Over the past year, SFAI has been undergoing an extensive search for a new President after the departure of the last, Charles Desmarais. At the start of the Fall 2016 semester, it was announced that three prospective candidates would be visiting at the beginning of September and would be holding public presentations to introduce themselves to the SFAI community and answer the question "What do you think the role of SFAI should be in the future, and what personal and professional experiences will you draw on to bring that role to life?"
SFAEYE is covering these candidates' presentations as they happen and will be releasing complete recordings of their talks, along with a written recap and at-a-glance summaries of each candidates' qualifications.
Meet Aaron Betsky, the third and final presidential candidate to visit SFAI.
Aaron Betsky: At-a-Glance
B.A. History, the Arts, and Letters, 1979, Yale University
Masters of Architecture, 1983, Yale University
1995-2001: Curator of Architecture, Design, and Digital Projects, SFMOMA
2001-2006: Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute
2008: Director of 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale
2006-2014: Director of Cincinnati Art Museum
2015-present: Dean of Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin West
Additional Information available at his Linkedin
Here is the full audio of Aaron Betsky's presentation in the SFAI Lecture Hall on September 15, 2016. A recap can be found below.
Aaron Betsky’s began his presentation by introducing himself and speaking of his enjoyment to be returning to SFAI. He talked about how he had been involved with projects at the school through his position at SFMOMA 20 years ago. He went on, “I come to you as an alien. I can’t deny that, I can’t hide it, I can’t pretend that I am not trained as an architect - that’s my background. I can tell you that all through my life I’ve gone back and forth between art and architecture...I can’t talk to you as an insider, completely and fully” He proceeded to discuss the things he’s done in his career and share with us his perspectives. He described the difficulty for him, despite being a “big picture guy”, of forming a “vision” for SFAI and it’s role in the future. Betsky said that SFAI is at a crossroads “in which it has to decide what it is going to be in the future...almost every definition and description [he] has found, things that [SFAI] produces and things that people write about [SFAI] are all about the history...but not about the future. Not about what SFAI is going to be in the future. How do you take that history and make it something that is transformative? Something that, as your mission says, transforms the lives of the members of this community...but also the community around it, through art making...What is it that SFAI does... better than… What is it that makes SFAI unique? That’s what’s not quite clear to me yet.” Betsky continued on to discuss that SFAI presents it’s “uniqueness” in the negative - through its rejection of design and the like. He iterates that although he comes from the world of design, he does not intend SFAI to become a design school since the Institution has “clearly made that choice not to do that...but what are you doing and what will you be doing in the future?”. He says that, despite the questions he has, SFAI must continue “being the place of rigorous weirdness...the place that combines better discipline and better craft and more intensive knowledge than any other art school around, with the ability to blow people away, turn things upside down, flip them and reverse...and have a real, transformative impact on your communities. How do you do that?”
Betsky segwayed into his background and discusses “the first kind of art he learned how to love” - architecture. He is “interested in that kind of art that mirrors and maps the world around it in order to transform it. [He] is less interested in art that...is a window to another world, that shows you something that doesn’t exist. [He] is interested in art that comes back at you, that comes back at you and turns around what is all around you”. Betsky described his birthplace of Montana and then moving to the Netherlands. He shows and an image of a house in which he lived and grew up. He told an anecdote about an art history teacher who connected him with the owner of a De Stijl-style house that, upon seeing it, opened his eyes to the possibilities of art and architecture. Betsky then moved on to Yale for his undergraduate and graduate degrees and wrote his first book about the architect who designed many of the buildings at Yale, entitled James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Pragmatism. He continued to discuss his interests in architecture and beginnings in teaching architecture. Betsky described working on a series of books on the relationship between gender/sexuality and architecture after experiencing teaching a class on interior design that consisted nearly entirely women who initially had aspirations of becoming architects. He showed a house where he lived in Los Angeles that has been used on several film sets. Betsky then discussed working for the architect Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, before moving to San Francisco. He continued to show houses in which he lived and the architecture that he is inspired by. He talked about working at SFMOMA, buying art, and working on shows, and transforming SFMOMA’s place in the community. He shared images of various shows he curated, including one that was his most successful that focused on sneakers. Betsky shared images and anecdotes about moving to the Netherlands and about the architecture that he lived in and was inspired by there. He then talks about his work in Cincinnati Art Museum - diversifying the collections and exhibitions with a focus on local artists, buying art, and commissioning “crazy artists” to do projects in their galleries. Betsky then discussed his work in Scottsdale at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin West.
Betsky continued to discuss the problems in contemporary architecture and the effects on the environments in which we live. He shares stills from popular media that show how architecture illustrates setting and visual environment. “This notion that we live in this world of empty images and empty forms is to me, fascinating...and trying to figure out... how to look at this world and then what to do with it, is to me of greatest importance. If there’s one thing that I keep pushing, is that I wish that all of us, artists, architects, designers, would spend a lot more time looking at the world out there around us, rather than cocooning ourselves in what remain of our downtowns and ‘hip-ifying’ (sp.) neighborhoods and looking at ourselves in our mirror. I am fascinated by looking at our culture, whether that be the culture that’s on our internet or on the tube...that to me is the undiscovered territory.” Betsky described other things he is fascinated by, namely the internet and technologies we have access to. He described his attraction to artists and architects that “manipulate and collage and bring disparate images together in ways where it is difficult to ascertain where the technology and where the handcraft is” and then shares a story about an architect who created a building that is “there and not there”. He described a word that has been making the rounds in architecture, “affordances” - what space or an image affords you. He shared more projects from artists and projects he admires, including the movie theater photographs of Sugimoto and Minnesota Street Project. He shared work that reflect the fluidity of the boundary between art and architecture - while acknowledging again that SFAI does not necessarily need to become a design school.
Betsky closed by talking about what interests him - art and architecture that “makes you feel at home in this sprawling world...What is it that anchors us while at the same time opens up a new way of looking at the world around you?” He ends on the note that he “is less interested in looking up at the shiny new things as I am looking down at the...possibilities that we already have and I think that...there are great possibilities for making this Institution, if I do have a vision, that uses that “rigorous weirdness” in order to make an art that does indeed transform our lives and transform us as artmakers...and the community around us, but who also, through doing that, is able to hold a mirror up to our society - a fractured mirror, one that perhaps is dissolving into the ether- but that still transforms that world and that figures out how we can be at home in this sprawling, continually changing environment that is all around us”.
Transcript of the Question and Answer portion will be available shortly.