Founder of The Museum of Everything, James Brett, is an interesting character, someone you might like to spend the day with, talking for hours about artists and the meaning of art, about exhibitions, popular culture and so forth. Witty and friendly, he revealed his points of view through the eyes of his independent museum project.
Created in 2009, The Museum of Everything offers an alternative point of view about art and artists, avoiding pedantic language and an academic approach to focus instead on a more direct aesthetics experience. The results are intriguing, from its exhibitions in derelict buildings in Primrose Hill, London and St. Germain, Paris, to more formal associations at Tate Modern, London, Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin and Garage Center of Contemporary Culture, Moscow.
It seems to be successful, inasmuch as The Museum of Everything is an Official Collateral Event at the 55th Venice Biennale. And this sounds very familiar to DROME’s philosophy, which since it first began, has tried to go beyond institutional art, featuring unconventional artists like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli, Henri Michaux and many more.

DROME: The Museum of Everything opened in London in 2009 and describes itself as “the world’s only travelling museum for undiscovered, unintentional and untrained artists from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries”. Could you please describe the museum’s philosophy?
James Brett: The Museum of Everything philosophy is a sort of loose Everything-ism. Everything-ism recognises people as artists, even when they do not recognise themselves as such. It sees the title of artist as a fundamental human right, reflecting a fundamental human need. We show artists who predominantly make art for themselves and not for an audience or market. It’s not a black and white criterion; in fact, it’s as grey as a London summer. What we do try to avoid are diminishing terms like outsider art and art brut, because they encourage art world segregation. In its broadest form, Everything-ism is a visual parallel to alternative music. It celebrates those whose creative gestures form an important – and generally unaccounted for – alternative history of art. Thus we exhibit them, we publish them, we archive them, we even discover them. The Museum of Everything is an itinerant institution and has no home. It rides railroads like Woody Guthrie, finding global cosy corners in which to make temporary installations. This is rarely in a formal museum setting, although we have been known to do that from time to time too.

D: The Museum of Everything will be showing at the 55th Venice Biennale. Can you explain the relationship between The Museum of Everything and Marino Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace?
JB: The relationship between The Museum of Everything and The Encyclopaedic Palace is easy: both are originally creations by off-the-radar self-taught artists. The Museum of Everything is an environment on the Isle of Wight, conceived by my namesake, William Brett. It is a schoolhouse inside which he has accumulated all the physical memories of his life. In contrast, The Encyclopaedic Palace is an imaginary building designed by Marino Auriti, and is a scale model intended – upon completion – to house the total knowledge of humankind. So if The Museum of Everything is a storage unit for its author’s physical autobiography, then The Encyclopaedic Palace is an impossible library for all global invention. Similar names, very different functions – both perhaps indicative of the intentions of their respective adoptive parents. I personally discovered The Museum of Everything and William Brett by chance. I read about him, then went to visit him, and was utterly astonished by what I saw: a sprawling assembly of a lifetime’s bric-a-brac, with William and his wife inhabiting a few small rooms on either side of it. It was a glorious creation, so I instinctively asked if I could open a London branch – not only was he a Brett (just like me), but the artists I intended to exhibit were individuals making work for themselves, not for markets or museums (just like him). Two self-taught Bretts coming together was a sign from God; and those who have been to The Museum of Everything know we exhibit signs from God. William concurred – and so The Museum of Everything (London Branch) was born. What hugely appealed to me was this idea of an alternative history of art, tumbling along since the beginning of time. William’s environment symbolised this history, despite its modesty. Although it was local kids who had christened it The Museum of Everything (because it had everything of his in it), the self-deprecating absurdity was balanced by this profound and democratic subtext. Hence Everything-ism, which is what we try to convey in all our installations and activities. While I can’t speak for Massimiliano Gioni, I know he is fascinated by these alternative formats. His discovery of The Encyclopaedic Palace offered him a similar conceptual framework to include non-destinational creators like Augustin Lesage, Morton Bartlett, James Castle, Anna Zemankova and Guo Fengyi. It is a major turning point for their work to be seen somewhere as rarified as Venice, because many – if not most – of the world’s art museums do not consider them artists. That’s why today, I would say that the Brett/Brett artwork/museum called The Museum of Everything and the Auriti/Gioni artwork/biennial called The Encyclopaedic Palace are mutual comrades-in-arms, leading the high and the low into a self-taught Everything-ish revolution!

D: Why are you only interested in self-taught artists? Do you think it is really impossible to teach someone how to be a good artist?
JB: I am not exclusively interested in self-taught artists. Rather, I am fascinated by other ways of perceiving the world around us, by visual materials which may or may not be intended as art, by unusual people with secret stories and languages, and by formats which defy conventional notions of logic. Being self-taught doesn’t make art or artists interesting. It’s simply that creative characters who are not professionally trained see things in idiosyncratic ways. If those uniquenesses are combined with talent, then the results – if they take the form of art – may well astonish us. Put those same personalities into academic institutions and their brilliant uniquenesses may be educated away. The term self-taught – like outsider – is a convenient shorthand, but it doesn’t put its finger on the elusive quality which elevates the most authentic autodidacts. Art doesn’t interest me, people do; so I want to know why artists and non-artists make things, where their necessity come from, how art moves us – and that’s all about finding the truth of a creative gesture. It has nothing to do with labels. As for whether art is teachable, I highly recommend an episode of the British television show Faking It. The producers found a painter-decorator – a bloke who painted bathrooms for a living – and taught him how to turn himself into a contemporary artist. You watch, you decide: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/faking-it/4od#3264932

D: How did the curator’s role change during the last 20 years? And how did it affect the artist’s role?
JB: For me, curator too often implies a kingmaker, crowning the preferred artists and sending the others back to serfdom. I don’t require or relish such authority; which is perhaps why The Museum of Everything doesn’t have a permanent curator. Selection chez nous is a much more random dictatoral/democratic process and tends to involve everyone who happens to be there at the time. In fact I don’t really know what a curator does. Some seem to be cultural filters, others museum gatekeepers. In the art press it can read like an aspirational job description for a CAA (or even CIA) agent and the effect on artists is self-evident. It must feel like producing a summer hit for a superstar DJ. That’s why, as in any field, it is essential to credit those who assemble, codify and exhibit with transcendence. Visionary characters for me are Harald Szeeman, Alfred Barr, and in more recent times, Lynne Cooke, Jean Hubert Martin and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. What they do is important because it is so confidently different from the vanilla-land approach, challenging artists as much as viewers, and getting under the skin of material to ask/answer the question why.

D: In the 19th and 20th Century the idea of truth in art was really important. In the 21st Century do you think it’s still relevant?
JB: I am extremely interested in truth. It is what moves me. In drama, the best actors are often those who are able to express the truth of their characters. Their goal is not to act, it is simply to be. Yet the strategy for many artists today is to perform. Wander through a contemporary art fair, you will see many opinions, contexts and even products, but far less of what those good actors strive for. For years I feared it was me and that I was operating under some sort of anti-contemporary bias. However, when The Museum of Everything started to coincide with Frieze in London and FIAC in Paris, I found that many art fair refugees agreed. What throws everything into relief is that the work we show seems to be completely truthful to itself. That is to say, there is some specific authenticity within art made for essentially private purposes. Not that contemporary art isn’t sincere, it surely is; but this is somehow more so. Nowhere is this more resonant than in the art of those with learning disabilities – like Judith Scott, the American artist who produced a phenomenal body of bound sculptural work while suffering from Down Syndrome. You can sense Judith’s honesty within seconds of seeing her material, even if you don’t know the specifics of her reality. When you find out more, that she did not hear or speak, that she may not have been able to know what art was, or even that what she was making was art, you re-assess not only the work, but your own notions of art’s meaning and purpose. In an age where so much art is market-driven or about its own relationship with the history or market of art, I believe these direct personal truths may come to be seen as essential to contemporary art. They return us to the reasons why we make art, and for those who do not make it, why we look at it, study it and appreciate it. If, as I hope, the Venice Biennale is the start of a revolution, then it is the truth of the underlying material which will provide its long-term impact on art.

D: The art market surely changed the way we think about contemporary art. As the founder of a museum, can you tell me the bright side and the bleak side about the current art market?
JB: Too much is said about the market. Money is a lousy thermometer at the best of times; and The Museum of Everything is rarely interested either in reflecting the market or influencing its trends. Not that commercialism is a dirty word, it’s what makes the world turn – and an artist who is not bought and sold, does not exist for all intensive purposes. But The Museum of Everything is about exhibiting creativity, not buying and selling objects. The problem for us is that the market dominates so much of the common dialogue, that when you ask the average person about art, they often believe you’re talking about the art market. It’s not helped by questions like this one! Ultimately The Museum of Everything aims to bring its artists visibility and respect. If the market can help achieve this without homogenising or diminishing them, we support it unequivocally.

D: In the 20th Century art there were a lot of different genres. Can we still talk about art genres today? Are they disappearing or not?
JB: These days museums seem to expand their collections in random continental directions. It’s sort of a cultural neo-colonialism. Yet the genres of old also seem like a distant memory. New movements rise and fall in moments, so none seem to take hold. When they do, all too often they either skyrocket or fall flat. That’s one of the strengths of the strange unclassifiable genre that adorns The Museum of Everything’s walls. These artists exist everywhere and boast unusual and independent histories. And they’re rarely commoditised by a market, which generally doesn’t know how to deal with them. There is surely power lies for genres without names. No labels, no boxes, slipperiness is the key… long live Everything-ism!

Text by Gabriele Girolamini

For further information: www.musevery.com