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Adam Lerner on the Russian Revolution, Rock ‘n Roll, and the Real Crisis

What is an urbanist? Simply put, we believe an urbanist is a person who deeply loves where they live and believes in using their work to make their neighborhood, their city, better. Through our Ask an Urbanist series, we’ll get to know the people who make our cities special. From diverse disciplines and backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: they make their communities better places to live.

Headshot of urbanist and museum curator Adam Lerner
Urbanist and museum curator Adam Lerner | Source: From the Hip Photo

Adam Lerner was, most recently, the Director and Chief Animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Through his Mixed Taste lecture series, he has become well known for bringing disparate ideas together to inspire, entertain, educate. His long and storied career as a museum curator and art educator reflects an ethos we can get behind—that art weaves its way through life in both the ordinary and the extraordinary; it’s up to each of us to watch for what moves and unsettles us.

Q. What is your hands-down favorite city or town and why?

I don’t have a hands-down favorite, and I would challenge anyone who claims to have one that maybe they actually have a favorite time in a city. I loved being a high school student in New York in the 1980s, but that New York no longer exists—neither does that old me. I loved spending my 20s in Baltimore, with its down-and-out charm, living on $400 a month, but I don’t want to do that again.

Q. How would you describe the state of your city right now?

Uh, this is 2020 and Denver is a mess like everywhere else. The city used to pump optimism in the air like they put fluoride in water, but with so much anger, distrust, hate, anxiety, and desperation right now, I wonder if the air quality will be permanently affected. Maybe that wouldn’t even be so bad.

The energy released in a crisis is difficult to channel at first, but it eventually works its way through society.

Adam Lerner

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing our society today?

Fear of differentness.

Q. What’s the biggest opportunity we have in rebuilding our communities?

The crisis is the opportunity. The energy released in a crisis is difficult to channel at first, but it eventually works its way through society. We are still now benefiting from the disruptions of the counterculture in the 1960s and ‘70s. We can trace much of our progressive change—our interest in the environment, feminism, multiculturalism, clean food, and other movements—to that moment, which was in many ways similarly turbulent to today.

Q. What period in time do you find the most inspiring?

The aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It was a time when a group of avant-garde artists believed themselves a part of changing the entire fabric of society. They thought making abstract art was a part of empowering modern individuals to believe they could re-create their world.

Q. What’s the innovation you find the most useful, personally?

Rock ‘n roll. It’s the most important innovation of the last hundred years. It gave birth to the concept of lifestyle, which now governs much of our economic culture. It created youth culture, which is a powerful force for social change.

Photographer: Rocco Dipoppa | Source: Unsplash

Q. What innovation do you find the most detrimental, societally?

Innovations in the financial sector in the second half of the 20th century that aggregated capital in the real estate market. Today, when you see a big-ass apartment building going up in your city, it’s not because anyone said, “I’d love to live in a big apartment building right there.”

The way our cities are built today is largely driven by the financial interests of people who manage real estate portfolios halfway across the world, creating a system that not only damages the built environment but siphons money out of local communities into the jet stream of capital.

Q. What’s the most urgent issue to solve in our communities, post-COVID?

Income inequality. At some point, it’s got to get urgent. Racial inequality, same. Racial and economic bias in the criminal justice system. Oh yeah, and the environmental crisis.

Q. What’s the “silver lining” you find most promising?

Because of COVID, my mother now knows how to use Instacart and doesn’t need to be driven around by her boyfriend, who is a terrible driver.

Q. If you had to pick one place to spend the rest of your days, where would it be?

I’d love to be on the coast of Portugal in a community of my closest friends. Never been to Portugal. It’s on the coast, right?

Q. What’s a piece that’s moved you—to tears, to act, to smile—whatever it may be?

After Stalin crushed the artistic aspirations of the Russian Revolution in the second half of the 1920s and made it illegal for artists to create abstract art, leading avant-garde artist Vladimir Tatlin secreted himself in a bell tower in Moscow and began building an ornithopter, a bird-like flying machine he called Letatlin. Half aspirational, half folly, I see Letatlin as embodying both the transcendent quality of art and its embeddedness in ordinary life. Letatlin moved me enough to get a tattoo of it on my shoulder.

Ornithopter Art at Seatac International Airport. Photographer: Wonderlane | Source: Unsplash

Q. What’s the biggest misconception you’ve seen about consuming and experiencing art?

You sometimes hear the notion that an artist is trying to “pull one over” on their audience, particularly when someone feels they can’t grasp the work of art. I’ve been a curator for over 20 years, and I’ve never met an artist who was trying to pull one over on anyone. 

Q. Who are three artists we should all be watching for right now?

Go to art museums and galleries, read art books and blogs, and find three artists that call to you, maybe even unsettle you. Watch them carefully.