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Energy Trade: Where the Museums Are

Hanging in the boardroom of Lord Cultural Resources’ Toronto office is a stark landscape of oil tankers in Bangladesh. In any other office, the troubling political content of the industrial terrain captured by the photographer Edward Burtynsky might seem out of place. But not here. The international museum-consultancy firm founded by co-presidents Barry Lord and Gail Dexter Lord carries forward the social values embodied by Lord’s earlier work as an independent curator and art historian through culturally sensitive services that set the business apart from its competition. Moreover, the company’s pioneering business model is complemented by ambitious, environmentally conscious publications authored by its co-presidents that explore the shifting social function of museums in a globalized economy. How did Lord transform the Marxist critique in his landmark 1974 text The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art into the hybrid of business and social consciousness that defines his success today? Lord insists that “we’ve not stepped away from the fundamental analysis of our earlier work at all.” His language and tone may have mellowed, but his ideas and social values still bristle with energy.


Adam Lauder: You became the editor of Canadian Art in 1966, changing its name to artscanada and working with Paul Arthur to overhaul its format. What motivated your radical approach to publishing at that time?

Barry Lord: artscanada was a product of Marshall McLuhan. Paul was the publisher. He had audited a course that McLuhan was giving in his heyday—that was 1965–66. Paul brought me in to edit the magazine, and he and I together produced this thing called “the mag in a bag.” It was truly revolutionary. We had 10,000 subscribers when we started; we had 10,000 subscribers when we finished—they were just a whole different 10,000. We literally lost three quarters of our subscribers and gained three quarters back.


AL: And who was the new audience?

BL: What was happening in the 1960s was that visual art was becoming mainstream. Prior to that, I think the audience had been collectors, people of a certain level of wealth and educational background and so on. By the end of our first year, we had a new audience that consisted mostly of younger people, people who didn’t necessarily have money, who weren’t collectors—who weren’t about to buy things—but who saw that this magazine was introducing them to a world of values and meaning that was really quite exciting. It was the beginning of making art mainstream, which one has seen since then with something like Tate Modern —the whole transformation of art from having been a marginal or, at best, an avant- garde phenomenon, to becoming an experience that today is comparable to pop music.


AL: Your 1974 book The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art proposes a Marxist counter-history of Canadian art that challenges the largely apolitical narratives of J. Russell Harper and Dennis Reid. It’s a very interesting text from the perspective of young people today.

BL: The metaphor in the book of the inverted pyramid was actually used at a seminar I recently attended in New York. One of the people from the Occupy Museums offshoot of the Occupy movement actually used precisely that metaphor, and said, “We are for tipping over the pyramid of the art world.” Of course, the book has the tone and the language of the time. Writing it today, I would adopt a different tone. But the analysis is something that Gail and I—and, by the way, Gail had a lot to do with the book (for various reasons her name did not appear on the book, but she was very involved)—have used ever since. We’ve not stepped away from that fundamental analysis at all.


AL: How did you make the transition from independent critic, curator and historian in the 1970s to founding Lord Cultural Resources with your wife, Gail Dexter Lord, in 1981?

BL: In the late 1970s I went back—for the third time—to working with the National Museums of Canada. I put in five years building the specialized museums program, and then the whole of the museum-assistance programs. I was one of two assistant directors. I was very much involved with the exhibition programs, but also, primarily, with the capital-assistance programs—with new buildings and renovations. When I took over, they had had a lot of problems, financially, with those projects. Museums that were opening were embarrassments to the politicians because they were late, they were over budget, they were too big, they were too small, they were not going to function well. I found that this was happening despite the fact that you had good collections, good people and good intentions. But nobody knew how to plan the museums beforehand. So I said, “look, let’s stop giving large sums of money to capital projects—let’s give people smaller amounts and insist they do some planning first.” That proved to be very successful, but, by 1981, as so often happens in government… I’m afraid that one of my melancholy conclusions from three spells in government is: in government, nothing succeeds like failure, and nothing fails like success. We had a success. We were solving problems. And government’s not really set up for that. Then, of course, people start asking you to wind things down, and they started asking me to write memos that would effectively dissolve things that I had spent five years building. And I said, “You can get somebody else to do that, I’m out of here.” Initially, I took a curatorial job with the Wentworth Heritage Village, now called the Westfield Heritage Centre. I got a lot of good experience that way, by going beyond my art-world experience, and, at the same time, we started the company. Before we left Ottawa, we edited a book that summarized our experience, called Planning Our Museums. Published in 1983, it turned out to be the world’s first book on the subject.


AL: Your recent book, written with Gail, Artists, Patrons, and the Public (2010), proposes that “we need a broader definition of patronage.” Why is the question of patronage so critical at this moment?

BL: People very often make the mistake of thinking of patrons as wealthy collectors. Or, on the other hand, they think that anyone who lines up at a box office is a patron of the theatre. Well, that’s one usage of the word. But we define patronage as whatever allows an artist to produce more than one work—whether it’s an institution, an individual or whatever. Anybody can produce a work of art. But to produce a second and a third and to keep going is to become an artist. To become an artist and to remain an artist is to have patronage. The artist’s patron may be his wife or her husband. And patronage is not only to do with money; it’s also to do with criticism. Lawren Harris was independently wealthy, from his connection to Massey-Harris. He didn’t need the purchase of his work to keep him going. But he did need the critical response.

AL: But you argue that expanding the notion of patronage is an especially pressing concern today. Why?

BL: One of the discussions at the session I attended in New York had to do with a reality TV show about art, which has some very acerbic critics viciously attacking certain works of art. I pointed out that what the show is really about is not art. It’s about patronage: the relationship between artist, the patron and the public—the public, of course, being the TV viewers. It’s a kind of lab. I suggested that the appearance of such a program at this time shows that once again this whole issue of artists, patrons and the public is very central. The Occupy Museums movement is pushing at the same issues. It’s very much at the fore at the moment, because people are really questioning whether the inherited relations of patronage are necessarily right.


AL: Artists, Patrons, and the Public is very attentive to the impact of technological change on the environment. But you and Gail also argue that dependence on natural resources can act as an engine for cultural change by heightening awareness of the long-term impact of current environmental interventions. You cite the positive example of enhanced funding for progressive cultural institutions in the Arabian Gulf, such as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, for which Lord Cultural Resources—led by Gail—has been acting as a consultant. Could Saudi Arabia serve as a positive example for cultural change in Canada, another resource-dependent economy increasingly tied to oil?

BL: Where there’s oil, there are museums. That’s one of the mottos of this office. If you go into our boardroom, you’ll see a Burtynsky photograph of the oil tankers in Bangladesh, where the big ships are broken up—a very moving photograph. We go everywhere there’s oil. And, of course, within Canada you have the developments in Alberta. However, this is part of a much larger theme. My next book will be called The Culture of Energy. Gail and I are onto something that is really quite profound: where our energy comes from determines our values. It’s surplus energy—the concept of surplus energy. Energy beyond the basic we need is of course the energy that makes our civilization possible, that makes our culture possible.


AL: You argue that this state of energy dependence is also teaching us lessons about the future, in that it teaches responsibility. Can you elaborate?

BL: Because to run an oil business, you don’t need large numbers of labourers organized to work together—the values arising from oil don’t come from production. It’s the opposite of coal. It’s a knowledge industry, because you have to have the geology and the chemistry to know what to do with the oil. But once you get the pipeline running—if you can protect that pipeline—where’s the value? It’s at the opposite end. It’s at the consumer end. Therefore, in countries that are dependent on oil, and particularly in the Arab Gulf states, there is a tremendous interest in consumerism, in brands. Brands are about controlling the future of consumers. But, of course, it’s affected all of us. As oil appeared in the early 20th century, all of us had to start seeing value as arising at the consumer end, rather than strictly at the production end. The universalization of credit was necessary in an oil economy: in order for us all to be consumers, there had to be credit. It has to do with oil transposing our values over to the consumption end of the energy-delivery system. Brands depend on controlling your future choices, and credit is all about the future. Therefore, in forcing us to go to make credit available to everybody, oil makes future consciousness available to everybody. When I was growing up, we all knew that the pollution of the air and water was happening all around us, but we accepted it because the value was at the production end. As soon as you get into oil consciousness, it’s a whole different kind of thing, because now you’re very interested in the future. You say, “Wait a minute, what’s going to happen in the future? Are we going to have a situation where people will not be able to pay their debts?” The focus on the future also means that effects on the environment are about not just today, but about the future.


AL: In their “future consciousness,” are the cultural consumers generated by an oil-based economy more likely to see art as investment and as a constantly changing fashion system? Does oil, among its many effects, imply a new relationship to the future in art, and to the future of art?

BL: In the coal age, art was evaluated in terms of its production. Art schools taught technique, and the salons manifested high production values. In the electrical age, art was evaluated as transformation—the value that electricity teaches. So that was the period of modernism, made with confidence in the value of “the new man” that we could become. In the oil-and-gas age, art is evaluated as a consumer product with investment value for the future. Whereas universal credit is needed to enable us all to participate in the consumer society, investment values for the future appeal to the elite who can afford them. Style was the evaluation criterion introduced by the modernism of the electric age; the investment evaluation of oil and gas requires something more reliable than style: branding. Hence art and fashion become hard to distinguish.


AL: Do you see a relationship between the rise of new art markets in centres of oil production—over the last ten years in particular—and the phenomenal growth of new museums, new audiences for art and intensified investment in art in traditional financial centres like New York and London?

BL: In 2011, China surpassed Britain for monetary value of art sales. The two largest Chinese art auction houses are recording sales volumes that are challenging Sotheby’s and Christie’s—but Sotheby’s and Christie’s are operating ambitiously in the Gulf. And Qatar was the largest patron of the arts in 2011. This shows how the oil economy in the Gulf teaches people to value being consumers, whereas the Chinese are controlling their economy and gaining a strong position in the art trade. Two different patterns.


AL: Your career has successfully navigated many seeming contradictions: from a Marxist history of Canadian art to the G20 “fake lake” in Muskoka, Ontario. Your recent cultural analyses with Gail reveal an abiding commitment to social justice and other themes that fuelled your early work as a critic, curator and historian. How do you negotiate the tensions that characterize and to some extent define your work?

BL: The tensions that are there are simply the tensions in the world as we find it, so we go with them, experiencing and expressing the contradictions that have as their basis the class struggle that Marx described, which has transformed many times since his era. Because he lived in the age of coal, he saw the struggle for production as central. Now we can see the tensions (a metaphor from the age of electricity) through the influence of successive energy sources—but, of course, coal is still king worldwide, statistically, and the values rooted in the struggle for production are still with us. Each new energy source focuses our values in new directions, but the old ones remain as long as we still rely on that source of energy to sustain a culture. Cultural change is real, but the contradictions persist through the changes.

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