The Pushcart of Ideas: A Conversation with Danny Brown

September 23rd, 2017  |  Published in *, September 2017  |  2 Comments

Aeqai’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniel Brown, recently received a Lifetime Achievement award from Marquis Who’s Who, which has been recognizing American accomplishments in a variety of fields since 1899. I sat down with Danny earlier this month and we talked informally about his perspective on the art world and some of the various roles he has had in relationship to it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Brad Smith / Photosmith

Aeqai: I don’t know what is the conventional way to end up being the editor-in-chief of an online art journal. Let’s start our conversation today by focusing on some of the wide range of things you learned and did to arrive here.

Danny Brown: I was born with three talents, math, music, and athletics. In the end, I pursued none of them.

When I was young, Sputnik changed everything about American education. All the attention was on math and science.

Aeqai: Like the STEM disciplines now?

DB: Exactly. I entered Walnut Hills the year after Sputnik, and all the teachers there pushed and pushed and pushed the math and science, and I pulled back. I learned that I didn’t do well in a competitive curriculum. I started AP in English, but the teachers were dreadful. The most boring book I ever read was Moby Dick, followed by Walden, and we read them back to back. So much for the classics. My mother took over at home and started guiding my reading. She had me read John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, and just like that, I discovered that I loved reading after all.

But my relationship to reading was still off and on. When I was an undergraduate at Middlebury, we had to analyze a poem, and after I turned in the paper, the professor wanted to see me. Uh-oh. But it turned out he thought my work was exceptional. And I simply didn’t believe him. I never took another lit class—though I’ve tried to make up for it as an adult.

Aeqai: And the athletics?

DB: My mother announced to me when I was in eighth grade that gentlemen do certain things. One of them was tennis. I got the white shorts and the alligator shirt and the tennis lessons that came with that. And so I played. One time, we crossed town to Lunken on a brutally hot day and I played a game. Nobody had told me it was a tournament. It got hotter and hotter while I was waiting for my next game, so I just said, “It’s stifling and I’ve been misled,” and that was the end of tennis for me. It was my first act of rebellion.

Aeqai: You ended up in Political Science at Middlebury and went on to get an MA in Asian Art History at Michigan. How did that happen?

DB: The toss of a coin. I literally took a nickel and flipped it, and that’s how I made the decision between Art History and Music History. Then I flipped it again to decide between American Art and Asian. I can remember how much my undergraduate art history courses mattered to me at Middlebury. I was looking for things that represented humankind’s best permanent achievements, and it kept coming back to art.

To this day, Asian art is at the core of who I am, especially Chinese art. You can see that in some of the shows I’ve curated quite recently. I did a show at Xavier which I called “Calligraphic Expressionism,” and that led to a bigger and more sublime version at the Cincinnati Art Galleries.

I see Chinese art as what we would call minimalism today: just get rid of all the extraneous stuff. Art was integral to life in China. If you didn’t agree with the way things were being run at court, you’d go to the country. And there are all these paintings of a little man walking away from it all, going up the mountain. I see myself as that man going up the mountain—only the mountains were in Vermont.

Aeqai: Did you ever do any art yourself?

DB: In American Art class, one time we had to draw a house built between 1750 and 1780, and everything in it. I couldn’t draw any of it. I ended up going to the teacher every night at 8 and he taught me to draw.

I had no idea what to do with Art History. I was dimly aware you could work in a gallery or an art museum or an auction house. Instead I ended up working for my father.

Aeqai: What did you learn from those years in the world of business?

DB: My father taught me how to sell. It did not come naturally to me. It did to him. The Brockton Shoe Trimmings Company had been started by his father. My father stopped the manufacturing part of it and focused on selling bulk products like leather to the big manufacturers. He loved the schmoozing and the traveling. It was hard for me at first. My world had been pretty sheltered. But my father was a happy man with what he did. He genuinely liked the people he worked with. Meanwhile the shoe business was dying in America. In the beginning, my dad had 300 clients and by the end, we were down to three.

Aeqai: Where did being an art dealer fit in?

DB: By the time U.S. Shoe closed down, I was already an art dealer. I had learned how to sell art, but I didn’t want to run a gallery. I took the title of Independent Art Advisor. And I was independent. I didn’t own any of the works I sold, I didn’t strictly speaking represent any of the artists I brought for collectors to see. I worked with a stable of about 30 artists, but they were free to show and sell elsewhere.

I had been collecting art myself since 1968 when I bought my mother a painting of some daisies. I still have it now. When I came back to Cincinnati after my graduate years, I couldn’t find much Asian art to collect. So I went to Solway, because contemporary art could be had.

Aeqai: What was it like to be an art dealer?

DB: I knew what it was like to love art. It wasn’t so much selling people single paintings that they could take home with them. People paid me to help build their art collections. I wanted them to see what art would look like in their lives. I would bring a slide carousel to their houses with about 80 slides. Clients would go through those and based on what they liked, I’d bring paintings to their houses. A big part of what I would do is actually show them where the works they liked might go. I wanted them to imagine living with art.

Sometimes it was hard because couples didn’t always have the same taste. It was hard to find one work a couple loved equally. I liked to watch how people made decisions. I suggested that if the wife stayed home, she should get three-quarters of the vote about what went into the common spaces. Each person had 100% of the vote about what went into a home office. I had a great deal of fun. Now, I worry about the future of individuals collecting art for themselves. People are afraid to make a mistake. People just want the blue chip stuff. It’s less adventurous, and it’s discouraging.

Aeqai: Did selling art in people’s homes help you work with companies who wanted to build a collection?

DB: It did, in a way. The big companies in town, Central Trust, CG&E, all already had their own collections. Aside from Cincinnati Bell and Fidelity—they were my first clients ever–I worked more with smaller companies, with law firms, with accounting firms. Most of these places had an art committee, and it was their job to help the company with an image they wanted to build. I never worked from a blueprint of their office. I went to their offices and I looked at the spaces, but I also talked with the people who were not on the art committee—the second-tier personnel, the non-decision makers. After the decisions had been made about what to buy, I would ask these people, “What do you prefer where?” I respected their role in the company’s art collection. When it came to installation, people would come up and tell me that they liked the works in their spaces at the office, because they’d been brought into the process early.

Aeqai: Are those collections still intact?

DB: I have no idea. Probably they could be, as long as there haven’t been too many changes in the company. Are the companies still occupying the same space? Are they still being run by the same people? There was one company I worked with that went through four different CEOs and built four different collections.

Aeqai: Did this sort of work help you become a curator?

DB: They’re very related. I remember I was looking at a show in a gallery somewhere, and I said to myself, “I can do this.” The first show I did was at the Ken Kab Company. They made cabinets for private airplanes.

For four years, I worked with KZF, who did engineering, architecture, and interior design. They asked me to form a permanent collection for them that would have made their offices seem special. We talked, and I had to tell them that their budget was too small for a permanent collection. So instead, they sponsored a rotating gallery, and I put up three shows per year for them. We focused on emerging artists, and I think it was a great success. The stuff I showed there wasn’t wildly cutting edge, but we had lots of younger artists. The gallery was a great space. We could take advantage of the view they had of Eden Park, which you could see out the windows.

I worked a lot with The Christ Hospital. I started working with the manager of the Cancer Center. She had been charged with making the place more accessible. I decided to stick mainly to landscapes, because the people who were coming in were already pretty distressed. We eventually expanded to putting work up in the waiting rooms and where the MRIs were done. The projects got larger and larger, until finally, I had put things up throughout the whole hospital, all four floors, perhaps some three hundred works in all. I saw it as a form of healing. I came up with the idea of an Art Cart. I had artworks from the students at the Art Academy, and people could take things from the cart to make their hospital rooms more attractive.

Aeqai: It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch from work like that to working with community groups.

DB: Not at all. I’d always been interested in politics. I came from a very liberal political family. That’s what we talked about over dinner in my home. My favorite picture of my mother has her wearing a fur coat and sneakers and carrying a picket sign about not buying grapes at the grocery store.

Back in the 80s, museums were forming education departments. Outreach used to mean dealing, typically, with schools. Now it was starting to mean reaching underserved populations. This became typical of the changing audiences for art.

For five years, I curated shows at the Arts Consortium on Linn Street. I wrote for the Cincinnati Herald, and served on the board of Umoja with a great many of Cincinnati’s African American artists, including Jymi Bolden and Thom Shaw. The artists worked at mentoring new students at the Art Academy. My job was to get the Umoja artists shows. Speaking for diversity was something for which I had no training, but I learned fast and used what I knew how to do.

I once got a call from Cincinnati Bell who wanted to know if I could do a show of their holdings in African American art. I went to see what they had and it turned out that they only had six pieces! There’s nothing to show, I told them, but I asked them whether they would consider expanding it into a real collection. They were interested so I called Jymi and we did the project together. He knew all these artists in the community. The project took two years, and in the end, Cincinnati Bell had bought around eighty more works. Now there was something to show! We did the exhibit at the Arts Consortium in the late 80s. It traveled to Columbus and Cleveland and there was even a catalogue produced. I thought I helped to rectify a real grievance.

One time, later on, I got a frantic call from Jymi. He had painted one of the earlier outdoor murals in town, on Taft and Burnet. Somebody had spray-painted “KKK” on it, and Jymi was incredibly upset. I called Owen Findsen who covered art at the Enquirer and asked him to meet me at that corner in an hour. Jymi still had some of the original paints he had used left, and he repainted the mural with us watching and recording it and Owen wrote about it and helped make it into a major story. These things, I felt that we were making a difference.

The political world is still part of my thinking. I’d probably write columns now about art and politics, but you have to be careful when you’re a non-profit.

Aeqai: How did you start writing about art?

DB: Education was always a part of what I’d done with art. When you’re selling works to people, you also have to do some teaching. Sometimes you have to be able to condense abstract expressionism into about three minutes. The works that I found that I loved best, the lyrical abstractions, I would talk about Hudson River painting and Chinese painting and have six or seven minutes to put it all together. But I found that art historical context really mattered to people. It matters to them that there are continuities over a hundred or more years.

I first wrote about art for Cincinnati Magazine in 1976 and worked there for about three years. Laura Pulfer—who was a wonderful editor—had just bought Cincinnati Magazine from the Chamber of Commerce, and she asked me to be their first art critic. Dialogue was next, which was published by the Ohio Arts Council. Maureen Bloomfield was my editor and she was terrific too. She used to tease me about using too many adjectives. But writing for Dialogue gave me a much wider audience.

I don’t know that I had a natural talent for that kind of writing at first, but I read a lot, and I really enjoyed learning about the work. I think I asked myself the right questions. I’d see a show and have no idea what to say, so I’d ask first, “What in the world is going on?” I taught myself to look harder, and that’s always the most important thing. My academic training didn’t really help me when it came to contemporary art, which is always the toughest to write about. There are no precedents. Truly new work makes you find some truly new language. As I got better, I wrote some catalogue essays, which are nice because they’re generally longer and you’re writing about people whose work you know you like. I wrote about David Bumbeck, who taught printmaking and sculpture at Middlebury. I wrote about Brad Smith and Nancy Cassell and Tom Bacher, who I called a high-tech impressionist. I’ve done six catalogues for Bukang Kim.

Aeqai: You were even an art critic on TV, yes?

DB: That was truly fascinating. This was for commercial television—first channel 12, then channel 9, not PBS. I had to talk about art to maybe 500,000 people, and you can’t assume that people know about art or even that they care about it. I couldn’t talk down to them and I couldn’t talk up. Absolutely no jargon. I had a ninety second lede, then up to two minutes to talk about however many works I was going to talk about, and thirty seconds for a conclusion. In between takes, they would move the cameras and the lights. To keep continuity, you had to remember not only what you were saying but what was your tone of voice, where had your hands been before they cut away. I had to be aware of my own physicality. And when we were working outdoors, if a bus went by we had to start all over again. It could take three hours to get three good minutes. But it was fun. I reviewed shows, but I also expanded what art could be. We went to U.S. Shoe and followed how a shoe was designed. We went one time to Phyllis at the Madison and treated that as an art experience, the face as a canvas.

Aeqai: How did you get involved with Aeqai?

DB: Aeqai was founded in 2007 by Alton Frabetti. We met and he said that he’s running a new online art journal, and wanted to know if I would write for it. In 2009, he left to go to graduate school and I agreed to take over. I like building things, and I thought Aeqai was buildable. I learned enough of the computer stuff to know how to do it. I thought there was a need and an audience for serious criticism, no fluff. I made it into a non-profit, I raised money, I brought in a lot more writers.

And Aeqai has grown. We have 50,000 regular monthly readers, all over the world. We are seen by many more occasional readers, and we have 470,000 page hits. I’ve continued to add writers, and we’ve been adding other cities, though we cover our own region most intensively. Our fastest growing readership is in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. Every issue reflects the range of art venues we cover: large institutions, smaller non-profits, plus commercial galleries. I work with our writers to help them grow and improve. I want to keep the quality high, no fluff. I want to get as diverse a group of writers as I can find. And I’m always looking for new writers. How else are people going to learn about art?

Aeqai: What do you tell writers who are starting out with you?

DB: The hardest thing is to get young writers to make a conclusion—to arrive at a judgment. There are many different ways of writing, but they’re all subjective. I want our writers to use individual works to build a case that they’re going to try to make.

Kant says that the key thing in aesthetics is to ask, “What is the artist trying to do? Has it been achieved?” As an editor, that’s the main thing I’m looking for from my writers: “Did the art that they’re writing about make a difference?” In the short term, we can’t know, of course. But art criticism’s role is to help explain what art is, what it’s doing, how it reflects society. Criticism is a translation. It puts the language of images into the language of words. When I look at the art, and when I look at the writing, I’m astonished at how different people look at the world differently. I feel like I’m back where I began in this discussion. Art represents the best in humankind. If it brings out the best in you, alone or with friends, then it’s succeeding. Put those big numbers of our readership aside for a moment. Maybe art, and art criticism, are at their best when they reach one person at a time.

The Kant quote really means something to me. I’m trying not to be irrelevant, and I don’t want Aeqai to be irrelevant. I want to make a difference. I’ve tried to give a voice to hundreds of artists. I’ve brought their art to the attention of people who wouldn’t otherwise have seen it.

I believe that, for better or worse, everything in America is some form of selling, including selling ideas. It’s my nature to build my own pushcart to sell things off. If no one else is pushing what you want to push, then you have to build the pushcart yourself. Cincinnati is small enough so that you can have a voice and make that difference. If it ain’t there, go make it. Offer your community real beauty and they will pay attention.

Aeqai: Thank you, and congratulations on the award.

 

–Jonathan Kamholtz

Responses

  1. Bob off says:

    September 23rd, 2017at 8:05 pm(#)

    Great piece. Jonathan nailed it.

  2. Daniel M Newman says:

    September 27th, 2017at 9:42 am(#)

    I’ve known Daniel for many years and this interview gave me some insights I never knew about him. Great job on the interview and it is always a good sense of acknowledgement to learn about someone from an outside source. Congratulations Daniel on your LIfetime Achievement Award and the success of AEQAI.

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