The Whitney Museum of American Art has a long history of presenting important performance art, both in their collection and through the Whitney Biennial. Farris Wahbeh, the Benjamin and Irma Weiss Director of Research Resources at the Whitney, explains the background of the Whitney’s passion for performance, “The Whitney’s history of performance is much longer than many people expect. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney promoted many performance artists…and there were performances at the Whitney Studio Club before the Whitney was founded in 1931.”
As the Whitney increased exhibitions of performance art, the importance of cataloguing the works grew, and Wahbeh knew that this genre would present special challenges. “It became overwhelming to absorb information. Many times our curators would put a performance together in a very short amount of time, so there were a lot of moving parts in creating an exhibition history.”
In addition to the challenge brought by the timing of a performance work, each performance includes many different elements, such as changes caused by the introduction of new performers, and the way the setting of a performance can alter audience experience. Wahbeh knew that the documentation of performance art would need to be handled in a way that would accommodate its unique qualities.
Performance art can be very conceptual, especially with the elements you do or don’t retain. It’s crucial to be iterative and responsive to the needs of performance art as a practice. It can be very different from a painting or other conceptual modes of art making, so making sure you have the proper tools, terminology, and standards internally is very important.
-Farris Wahbeh, Collective Imagination, 2016.
The Whitney Museum was fortunate to have a collections management system that provided great flexibility, and supported Wahbeh’s need for a complete workflow and documentation solution, “There were different ways of tying this together, we used TMS,” says Wahbeh.
Interested in learning more about how the Whitney Museum of American Art handles the cataloguing of performance art? Gallery Systems hosted a webinar with Wahbeh to share his insights.
Click here to watch Performance Art: Notes on Cataloguing and Documentation.