The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt  |  October 10, 2009

SPACES director Christopher Lynn takes institution back to roots

Christopher Lynn, who recently marked his first anniversary as director of Spaces, the city's alternative, nonprofit art gallery, is taking his institution back to its conceptual roots in the 1970s.

This fall, in the first full year of programming led by Lynn, he has dispensed with the traditional way the gallery organized exhibitions. In fact, Spaces has given up the idea of showing art objects at all.

Instead, Lynn has organized something he calls an intellectual "palate cleanser," without smiling about the pun. He's turned Spaces into a tongue-in-cheek art school, called "Plum Academy," where the art consists of talking about art.

"Part of the idea was to stretch the notion of what an exhibition is," Lynn said Tuesday in his office. "I often find people hit the surface of an object -- the aesthetics -- and don't go any further."

Plum Academy, named for the old promotional slogan about Cleveland being the "Plum" to New York's "Big Apple," has included oddball offerings such as "Bad Art Day," in which visitors were invited to make "your own horrible knock-off of a contemporary artist's work while wading in the shallow end of the aesthetic pool."

Another event, "Graffiti Frost," enabled visitors to "overview the parallel aesthetic underpinnings and corresponding practice elements of graffiti and cake decorating." The materials fee of $10 covered bags and cake icing.

Apart from the silliness, the intention is serious. Lynn wants to evoke the revolutionary atmosphere of the art world in the late 1970s, when Spaces was born. The original idea of the gallery, he said, "was to do projects that were not commercially viable and safe enough for museums."

At the time, a great deal of activity in the art world focused on unusual practices, including the work of conceptual artists and collectives who spent as much time theorizing about art as making it. In New York, for example, a group of artists published a left-leaning journal of art theory called, "The Fox."

At Spaces, Lynn is orchestrating something similar. On Friday, Nov. 20, after Plum Academy closes, the gallery will host an "exhibition" by Temporary Services, a Chicago-based art collective whose members will use the gallery space as an office in which they'll produce and distribute an art newspaper filled with writings by critics, artists and academics.

Lynn said the newspaper, called "Art Work," will be a 32-page, black-and-white tabloid printed in an edition of 10,000. The Plain Dealer will do the printing, Lynn said, and the art paper will have a Web site.

Contributors will include Holland Cotter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic of The New York Times. One topic writers will explore is the consistent pressure on artists to contribute their services for free.

"I'm seeing it as kind of the norm these days, which is unfortunate," Lynn said. Writers for the newspaper will be paid, Lynn said, adding, "it's just an issue of how much and for what kind of content."

Beyond the immediate exhibitions, Lynn said Spaces will adopt a more active stance in shaping exhibitions.

"Part of it is to make sure we're not in a rut," he said.

In recent years, a committee of artist board members formulated group exhibitions by choosing works from slides of artworks submitted by emerging artists around the country.

Lynn called the method "somewhat passive" because committee members were "dependent on what showed up in the mail."

When asked how Lynn will define success in the future, he said it's not a matter of increasing attendance, which stands at around 9,000 to 10,000 visitors a year.

Lynn said he'll be satisfied "as long as Spaces is not stagnating and is moving forward well, bringing in talent and really stretching things."

Lynn, 34, a native of Orem, Utah, succeeded Sheryl Hoffman, who left Spaces in the winter of 2007-08 after three months on the job to take a fund-raising position at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Hoffman, in turn, succeeded Susan Channing, the popular and widely admired former director who led Spaces for 21 years until her retirement in 2007.

Lynn earned a master of fine-arts degree in painting from Ohio State University before becoming director of the Gallery for Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, a position he held for two years.

In conversation, Lynn gives the impression of being calm and unflappable. It's an important skill at a nonprofit gallery that has to raise $515,000 a year from scratch to pay operating expenses because it has no endowment.

Lynn said he expects 2010 will "be a belt-tightening year," but also said donors are feeling that their portfolios are bouncing back from a sharp drop in value this year, and that foundations recognize Spaces "is a unique asset for the region" because of its emphasis on experimentation and risk.

As for the immediate future, Plum Academy will be in session through Friday, Oct. 23. "Classes" include a session with Maria Samuelson on Tuesday starting at 6:30 p.m. on radical choreography, based on movements "that don't look like 'dance.' "

Required material includes comfortable clothes, rubber-soled shoes "and a willingness to be barefoot," definitely not something required at any other gallery or museum in town.

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