Momentum: An Exclusive Interview with San Jose Museum’s Robin Treen (Part One)

As anyone who’s read the Retro-Tech and Hidden Heroes articles in Going Coastal would guess, the San Jose Museum of Art is my pick for the most underrated institution in the Bay Area. This marks the final week of the SJMA’s Momentum exhibition, which closes February 22nd. Momentum hinges upon a unique call-and-response format, where more than thirty pieces are reworked or otherwise commented on by ten “intervener” artists. I spoke with the museum’s special projects coordinator (and exhibition co-curator) Robin Treen by phone in November 2014. Below is part one of some previously unpublished highlights of our conversation.

Elizabeth Ivanovich: How did Momentum come about?

Robin Treen: First of all, it’s [SJMA’s] 45th anniversary. I sort of feel that 45 is midlife for people, for an institution. You’ve gotten past that sort of first crush of launching something, you’ve become more settled. But by the same token, you have that opportunity not only to look back but also to look forward, take a deep breath, see where you’ve come from, and really see where it is you really want to go, and not just the things you need to do to survive as an institution… …So, the idea was that we’d take a core exhibition from our permanent exhibition that was curated by [former SJMA curatorial associate] Kat [Koh]. She chose pieces that had to do with movement, movement through time and movement through space as a basic core idea, because time and space are related. It was an anniversary, and there was the passage of time and the opportunity to look forward as well. Then we decided to invite ten creative professionals who worked in media other than visual art. Which is not to say it couldn’t be visual, but we didn’t want other fine artists [involved]. We wanted to throw this open to creative people who work in a variety of different worlds, so to speak, a variety of disciplines. So that was my job, to come up with interveners. We called them “interveners” for a couple of different reasons. We didn’t want to limit people to a “response.” “Response” has a particular meaning for most people. We wanted to use a term that had a little more edginess to it. We asked a lot of people, “What do you think of when you think of ‘intervention’?” Most people said they either think of intervention in terms of 12-step programs, where someone’s kind of gone off the rails, and you tell them you love them and they need to get their act together. Or, an intervention is kind of an emergency situation where someone intervenes, and it’s kind of a rescue sort of thing. So, I’m not really sure why we decided to go with the term, having said that.

EI: You don’t really see the word in an artistic environment, and you don’t really know what to expect [as a viewer]. I spoke [via e-mail] to [Calfee Designs CEO, bicycle designer] Craig Calfee, who said he changed the approach to his piece because he thought he was taking the word too literally.

RT: It was very interesting to see, with ten people, there really was a range of how people saw the term “intervention.” A couple of people did intervene in a much more literal manner, some were more of a response, but what I found interesting was that some people intervened more with the artwork, and some people more with the artist and the artist’s concept of things. That was sort of an interesting surprise that came out of it as well. I think it was good to use the term. I just don’t really have an answer for why we stuck with that term, but it did make things much more open to interpretation.

The San Jose Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 AM to 5 PM at 110 South Market Street, San Jose. Phone (408) 271-6840 or visit sjmusart.org for more information.

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