"The curator shapes public opinion about contemporary art," Shiffler told me recently--on a hot afternoon when we sat and drank a lot of beer and tried to reconstruct the essence of many conversations we've had over the last four years about different kinds of art and curatorial philosophies. We were talking about her practice--which some curators and art critics find unorthodox, even unseemly--of pushing those artists from whom ConWorks has commissioned a new work for exhibition, of asking questions and more or less forcing the artist to articulate what a work does and why it exists. Some people feel a curator's work should be much more hands-off, that the job is simply to select and install work rather than to shape it, but Shiffler locates her responsibility somewhere between the artist and the public. "It's not my job to request a specific work," she said, "but it is my role to ask questions and provoke dialogue about it. I need to know that the work is conceptually sound."
The occasion for musing over Shiffler and her philosophy of curating, and for drinking many beers in sorrow, is that she's leaving Seattle in the middle of this month, heading back east to attend Bard College's curatorial studies program. So it's time to drag out the elegiac tone, which can be annoying not least because it seems to me there are better times to praise people than as they're on their way out the door. But a curator's reputation is built exhibition by exhibition, and as I looked over the articles I wrote about her shows over the last four years, I realized that with each one, her conceptual view was progressively revealed, and what emerged were her specific ideas about the artist's place in the realm of made objects and art's purpose in the world.
Each of her shows, I found, was at least as much a whole installation unto itself as it was an exhibition of discrete works, all pushing and pulling at an idea, examining unexplored edges and pulling apart received notions. Her very first show, on the occasion of the opening of Consolidated Works, was Artificial Life, which took a sophisticated look at the shifting limits between the natural and the created, all in context of art, which is by definition manmade. In Binocular Parallax, co-curated with Jonathan Middleton of Vancouver, BC's Western Front, a galleryful of art created in two cities inquired into how a city's location, politics, and other ineffables do or do not shape its artists' practices. In Sorta, one of my favorites, co-curated with Brian Wallace, the idea of artist as interpreter--even a mini-curator--of our overvisual world was turned over and examined in the minute detail, both relevant and wildly not, that only art provides.
This is not to say that Shiffler's shows privileged the whole over the single work, and some of her great moments have been simply in showing work you couldn't see anywhere else. As far as I can tell, the appearance of a magnificent two-sided Henry Darger mural (loaned by an anonymous collector) was the first time that Darger (the brilliant, most likely mad outsider Chicago artist, author of the 15,000-plus-page illustrated novel about good, evil, dragons, and little girls with penises) has been shown in Seattle. Last spring's Wrapture featured two David Reed paintings that would have been quite at home at a more traditionally venerated institution; at her hands we also saw Sandy Skoglund's gazillion-butterflies installation, a whole wall-painting/sculpture by graffiti crossover artist Barry McGee (ConWorks owns the piece, but has yet to install it in the new space), Mariko Mori, and Nayland Blake.
But it's the mix of these established artists with Seattle's best emerging artists that has proved Shiffler's most trenchant innovation. Perhaps not an innovation, exactly, but we are certainly seeing exhibitions that take this route at other institutions a lot more often than we used to, and this is something Shiffler was hip to from the beginning. ConWorks founder and director Matthew Richter was delighted by her line of thinking. "When I started talking to Meg about ConWorks," Richter said, "we talked about this idea of positive space and negative space. We were starting with the positive of this kernel of an idea: the multidisciplinary, one-stop-shopping arts organization. And we asked, what's the negative that this project is fitting into? What doesn't Seattle already have? And at the time, Seattle didn't have an organization presenting international and local artists on the same platform." The benefit of this kind of mixing, Shiffler felt, worked for everyone involved. The younger artists got to see their work next to art by big, famous people; the established artists had a chance to see their own work recontextualized, freshened, in a way, by proximity to something new. Having artists create new work, and be paid to create new work, was also very much a part of Shiffler's plan; the show Notice of Proposed Land Use Action, which saluted ConWorks' old Terry Avenue space, was assembled completely out of commissioned, site-specific work. In the new Boren Avenue space, a whole gallery, the SOLO Project Room, has been given over to work by even younger emerging artists.
For all her insistence on conceptual rigor and completeness, Shiffler is one of Seattle's most understated curators. Not for her are extensive wall texts, or tags with long explanations of the curator's thinking. Shiffler is very much about the encounter between the viewer and the art, and all the invisible work she does in thinking about, selecting, and arranging the exhibition goes into making that encounter, that moment, significant and interesting.
Which is really, if you think about it, what "cool" means, and this sense of cool and importance and smartness and fun is Shiffler's legacy to Consolidated Works. I'll miss her when she goes, and I imagine I'll feel a bit deflated about the art world for a while; things were rarely dull when Meg was around.