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Bill Arning, the new director of the Contemporary Arts Museum

The CAMH’s Bill Arning

by Rich Arenschieldt
Photo by Mark Hiebert

Houston’s performing arts community includes a number of nationally recognized personalities, some gay, some not. Both the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera have highly talented gay leaders who have dramatically raised artistic standards during the past decade. With the recent mayoral election, the entire world knows of our support for gay leadership. Our newly glam mayor now sits atop a heap of queer cultural chiefs.

Now, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), also has a gay governor at its helm. Bill Arning’s affable persona and eclectic insight bode well for the institution, ensconced in the famous Gunnar Birkerts-designed stainless steel edifice at the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet.

The bearded, closely cropped Arning resembles a sexy Amish farmer, but his demeanor and pedigree are entirely cosmopolitan. His devotion to art and what it can accomplish is intense. In a sense, he’s a triptych—director, critic, and activist—with each panel illuming depending on the subject being examined, and each possessing a gay tempera gloss.

“I had the easiest coming-out on the planet,” Arning says. “I was raised in a very liberal family in New York City, 10 blocks from where the Stonewall riots occurred. My sister was an actress, my father worked for a liberal law firm, and I attended a progressive Friends school in Manhattan.” Friends schools are noted for their liberal Quaker-inspired philosophy of peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and the actualization of every student.

“I was going to galleries when I was in junior high. At that time, music, art, and film were all in one big creative blender for me.” In his late teens, the main ingredient in that artistic mix for the young Arning was music. “In the late ’70s I had a band, The Student Teachers, that was produced by Jimmy Destri, the founding member of Blondie.”

The group embodied the early ’80s new-wave pop sound, and had some success. A 1979 music review stated, “Billy Arning is a gas. He stands behind his keyboards with a furrowed brow wearing a look so intent and serious you’d think he was performing brain surgery while playing the simplest, poppiest rinky-dink roller derby organ fills imaginable.” The pug-nosed teenage Arning (or at least his fingers) can be seen accompanying diva Debbie Harry in Blondie’s Dreaming videos.

“I thought I was going to be a rock star,” Arning says. “I tried forming several bands, but eventually returned to NYU to pursue a degree in art history. After graduation I began working in galleries where, contrary to popular belief, unless you are the top dog, you usually end up doing one of two things: construction or clerical work. I was the ‘Hello, may I help you?’ guy.”

Eventually an opportunity arose that established the trajectory for Arning’s career. He was offered a job at New York City’s most established alternative art space, White Columns (similar to Houston’s DiverseWorks). Founded in 1970, this entity had been presenting contemporary art and artists for a decade and was known worldwide for its eclectic and innovative exhibitions. Arning is still a member of their honorary board of directors.

“I got the job as assistant director, which was one of two positions—the other being the director.” Within 18 months Arning was promoted. “I had the enthusiasm and energy to work a ‘40-hour day’ if needed.”

This position was perfect for an up-and-coming director/curator like Arning. In 1985, America’s “art versus pornography” debate was in full sling, with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) taking the brunt of the abuse. Squarely in the congressional funding crosshairs, the NEA was threatened with extinction due to its support of “blasphemous and homosexual art.” Notable among these funded projects were the homoerotic photos of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose X Portfolio series (including one self-portrait with a bullwhip in his anus) created outrage among religious and political conservatives. Though Mapplethorpe was the most famous artistic martyr of the period, many artists suffered under governmental scrutiny and censorship on subjects dealing with human sexuality, HIV, and LGBT issues. In a rare convergence, the medical and artistic worlds collided. As more men were contracting HIV, their creative voices were simultaneously being stifled.

“I cut my teeth during this period—a crucial time for me and for the art world,” Arning says. “This government-sanctioned expression of homophobia was so abhorrent to us that it served to galvanize the community of curators, critics, and artists.” Arning and others protested this censorship by, among other things, chaining themselves together on the steps of News York’s venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Though gay men were targeted, it’s important to remember that, historically, this group had broad support,” Arning says. “At rallies, everyone showed up—friends, family, colleagues in the arts. It was incredibly inclusive—lesbians, straights, artists, writers. We were all concerned about creative repression. Even now, sometimes I can’t remember what the protest was for. Was it for art? Medication access? Increased funding? Though this was in many ways a deadly time for our community, I never felt more alive. It was an amazing time, and one I remember with nostalgia.”

Artists were viscerally involved in the turbulent protest process. Their responses were mounted in a very rough-and-tumble sort of way. Alacrity was necessary, given the fluidity of the situation. “We were often designing things to promote an event that was imminent—a march occurring within 48 hours. Everything seemed so urgent at the time. The decision-making process had to happen with a minimum of debate. Everybody felt called to do something.”

Unbeknownst to those participating, works created in conjunction with these events would have enduring impact. Artistically, the movement surrounding AIDS benefited from stark pictorial representations. Slogans, posters, buttons, T-shirts, and banners on city busses propelled the maelstrom of discontent. More importantly, this mix of graphics and grit “branded” the exigencies onto the collective consciousness of politicians and the public. Several specific events in the ’80s provided necessary momentum—most significantly, the founding of ACT UP and its artistic equivalent, Gran Fury.

Much of this rough-hewn imagery is recorded in Douglas Crimp’s book, AIDS Demo Graphics. “Crimp was one of the greatest art historians of all time,” Arning says. “He took a sabbatical from his work and decided to chronicle the events surrounding AIDS. In the book, he discusses how the world’s artists were being disproportionately affected by the epidemic, how those same incredibly talented visual artists were formulating their responses to what was happening, and how that was influencing perceptions and outcomes for those affected.”

Jessie Green encapsulates some of the emotion of the period as he reminisces in his December 2003 New York Times Magazine column:

“It took but a night for so-called snipers to plaster any such wall with a thousand ads and provocations. As a result, my neighborhood, Greenwich Village, was a giant bulletin board of notices. . . . Could something so clearly political (though its politics were unclear) be art?”

As director and curator at White Columns, Arning played a crucial role in enabling   LGBT activists to propel the burgeoning “movement.” “The artists in ACT UP came to me and asked to use the White Columns space to mount an exhibition during July and August, when we were closed. I of course agreed. Shortly thereafter they asked, “Do you have plate-glass insurance? We are going to put a sign in the window that reads ‘Reagan is guilty of murder,’ and someone might throw a brick through it.”

The show, ACT UP at White Columns: We are fighting for your lives too, received substantial coverage in the New York Times and other major publications—something that shocked all involved. “What was phenomenal is this: the organs that distribute information to the public from the institutionalized art world on what is happening in the New York museum scene responded to the show in a way that was incredible,” Arning says. With this single installation, ACT UP finally obtained the imprimatur of the fine arts establishment, and in so doing, dared people to visualize the destruction within their midst.

Arning was at the center of a tempest for queer artists and their depiction of LGBT life within the artistic community. In the late ’80s and early ’90s several pivotal shows were presented that showcased new talent. Exhibitions at two talismans of the art world, the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Venice Biennale, featured LGBT arts and artists prominently.

AIDS made its U.S. debut among a demographic group that was highly educated, politically savvy, independent-minded, and aesthetically imaginative. “These were not people who were going to tolerate being ignored, or taken for granted,” Arning says. “This group, through its various artistic sensibilities, knew how to effectively express itself and communicate its views publicly. It was the most significant artistic expression of its time, and it garnered a large audience. “

In 1996, after working at White Columns for 11 years, Arning decided it was time to move on. “I left without knowing what my next steps were going to be—something that most people would not advise you to do. Time Out New York was forming, and I became one of the first critics there, writing, doing some freelance curating, and other things.”

Arning is a prolific writer. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Village Voice, The MIT Press, and every prominent industry publication. He has published numerous books and exhibition catalogues, and edited or contributed to several others.

“As a writer I was always wondering how much of myself I should interject in essays I was working on,” Arning says. “As I began curating and critiquing shows on gay-related subjects, I had to admit that I was not opining from a position of neutrality. My commentary originated from someone who experienced the early days of the epidemic ‘in the trenches.’ Many of us in the arts had a second professional ‘coming out’ in this regard. We had to admit that certain works were more meaningful to us than others.”

In 2000, Arning moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to become a curator at the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Though not commonly associated with fine arts, this bastion of “in the cloud” research is actually well known within the art world.

MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies is a fellowship program founded in 1967 that produces art and fosters artistic research. It’s a mecca for artists who want to explore and utilize technology in their work. “I was always a bit of a science nerd, so the job at MIT was an incredible experience for me. MIT’s visual arts center has been one of the most important venues for a non-collecting [meaning without a permanent collection] arts institution in the world for the last 20 years. The shows I curated there were among the edgier ones that were presented. We had a small staff but a huge presence in the arts community.” While at MIT, Arning received international critical acclaim for many of the exhibitions he curated.

After several years at MIT, Arning began to seek a museum directorship. “I was on a curatorial junket to the Middle East with some of my favorite colleagues. We had a day off and decided to go float in the Dead Sea. The CAMH job had recently been announced, and everyone in the group said ‘You should apply—that is such a ‘Bill’ job.”

Changes were occurring throughout the art world. Curators, as the name implies, are responsible for specific shows that institutions present. It’s their job to extract the best show from the artist and to advocate for them if necessary. Directors, according to Arning, are “responsible for everything from the cleanliness of the restrooms to the long-term financial viability of the organizations they oversee.” High-ranking museum professionals had been encouraging young curators like Arning to step up and make the leap from caretaking specific exhibits to governing museums.

Houston was a known quantity to Arning. “I had been here on several occasions, working with U of H’s Blaffer Gallery to curate their 2004 Houston Area Exhibition. During that time I became very familiar with the local arts scene. I knew CAMH and its curators, and I also visited several local studios and galleries.” In 2008 he returned to Blaffer to co-curate Chantal Akerman’s Moving through Time and Space. In 2009 Arning finally moved to Houston, succeeding longtime CAMH director Marti Mayo.

Piloting a major arts entity through an economic downturn may not be considered a dream job by most people. For Arning, this is a route he’s traveled most of his career, having led very lean institutions. “The organizations with which I’ve been associated have established reputations well beyond the resources they have at their disposal. CAMH fits this description exactly,” he says. “Our challenge is to grow, stay current on what’s happening in the contemporary arts, and bring that to Houstonians. We are fortunate—our artistic neighbors are two of the finest museums in the world, The Menil Collection and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. They contain centuries of art and have done a magnificent job of writing and teaching the ‘history’ of art for Houston.”  

Arning and his curators realize they must utilize a different palette. They not only think outside the box, they think outside the museum—utilizing the CAMH’s front yard for numerous community events and performances. Challenges abound. What is the relevance of a free-standing museum, a kunsthalle like CAMH, whose primary purpose is to mount temporary exhibitions, as opposed to a permanent collection? Given the virtual aspects of art and the Internet, why have a museum at all? Arning agrees that “the Internet is a museum.” However, he believes that CAMH’s physical structure affords viewers a unique experience—one he calls a “space of attention.”

“As the result of technical advances, works that would have been considered art photographs 10 years ago are now accomplished with one keystroke,” Arning says. “The preservation of computer-generated early work is the responsibility of this generation of artists and curators. What’s occurring in the high-definition world of entertainment is now trickling down to what we do here, all of which will be negotiated over time.”

Aware that he may have to entice some visitors away from the digital devices, Arning is candid about who he’d like to attract to CAMH. “My ideal viewer is a 20-year-old who is interested in art, but has very little idea of what that means. They know that they are responding to visual stimuli, but are having difficulty categorizing that response.

“The only thing anyone needs to approach contemporary art is curiosity. If you walk into a museum and see something that doesn’t resemble art, before you decide whether you like it or not, ask this question: ‘Why would someone spend precious time to create this?’ If you can arrive at an answer to that, you are likely to engage the work and begin a process of discernment and discussion. For someone who wants to discover what’s happening at this moment in time—come to CAMH —we strive to keep things lively.”

Arning’s own life has been a bit of culture shock since relocating from Boston. “My first night in Houston I went to the Brazos River Bottom with Marlene Dumas, a world-famous artist who was having a retrospective at The Menil. We stood there and watched gay cowboys dance—that was surreal.” There is one thing Arning can’t master—the Texas Two-Step. “I tried it, but I kept crashing into everyone.”

Although he is unabashedly queer, Arning is more reserved when discussing his personal life. “Before I came to Houston I had, in a way, sort of closeted myself from others with regard to intimate relationships. People knew I was gay, but that’s as far as it went. Now I’m in a new relationship and things are going very well. We just took our first joint vacation together, and I’m getting ready to meet his family.”

The journey to Texas also has had a bittersweet tinge. Arning was a close friend of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a San Antonio artist who died in 1996. “I knew him well. Much of his work centers on how larger social, political, and cultural crises are woven through our lives. While this lesson is valuable to all people, its genesis was a health crisis that impacted the gay population specifically.”

In what could be labeled a “statewide retrospective,” Artpace San Antonio is remounting several pieces in its Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Billboards project, “which, in terms of art about AIDS, is one of the most important things to happen in Texas,” Arning says. “This exhibit is up on billboards in every major city in Texas—from El Paso to Houston.”

Torres’s work, like many of his contemporaries, is politically aggressive and graphic in nature. “What’s interesting is that we are now seeing a new generation of historians document these works into the artistic canon,” Arning says. Torres and his contemporaries are now viewed through a different lens. The ‘past-ness’ of it is inescapable. For a 25-year-old viewing the work today, it’s ancient history.”

Further homage to LGBT artistic activism occurs in the White Columns retrospective currently on view—ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993. Originally mounted at Harvard, this exhibition validates the trials Arning and his creative cohorts endured three decades ago.

“We realized at the time that there was some historical significance to the events that were occurring in the ’80s and ’90s. Now that institutions of this stature are conserving this material, our ‘place’ is affirmed. The process of historization is incredibly interesting. When an earlier generation of political art gets written into history, the next generation absorbs it and learns about it to confront its own crises. If I were a 20-year-old activist today, AIDS probably wouldn’t be my principal concern. However, our work does serve as a model for those who want to raise consciousness about contemporary issues.

“As we review social commentary on this period, ACT UP’s importance transcends its existence as merely a grassroots entity,” Arning says. “It’s clear that the group revolutionized the way that the healthcare industry and its governmental funders responded to patients. In terms of advocacy, input, lobbying for funding, and medication access, ACT UP was the earliest model for patient involvement within a disease process.”

Breast cancer, mental health, degenerative diseases, and neurological disorders were all receiving limited support 30 years ago. Now, largely as the result of advocacy from patient activists, these illnesses are now benefiting from substantially increased research funding.

In the new millennium, where are the emblematic images that can compare with the hard-fought brawls of previous decades? ACT UP has essentially closed up shop. The Names Project and the indelible images of its AIDS quilt have been folded away. The once-unique crimson ribbon now competes with a rainbow of bracelets in other colors.

That ferocious Nazi-era pink triangle evokes little emotion and even less actual memory. What happens now that the symbology of an era is disappearing into historical ephemera? Arning offers a response imbued with history: “It is the responsibility of museums to keep available for the future the visual responses previous generations created to fight for their lives—not to be revered but rather retooled for the struggles ahead. In my youth, we all looked at the great anti-Nazi images of John Heartfield and learned from him. Today’s GLBT youth, made heartsick by the current wave of [gay teenagers’] suicides, might look at our startlingly clear images and find their own voice.”

Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.

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