THE CHICAGO MCA
Panel discussions in museums can be tedious excursions into failed utopias. The problem is that your typical artist is selfish by nature, only interested in hearing the sound of his or her own voice. Meanwhile, curators believe their true calling is academia, so they always try to outduel artists in public forums. By the time the audience gets to ask questions, the fact that they are disposable is undeniable.
Fortunately that wasn’t the case last week during “ The Dialogue at the MCA,” an annual conversation at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art that focuses specifically on museums and "diversity." Everyone involved behaved. But the audience was there for only one reason, to see Hennessy Youngman’s first ever live performance of his acclaimed YouTube show, “Art Thoughtz.”
Hennessy Youngman is a fictional character created by Philadelphia artist Jayson Musson that became an overnight sensation among art people. Youngman is a sort of a smart–ass social critic, like George Carlin and Paul Mooney rolled into one. As for Musson's previous work, you can check his website and see that his paintings and text-based works are generic, rather corky comments on racial identity.
A packed theater greeted Hennessy's act with effusive applause and laughter. Our hero delivered jokes around one of this year's common topics of conversation -- “Millennials: The Generation Born between 1980 and the Early 1990s.” Wearing his typical funky cap and projecting on screen an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, Hennessy drew comic comparisons between gay marriage, the dangerous multitasking techniques of today’s youth, and exploitative mining in Africa.
Once the performance was over, a hip-looking Musson -- not Hennessy -- joined an onstage discussion with Michelle T. Boone, Chicago's newly appointed Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and new MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, formerly an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York.
During the panel it was disclosed that 60 percent of MCA visitors are under 30 and that 8 million people visit Chicago museums every year. At one point, Beckwith questioned what effects the social media revolution, so central to the Millennial generation, would have on future museum programming. To that Musson replied, “What people think has a digital life, and museums have to listen.” Boone on the other hand thinks that Millennials want both a dialogue with artists and transparency from their institutions.
To my surprise, Rahm Emanuel's city bureaucrat came off as the most radical of the bunch when she urged art institutions to engage marginal communities permanently, rather than simply using them to flesh out grant applications. I hope her words resonate all over the country.
In 2008, when Madeleine Grynsztejn became director of the 40-year-old Chicago MCA, she pledged to make the museum a more integral part of the city’s social fabric while also focusing on its ties to the Chicago art community which, honestly speaking, the museum had dismissed for so long.
Grynsztejn’s approach and an infusion of fresh blood -- Beckwith, as well as new chief curator Michael Darling, formerly curator at the Seattle Art Museum -- is going to pay off. So far her team has been able to recognize the value of Hennessy’s success outside the grid, and Millennials, who are not an age group but a set of values and future consumers or culture, are already paying attention.
PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.