While waiting for London’s Art Week I spoke with James Brett, founder of The Museum of Everything and The Gallery of Everything.
Elena Scarpa: How was the idea of The Museum of Everything born?
James Brett: The Museum of Everything was born fully formed. Not so much a museum or an exhibition, it was conceived as a series of philosophical actions. The idea was that people, everywhere, make; and that the words art and artist should not be the exclusive domain of those who claimed them. I’d come this conclusion after travels in the American South. Astonishing objects were being made. Yards were filled with brightly coloured cut-outs. Faith missions exhibited paintings preaching the Holy Word. It struck me as a vibrant, immediate, and most of all, overlooked genre. Especially among the African-American communities, it seemed the visual equivalent of blues or free jazz. Many artists enthused about the material. Yet it barely registered with the formal art world. Looking deeper, I discovered many sub-histories: from art made in hospitals and asylums, to environments created as makeshift homes. I learnt about the historic advocates like Jean Dubuffet, Alfred Barr and Harald Szeeman. Yet when we first opened, in late 2009, these untapped brilliant conceptual makers were off the radar except to the enlightened few. There were virtually no shows; and when these artists were displayed, it was always in a dismissive and segregationist outsider framework. I didn’t like that terminology then, I don’t like it now … hence The Museum of Everything. We opened the first show in an old recording studio in London, curated by association and eliminated biographical baggage. Since then over a million people have visited our installations. We publish, we film, we talk, we engage.
Our current show is at Mona in Australia and runs until April 2018. Please go. It’s the best we’ve ever done and worth the twenty-four hour schlep.
E.S.: You don’t like the term Outsider Art, could you tell us why?
J.B.: At the Museum of Everything we’ve been anti-outsiderist from day one. Simply put, the term is a nonsense. It is convenient, casual and elitist. Coined by the excellent art historian Roger Cardinal, it aimed originally to give form and privilege to an overlooked format; yet it ended up suggesting a wholly inappropriate us and them. As such, it is dismissive and bigoted. It is also (mis)used as a metaphor for disability and a shorthand for mental health. What is beautiful about the art and those who make it has nothing to do with this. It is one thing to call oneself an outsider, another to be called an outsider. That is why we talk instead about the privacy of making and the authenticity of a personal ritual. For me, what makes this art form so life-affirming is that its materiality exists independently of the external critical discourse. Its independence is its strength. It is, as my friend the curator and artist Paolo Colombo states, art without destination.
After all, the heavens are bigger than the earth, are they not?
E.S.:Why did you decide to open The Gallery of Everything?
J.B.: The Gallery of Everything was the natural evolution. It is a project, so to speak, whose proceeds go to support our international non-profit activities. We started with small shows at Frieze Masters in 2012 and last year finally opened our physical space in Central London. That lovely old barber’s shop is the gallery’s HQ. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate some of the lesser-known artists we love, to give them some a visual footing, to reach out to the London art audience and to engage with both major museums and young collectors. We’ve shown grand masters like William Edmonson and Martin Ramirez (currently on show at the ICA in Los Angeles), to lesser known artists like the performance artist Bob Parks, currently on show in the gallery, or George Ohr, the 19th Century Missisipi potter who inspired Jasper Johns.
The point is to show that this material, which lies at the edge of mainstream art, is as vibrant and desirable as any other form of visual culture.
E.S.: How do you position yourself in the London art scene, do you collaborate with other galleries?
J.B.: We tend to collaborate with artists, rather than galleries, because it is they who gravitate towards the art we show. For example, we worked with Jarvis Cocker for our opening show and are planning more projects with friends like Mamma Anderson, Jeff McMillan and Tony Oursler.
As far as positioning, it tends to happen by default and not by design. We are not the kind of organisation who court the press or hustle for business. When we do dinners, it’s usually at Nando’s.