NEW MUSEUM ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE
RUSSELL FERGUSON, LIBRARIAN & SPECIAL PROJECTS EDITOR, 1986–91
INTERVIEWEE: Russell Ferguson, Professor, UCLA Department of Art
INTERVIEWER: Richard Flood, Director of Special Projects and Curator at Large, New Museum
LOCATION: Skype Interview (Hollywood, California; New Museum, New York) on April 20, 2017
These interviews are part of the New Museum Oral History Initiative and have been lightly edited from the verbatim transcript. Readers are asked to bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Full transcripts are available from the New Museum Archives by request.
RICHARD FLOOD: I’m Richard Flood and I’m Director of Special Projects and Curator at Large here at the New Museum and I’m talking to—
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Russell Ferguson. I worked at the New Museum from ’86 to ’91.
RICHARD FLOOD: —You came over from Scotland as a young boy in 1980, right?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah, I wasn’t that young. I came to New York in 1980 and before I came to the New Museum I was working in the library of the Frick Collection—the Frick Art Reference Library.
RICHARD FLOOD: And that was your first acquaintance with a library?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yes, that was my first library job. I went to the library school at Columbia University and got a master’s degree in it. And while I was doing that, I was an intern at the MoMA library. I worked part-time at the Whitney library with May Castleberry. So, part-time things. And then I got a full-time job at the Frick.
RICHARD FLOOD: That’s great. What occasioned a move to the New Museum?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Well, it really was a 180 degree move. The Frick, especially in those days, was a great place with great people, but you really were, in some ways, in the Victorian era there. Everything was very regimented. And, also, I personally was getting more interested in contemporary art, which obviously they didn’t do at all.
When the opportunity came out to go to the New Museum, I jumped at it. I was very excited to do that. But it was really such a different thing at the Frick. There was a certain way of doing absolutely everything, and you had to do it that way. When I got to the New Museum, basically, they gave me a desk and a phone and said, “You’re good to go.”
RICHARD FLOOD: And said, “Invent it.” [Laughs]
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yes.
RICHARD FLOOD: Who was it who drew you to the Museum?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: It was Brian Wallis [Curator, 1984–87], primarily. I think I met Brian through May Castleberry, who was librarian at the Whitney at that time. They wanted to set up a library at the Museum, and of course I met with Marcia Tucker before I was hired, but—I am going back quite a long way now, obviously—my recollection is that the introduction and initial conversation was with Brian Wallis.
RICHARD FLOOD: You arrived in New York in 1980? That was the year I arrived as well. I found the ‘80s to be an incredibly exciting period. But also it turned so quickly into a decade of AIDS, and everything began to change around that reality.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah. I don’t know—for people who didn’t live through that era with a lot of friends and people you knew who were affected or died from it—I don’t know how to explain what that was like. I mean, I know you can remember it, of course, Richard, very clearly. The fact that this disease was for a long time associated primarily with gay people combined with criminal inaction by the government (because of that perception) generated an incredible mix of sorrow and fear and anger against the lack of response to it.
And AIDS, in a way—it was a kind of a defining thing for me when I was at the New Museum too, because I think, in the end, the person I was closest to there was Bill Olander, who was the curator there [from 1985 – 1989], and Bill died of AIDS. To be with him from his diagnosis all the way through his death, was an extraordinarily painful thing.
RICHARD FLOOD: Because in the short time he had, he became such an important spokesperson.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah. If there’s one thing that this archival project you’re doing accomplishes—it has many goals I’m sure—but one thing I would love to see is a kind of reminder to people of what an important curator and thinker Bill Olander was. There isn’t an anthology of his writings, which I think is still a big gap in the literature. Anyone who was around in New York at that period, I think, knows how important he was. His death was a great loss, of course personally, but also to the way we think about contemporary art. I think Bill Olander was a really important figure and hugely influential in everything I’ve done, for sure.
RICHARD FLOOD: In 1989, you moderated a very famous panel, “Are You Angry Yet?,” on censorship in the arts and government funding. What was the background on that?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: It was the so-called culture wars; the attacks on Andres Serrano centered around his work Piss Christ (1987), which showed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1989; and on funding for the arts generally. A lot of that was directed at anything to do with sexuality, and a lot of attacks on gay people generally. And there was, in general, a kind of [sighs] from the right—you know, it never goes away—the endless beating on contemporary culture as an easy target to rattle up their base, and the plans to cut funding, and so on.
People really were angry about it and we had a great mixed panel. We had Joe Papp from the Public Theater. We had Faith Ringgold [artist convicted of desecrating the US flag in 1970]. 1 [Activist] Jim Fouratt was on that panel. So, it wasn’t just visual arts-oriented. And, as I recall, one of the things we wanted to talk about was, “Well, we’re all angry, but is there anything that can actually be done about this?”
When I think back on it now, it seems like we’ve had another twenty-five years of this and it’s hard to think back to a period where funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and so on was a bi-partisan issue that Republicans and Democrats agreed was just something a civilized country did. [Laughs] That was the consensus and those days are long gone. In a way, the outrage that people felt then, I think, has been a little rubbed down by the end. It’s just part of the picture now that if you do anything remotely so-called “transgressive,” or anything like that, you are at risk of becoming that week’s whipping-boy for the far right. And so, in that sense, I think people are probably still angry, but we also expect that. In the ‘80s it was still, I think, kind of shocking to people that there would be this assault on culture.
RICHARD FLOOD: Yeah. I listened to some excerpts from it earlier in the day and I mean, it was brutal. People were really angry and truly outraged and you can feel it, just—
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yes.
RICHARD FLOOD: In this little time capsule.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah, I mean, I wish people still felt that angry, but in a way, now there’s so much to be angry about. I think the funding for the arts is being almost pushed down the list—or censorship of the arts, even—by issues that people maybe feel are more pressing. It’s just an across-the-board assault on things that at one time were taken for granted as good things.
Again, there were a lot of people that came to that panel. I think maybe there were fewer panels in those days, too, you know. If you could assemble a group like that, people really wanted to hear them. I think there were fewer events like that, at least.
RICHARD FLOOD: Yeah. I would tend to agree with you. What exhibitions were you working on while you were here?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Well, mostly I didn’t work that much on exhibitions, per se. I mean, my first job was to run the library. And kind of quite quickly—I mean, it was so wide open in those days. People were willing to sort of volunteer to do something, and if people felt you could do it, you kind of could do it, I felt. And so, quickly, I took on a lot of publications stuff as well as the library responsibilities [Ferguson was editor of Out There: Marginalization in Contemporary Cultures and Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, the third and fourth installments of the New Museum’s Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art anthologies, published by MIT Press in 1990].
The one real exhibition that I organized there was with Bill Olander [“Nitelife” in 1988]. It was three nights of performance and we put out a visual three-artist show that stayed up in the space where the performances took place. It was Richard Prince, who in those days was still making jokes written out on copier paper—just a nightclub joke and put in a frame—and Laurie Simmons’ ventriloquist’s work, and Christian Marclay.
As I recall, Bill chose Richard Prince and Laurie Simmons, and I brought Christian Marclay to the table. I knew Christian as a performer from having seen him around town, and I knew he was a visual artist too. So we invited him not as a performer but as an artist. I remember helping him install this piece called Endless Column, which is a stack of twelve-inch records that was about twelve feet high and felt quite tricky to install. I remember holding onto it as it sort of moved around while Christian tried to attach it to the roof.
RICHARD FLOOD: [Laughs]
RUSSELL FERGUSON: So, that was a real exhibition. Other than that, I would sometimes work on the catalogues of exhibitions, sometimes not. And I’d weigh in on the general conversation around the exhibitions, but I was not really a curator at that time. The “Nitelife” show that I just mentioned was kind of a one-off for me then.
RICHARD FLOOD: When you got to the New Museum, what was the library?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: The library was something Marcia felt a museum should have, as there were a few sources for books on contemporary art. Larry Aldrich had been running a kind of open library in SoHo [the SoHo Center Library]. There was a feeling that that was a kind of SoHo community resource. And when he closed it down and the books from there came to the New Museum, as I recall it. The idea was to just have a kind of reading library in SoHo, which, for those that don’t know, was an art center in those days. And then people could just come in and browse and read or do research, whatever they wanted.
After I came to the Museum, we were able to acquire a couple of other large collections too. There was a great art bookstore at that time that Jean-Noël Herlin, the rare book dealer, had. A great bookstore. And he was closing the store and becoming a kind of lower-visibility private dealer, I guess. And I made an agreement with Jean-Noël to get a lot of the stock from that bookstore for the library in 1987.2 I also remember Lucy Lippard gave quite a lot of books from her collection that she was ready to part with.
And so we put together a few large collections and then had a small budget to just judiciously buy other relevant books and also we did publication exchanges with other museums. Basically, it was felt that it was just a good thing, that it was part of the overall mission of the Museum to have something like that.
RICHARD FLOOD: And how were you sculpting it? What was your goal?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Well, I wanted to just have a good overview of what was going on in contemporary art at that time, and also I bought a lot of what would be called more theoretical books. There was a lot of interest in that at that time. So, I built up a kind of a reasonable base collection of the theoretical translations that were coming out around that time. And MIT Press were publishing things, University of Minnesota Press. And I would try and make sure we had those books in the library, too, because there was a lot of interest from people coming in to take a look at them.
RICHARD FLOOD: I like this kind of image of a homemade museum.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: It was totally homemade. The Frick was so defined in everything in a way. For me, I just assumed that’s how other places were. But when I think back on it, the New Museum was just wide open. You could come up with an idea, kind of get some momentum behind it, and do it.
And there were a lot of great people there. Other people besides Bill Olander, whom I’ve mentioned, and Brian, and of course, Marcia herself. There was Phil Mariani [Publications Coordinator, 1987, and contributor to New Museum publications in the years following], who was a great figure, really important to the intellectual development of everyone there.
Lynn Gumpert [Curator, 1980–88] was the chief curator at that time. Lynn did some terrific shows there too. Alice Yang [Curator, 1988–93] was a colleague and friend who did great work at the museum at that time. There were a lot of really good people then.
RICHARD FLOOD: And, among all these “good people,” was the democracy working—?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: It did and it didn’t. Marcia was very sincerely committed to the idea that everyone had a say. We would have staff meetings with every single member of staff, and everyone was able to weigh in and say what they thought about everything. And Marcia genuinely wanted to hear that. But, on the other hand, it was her Museum. She had opened it, she’d put her whole life into it, and completely understandably, I don’t think she was going to do anything that she didn’t actually want the Museum to be doing. So there was a slight kind of sense that we all had to agree, in theory, that it was totally democratic. But I think everyone also knew that Marcia was the Director of the Museum.
I actually think it would have run a little smoother if Marcia had been more willing to accept that she was the director of the Museum. You know, listen to everyone and then, kind of—
RICHARD FLOOD: Make her decisions.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: —make some decisions. And she did kind of make decisions, but what she wanted was a complete, open discussion that everyone would weigh in on, but that it came out with what she wanted at the end. I would too if I were in her position. And it pretty much was run in a very open, democratic way, but not as absolutely as it was sometimes described as running. And there were a few idealistic people who came and really expected it to be a kind of worker’s commune, which it was not.
RICHARD FLOOD: In one of your anthologies, Discourses—which I have to compliment you, the books really hold up. And even where they’ve become strangely antique, they’ve become antique for the right reasons. But you say—
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Are you going to quote me now?
RICHARD FLOOD: Yes. [Laughs] I mean, this is you speaking about Deleuze. “Any presumption to speak on behalf of others is itself a form of repression.”3
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Some things never go away, do they, Richard? I mean, it’s like that book came out—how long ago was it? It’s like more than twenty-five years ago, in 1990, and still we’re having this discussion—who can speak for who, and who’s allowed to speak on what topic. And, yeah, there’s elements of repression and who has an authority. A lot of it revolves around authority. I mean, I’m glad you think the book still holds up. I certainly think that issue is still alive today.
[IMAGES]The anthologies in the Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art series brought together writings by artists, critics, and theorists that placed contemporary art and practice within a larger social and cultural context, addressing issues of representation, the role of art in the community, and the responsibilities of art institutions.
I kind of wish we had just made a little more progress. A thing like that should—it’s kind of depressing in a way that it reads as relevant today as it did twenty-five years ago, because I still have this lingering desire for progress to be made.
RICHARD FLOOD: That would make you a Romantic.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah, I guess.
RICHARD FLOOD: —But then, at a certain point, did you go stale, or was it just time to move on?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: I wasn’t really stale at the New Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed working there. I had great colleagues there. I really liked it.
I was getting a little stale on New York. I’d been in New York for ten years by the time I left, and I didn’t feel it was getting better in New York. I thought it was getting worse—and it was kind of wearing me down. I couldn’t afford to live downtown. I was living way uptown, and long subway rides every day, and just the kind of grind that there always is living in New York—it didn’t seem to be getting more lively culturally. It was getting more expensive all the time, and I had just been there for ten years. I felt I enjoyed it more at the beginning of that period than at the end.
I had never thought, on the other hand, that I could really live anywhere else in the US except New York. I’d been to LA a few times, and then when Paul Schimmel from MOCA started talking to me, suddenly the ice broke and I thought, “Well, maybe I could live in Los Angeles.” I mean, I didn’t drive. It was quite a frightening thought, but—yeah, I went out there and sat on Tom Lawson and Susan Morgan’s balcony with a glass of white wine and the beautiful weather and saw how sort of nice it was. [Laughs] How everybody really seemed to be enjoying themselves there, and how friendly everyone was. And I thought, well, yeah, I could live in LA.
RICHARD FLOOD: Let me ask you—in New York, what do you remember as kind of the great moments while you were here? Who were the great personalities who kept your interest?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: In general, or at the New Museum?
RICHARD FLOOD: In general, I think, because the Museum was reflecting the period as well.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah, well, I was very interested in music. When I lived in Britain, I was interested in art, but I was much more involved with music. At one time, I thought I would really pursue that. And I remember just seeing such incredible music all the time in New York, at that time. And everything I saw—in really quite small clubs like Irving Plaza—I saw James Brown, I saw Sun Ra at the Squat Theater, and also the younger bands that were playing. Of course, I saw Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell, and James White. I mean, just on and on. I just felt like every week I’d seen extraordinarily good music and I also spent a lot of time listening to the more experimental, improvisatory music. I became close with Christian Marclay and I saw a lot of music like that.
I saw great dance, which is something that doesn’t really have a deep culture here in LA, I think—contemporary dance. I loved going to that. I knew very little about it, but I would just go with friends who did know, and they would steer me to great things.
Saw great jazz music too—Arthur Blythe, David Murray, all these people playing around. So, in general, I remember a lot of great music. There was great performance. I remember seeing Divine perform on stage in “Women Behind Bars” [a play by Tom Eyen that premiered in New York in 1975] in 1976, before I moved to New York full-time. That was incredible. And watching a really interesting generation of artists emerge too, was great.
For me, when I was a kid in Scotland, I almost thought “artist” was a historical category. It was some guy in Paris with the beret.
RICHARD FLOOD: [Laughs]
RUSSELL FERGUSON: And I knew there were artists, but somehow it didn’t seem like something that was really contemporary.
After I moved to New York, I realized, “Oh, there are artists working now, and doing really interesting things.” And certainly after I became friendly with Felix Gonzalez-Torres there was a moment—I can’t precisely define it, but it was kind of like where I realized Felix is not just a friend of mine who’s an artist. He’s not just someone that I know who makes art. He’s a great artist, and he’s going to be one of the defining artists of the period.
And that was kind of like, “Whoa.” For me, it comes out as like, “Oh, in fact, now I know people who are right at the heart of this in the same way that those nineteenth-century French people were at the heart of it.” It was like, “This is the most important stuff going on in our world right now.” And that was kind of nerve-wracking for me and shocking, but also incredibly exciting that I had somehow, without trying to find my way to, entered into a certain element of what I was convinced was the most important work that was going on.
RICHARD FLOOD: And were you writing a lot then?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: I started writing then, yeah. I dragged out a master’s degree that I did at Hunter College for a long time that impeded my writing because every time I thought I should write about someone else, I thought, “Oh god, I have to finish this thesis.” And, so, I did start writing about a few people then, and I wrote introductions for these anthologies and so on. And artists would from time to time ask me if I would consider writing for a catalogue or so on, but I really picked up the writing after I moved to LA. That’s where I began writing kind of all the time.
RICHARD FLOOD: Did you have a great passion then, in terms of the arts and your own relationship with it?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: When I was living in Britain, my passion was for music. And at my university I organized—I promoted all the shows and things like that, and I felt I knew everything about music at that time. And was very opinionated about it, but then, after I moved to New York, it was almost by chance, I felt like the same people that, when I was living in London, were involved in music—the same type of people, people I became friends with—were more involved with the visual arts. And since I had always been interested in that, but I’d never found a kind of avenue into it, it opened up kind of fast for me.
I continued to like music but I did develop a kind of—passion is a very romantic word for it, but, definitely a deep interest in it. And it structured along my daily life. But I mean, it’s not something you turn off when you go home from work. I’d go from the Museum, always, to openings, and on the weekends I would look at art, and I’d go to artists’ studios. So, in the end it becomes your life, so I did develop a kind of a commitment to it.
RICHARD FLOOD: One other question about this period: in your role as librarian, editor, occasional curator, did you feel trapped between worlds in terms of—did you have trouble assimilating academia and critical structures into your work, or was it just a natural component?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Oh, you know, I was finishing my art history master’s. I took classes with Rosalind Krauss at the Graduate Center [at City University of New York], and so on. So, I had a kind of—I don’t know whether you could even call it a foot—I had a toe in that world.
I think my attitude always was that I wasn’t trying to bridge the academic and the worlds of contemporary art production. I was far more interested in the latter, really, and I enjoyed reading the theoretical texts that were important then. I wasn’t afraid of academic context but, for me—you know, I’ve always loved the Foucauldian approach that these things are tools in your toolbox. You use them when they’re useful to you and then you can put them back in the toolbox, is how I felt about it.
For me these were ways of helping me think and understand what artists were doing, and I didn’t feel that artists were necessarily under any obligation to know or re-use any more of that more academic work than they wanted to. At that time, some artists were really more skilled in that material than a lot of academics. But other artists, as always—it’s very selective what they would take and use. And I always felt that that was fine. You know, it’s not their job to be pseudo-academics.
RICHARD FLOOD: I mean, one of the things I would note about your writing is the fact that the theory is there. It’s totally there, but it’s also plainspoken, and I think that’s a real triumph.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Thank you. It’s absolutely been my goal. I strongly dislike writing that seeks to establish its authority by using academic jargon, that I think just really makes a text impenetrable to people who don’t already know it. I want to write using these ideas where I feel they’re relevant but being able to communicate them to people—if people are interested—but don’t necessarily have an academic background in philosophy or theory or art history, either.
And sometimes it’s necessary to use technical vocabulary, and I have no problem with the serious writers that are doing that. But what I can’t stand are all the people who are not really contributing anything substantive theoretically, but are dressing up what would otherwise be boilerplate with a bunch of polysyllabic terms that are almost, maybe unconsciously, but they serve to exclude a big chunk of the audience. It’s always been my goal in my writing to not ever dumb down the ideas, to the extent that I have ideas, but to express them as straightforwardly and directly as I can. So I’m glad you think that you can see that in the writing. That’s my goal.
RICHARD FLOOD: [Laughs] Okay, so then, you’ve been in LA for quite a while now. And you’re sorely missed on the East Coast. In all the time that you’ve been in this world, and if you look back, what is the most important about being in the art world for you?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: I think there’s a sort of caricature of the art world from the outside that it’s shallow, that it’s fashionable, that it’s full of con men, and that people are backstabbing each other all the time. I don’t know. I mean, of course all of these things exist, to some extent. But I have actually found an incredibly, friendly, supportive field in which to work. And it’s just great to be around artists all the time, especially artists, because in my experience the artists I’ve become close to are just totally committed people who would be doing this regardless of market or recognition or anything else.
And I’m fascinated by the visual way of thinking, even though I guess I’ve expressed myself more in a kind of linear written way. But it’s the sort of space between those two things that fascinates me. I like writing about artists whose work I don’t truly understand, but that intrigues me, and I find out about it by writing about it. And I find out what I think about it by writing about it. And I love doing that.
And, in general, I’m not jaded of the art world. There’s elements of it that you can get a bit tired of, but if I’m going out to an opening where I know a lot of friends are going to be, and artists that I like, and curators that I like, and so on, and for me that’s still—that’s a nice evening and I like that. I think I’ve been very lucky in that way, to be in that environment. And I’m not cynical about it.
RICHARD FLOOD: That’s great. Before we break off, I’ll just throw one final grace question at you: is there anything you remember about the time at the New Museum or the time in New York that you would like to add?
RUSSELL FERGUSON: I’ve got a few memories of it that stick with me. I remember a kind of completely insane Survival Research Laboratories performance at Shea Stadium in the parking lot in the pouring rain.
RICHARD FLOOD: Oh my god.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: It was so crowded and—I mean, I had put on a lot of concerts and stuff. But I really had never seen anything that I thought had the potential to be a complete disaster more than this thing. I remember Bill Olander just being so calm and relaxed and these guys are firing dead chickens out of cannons and fluorescent light tubes are flying around and the whole thing and there are about three times the number of people we expected in this rain pouring down. And I thought, “Wow, this is really wild and exhilarating and scary at the same time.” There were a lot of things like that.
I don’t think you could put on that show right now. I think people are more cautious about firing cannons full of glass at audiences, and so on.
RICHARD FLOOD: [Laughs]
RUSSELL FERGUSON: And other things too.
It was amazing when the Museum, again under Bill [Olander], did the Silence=Death window installation. It was just incredible to see the impact that had. And to start off from that, it was great and exhilarating.
I remember coming back to my office, and my desk wasn’t there, and discovering that Adrian Piper had taken it to install the piece where the desk is turned up against the [wall]—Cornered , I think it was called. I didn’t have a desk and didn’t figure out a way to get that back.
RICHARD FLOOD: [Laughs]
RUSSELL FERGUSON: Yeah, there were a lot of fun memories, I guess.
RICHARD FLOOD: Well, those are all pretty potent. [Laughter] Well, Russell, I wish we could shake hands, because this has been a total delight to me.
RUSSELL FERGUSON: A pleasure for me, too. You know, it’s great to be prompted to think back to those days.
[End of Interview.]