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Museum Peace: Questions for Arthur Ollman

Saturday, April 29, 2006 | When San Francisco-based photographer Arthur Ollman was asked to start a museum of photographic arts in San Diego in 1983, he didn’t have to think twice about it. The answer was “no.”

“I was an artist,” Ollman said. “I didn’t even own a tie.”

But the seed of curiosity was planted. Shortly thereafter, the bohemian artist – who once spent five years living off the land in a commune in Maine – made a life-changing decision: he moved to Southern California and bought himself a suit. Twenty-three years later, the name Arthur Ollman is practically synonymous with the world-renowned Museum of Photographic Arts, an institution that has made San Diego intimate with history’s photographic greats.

Now, on the eve of his resignation as the museum’s founding director, Ollman talks with us about bringing new blood to the museum, the truth behind images and why his legacy won’t include serving popcorn.

Of the millions of photographs you’ve seen in your lifetime, what makes an image stick with you?

I want to see something that changes me. I want the photo to take me someplace I haven’t been before – I don’t mean geographically, I mean intellectually, emotionally, viscerally. You know, that moment when you catch your breath and go “huh!” That’s inspiration.

Sometimes I’ve seen pictures that I wish I hadn’t because they depicted something horrific but they crawl right into your self-conscious and are barbed enough to stay there. But that’s part of the world we live in and art is really about the human experience, the entire human experience. Not just the pretty parts.

What are the pros and cons of building a museum from scratch, as opposed to, say, walking in and taking over at the New York MoMA?

Well I can’t quite say because I have yet to try the latter! But the pros are that you can build it any way you like, structure its policies and programs and hire the people you want. The cons are that there’s nothing to build on, there’s no rule book about how to do it and every cent that you use you have to raise yourself. You have to develop friendships and relationships. But I had great board members and a great staff and everybody pulled together, little by little we had a program and people were thrilled by it.

Of course this is at a time when San Diego more than doubled in size and a time when photography became well accepted and relished as a fine art. Before that we always had to argue about whether photography was a fine art because it was made with a camera. I haven’t had that discussion with anybody for 12 or 15 years.

Can you talk a little about the international connections you have established through the museum and what that’s brought back to San Diego?

Photography is a fabulous medium for seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes. We identified for the community that photography was essential to the dialogue about what we are and what life on the planet means at this time and it’s given us a huge audience around the world. We identified, for this community, that we weren’t just an important art destination, but we actually export. We’ve been able to put our ideas on the walls in Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, England, France … it gives a point of pride to the community, that people can go to New York or London or Tokyo and see one of our shows.

Interestingly, they always look better here.

It seems like there is still an expectation, especially in a place as beautiful as San Diego, that photography is going to highlight what’s nice to look at and ignore what’s ugly or difficult. Has the museum challenged that view?

We’ve never played into that. We’ve had extraordinarily difficult shows. In art, the battle has been raging for 500 years between truth and beauty. They don’t have to be exclusive from one another but often they are. And the camera is extraordinarily adept at both. Its ability to capture truth is something the world needs more than anything. We have to see what’s going on in the world or we’re not really citizens of the world and we have no control over our destiny. It’s important for us to see the truth, the ugly and horrible, especially when it’s contrary to what we wish we could see or be. And people believe the camera.

But the camera can also be a tool to trick or manipulate. Don’t people have to be careful about what they trust?

The camera is an editorial tool. It can be used to unmask or to highlight things. Especially in the digital age – it has always been easy to manipulate but now it’s a lot easier. We are in such a visual environment. People are not reading as much as they used to. Those who know how to work that imagery have considerable power.

That’s why we have to teach people a lot about the medium so they know, as best they can, whether they are being told the truth or not. If you’re a child and you grew up in El Salvador and you came here and after school every day you watch MTV and commercials, that’s the life you want. You want to behave like that and look like that but you look in the mirror and you’re dark and you’re short and you’re chubby and you hate yourself as a result. Where does that get you?

We try to help in our education programs to teach kids to decode the visual messages they get. We have a teenage program called Beyond Beauty that teaches kids to understand what real beauty is, where it comes from and where it lives in the individual.

A few years ago the museum had to cancel its film program due to insufficient funding. Has the museum had trouble staying financially afloat?

The museum is a not-for-profit organization- that said, nobody owes us a nickel. We have to do a huge amount of work to raise enough money through philanthropy and at the door to keep ourselves healthy.

In 2000 when we moved into our new expanded space, very shortly after was the energy crisis. This institution, which isn’t that large, was paying almost $1,000 a day for electricity. That punched a hole in the budget that took years to close. We could have died from that … shortly after when we began to recover, 9/11 hit and tourism stopped. Tourism is a big chunk of what we earn here, and it took a long time for people to want to come out again. Then there was the recession that resulted from all of that. It made it hard for people to donate money or stocks or anything that had appreciated in value.

During this time we had this extraordinary new theatre and started a film program. We hired a curatorial staff, sending out announcements and calendars … a tremendous amount of work was going into it. We knew it would lose money the first year and it did. We thought it might break even in the second and it didn’t. In the third year it was still losing.

A lot of people came, but also a there’s a lot of people who won’t go to Balboa Park to see their movies. People said, where’s the popcorn, where’s the hotdogs? And my feeling about it is, we’re a museum, we’re not an AMC. They have sticky concrete floors, we have carpets. What we show is art. When you go to the symphony or the Old Globe, do you carry popcorn with you?

And then there are the people who want to sit at home in their underwear and drink beer while they watch a movie. Well I guess they both have their charms.

People in the community were somewhat surprised to hear about your resignation – what prompted you to make that decision?

As I told my kids, when you go to bed at night and you find a really comfortable position and it feels great, three hours later that position is getting cramped and you need to turn over again. There was nothing wrong with the first one but you need another one. I’ve been here for 23 years. I originally saw myself here for somewhere between three and five. What I was really interested in was getting my learning curve back.

I love teaching and working with students. So I’ve taken a position as director of the School of Art and Design and Art History at San Diego State University, where I will start in August. And by the way, I was an artist! I love having the time to make pictures, my art. Now it’s true that the world is no longer waiting at my door for my next pictures. But I’m waiting for them.

I also feel like the museum won’t be as mature as it can be until it survives a transition like this. It’s like its still living at home with Dad. And its time to let somebody with fresh ideas and different kinds of energy mold it in a different direction.

Interview by JESSICA L. HORTON

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