The Exhibitionist

The art world could learn a thing or two from curator Scott Burnham as he takes the traditional gallery to the streets.
By Craille Maguire Gillies
Published in the October 2008 issue of enRoute

On a sunny afternoon, a crew of artists parked their truck on a busy street in San Francisco and hauled their gear – 200 square feet of sod, a park bench, a 15-foot-high potted tree (leased from a local nursery), a homemade rope-bollard fence and pockets full of coins – over to an empty parking spot. The space was transformed into an interactive exhibit called PARK(ing), on view for as long as the group fed the meter with quarters. Passersby sat down on the bench and struck up conversations with strangers or simply read the newspaper before heading on their way. For a few hours, the street-art collective Rebar remixed the city with an installation meant to provoke discussion about public space.

Photo by Genviève Caron

Photo by Genviève Caron

“It’s the ultimate democracy of creativity. You just have to walk down the street to be part of it,” says Scott Burnham, the 39-year-old creator and curator of Urban Play, an interactive outdoor art project featuring Rebar and a host of other international art agitators that opened last month in Amsterdam. “It’s not commissioned, no gallery has asked them to do this. The artists get involved in this creative system by working completely outside of it.”

Burnham, who’s also heading up the 2009 Montreal Biennale next May, could have been talking about himself. He’s not tied to any one gallery or museum, and over the past 12 years he’s flitted from London to Barcelona to Montreal and elsewhere, giving university lectures, consulting on design projects and hovering around the fringes of the art establishment. He’s a kind of anti-curator – he prefers to call himself a creative director – who has arrived on the scene as the walls of the traditional gallery are coming down. Art is just as likely to be consumed and created on the streets and over the Internet as it is to be hung on the walls of Tate Modern. “Institutions have slowed in their ability to keep pace with the production of art, and independent curators like Burnham have taken up the slack,” says Richard Rhodes, the editor of Canadian Art.

“They’re steam valves for artists’ creativity. Burnham creates opportunities to tell stories that aren’t being told in mainstream galleries.”

Dressed in jeans, a loose button-up shirt and a jacket that looks like it might have come from the Gap, Burnham, with his long, ruddy face, looks more like an eager young high school teacher. When we meet, he’s putting the final touches on Urban Play, taking place on one continent, while he works on the program for the Montreal Biennale on another. There is hardly time for him to reflect on the trajectory of his career.

After studying journalism, he worked as a graphic designer and then moved to London to set up a satellite office for a Boston publishing company. While there, he studied curating and design and then lectured at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. “This was late in the YBA [Young British Artists] thing, that whole Damien Hirst era,” he explains. “As I learned about curating, I got frustrated. I realized that these cultural systems are incredibly slow. If there’s just the curator and the artists, it’s a closed shop. I find that boring.”

For Urban Play, Burnham partnered with Droog Design in the Netherlands to commission 19 artists – including street artist Mark Jenkins and design icons Stefan Sagmeister and Thomas Heatherwick – to create everything from video art to sculptures to graffiti for an outdoor show. (You can see the results until November by walking the IJ riverfront route through Amsterdam.) “What fascinates me is the desire to be creatively involved with the city. Most urban design discourages intervention. Urban Play encourages it,” he explains. Mark Jenkins put it this way: “Scott is looking at how this new thinking can ripple out not only to public space, but also how it’s influencing designers and planners to reconsider the city. It can be a force multiplier.”

A few weeks after we first meet, Burnham is in Montreal’s red-light district, walking toward an art and technology centre. The brightly lit sign of Café Cléopâtre, with its caricature of a buxom woman, shines from across the street. (With a growing number of galleries and theatres, the area is revamping itself as the Quartier des spectacles.) He’s one of 11 people – mostly architects and designers – giving rapid-fire slide-show presentations to a crowd at a Pecha Kucha Night, the salon-type events that are held in dozens of cities around the world.

The mostly young, creative types sit in chairs and on risers and, when every seat is taken, huddle on the poured concrete floor like students in a gymnasium. He’s on-message tonight, describing the “open culture” theme for the Biennale as photos of his favourite street art are projected onto wall-sized screens. “I’m not curating the final work, I’m only selecting the beginning. The end work,” he says to the hometown crowd, “is determined by you.”

Burnham has become a kind of self-appointed evangelist for a more interactive way to experience art. “Scott’s strength is in creating an energy that’s as much about art as it is about promoting his machinery of ideas,” says photographer Angela Grauerholz, who has watched him in action. “Students lap it up. They don’t know that he’s recontextualizing ideas that have been around for decades. He’s getting them excited about art and making them question all the things they’ve taken for granted. They don’t look at the city the same way anymore.”

To show me how cities have become galleries, Burnham pulls out his laptop, which is filled with hundreds of images by the world’s leading “urban interventionists.” He comes to a series of pieces by the U.K. collective CutUp, which takes down billboards, cuts them up and reassembles them into provocative new images. “This is at the extreme edge of creativity. This is like Hemingway’s reports from Spain, this is like Miller’s writing in Paris in the ’30s. For me,” he says, clicking on CutUp’s billboard of a boy crying, “that’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen in a gallery.”