I hadn’t heard of the artist Carmen Herrera before I chanced upon her beautiful show at the Whitney last October. Her story is as incredible as the work itself. Born in Havana in 1915, she’s worked and lived in both Paris and New York and befriended the great and the good. Hers is a life devoted to the daily practice of making art. Her longevity is impressive enough (she is still going strong with the help of a studio assistant), but – and this is the crunch – she didn’t sell a single painting until she was 89 years old. 89 years old! I can’t imagine what kind of internal faith and conviction you’d need to sustain such a solitary path. It also goes to show that timing is everything. Beyond the three dimensions of line, plane and form, is the fourth – time. An idea needs to jump through a lot of hoops to become a tangible thing, and one of the trickiest hoops can be finding the right moment. Like Herrera, some ideas have to be very patient.
Herrera was brilliant in the 1950s when the world wasn’t ready. To be both Cuban and female in New York during the Cold War and in a male-dominated art scene put her at a distinct disadvantage. A recent profile of the artist in the Guardian (31.12.16) includes the following anecdote: ‘She recalls visiting one avant garde gallery to discuss her work and as she left, the owner, Rose Fried, called her back. “She said, ‘You know, Carmen, you can paint rings around the men artists I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.’ I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out”… [Herrera also makes the generous concession] that the men fared better not simply because they were men, but also because they were more streetwise. “They were better than me at knowing how to play the system, what to do and when. They figured out the gallery system, the collector system, the museum system, and I wasn’t that kind of personality”.’
So what changed? She was exhibiting in group shows of Latin American Art in the late nineties and art journalists started to take notice. Slowly but surely, the buzz grew, and she sold her first work in 2004. In 2009, she had her first solo show in Europe – take a bow, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – and now, in her 102nd year, she has a Whitney show under her belt and is attracting international press coverage. I love stories like this; it’s great to see such dedication rewarded. It also makes my heart go out to anyone struggling to bring new ideas into the world and working in comparative isolation. To bring this back to museum education (and on a far more modest scale), I know what it’s like to be a one-person education department in a small institution. Your interests and priorities aren’t necessarily shared by colleagues (who have their own interests and priorities to worry about) and it’s difficult to benchmark your programme and ideas because there aren’t any immediate points of comparison. I have very fond memories of attending my first engage network events and meeting others who were interested in the same things, annoyed by the same things, and excited by the same things. It’s such a relief to know you’re not the only one thinking it. Watch Blind Lemon’s music video No Rain to get a sense of how happy it made me to find my people.
I have never met a museum educator with time on their hands. It seems that we are always up against the clock, trying to juggle multiple commitments and deadlines. With so many potential audiences, possible partnerships, and programming structures available to us, it can be difficult to channel all of those opportunities into some sort of strategic direction. However, with a surfeit of ideas and a limited number of hours in the day, some tough decisions need to be made. No matter how good an idea is, and how keen it is to be realised (hopping from foot to foot in anticipation), sometimes it just has to join the queue and wait its turn.
The importance of timing came up a few times during my Churchill Fellowship interviews in the US. For example, the events programme at MCA Denver is all about contemporary culture, and in the age of social media, relevance has a short shelf-life. Programme turn-around can be about 12 weeks from idea to delivery. A lot can change in that time, so the team has to work hard to capture those fleeting zeitgeist moments. A few people also mentioned recycling ideas. In the process of brainstorming, many ideas are generated. The goal is to find the right idea for the particular problem at hand. Amongst the debris of ideas that don’t make the cut will be some nuggets of gold that might be just the answer for a different problem. This mindset, that an idea will have its moment, seems to take some of the pressure off the ideas generation process. It’s comforting to know, ‘oh well, if not now, then maybe later’ for ideas.
Being in the right place at the right time is just as true of people as it is of ideas. Herrera’s moment finally arrived, and fortunately within her lifetime. While discrimination is hardly a thing of the past, attitudes have moved on enough that women like Herrera are now recognised for their artistic talent and skill. Some ideas arrive when we aren’t ready for them, and it might not be the idea that has to change, but the context in which it’s received. What won’t work now might work in a couple of years, or with a different audience, or in a different role. So keep the faith and persevere.
Header image: Watch with enamelled gold case and movement by Jacques Huon, Paris, 1640-50, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London