Interview Fairs USA

Power of the crowd

The curator of this year’s sculpture show in Collins Park tells us why the works—as well as the visitors—are “social animals”

Nicholas Baume, the director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund in New York

Since 2011, the organisers of Art Basel Miami Beach have teamed up with the Bass Museum of Art to host a free outdoor sculpture exhibition in Collins Park, dubbed the Public sector of the fair. Nicholas Baume, the director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund in New York, has been invited to organise this year’s show. We spoke to Baume about curating in Miami, the importance of public art and how sculpture encourages conversation.

The Art Newspaper: The theme of this year’s Public sector is “social animals”. What can you tell us about that?

Nicholas Baume: I wanted an idea that was broad enough to encompass a very diverse exhibition. So the idea of “social animals” came to me because it resonated on a number of levels. First of all, it comes from the Aristotelian observation about the nature of human beings [that we are naturally social]. It seems to me that the whole art-fair phenomenon is a great example of that. The fair is, of course, a centre of commerce, but it’s also a centre of communication. There is an exchange that happens here. Sometimes the “social” is cast as a negative. But it doesn’t have to mean airheads sipping champagne from dawn until dusk. It’s about communication. And what better place to think about that than in a public park, which is an inherently social space? I also like the idea of the sculptures and installations forming their own temporary community. So they’re social animals for the period of the exhibition. In a sense, I’m putting them in conversation with each other and creating a context in which they can have interesting dialogues and contrasts.

Why is public art important?

All of us who have been enriched by art were introduced to it somehow: we grew up in families that went to museums, or we went to a school that had art in its curriculum. There has to be a way that you’re given access to art. Being able [to offer that] to people who may otherwise not have that opportunity, or who don’t come from a background where that is possible—without sounding like too much of a do-gooder, there is a wonderful educational opportunity there. I also think people are being exposed to really interesting contemporary art. It’s not just a decorative work beautifying the neighbourhood; I’m talking about work that is really shaping the conversation about contemporary art. From the point of view of the artist, what I’ve noticed since I’ve been working in this field is how stimulating it is for them to have this rigorous discipline of the public. I think artists love and appreciate their gallery and museum audiences, but that can also be quite a specific group. To break out of that and to feel as though your work is connecting with the general public in an intuitive and immediate way can be incredibly energising.

Does public art function differently in the context of an art fair?

I’ll be learning about that, since I’ve never done this before. Does the fact that you know these works are for sale, that you could conceivably buy one, change the way you experience it? Or will people even be conscious of that? I don’t know. The show will continue under the auspices of the Bass Museum [after the fair ends], so it begins its life as a part of the art fair but has an ongoing existence as well. Will that affect people’s experiences and perceptions? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll both find out.

“Social Animals”, Collins Park, Miami Beach (until March 2014); Nicholas Baume is in conversation with the artists Kate Gilmore, Alicja Kwade and Mungo Thomson in the Hall C auditorium, Miami Beach Convention Center, today at 2pm

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