by Adair Rounthwaite. University of Minnesota Press, February 2017. 280 p. ill. ISBN 9780816698738 (pbk), $27.00; ISBN 9780816698721 (h/c). $108.00.
Reviewed July 2017
In 1980, the Dia Art Foundation was in dire need of an institutional makeover. The private foundation, a personal vanity project created to commission large, semi-public artworks such as Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), had intentionally operated in relative obscurity since its 1974 inception. A financial crisis forced the foundation from its insular existence and into the sphere of the public museum, an arena where it could compete for public funding but was subsequently responsible for public programming. As part of its redefined mission to engage audiences, from 1988-1989 Dia hosted a series of rotating installations by Group Material and Martha Rosler, whose works were based on exploring hot-button social and political topics through socially engaged practice. By embracing these provocative projects, the foundation that had once exclusively championed rarified minimal and land art aligned itself with an emergent New York City scene of activist artists seeking to democratize the very experience of art.
Adair Rounthwaite uses Group Material’s Democracy Now and Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here as case studies to foreground the emergent participatory art movement of the 1980s, crediting the works’ sponsorship as the first examples of elite institutions aligning with multi-cultural, alternative art groups. Rounthwaite’s particular focus is how audiences were—or were not—engaged with the ambitious activist agenda the members of Group Material and Rosler set for their shows, which included installations, town-hall discussion meetings, and publications exploring the relationship of democracy to education, culture, politics, AIDS, and homelessness. Rounthwaite asserts that audience activation, funded by institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, is essential to understanding today’s art world culture of social engagement and new institutionalism. She suggests that contemporary participatory art—oft underwritten by biennials and cultural centers—could not have transpired without public institutions embracing the radical dialogue happening in 1980s New York art groups, who desired to acknowledge, discuss, and ultimately change social inequities.
The author compiles her historical analysis from archival photographs and audio recordings, as well as new interviews with the original artists. As such, she presents evidence from all sides on the success or failure of the art, suggesting frames for analysis without rigidly circumscribing the past to one critical narrative. This is either refreshing or frustrating, depending on what you are reading for. Also, be forewarned—despite the promise of the book’s title, it focuses deeply and narrowly on chronicling the Group Material and Rosler shows and their interrelationship with Dia. A recommended purchase for graduate libraries, optional for undergraduate.