The sunset was gorgeous, so there was that. But otherwise, it was alarming Thursday, June 7, to see that Seattle's loved, hated, much-debated Center on Contemporary Art now lives in a Ballard beach club where, at happy hour, a DJ takes over the banquet room and plays a remix of "Groove Is in the Heart."
This is very slightly better than being dead. CoCA ran out of money and shut down its location in South Lake Union in January. Board president Joseph Roberts, who owns the Shilshole Bay Beach Club, CoCA's temporary home, readily admits that the nearly 30-year-old organization is hanging by a thread—he's the one holding it.
We weren't supposed to talk about CoCA at the panel discussion Roberts had invited me to be part of. We'd focus on Seattle Art Museum, particularly on what modern and contemporary curator Michael Darling is doing to make Seattle internationally relevant. None of this sounded or looked promising as we entered the empty area adjoining the banquet room to get started around 9:30 p.m.
But the crowd finally showed, and, refreshingly, included few recognizable members of the local art mafia. It wasn't timid, and neither were the panelists, it turned out. Artist Tomek Lamprecht, who had a painting hanging in the hallway, caused a stir by declaring SAM's collection to be embarrassingly marginal.
Lamprecht praised the editioned remake of the original Duchamp urinal as one of the few highlights in the paltry collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collection, which made one wonder about his view of a "highlight" (not to mention that SFMOMA's collection is quite good)—and boasted, in his indeterminate European accent, about European museums, while congratulating himself as a straight-talking New Yorker among self-congratulating Scandinavians.
Darling, who's usually mild mannered, brought out his superhero side. (Who knew?) By the end of his withering response, Lamprecht was the one who looked embarrassingly marginal. As for what Darling is working on: a space for artist's projects in the museum, and a 1950s to 1970s painting show called Target Practice (Lucio Fontana to Lawrence Weiner).
Finally, around 11:00 p.m., I found a private moment to ask Roberts about CoCA. He left the impression that he's the last man standing of a small group of trustees, and that he's leaning toward raising money so that CoCA can buy its own building.
But he wonders whether there's a need for an independent contemporary art center the way there was in the late '70s. If he's asking the question, then maybe not—because without urgency, CoCA is better off dead.
Then I sat down with Jim O'Donnell, the former board member/curator who's been behind much of what CoCA has done well over the past several years, and I was reminded: Urgency doesn't come from board members, money does. CoCA was once artist run, then it was trustee run. The only way forward is with an artistic director.