Practicing Networks: Arts Administration Production

by Claire Frost

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I find myself intrigued as I consider the word “practice” within the context of arts administration. I most readily associate the word with the work of artists, as a holistic term that represents both the manner in which an artist creates work, and the actions they undertake in the process, and the final product of the work itself. The term practice in its reference to repeated action related to a ritual, or belief, in this way becomes more than the creation of a product, but something the artist is invested in more deeply. It is this deep engagement and the beliefs that those actions carry, that has often made me uncomfortable with using the term in relation to arts administration. In many ways, arts administration can be seen to hold all these qualities of a practice—repeated actions engaged in belief and professional work—and yet I hesitate because despite these elements of similarity, the work of an arts administrator is less about one’s own vision than enabling someone else’s. Thus the product of their work is much less tangible, less visible, and only a secondary focus of attention after the artistic work itself.

I would never want to overshadow the work of the artists when my main role is to support them. It is within the tension between being a practitioner and a facilitator of others’ practice that my personal interest in this topic lies. How can I support without intruding? How can I contribute without changing? How can I administrate without administering? Or perhaps administer without administrating? In reality it is impossible to walk these lines. In the exchange of ideas and the solving of problems, cultural production is always, and inevitably, productive.

But what is it that is produced? Yes, the exhibition, the event, the fundraiser, the new commissioned site-specific work, the catalog of new scholarship, or a new platform or space for expression. But beyond this I argue that what is produced is a network: in the space between the arts administrator and the artist, and between all of the objects and other agents that are at play in the process of production. Laurence Alloway, in his 1972 text “Network, The Art World Described as a System” from 1972 wrote that the art world is “a sum of persons, objects, resources, messages and ideas.”[1] Among these many elements, Alloway was a person, and in particular an arts administrator, most notably in his role as senior curator at the Guggenheim from 1961–66. However, he held many other roles. Noting that “In ten years I have been a curator, a teacher and an art critic, usually two at a time” he claimed this was proof that, “The roles within the system, therefore, do not restrict mobility; the participants can move functionally within a cooperative system.”[2] According to Alloway, within the system of the art world one can take on multiple roles, a flexibility that enables movement which he seems to imply is not only intrinsic to the system, but is also what perpetuates its motion and growth.

I am interested in this motion because it implies a generative source. Bruno Latour in his description of the social relies on actor-network theory, in which humans, objects and concepts exist on equal levels within a network. Thus for Latour, there are almost innumerable relationships that define any one node of a network, and these relationships are only made visible when changes are made to the network, “there is nothing more difficult to grasp than social ties. It’s traceable only when it’s being modified.”[3] Latour writes, “To put it very simply: a good actor-network theory (ANT) account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there.”[4] It is the visibility sparked by modifications that Latour defines as the social. Latour’s theory was developed to account for a non-essentialist approach to sociology, but also applies well to arts administration. Arts administrators, in being able to both grasp the many elements at play, while also becoming a part of the network itself, engender the social as they connect themselves and the artist, the artist and the space, the organization or institution, the printer, editor, the objects, the ideas, and the viewers.

Thus the job of the effective arts administrator is to create these modifications in the network that allow it to become visible, even if just for a moment. This is important, for as Latour notes the opposite of this generative quality is also “true of the ‘sense of the social’: no new association, no way to feel the grasp.” It is through a “sense of the social” that we are able to understand the way that we relate to each other, to bring meaning to the shape of our lives and connections. Thus the arts administrator, as they mediate the creation and modification of connections allows for one to perceive this “sense;” to make the social, the art, artwork, and artist, and their relationship to the audience, community, and greater world, felt and seen.

If we can in this way see the work of the arts administrator as producing a network that allows for the social to be perceived, we are able to understand the practice of arts administration not to produce anything tangible, so much as to make visible what meaning already existed. They do so by modifying and shaping a network. The importance of the relationship between the many elements of the art world and the visibility of these connections is reflected in “Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene” by Renny Pritikin, a Bay Area curator, teacher, and writer. In his prescription, which outlines twenty-three elements that contribute to a vibrant local art scene, each element flows into the next, both fueling and being fueled by the other elements. For example, item number two is “teaching opportunities which helps support the pool of artists,” and number three is “active art schools which feed into the pool of artists and give artists teaching opportunities.” These elements make clear the connection between organizations and people while also demonstrating the interdependence of their relationship to each other. The network of connections that construct the scene are hopefully positive ones, bringing healthier, more inclusive, and more accessible relationships into the system: making visible a social that is something that one is happy to be a part of. Conversely, it may also be the job of the administrator to expose a social that is none of these things, but with further modifications may come to be so.

An example of this kind of administration can be seen in the same historical moment in which Alloway was writing about the art world, the same moment in which Lucy Lippard was in the process of writing the book Eva Hesse, her critical biography of the artist published just six years after Eva Hesse’s early death. In the book, Lippard struggles with the way that the artist has been defined as a “tragic female stereotype”[5] and states that she hopes the book will do something to define the artist’s legacy and identity beyond this image. Lippard pushes for a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Hesse that focuses on her artwork, rather than her biography. Lippard had reviewed Hesse’s work and had curated it into several of her shows. In the end they became good friends, and coincidentally lived in the same building of lofts in New York for several years. I would argue that Lippard’s efforts were ultimately not very successful considering that Hesse’s work continues to be considered in relation to the struggles in her personal life. However, through Lippard’s written intervention into the construction of this identity she modifies this relationship of actors in the network, with the book creating a new node. This modification, through the figurative movement that it creates, makes visible the layers of connections unite Lippard and Hesse, as well as the forces that shape their places within a network.

By considering arts administration through the production of networks, it can more fully be understood as a practice with holistic impact. This allows art administration to be considered beyond the impact of the institution, the event, the artist, the fundraising event, or the marketing campaign of its focus, and to be seen as an equal player in the production of visibility for the actors in a network who are less seen. By working innovatively, and against the grain, arts administration can modify the network structure, making visible the forces that for good and for bad have not been previously seen. Once visible, these ties may spark actions in others that bring change of their own within the network, bridging gaps and finding meaning in new places. Further, by considering arts administration through the lens of holistic production like that within a network, I believe it more fully allows for this work to be characterized as a practice, and to hold all the agency and meaning that is held within the meaning of that word.



Larsen, Lars Bang, ed. “Bruno Latour, Network: A Concept, Not a Thing Out There, 2005.” In Networks, 68–73. Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.

———. , ed. “Lawrence Alloway, Network: The Art World Described as a System, 1972.” In Networks, 46–51. Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory /. Oxford ; Oxford University Press, c2007.

Lippard, Lucy R. Eva Hesse /. New York : New York University Press, 1976.


[1] Larsen, “Lawrence Alloway, Network: The Art World Described as a System, 1972,” 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Latour, Reassembling the Social, 160.

[4] Larsen, “Bruno Latour, Network: A Concept, Not a Thing Out There, 2005,” 168.

[5] Lippard, Eva Hesse, 6

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