“Only connect!…Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will
be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” – E. M. Forster
Bettina Korek is the Mona Lisa come to life. In her early thirties, she is statuesque, tall and thin, with cascading black hair. She is altogether more beautiful than the painting, but Mona would be too if she came to life. On a warm spring day in Westwood, Los Angeles, I sat with Korek to talk about the arts organization she founded in 2006 called ForYourArt.
Korek intends ForYourArt to serve as a “connective tissue” between all different aspects of the art world and the community. She has been credited with redefining the arts scene in Los Angeles, and she was recently appointed to the LA County Arts Commission and is now head of the Civic Arts Committee.
She is a Los Angeles native, from Van Nuys. Having attended Harvard-Westlake and Princeton University, and is now putting her education to good use. With an authentic love of the arts, as well as being wonderfully civic-minded, she beams her influence on artist, collector and community alike.
BESS RATLIFF: Tell me about the genesis of ForYourArt.
BETTINA KOREK: I moved back to LA after college and I worked at LACMA for Kevin Salatino, who was head of the prints and drawings department, and he was so passionate about connecting with different kinds of people and broadening the reach of the department. He was a huge influence on me because he was a serious scholar but also open and passionate and willing to try different kinds of things. I was really lucky to have that experience with him.
Then I worked in Development, and one of the things we did was start a Young Patrons Group. Then I worked in Communications – so I was interested in how those functions in the museum might intersect – or not. It’s interesting. One of the big areas of competency for students is being able to interact with institutions.
I’m really grateful that I had that experience at LACMA for understanding how they function. When I worked at LACMA we did research and found that people think, ‘Am I going to go to LACMA? Or am I going to go to the Grove?’ And then, I was thinking about how in LA we didn’t have a lot of public art, and imagining what it would be like to have a more engaged public landscape, I left the museum. And it was when LA ><ART and West of Rome public art were just starting so I got to work with Emi [Fontana of West of Rome] and Lauri [Firstenberg of LA><ART] on their public projects. When I was there people would say to me: “I’m not ready to get involved in a museum, but I want to know what’s going on.” So, that’s when I started ForYourArt’s weekly email.
I was really trying to address this need of people that I’d grown up with. There’s an exciting shift you can point to in LA over the past ten years, a growing consciousness about our cultural assets. Jim Heimann, the executive editor at Taschen, said LA is like a teenager. That’s part of why it’s so exciting. We’re all getting to be here in this formative stage in the city.
So, ForYourArt is constantly evolving. It is intentionally fluid. We have information services, and we produce the weekly email to share information about art projects. We got to do two big public art projects with John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger. I wanted to make a bus with Barbara Kruger my entire life, so that was a great honor. And now we have a space that we’re using in an experimental way to explore things that wouldn’t happen in a gallery or a museum, whether they’re too temporary or the financial model is different. We have the Otis Public Art Practice grad show, John Baldessari’s 20-year Mixografia collaboration, the UCI [University of California, Irvine] students’ grad shows. John [Baldessari] said the nicest thing: “ForYourArt is a neutral space.” That is what we’re trying to accomplish: how can we be a connective tissue between these different parties in LA and respond to those needs? It’s been great to experiment with different kinds of activities, but I want to be careful about not becoming what we want to promote, you know?
BESS RATLIFF: How do you feel about the differences in the cultural evolution between the East and the West Coast?
BETTINA KOREK: Look at when the MET was started and when MOCA was started – one was 1870 and one was 1979 – and use those as markers. Historically, LA has always been talked about as this open, experimental place. There’s all this space, and there’s the idea of New York as the male and LA as the female – I think a lot of those things definitely apply, but more than anything, it does feel like that openness is reflected in the different degrees of how developed the cultural infrastructures are. So, it’s great that we’re a teenager, but at the same time, we don’t have the same depth. On the one hand, institutions can become old and staid, but on the other hand, you need them to support the baseline of activity. That’s what’s happening now, with LACMA growing, and the Hammer expanding in their scope of activity. The conversation around
MOCA – I mean the words museum and contemporary are inherently at odds with each other. It’s been difficult to come to terms with the reality of the situation. But it’s an important conversation, and I think people have – at least patrons do have – a deeper awareness of their responsibility for these institutions.
In political situations we are so sensitive to the historical and cultural value of art as it creates our sense of common memory. But when we’re not in a situation of turmoil, we allow art to be kind of siloed. United States Artists is a very interesting organization based here in Los Angeles that gives grants to individual artists, and their whole reason for being came out of this idea that we don’t appreciate artists enough in the United States. It’s something that comes up in Otis too. We have an idea of what an artist does, but more and more artists want to operate in the art market. The shift in general consciousness that art isn’t just for a small group of people hasn’t happened yet.
BESS RATLIFF: Do you think one’s engagement with the art world is culturally motivated?
BETTINA KOREK: It is cultural. I’m reading a book about the history of celebrity, and it talks about how the reliance on audience surveys and how demographics emerged just as there was a wider appreciation of the arts. But the timing was such that entertainment started to shift towards giving us more of what we want, and it derailed this wider penetration of the arts culturally. Now, with all the new websites emerging, there’s so much more content being produced, providing many more access points to art. There’s also a lot of education happening because these sites are realizing that if you don’t educate about you’re selling people aren’t going to buy.
BESS RATLIFF: Coming from a Medieval and Renaissance art background I was always a little timid about contemporary art.
BETTINA KOREK: A lot of contemporary art is quite self-referential. If you’re not entrenched in the history of it, it’s hard to read. We’re working on a book project right now that is about getting into the heads of arts insiders when people are looking at something and they’ve no idea what it is. How do they get something out of this experience? How do they read a piece of art – because I think that’s the kind of information people want. It’s very empowering. It’s always empowering to go look at art with someone who really knows what it is. It’s even more exciting when you’re with them and they see something they don’t know and you can be with them to break it down. That’s when the transference of the tool really happens.
I think people use their phones a lot more to research on the spot. On the flip side there’s so much research showing how people will spend more time reading a wall label than they will looking at a work of art. Michael Govan said something really amazing, that museums are the last places left to slow down. As we’re having this minor pulling back – people trying not to use their cell phones so much and be more present – maybe there will be more acknowledgement of museums as spaces for that.
BESS RATLIFF: How do you think the 21st Century art world will sustain its participants in this new world economy?
BETTINA KOREK: I think all this online activity and the increased sophistication in marketing both on the part of non-profits and the commercial center is growing the base, but there are very real issues that need to be addressed. Artists who aren’t sustaining themselves in the art market but have more socially driven practices are having a hard time. We’re seeing Kickstarter and all these crowd-sourced fundraising platforms emerge. We’ve always had the art market as the base of the art world, but now there’s another: the system around engagement and education is emerging. The museums live in the middle of these worlds. I hope that we continue to see more experimentation on the part of artists, in terms of their individual economies. Someone like Matt Merkel, an artist in LA I’m very interested in, calls himself a potter. He makes work that shows in a gallery – he’s interested in containers and his shows are huge ceramic trashcans – but then he also makes little figurines [Merkelware, every day hand-thrown pottery]. So his work is meant for a gift economy but also an art world economy.
There’s that famous John Baldessari quote, “What’s an artist’s second line?” I think we will see more activity in that way, more artist-made-goods and collaborations. Nothing is set, and it’s an important issue to be thinking about. We’ve used this term “creative economy” for so long in a very macro way, and I would say that now is an opportunity to consider what the creative economies of individuals look like.
BESS RATLIFF: Do you have a fabulous ‘only in the LA art world’ story?
BETTINA KOREK: I think many ‘only in the LA art world’ stories happen at Rosette Delug’s house in the way she celebrates artists. She had an amazing party for Lawrence Weiner once – I think for a show at MOCA – with shot glasses made of ice. Everyone toasted Lawrence and threw him in the pool, which had a Lawrence Weiner along the bottom of it. She’s a great example of someone who is open, passionate, thoughtful, and fun in the way she collects art and supports artists. She’s someone LA can be really proud of.
I also got to be involved with Jason Rhoades’ Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé. He was very focused on how, through this series of events, you could think about mythmaking and storytelling in the city that’s known for that. Jason was so generous trying to invite people into his work. I think that’s something a lot of LA artists have in common: they want to invite people in.