tale of Paducah is emblematic of a larger story in which the arts, and artists, have come to be seen as catalysts for the revitalization of American cities. Arts and cultural policies, once on the fringes of the municipal policy arena, have woven their way into core areas of urban development policy making. City and state policy makers now see the arts as a potential generator of jobs and tax revenues rather than as expendable luxuries. In city and state governments, and across the nonprofit world, the policy arenas of arts and cul- ture, on one hand, and economic development, on the other, have found common ground. And now the Paducah story and others like it suggest that the individual artist as well has moved from the margins, becoming central to the “creative economy.” Artists, then, become that final, secret ingredient added by local stakeholders hoping to revitalize declining neighborhoods or to reposition cities in regional economic and symbolic hierarchies.

The primary goal of this article is to explore and contextu- alize the development of municipally supported artist hous- ing. Is the development of artist housing a significant policy area for U.S. cities? Which cities are building or hoping to build housing for artists, and why are they undertaking these programs? Do policy makers pursuing artist housing devel- opment see these efforts as an offshoot of traditional munici- pal housing policy, as an extension of their arts and cultural policies, as an element of an economic development policy, or as some kind of hybrid? And finally, how can we employ the- oretical perspectives on the role of the arts and of artists to understand the way artist housing development has been deployed? To answer these questions, we have undertaken a multimethod research project that includes a survey of munic- ipal officials and interviews with a subset of these officials, as well as with representatives of two nonprofits active in this field. We have also drawn on secondary sources that describe artist housing projects in cities not part of our survey.

The first part of this article reviews the literature on how the consumption and production of art has become identified as a vehicle for economic development and neighborhood revitalization by a variety of urban stakeholders. The next section surveys earlier artist housing programs and considers current artist housing initiatives in the context or municipal cultural and housing policies. The third part presents findings from survey and interview research with those involved or potentially involved in the development of subsidized artist housing. The fourth part features a discussion of those find- ings and considers their significance in light of the literature on the role of the arts in urban development.

Arts as an Economic Development Engine:

Consumption and Production

Cities have always been central nodes of artistic consumption and production, but it is in recent decades that we see local economic and political stakeholders consciously promote the arts as a means of economic development. The arts have ceased to be “merely” an endeavor of educational, social, or spiritual significance. Rather, they became the focus of civic pride and, more notably, generators of economic activity (Strom and Cook 2004). Cultural activities emerged as attrac- tive urban revitalization tools in U.S. cities for a variety of reasons. Cities have found that both industrial production and many aspects of business service provision can flee to subur- ban areas and rural regions but that urban areas continue to have a competitive advantage in cultural production and con- sumption, much of which still relies on direct contact among participants. The development of large, mainstream cultural institutions was linked to the promotion of tourism (an increasingly significant industry in many cities—see Judd et al. 2003) and also to the attraction and retention of large corpora- tions. Indeed, museums and concert halls have proliferated since the 1980s (Strom 2002; Hamnett and Shoval 2003; Trescott 2007). For many cities, the apparent success of new, architecturally significant museums such as the Bilbao Guggen- heim (Plaza 2000, 2006), or even of blockbuster shows in existing museums (Alexander 1996; Rosenbaum 1997) led to the association of the provision of cultural amenities with postindustrial economic development. Grodach and Loukaitou- Sideris (2007) note that such projects are largely conceived as tourism and economic development assets, but once built they serve multiple constituencies, offering programs to a range of local residents. But for city development officials, it is largely the economic impact of cultural amenities that has moved arts and cultural policies from the “education and recreation” to the “economic development” side of the municipal ledger.

If an appreciation of the economic value of cultural con- sumption can be considered a sort of “first wave” of the “arts as economic development” movement, then surely the more recent “second wave” has focused on the potential benefits of cultural production. Some of this interest grows out of studies stressing the importance of cultural production to local economies—an argument that has particular resonance in cit- ies like New York and Los Angeles, where cultural produc- tion is indeed a significant creator of jobs and wealth. Looking beyond the obvious film or theater industries, other analysts have noted the importance of the arts to for-profit sectors of production—for example, considering the high percentage of the value added to the advertising industry by graphic artists, writers, and musicians; or the importance of design to consumer objects like cars or couches (Perryman 2001; Markusen and King 2003; Currid and Connelly 2008). The arts industry as well as the larger universe of industries for which “creativity” is an important input are thought to benefit from clustering, and urban economic development officials are urged to encourage such clusters to take root (Florida 2002; Drake 2003; Currid 2007). Evidence of cross- fertilization between artistic production and other advanced services further encourages economic development officials to undertake programs aimed at promoting arts and culture (Markusen and Schrock 2006; Currid and Connolly 2008).

Today, states and cities often use the term “creative indus- tries” to label a cluster of economic sectors that may include the fine arts but also commercial arts, video production, and a host of related areas.2 States such as Massachusetts and cities such as Denver and Plano, Texas, have established “creative industries” coordinators. When the city of Philadelphia reopened its shuttered Cultural Affairs Office, it was renamed the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Even cities and states without specific creative industry offices have become cognizant of the potential for such synergistic efforts. The city of Austin offers loan guarantees to private lenders willing to extend credit to for-profit or nonprofit “creative” businesses promising to create jobs. Dozens of cities put out reports measuring and championing the role of the “creative industries” in their economies, often relying on numbers gen- erated by the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which calculates the value of the “creative industries” (defined here by number of establishments and employees in a list of arts-related standard industrial classification codes) for cities and congressional and state legislative districts.

This new, strategic sense of the symbolic and economic value of “creative industries” has led to a greater appreciation of the working artist as a symbolic and economic asset. To date, however, research on efforts to attract artists, through housing or other policies, has been limited. There has been some noteworthy scholarship about the relationship between artists, urban redevelopment, and gentrification—Sharon Zukin, most notably, described the process by which New York’s Soho was transformed from a manufacturing district to an arts enclave to a pricey residential neighborhood (Zukin 1982). More recently, Ley (2003) and Cameron and Coaffee (2005) have written about arts and artists as agents of transforma- tion. In much of this literature, as well as in the popular press, one finds both the hope that artists can “breathe new life” into struggling areas, as well as the fear that they would bring in waves of investment that would create gentrification pres- sures (although other than Zukin’s study of Soho, there has been little empirical evidence to substantiate these con- cerns). But there has been no scholarly work done on pub- licly supported artist housing programs; nor have any of the cities with artist housing programs measured their impact (although some, such as Boston, have done surveys of local artists prior to developing artist housing).

There is certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence strongly suggesting that urban stakeholders in many cities seek to attract and retain working artists and that such poli- cies are thought—or hoped—to reap economic benefits. For example, a South Beach developer, whose real estate hold- ings have benefited tremendously from the “discovery” of Miami by the fashion and arts industry, is now underwriting much of the cost of a new, tuition-free, graduate arts pro- gram intended to get artists to “stick around” because “fer- tilizing the creative class is good economic development policy” (quoted in Sokol 2008). Providence, Rhode Island, has held a reception through its Convention and Visitors Bureau for artists thinking of relocating, and the state of Rhode Island offers artist settling in specific areas tax breaks on income generated by their art as a way of attracting artists to cities (Schupbach 2003). At least some of these policies seem to be influenced by the work of Richard Florida, who has claimed that cities with a high percentage of “creative workers” in the labor force are more economically success- ful than other cities. A number of cities and states have cre- ated initiatives to help them attract those who meet Florida’s definition of “creative,” and artists are seen as an important part of this cohort (Florida 2002; Bradford 2004; Peck 2005).

The interest in attracting artists and creative production is clear in local and state policy making but perhaps most evi- dent in efforts to transform specific neighborhoods. As Zukin (1982, 84) notes, before artists had status and art had clear economic value, “it is inconceivable that ‘living like an artist’ would have exerted any appeal to segments of the middle class.” But in recent years, the growing economic and sym- bolic clout of art and its producers helped inject new value into the spaces they inhabited—often in marginal, industrial corners of older cities. Today, the connection between artists and urban real estate appreciation is so universally acknowl- edged it has almost become a cliché. Developers use the term “artist loft” as a marketing tool, creating urban loft-like spaces to appeal to residents whose “creativity” may be more in the area of accounting or gastroenterology than in music or paint- ing, at prices that would be unaffordable to just about anyone actually living on an artist’s wages. When business periodicals like Business Week and Nuwire Investor feature articles with names like “Bohemian Today, High Rent Tomorrow” (Roney 2007) or “How Artists Influence Real Estate Prices” (Winnie 2007), urging real estate investors to “follow the artists” when identifying the next big real estate opportunity, no wonder city officials are interested in figuring out how to bring some of this transformative power to their neighborhoods.

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A Research Report by Beth Carruthers 

It might seem at first blush that artists and scientists approach the world in very different ways. In popular culture, the former might be stereotyped as frivolous and disconnected from the “real world”, and the latter as unimaginative and concerned only with “hard facts”. Like most stereotypes, these are doomed to inaccuracy. In reality, the two have much in common, and where they do not, they can be most complimentary. Environmental philosopher Allen Carlson for instance, claims that one can have aesthetic appreciation of the environing world only through science, ie, through understanding how things work together beautifully in natural systems.


Beth Carruthers 2006

Artists and scientists alike begin their working projects and processes with a question – an enquiry. They are located within and asking questions of the same world. Processes and final manifestations of the work can differ greatly, yet goals may be parallel. Increasingly, when it comes to ecology and the environmental sciences many artists, scientists and environmental groups are asking similar questions and looking for solutions to the same, increasingly global, problems.

Similar questions about how we may improve human/world relations might involve finding and designing solutions to polluted waters, recovering and preserving habitats and species, educating people about the mystery of the other than human world and how everyday lifestyle choices impact this habitat we share.

Increasingly, the sciences and environmental groups are looking to the arts for partnership, collaboration and translation of vital information into forms that reach individuals, communities and organizations. The arts can facilitate a process of learning through the engaged senses, bypassing conditioned patterns of thinking and allowing other ways of knowing to come forward, at times subtly, at times overwhelmingly. Whether the work focuses on natural, cultural, or political aspects of their environing world, artists have always been sensitive and responsive to the world. The role of artist as catalyst, critic, and educator is hardly a new development. Oftentimes the work has been urgent, prodded into becoming by the nature of a crisis, catastrophe or political repression.

Never, though, has the role of the arts been so urgent as it is in the face of what is now obvious to all as an immediate global crisis within our sustaining and environing world. Because this crisis has been and continues to be nurtured and produced by past and current cultural practices and ideologies, artists, immersed in world and cultural practices, are ideally situated to locate and develop responses.

But if environmental groups and scientists increasingly look to artists for collaboration, many contemporary artists are just as frequently turning to scientists and ecologists for their detailed analysis of our interdependent world. As collaborators in artistic projects, ecologists and scientists provide in-depth research about, and a sophisticated understanding of, the interconnectedness of natural systems that can prove inspirational and efficacious in the design and implementation of EcoART works. 

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