A Product of His Experience
Bill Seitz has all the requisite credentials, but the direction he has gone has taken on a life of its own, and he describes his work as Gallery Director at The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center (http://www.thecarnegie.com/), in Covington, KY for sixteen years as “the dream job.” The Carnegie has a fascinating history, and the reconstruction that joined two buildings and restored a once-lovely theatre modeled after a 19th-century French Opera House is one of determina-tion over practical and bureaucratic obstacles. If you walk into the building you might find Bill Setiz on a ladder filling holes left on the wall by a recent show, and he will climb down and, if you like, share that history with you.
Seitz did undergraduate work at Miami University (1984) and obtained his master’s degree at Clemson University in South Carolina, after taking a year off to work on his portfolio, something he says graduate schools like to see as a marker of seriousness. There’s a lot in his résumé that might impress an HR person, but what of the journey and the man, the qualities that statistics miss?
Seitz was a 60’s child, the first of parents barely out of their teens, thus was part of their own youth. Seitz’s world scene was one of revolutions, an horrific war, love everywhere, drugs, rock and roll, Woodstock, a man on the moon, the Beatles. He remembers it vividly and says art was free and everywhere. While being exposed to middle class values that precluded drugs and other forms of excess, he was also taken to street art fairs and other celebrations of that era. With parents who demanded he do his homework and chores after school, he was also the beneficiary of the safety of those days that allowed him to do whatever he wanted when duty was fulfilled, and much of that included going off with friends whose parents were dedicated hippies. Even those parents, he says, were responsible parents, and the kids were never exposed to such things as pot smoking. Today, he is a proponent of his father’s philosophy: “Every day is a new adventure.”
“My parents were super-cool,” he says. His mother gave him constant exposure to new things and probably unwittingly developed compassion in her son for the fact that the odds are stacked against many kids – those who never have a chance to see what’s around them at an early age. “This plays into my job,” he says. “I have a great passion around it, love to interact with people – patrons, artists, the Carnegie team, everyone here!” It’s about giving people opportunity to see and produce a variety of art.
Although Seitz’s focus at Clemson was on printmaking, he says, “I dabbled in everything. My instructors were always yelling at me to focus.” Out of that uncontrollable and cross-discipline experimentation came Seitz’s love of process. “That’s why I think I ended up in printmaking, because in one discipline, I had all kinds of processes.” However, once graduated, it took fifteen years for Seitz to pay off his student loans and be able to afford a press. “I’m still trying to figure out how to make enough art to pay that off!”
When Seitz graduated from college, he took a tenure track position at NKU. “I got out of it, because I just didn’t have a lot of worldly experience. I intended to come back to teaching but to be able to talk about my own experiences instead of just regurgitating what my instructors had trained me in for the last seven years. I wanted to travel, to see the art world.” What happened was he went into the gallery business at Malton Gallery, “and it just exploded in front of my face, and the next thing I knew, I was doing corporate and private collections. I had huge amounts of money put in front of me to put together collections for people’s homes and businesses. I knew that people were putting a lot of confidence in me at a young age, but I also knew I had a sort of sixth sense and intuitively knew what was good.”
It is Seitz’s cross-disciplinary interest, love of process, and an innate but early-recognized ability to “just know” when he sees good art that makes Seitz an apt and agile director for a gallery that shows works ranging from children’s art to suspended installations. Cross-discipline also barely describes the contents of the huge pile of manila folders containing applications that sits on his desk awaiting attention. When Seitz settles down to review these applications for shows at the Carnegie, he says, “Over the years, I think I’ve seen pretty much what is out there. For me, I make decisions really quickly. A lot of people think, when they see me in the jury process, that I’m very direct and to the point. I don’t mince words, but the bonus of that is when I see something that captivates me and catches my attention, I know it. Occasionally, some of my friends will accuse me of being an art snob, but I remind them that next time they are at my house they should go through it and see what’s on the walls. It’s then that they realize I have children’s art, primitive art, naïve art, antique quilts, antique rugs, Native American pottery – an eclectic collection, all of which speaks to me.
“I think good art has no boundaries. It can be done by a child, an untrained artist, or an accomplished artist. My belief is that somewhere along the line it’s got to hit you emotionally. Good art communicates. Good art, you have a conversation with. When people buy art, build collections, I tell them to buy what they love. So many people put art on the wall because it’s prestigious.
“There are many elements within a piece of art,” he continues, “and some people get caught up with, for example, color. You’ve got to bring your own experience to it. What is that abstraction? What are you responding to? Is it the marks or the movement? What speaks to you? For me, you’ve also got to have that technical aspect: how that paint is applied is profound in its delivery. I think an accomplished painter will tell you that there is a point in time when you forget what you are painting, and the paint tells you what is next. You just become the vehicle to let the piece run its course. A lot of artists will fight that, because they have a set goal.”
Seitz acknowledges that much of the time an artist’s direction is driven by money. “It’s hard when you get recognized and suddenly start selling work. Your prices are going up, and you are seeing a rosier side to your struggles.” That’s when an artist walks a very fine line, and when he or she goes over it, Seitz says, “there are the critics and other vultures out there that are now watching.” He pauses.
“It’s the process within the process that is important when you look at an artist’s career. If you look back through art history, you will find some of the masters, in order to rise above and set themselves apart, had to evolve. For instance, later in his life Matisse was doing cutouts, because he was losing his eyesight. Picasso went through many phases. Even when you look artists like Degas, you find that even though their art became more childlike later in life, they still took it to another level. Jasper Johns on the other hand gets a lot of criticism, because here’s one of the leaders in post-war American art, and the critics are blasting him, because they don’t see the growth. I think if you asked Jasper Johns, he would say he is doing what he’s supposed to do and doesn’t make art to please the critics.”
Criticism is a tricky business fraught with responsibility. For the good ones, one can only give applause for their circumspection, awareness of the artist’s trajectory, and a seasoned knowledge of his/her field. The cynical one, heady with the power of the pen, is best described by Oscar Wilde in Lady Windemere’s Fan: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
There is argument in the art world about the importance of context when considering a piece of art. Seitz feels it is paramount. As he consistently asserts, we are a product of our experience, so if that experience today includes repeated exposure to the Impressionists, for instance, how important is it to know how shocking they were in their day? What was their experience? Is it important to understand the world to which they were born and the norms of the era against which they rebelled?
So much of art, music included, has political and cultural overtones, witness Chinese art as shown in the 2009 -2010 Cincinnati Art Museum show, Roaring Tigers, Leaping Carp: Decoding the Symbolic Language of Chinese Animal Painting, curated by Hou-mei Sung, where animals often referenced political movements and figures. Handel’s Messiah was a real shocker in its day. In a post by Stuart Sims on The Loose Filter Project, he says: “So ‘Messiah’ lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel’s day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.” http://www.loosefilter.com/the_loose_filter_project_/2007/04/the_importance_.html
“If Van Gogh were alive today,” Seitz continues, “we wouldn’t have the art that we have, because he wouldn’t have created what he created had he benefited from today’s advancements in mental health. Too, I think you can look at autism. There is so much to be said about autism and the kinds of artists and incredible minds that these people have. I know that we work to blend these individuals into a normal arena. There are naturally degrees, but there are things done by autistic children that a normal mind could not even come close to making. How can you look at that and not say, ‘what a wonderful, incredible thing it is’! We only use ten percent of our brains, so when you realize that there are people where the genetic code can get somewhat skewed, it often produces brilliance.”
In conclusion, Seitz says his upbringing has played into his job. “I feel I do have a great ability to interact with people, whether it’s a funder, whether it’s an artist, whether it’s a person walking into this building for the first time. I think I have perception and compassion, and passion about what I do. If I didn’t I think so, I would be off doing something else until that was there. It makes me feel good to have someone come in for the first time and help them to understand the power of this organization and the kinds of things we do as a group dedicated to local and regional artists.” With a small staff of nine, plus volunteers, Seitz says everyone works together. He might be helping paint sets for the theatre while someone else is cleaning the bathrooms. When he was working with corporate collections and private art collectors, his philosophy was the same: “You need to put your money in your own backyard. When you’re done with that, you can go off to Chicago or New York to expand your collection.” He believes in investing in local creativity. Of his job, he says, “You don’t get into the arts to make large amounts of money. But what I do know is that when I get up in the morning, I can be happy about where I’m going; be happy about what I’m doing; and I have friends who make six-figure incomes and are miserable.”
As gallery director, Seitz is conscious of keeping his own art separated from his professional obligations. “I have shown outside the city – in other states,” he says. It would be a wonderful thing to see Bill Seitz’s art!
-Cynthia Osborne Hoskin