Potter-Belmar Labs interviews Matthew Drutt

April 21, 2009, San Antonio TX

Matthew Drutt rides through cycles of change.  That’s really what he does. He served at the Guggenheim during that institution’s unprecedented decade of expansion, branding, and acquisition, including the new locations in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas.  (He was also one of the main people responsible for the controversial and wildly popular Art of the Motorcycle exhibition, there.)  He then became curator at the Menil Collection in Houston during the difficult years that followed the death of legendary founder, Dominique de Ménil.  In 2006, he came to San Antonio as the Executive Director of ArtPace, and a year later, founder, Linda Pace, passed away.  Matthew has been leading ArtPace ever since, through unprecedented times, with deftness, and a sense of purpose both cool and passionate.

We began by talking about those Guggenheim boom years.

Matthew Drutt: I was part of a very small crew at the Guggenheim that planned these sort of satellite museums.  I was brought in almost immediately to work on Bilbao, which was just beginning to evolve from a drawing on a napkin to a set of plans for a real building.  The way [then-Director of the Guggenheim] Tom Krens worked tended to be in a very mentoring capacity, but with a very small group of people.  There was this crew of five to eight people at the beginning, that of course grew as the project started to come on line, but the cast of characters who worked on proposals to build Guggenheims around the world was quite small.

That was a very exciting time to be there, especially in the beginning when we hadn’t built anything yet, and it seemed like anything was possible.  At a certain point there were proposals coming in from all over the planet from people who wanted a Guggenheim Museum, especially after October of ‘97 when Bilbao opened.  In the months that ensued, it was like we had invented the paper clip, and everybody wanted one.  And so, I was literally churning out proposals to build Guggenheim in Lima, Guggenheim in Seoul.  It was just amazing.

Emvergeoning: And there were moments when such a vast empire seemed possible?

All of those moments seemed possible because Tom– he kept a lot of balls in the air, and he’d get these people to the table.  You had meetings with the head of Sony and the head of Samsung, the CEO of Deutsche Bank.  Some of them happened.  Deutsche Bank happened, there’s the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.  Bilbao opened and became this huge success that was kind of our calling card.  We had a lot of leverage at that time because we had done it, and everybody, as we were going towards the opening, was doubting it, poo-pooing it, calling Krens a megalomaniac.

There was a lot of nastiness in the way that the Guggenheim was perceived as a wanna-be, and then we did it. We opened Berlin.  And then we had plans for a Gehry building in New York, and we had heads of state coming to open our exhibitions, and partnerships with the Hermitage and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Louvre.  Suddenly people started to… not be silenced by this, but the wind went out of the sails in terms of what a dumb idea all this was because it was working, and the money was flowing.

But what can I say?  It was the ‘Ninties.  So it was kind of like the mortgage business.  It was booming.  And it really didn’t blow up until Las Vegas opened on the heels of 9-11.  And that’s what really undermined the whole thing because the Las Vegas project was based on a very sound business model regarding tourism in Las Vegas, and what people were looking for.  9-11 killed Las Vegas tourism, and casinos closed.  So if casinos are closing, a museum doesn’t have a whole lot of… juice.

But those were the days when I would get a call at 4 o’clock in the afternoon telling me I had to take a trip to Germany, and I’d say “That’s cool, when?”  “Tonight.”


“Go home, grab some things, and be at the airport by 7 o’clock.  You’re going to Karlsruhe to do a presentation, and you’re coming home tomorrow night.”  I would keep a bag packed for little overnight trips.  So that was a very exciting time to be there.

Emvergeoning: Has it ever helped an artist to be from Texas?

Well, I’d have to be the artist to know.  I don’t think it has ever hurt an artist to be from Texas, which is maybe not answering your question exactly, but, well, has it helped James Surls to be from Texas?  I think about what James Surls did up there in Splendora.  I think of people like Terry Allen, and that generation because they actually moved Texas out of the imagination of most people in the country from being a kind of desert– physically and culturally– into a place that actually had very creative people.  And they operated kind of laterally:  music, visual arts, performance, and even making film.

Another answer to that question is that I don’t think it necessarily helps anyone to be from anyplace in particular anymore because artists have become decentered in terms of national and regional identity.  Some people do utilize that as a resource in their work, but I want to say that that kind of narrative, or projection of one’s own narrative into work, has become so familiar that people don’t necessarily identify that with: “Oh, that guy clearly grew up in San Antonio,” as much as they do “That’s somebody for whom biography is critical to their aesthetic practice.”

Emvergeoning: How do you tell the difference between “contemporary art” and art made contemporaneously– art made today?

I don’t think it’s always the artist who gets to make that claim.  I would say that it really should fall to curators who are supposed to be invested with the responsibility of mediating, and making an argument for work on behalf of people who are seeing a body of ideas and are distilling from those bodies of ideas differences and contrasts.

I think Jasper Johns had the best dictum on what’s compelling about it, you know, it’s:  You take something, do something to it, do something else to it.  I think at the end of the day what makes a work even art–forget about the question of contemporary , because I think that’s maybe not a very useful– I think it’s not the point.  I think the point is what’s original, what’s good, what’s compelling, because anything made that someone claims as art today is contemporary, literally, by definition.

Even if you’re a Pakistani artist living in the United States, making variations on sixteenth century Mogul paintings.  That doesn’t mean that you’re not a contemporary artist.  I think very few people would argue that Shazia Sikander is not a contemporary artist, but her art relies on very traditional structures and examples, and yet what she does to it makes it utterly original and new.  You take something familiar, and you make people look at it like they’ve never seen it before.

I had a teacher at school once, long before 2001, when such a statement would have had a less horrific character to it, but he said, “Great artists are like terrorists.  They take an every day thing that you’re comfortable with, and suddenly you can never look at it the same way again.”

Emvergeoning: Can you give us an example of a new media work that you have experienced recently that has had an impact on you?

Johan Grimonprez’s new piece on Hitchcock ["Double Take"], I think is just terrific.  I saw that about a month ago.  He’s somebody who works in a kind of an iterative fashion, often, interestingly, putting a piece out there that he’ll revise, and put out there again.  So the difference between what I saw in New York in February, and what I saw in Basel in June of last year, they were almost two different films.  Except, had you seen them both at length, you would understand that they were the same film.  I thought it was brilliant.

I think it’s very hard to take a figure like Hictchcock, and make something new with that.  He’s so familiar.  Especially given people like Douglas Gordon working in that territory.

[The Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston will host a mid-career survey of Johan Grimonprez's work in 2010.]

Emvergeoning: Is this sample-based work?

Not exclusively.  He works normally with found material but there’s also some new work, too.  To the degree that you can never really deconstruct what is found footage and what is not.  It is seamlessly constructed.

His better known piece is “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,” that was at Documenta, which I think was almost exclusively found footage, and it predates 9-11.  I recently watched it again.  It’s a very very powerful piece.

Emvergeoning: There is a mythology that there are only two paths for the art student following school.  One is the pursuit of art stardom, and the other is to be an educator.  Artists are creative people; but how can we find other roles for participating in society?

Well, I remember when I taught at Columbia, one of the first things my graduate students would ask me was, How can I get into the Whitney Biennial?  You know, I was curator at the Guggenheim, so I thought it was a very funny question, because they weren’t saying, like, How do I get into the Hugo Boss Prize?  They were fixated on the Whitney Biennial.


Look, seriously, focus on what you’re doing.  I mean, if you spend as much time worrying about how you’re going to get to the Venice Biennale, or any of the rest of these things, as you do on being in your studio or thinking about your practice, I’d say it’ll pay off for you.  You will get in.  I mean, first, you’re in a major school in New York City, and the chances are by the time your MFA show comes around, and you’ve spent a significant amount of time in your studio, thinking about good work and how to make it, and looking at what’s been done, and concealing your sources, collaborate rather than nakedly copying some stuff, someone will figure it out.

So now it’s important to think, do you want to make a living from your work, and if so, are you willing to do whatever it takes?  Because whatever it takes might also mean making stuff that’s very commercial and salable, that earns you a living.  Or is making work that you believe in and you hope people will appreciate the most important thing to you and if so, are you willing to take another job to support yourself and make enough time to do that?  And there are people out there who figured out being a fireman, or baggage handler for Continental, or something else is a way to earn a steady living and have a fairly open schedule of free time to make work.  And there are also reliable professions with pensions and all the rest of it.

Being an artist is not a career choice.  I don’t think it ever was.  Maybe when Rembrandt was a painter, but it’s a pretty curious choice of career.  Personally, since I’m not an artist, I can only speculate, but the best artists I ever meet, they never really had a choice.  It wasn’t like, “I decided to become an artist.”  It’s like, “I’ve just always made work.  This is what I do.  I didn’t choose this, I acknowledge that this is what I do.  And I enjoy it.”

Emvergeoning: You talked about dramatic changes that have happened recently.  As the economic breakdown has occurred over this past year, has your personal perspective about the art world changed?

I don’t think it’s changed my perspective at all.  I’m a big believer in cycles, and I’ve lived through a couple of them already.  In boom times, I do not spin like a maniac.  I also don’t horde my nuts like a squirrel.  But I know that a ten year run has to come to an end, and when it crashes it sometimes crashes pretty badly.  There’s fallout.

It reconfirms something in me that comes after I left the Guggenheim–it was hindsight, not something I learned there.  The best way to run things was not the way I was working at the Guggenheim which was a rather high risk, high venture, free spending kind of environment, but rather to balance it if possible.  Attempt to be visionary and adventurous without mortgaging all of your assets and putting the whole house up.  Learning to take a longer view of things.  Something you want to do doesn’t have to happen in five months, it can happen in five years, and that’s just as good, if not better.

So we [ArtPace] were, ironically, prepared for what happened.  Not because I had a crystal ball and knew that the economy was going to bottom out, but we had a bigger crisis in 2007.  We lost our founder [Linda Pace].  And I was involved in modeling different scenarios that included what happens if we lose all of our financial support, from the Foundation, and anywhere else where we get it.  What happens?  And those kind of worse case scenario models proved to be unnecessary for us, fortunately, but also very helpful in terms of refocusing the institution on its priorities, and its mission.  The point is that it has really confirmed for me, that instead of running down the hill, walk.  And we’re still going to get there.

Emvergeoning: How does this affect art?  Does decadence become frivolous?  Is a garbage bag full of air no longer art, but a receptacle for trash?

No.  I think what it does is reduces the number of people who might go to an auction, and try to outbid the next guy for something that seems a trophy.  The idea that if I don’t buy it now I won’t get it, that was a symptom of ‘Nineties buying.  Because it was true.  There were five other guys who might buy it.  Possibly for more money than you’re willing to spend.  That’s changed.  Things have gone back to a way that the art world that I know best has always been which is that there is a small but significant number of people who have a lot of private wealth and a discerning eye and are willing to look for the right thing by the right person that they’re interested in, and possibly even wait for the right piece to come along.