PRINT April 2008


Where does art stand within the broader landscape of mass commerce today? To answer this question, Artforum editor Tim Griffin sat down with retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, author of the best-selling books Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (1999) and Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping (2004). Founder and CEO of Envirosell, Underhill studied with social scientist William H. Whyte before going on to observe the circulation of automotive and pedestrian traffic in and around urban—and, more specifically, commercial—spaces. He has advised a spectrum of clients ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue and Starbucks to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The following conversation took place in Envirosell’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

Great Hall, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002. Photo: Brooks Walker.

Tim Griffin: Among my favorite arguments in all of art criticism is Meyer Schapiro’s assertion that the late nineteenth-century avant-garde always bore the inscription of mass commerce—that in its subjects, techniques, and modes of attention, one finds reflections of the day’s arcades, as well as of its constructs of work and leisure. Given your work both with art institutions and retail environments, I’ve long wanted to get your views on their common and distinct traits today. And so, to begin with general impressions, how might you situate galleries or the museum in the greater landscape of contemporary commerce?

Paco Underhill: Can I organize this differently?

TG: Absolutely, please.

PU: OK. First of all, I am very conscious that the line between fine art and commercial art has just completely disappeared. The two are totally interconnected, by which I mean that the person making art, the person doing billboards, the person making ads, and the person making websites are all part of the same gestalt. And so the art world understood as the leading edge—that is, as the avant-garde—has been almost entirely lost. The role once occupied by the avant-garde in art has been swept aside for another role fulfilling our need to communicate in ways other than those provided by television, media, and advertising.

The way in which the public interacts with art has subsequently changed. Historically speaking, art has for the past couple centuries revolved around one-to-one relationships: the one-to-one relationship between the artist and the work being created, and the one-to-one relationship between the work and the person looking at it. These relationships underpinned those institutions of art birthed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were reflected in their very structures: When we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we stepped off the street and started up a long staircase, at which point we entered a major hall and went up another long staircase. There was a sense of separation between the reality of the street and the interior of the museum. And while this sense of separation was intended to extend to the world of commerce, we must also recognize that the Metropolitan Museum was birthed at roughly the same time as Macy’s—in other words, when people, regardless of whether they were visiting the Metropolitan or a department store, were there to spend three or four hours of their time.

Think about that. The typical visit to a department store in 1880 was four hours long. Today, on the other hand, in the context of our multitasking lives, we see a lot of hit-and-run visitors to institutions. For every person who walks into the Museum of Modern Art, plunks down his or her twenty bucks and tries to spend half a day there, there’s a member who’s zipping in and out, saying, “I’m here in midtown. I’ve got twenty-five minutes. I’m going to go in and look at the show.” There are also people who just want to visit the gift shop or café. And this changed relationship is reflected in the Modern’s metrotropic existence: We are able to look out its door and windows and immediately see where we are.

Something to add here is that in a world where relationships are in transition, the act of looking at art has become one of social expression and social knowledge. And so when we think about the role of a gallery, it isn’t about my own looking at that painting, going, “It has meaning to me.” Rather, I’m thinking, “I’m with you, and we’re both looking at that, and we’re talking to each other.” This is why if you go to, you’ll see that people find one of the great ways to find out about somebody is by going to a museum. It doesn’t involve alcohol. It is a daytime activity. There’s no exchange of personal information. It is completely safe. And when you walk out the door—whether it’s one hour or twenty minutes later—you have a much better idea of who that other person is.

Similarly, if I’m running into somebody in a gallery, I know there’s a greater chance that this person is interested in the same things I am. It’s not like going to a bar. If I’m meeting somebody in, say, the Paula Cooper Gallery, I can reasonably expect that this person has had some experience with art history, that this person is here with a much more open mind, and even that the person has some idea who Paula Cooper is—because lots of people look into galleries and just move on, whereas this person and I are staying. This kind of triangulation is what makes Chelsea possible. You’ll have a gallery that opens its doors on Saturdays even while knowing it will sell absolutely nothing, because real collectors wouldn’t think of going there on a Saturday to actually buy something. Sure, a collector might go there to look, but the gallery is actually open so that a social fiber is woven as we go rattling around the galleries. We go with friends, or maybe we meet somebody. It becomes a context.

In fact, we can say that art has evolved into a way of overcoming status inconsistency—something that’s very important in a place like New York City.

Status inconsistency. You, as the editor of Artforum, have status, correct?

TG: Hard to say.

PU: You’re probably paid modestly. And then there is a son of a bitch who’s a bond salesman on Wall Street and makes $5 million a year, he is twenty-six years old, his IQ is half yours, and he has no status. So how is status acquired? It’s often through civic or cultural engagement. Michael Bloomberg is, for instance, this kid who grows up outside of Boston in lower-middle-class fashion, becomes a billionaire, and yet nobody recognizes him walking down the street. What does he do? He becomes mayor. Now, when it comes to culture, on the other hand, I can serve it or I can acquire it. Ronald Lauder is a great example of somebody who spent enormous amounts of money and energy in the propagation and institutionalizing of culture. That’s both wonderful and a little scary.

TG: Regardless, what you’re saying points back to art’s inextricably linked public and private dimensions.

PU: Glenn Lowry at the Modern raised more than $800 million in the midst of a dot-com meltdown, and he did it nearly all privately. That’s extraordinary. But he didn’t realize that the ticket price should have been pushed up to fifty dollars, not twenty. He didn’t realize just how many people were going to come.

TG: The sheer volume, you mean?

PU: The Modern is completely overwhelmed, and so a lot of members who gave huge sums of money are no longer going when the museum is open—which is why the Modern is aggressively doing programs for members when the galleries are closed to the public.

But here we encounter the matter of art’s popularization. The world of art, after all, has gotten to hotels and casinos. And where does Thomas Kinkade fit into this? Galleries of Light exist in shopping malls across the country, so that he has taken an almost industrial approach to constructing canvases, and that gets down to what is decor versus art. There are people who will swear on a stack of Bibles that Kinkade is the greatest artist of the twentieth century. And you know what? They might be right. He went out there and commercialized what he was doing. And the art of taking his art to market is something I think I can deeply admire. I’m not so sure I’d want to live with it, but the commercial engine . . .

TG: The art lies somewhere else.

PU: Yes, the art lies in the process, which to me is a Fluxus idea.

TG: How do these considerations of the public figure into your work with museums?

PU: When I work with museums across the country, I’m asking a couple of different questions. One is, “How can you structure memberships that get beyond the individual and the family to get to some tribal membership group?” In other words, if you’re thinking of a museum or gallery as a place for people to meet, the role of stores and cafés becomes much more critical. How can you take the visitation process and give people the confidence that their membership can be used in twenty-minute sips if they want? Consider the degree to which the Whitney and even the Metropolitan are trying to find ways to make themselves into more social spaces—and I don’t mean “social” in terms of events, but rather in terms of some ongoing crossroads.

TG: It’s interesting to me that every museum faces the problem of positing its own audience. It’s intriguing to consider, say, the Museum of Modern Art versus the New Museum in terms of how their architectures, and then their programming, might begin to evolve based on who they’re imagining their audience is.

PU: In working with the Smithsonian over the years, one of the questions we kept asking is this: Is it the role of certain institutions to be evangelical? One of the things I love about the LA County Museum of Art is that you can visit and, never having seen an art museum before, still have a great time. Somebody can always just walk in and go, “Wow.” At an institution like the Modern, however, you might walk in and find an Antonin Artaud show of drawings. For those of us with knowledge of twentieth-century thinking, or for whom Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty was a fundamental part of our education, this will be cool. But someone else will wonder why he should care. Artaud is not a great artist. The drawings are tortured. So what is the role of the institution in terms of how it fits into the mix?

TG: And how does an institution begin to contemplate an answer?

PU: The challenge is often steeped in people’s geography. Let me give you an example. On the Mall in Washington, one of the most popular museums is the Air and Space Museum. Somebody walks in, they see the Spirit of St. Louis, they walk out the door, and they spot the Hirshhorn Museum. So they go there. And for many of them, the Hirshhorn will be the first art museum they’ve ever seen. Now, if you went to the Hirshhorn and said, “I want you to be an evangelical institution for the introduction of people to modern art,” they would go, “That isn’t our charter.” And I’m in complete sympathy with them. But in the context of the greater culture, I think we still want to reach out to the population, bring them in, and captivate them. Do you know what is currently displayed in the first gallery of the new National Portrait Gallery?

TG: No.

PU: The first gallery shows these wonderful, exuberant portraits of hip-hop stars by Kehinde Wiley. There are LL Cool J and Ice T, all done in this absolutely flamboyant, pimp-your-ride kind of portraiture. And only in later galleries do you start dealing with American history, looking at all the dewy, fat Puritans. Somebody decided that a certain number of people walking into this place will stay if the museum could hit them immediately with something familiar. I’m not so sure that any of these paintings are going to be important by themselves, honestly. But as an introduction to portraiture for the teenager walking in through the door, it’s good.

TG: Recently, I viewed a videotape made by an institution that followed museumgoers through its galleries before asking them, in essence, why they had visited the museum: What had they hoped to find, and what was their experience, ultimately? Almost uniformly, everyone replied that they were looking for something to surprise them, something to puzzle them, something that would give their minds a “workout.” How common would you say that is within the museum sphere, and how unique is that when it comes to culture more broadly?

PU: Well, typically when you interview someone in that way, they’ll tell you what you want to hear. So I don’t put much stock in such exchanges. But let’s look at going to the museum as an extension of why somebody goes to the movies here, which is simply that they want to be entertained. They want to be shocked. They want to be tickled. They want their minds to be stretched. All these things are true, but another reason is that we want to feel good. I often go to a museum to visit my old friends. I’ll walk into the Modern or the Met looking for things that have stuck in my head. If I’m at the Musée d’Orsay, I want to look again at Moorish paintings of the late nineteenth century. There are things that have had meaning to me at various points in my life that I like to go visit. The reasons why we go to a museum evolve as we age and as our experience with culture changes.

TG: But then there’s your proposition about the erosion of the avant-garde and its relationship to culture at large. How do you see that in terms of what you’re describing?

PU: I’ve had this argument with Martha Wilson, the founding director of Franklin Furnace, about how art, in one way or another, has seemed to have institutionalized or actively sought shock values: “Oh, here’s the cross in urine, or here’s the elephant dung on canvas.” It’s like somebody’s looking for some gimmick in order to “make it”—and frankly, this pales beside the example of Islamic teenagers strapping explosives to their bodies and blowing up people in the marketplace in Baghdad. And perhaps this other situation is now the context for avant-garde art. You have to think in terms of the conscience of our culture, which is historically what the leading edge of art has been about: Where are people asking questions about what’s going right and what’s going wrong in the world in which we live? That role, I think, has been taken over by realms other than the art world as the world has gotten smaller—whether by the Natural Resources Defense Council or Greenpeace. So many issues that challenge us as a species now are not about politics, but rather morality. The idea that someone can be an avid ecologist and a fundamentalist Christian isn’t a disconnect. Someone can be a member of both the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association. And as the edges of our culture have become murkier, the role of the avant-garde has become, in a way, less necessary.

TG: Hence, art’s situation as a kind of social site above anything else?

PU: Correct.

TG: And when you speak with institutions and consider the role of art in the greater culture now, what do you propose?

PU: First, I propose that institutions better understand how they intersect with their audiences and recognize that their long-term growth is steeped in making themselves more relevant to the viewing public.

Partly, this means conceiving of themselves as something. I’ve thought it very interesting that the Albright-Knox Art Gallery [in Buffalo] is being criticized for selling different parts of its collection. To my mind, the Buffalo museum, quite accurately, can say something like, “If somebody wants to see a survey of ancient art, they can go to New York City. If we don’t have much art in a certain area, or if what we have is good but not great, why should we devote space to it when we can do better elsewhere? A small institution in Buffalo should have some other focus.” Whether you’re the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, or the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, there are ways of conceiving your role in the context of the immediate community you serve and the larger community you would like to be part of.

Something else that is true in both the museum and retail worlds is that we live in a world designed by men, managed by men, and owned by men—and yet we expect women to participate in it. Therefore, what makes a female-friendly institution is really important. This isn’t just about strollers. It might be about benches or chairs; it might be about the choice of shows. Here we could say that the larger world of culture is just now being gender integrated. But name me a painter from before 1900 who was female. Part of the problem is, of course, that so many female art forms were flatly called craft. I have a lovely Mennonite quilt on my wall made after a pattern done in the 1850s that is as much an abstract construction as anything done by someone in the 1950s.

The final issue is more specifically about how to make yourself relevant. New York, after Paris, is the second-largest tourist destination on Earth, yet I ask you: What are our institutions doing to make themselves friendly to people who don’t speak English? To make an analogy: If I walk into the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and want to buy something using Swedish kronor, they’re happy to take my money. If I walk into Saks in New York and offer to pay for something in Swedish kronor, they’ll probably call security. In this sense, both retail and museums are cultural institutions, since interactions with people walking in the door are exactly the same.

TG: But when it comes to relevance there is also the question of programming, which is difficult.

PU: It is difficult because the curatorial community is caught between the objects they love and the educational function they’re asked to serve. The curators want to put on culturally relevant shows, and yet they’re often being asked to do it with one hand tied behind their backs, whether it’s due to political expediency or correctness, or someone basically saying you have to dumb it down and do something that’s popular.

TG: Which is something of a paradox, when it comes to relevance and popularity.

PU: Well, it’s up to the institution to start figuring out where it fits in. If I’m the Whitney or the Met, I might be able to process where my relevance is differently than the Modern, since the question operates in direct relationship to the public money that you accept—meaning that if you accept public money, you’re expected to offer a public service. But if you’re a private, not-for-profit institution, your ultimate responsibility isn’t to the public at large, it’s to your members.

TG: There are very different publics for art.

PU: One of the challenges of the art world is that you’re caught between two very disparate worlds. One is the world of the people who are actually making the art, the ones who are sitting out in Brooklyn; and the other is the world of the people actually buying the art, those who can walk into a Chelsea gallery and plunk down $30,000. The curators and critics who live between these two worlds have to straddle the divide, which is not easy.

TG: Just the encounter with the physical space of the gallery is radically different for those two camps.

PU: I want to tell you something. One of the origins of my business was my friendship with gallerist Holly Solomon. Around 1978 or 1979, I said, “Holly, I think I have a way of better understanding traffic patterns. Could I come set up my cameras in your gallery and watch how people move through your space and see if I can’t rate all of the positions on the wall in terms of your selling art?” She said, “Be my guest.”

So I went into her gallery and set up my Super 8 time-lapse cameras on a Saturday, recording all the ways in which people circulated. And I took all the positions of paintings on the wall and noted the number of people who stopped, and for how long. And then I rated the positions in the order I thought paintings sold off the wall. Now, Holly, being the marvelous woman she was, looked at my analysis and said, “Brilliant, Paco. Brilliant. You got it absolutely right. I have never sold a painting off that wall. Paintings that have hung there I’ve sold out of the back room, but I’ve never sold them off that wall.” And I grinned, since this lively woman who had just bought me lunch at the Spring Street Bar was affirming my beliefs.

I asked her years later whether she was blowing smoke at me or whether she wasn’t, and I’m reasonably certain that she had no memory of the incident. Her brain was filled with so many other things. But that was back in the early days, when I owned the Ear Inn, and the whole art world was tripping through.