When is an artist talk, more than an artist talk? This has been the never-ending question Terri Thornton, curator of education at the Fort Worth Modern, has been trying for over 25 years not to answer, but instead, pose a bigger and more interesting question. 

“I have received feedback like, ‘I wish you would treat the series more like a college course,’” she said about the series she leads, “Tuesday Evenings at the Modern” for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The series is free and open to the public. “I am not going to do that. I appreciate that input and understand where it’s coming from, but the series is an education tool. It’s a way to put people in contact with contemporary thought, with art-making and art criticism. It’s to put them in contact with it without directing it. So it’s real.” 

Art talks happen almost every day, all across the world. To be remembered, you have to stand out. Audiences need to walk out challenged, their thought processes put through the wringer. Thornton sees the experience of each lecture as unique, akin to walking blind into a gallery and experiencing art without a guide telling you how to feel. Thornton believes art is best experienced on one’s own terms, without being told how or why. In her role with the Modern, Thornton leads the selection process and organization of each lecture series and has since she joined the museum full time in 1995. 

“I talked to friends and artists and came away with an agreement that it’s great to be promoted and supported by a museum locally, but it’s more important to be fed by content from voices we don’t otherwise have access to directly,” she said. Thornton selected Tuesday as the day for her series because, ‘“it seemed to be an evening not yet claimed.” The series has 10 lectures in the spring and 10 in the fall, each one always falling on a Tuesday so that, “it became a habit. Or at least predictable.”

“Predominantly, I select artists because I have a bias toward artists,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s a historian, critic, writer or architect. Generally, I like hearing from artists. I wanted to promote the fact that artists are well spoken and intelligent people and if they choose to talk about their work, they can be very enlightening.” 

Thornton’s empathy for art-makers comes from being an artist herself. Her work as an artist is conceptually based, with a deep concern for how her made- and found-objects effect and transcend a space and installation. She identifies her lineage of work as drawing, but her practice encourages asking questions and emphasizes the quiet moments of making and looking. This is expanded to the lecture series she holds dear, and can be seen as an extension of her practice, a spider’s web of inquiries and interactions with an audience thirsty for experiential feeling and communal learning. 

“Every week there is someone who does something or says something that connects one thing to another and I’m amazed at how that happens. It’s not by design. Everyone is operating out of their own perspective. Every now and then, they make sense of each other, but they are not designed to tell a particular story. I am a fan of arts superpower, that it doesn’t have an agenda. That’s what keeps people coming back.” 

Reflecting on the early days of the series, which predates even Thornton’s time with the museum, she says the goal was always to deliver to the Fort Worth community an international dialogue with artists and the art world. Over the years, Thornton has invited artists like Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kara Walker, Robyn O’Neil, Barry McGee and Hennesy Youngman to take the podium for the series. One of the first speakers Thornton organized for the talk were The Art Guys, a pair of Houston conceptual artists known for staged performances and public spectacle, which apparently extended to their preparation for their talk at the museum in the mid 1990’s. 

“Dealing with The Art Guys was a baptism by fire. They took things out of our museum offices and put them in different places or flat-out stole them. They were naughty and fun. Apparently, the jury was out for them on whether I was worth their time. Michael (Galbreth) was lovely and Jack (Massing) was a bit of a pill. That’s the way they played it. And I enjoyed every second of it.” 

Even though Thornton spends time preparing and planning each lecture, she still considers herself part of the audience: learning and questioning along the way. She allows each lecture to lead itself, with visiting artists acting as guides for the audience. 

Next lecture

The next featured lecturer is Edith Devaney, managing director and curator for David Hockney Inc. on Nov. 2. Lectures begin at 7 p.m. in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s auditorium with seating beginning at 6:30 p.m. A livestream broadcast of the lecture will be available online at www.themodern.org/programs/lectures.

“With Annette Lawerence, speaking of someone in our community, she was based in Houston back then. We hung out all day. That was another part. I was the host, so I was in conversation with them all day. Usually, they would give their lecture and then we would go out to eat. There is still some of that. I still get insights and am inspired almost every week.” she said. “Annette convinced me I needed to do some kind of documentation of these things. We literally went and bought a little cassette player and cassettes. And starting with her, I would walk up and do my introduction and hit record on the recorder. And then the speaker would walk up and do her thing. So, Annette walked up and what she did was phenomenal. I saw everything different after this, she titled her presentation the day of the talk. She went back two years in her journal and read the journal entry of every Tuesday of every night, up to the night of her standing there. That’s how she ended it. It was so poetic and experiential. I’m getting chills just talking about it. So it still has an impact on me.”

When reflecting on her lecture, artist Annette Lawrence feels as if she has grown up in tandem with “Tuesdays at the Modern.” Her lecture that night in 1994 was the first invitation she had received to speak at a museum; she had just finished participating in a robust literary program titled, “Artists Who Write” at DiverseWorks in Houston. She said the concept of time had been a primary subject in her studio and reading the journals was a way of presenting her ideas on time and offering context for her visual work. 

“Tuesday Evenings is one of the most beloved gatherings in the arts community in the DFW area,” Lawrence explained. “There’s a palpable energy in the room when everybody is there to hear a favorite artist, or to learn about a new artist. The audience is smart, engaged, welcoming, and routinely standing room only.” 

Lawrence credits Thornton’s direction of the program as a reason it has endured changing times and artistic trends. 

“Terri’s long tenure at the helm of ‘Tuesday Evenings at the Modern’ is one clear distinction. In a field where there are rapid personnel changes at every turn, Terri’s consistent presence and leadership sets the series apart from most. The series has always been free to the public. It is a remarkably generous program.” Lawrence concluded. 

The series originated as a way for local artists to talk about their work in front of their peers in the community. By the time Thronton joined in the mid-90s the museum had invited and showcased most local artists at least twice, with some on their third invitations. Thornton saw the series having the potential for an international appeal.

So she began reading through issues of “Art in America to find out where different artists she wanted to invite to the series lived. Then she would call information and ask for their numbers, calling them directly, herself. “It was only years after I began to go through galleries.” One of the ones who left a lasting impact on Thornton was performance artist and writer, Vito Acconci. 

“He has since passed, and I mean this in the kindest way, but he was a bit of a troll,” she explained of Acconci, who is considered by many to be the most influential American performance artist of his time. “He scared me. I asked myself, ‘What am I getting into? Who do I think I am?’ Then he arrived, and he couldn’t have been more gracious. He stands out for that reason. The expectations vs. the immensely enjoyable reality of the situation.” 

Bringing in artists of the weight and influence of Acconci evolved the lecture series into one of international standing. Thornton says to keep things fair, she offers all performers the same honorarium, whether they are international or local, which is gifted by the museum. 

Over the years, audiences for the Tuesday lectures series have been at times, in the hundreds, with attendees spilling out through the doors, finding seats in the hallways and filling the museum’s cafe to watch the livestream, which the museum produces for every lecture. Thornton estimates before the pandemic an average attendance would be over 100 guests. The series returned Sept. 21 with social-distancing protocols in place, like every other row blocked off for seating, and limited in-person tickets reserved for 65 persons. 

Thornton expects attendees to have a certain curiosity for hearing artists speak for themselves on how they work, and sees this enduring through the pandemic. 

“I’m thinking about how does one consider a safe distance to the ideas presented to you and still feel challenged? Perplexed? And all the things that make for a rich experience.” Thornton hopes the lecture sticks in people’s craw well after the lights go down on the stage. The goal is for the words of artists, whether local or international, to influence the artists in the audience when it’s time to get back into the studio and create. 

“You absorb it and it becomes part of your tissue. So, when you start making things it’s part of your resource,” she said. “That’s how I hope it plays. It’s hard to convince people it’s a worthwhile endeavor. We are living in a time that’s addicted to urgency and can’t slow down to appreciate what’s available to us. There was a time when people approached this series as leisure. And they were pleasantly surprised at the value and significance it had in thinking, making, and looking. It still happens, there’s still plenty of us that are hanging on tight to being present and available to whatever presents itself.” 

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