Essays

Mature Museums

The death of the museum has been as often predicted as the death of painting. Sure, for both it would be good sometimes to be less present, especially in the more traditional forms, but there is progress on the horizon. There is no doubt that museums are essential for a healthy art environment and one realizes how necessary they are when they are non-existent or are operating in such a way that it would be better if they were not there.

This is not the space to write about the über museums like MoMa, the Tate or the Centre Pompidou, as they can delve into great collections, resourceful infrastructure and years of successful marketing. But if one is not lucky enough to live or frequently travel to New York, London or Paris, it is the smaller, local museums that matter. And there are huge differences. Today, with all the ‘competition’ from other formats like biennials, art fairs, and even commercial galleries, it is very difficult to justify huge investments of public resources in a museum.

The International Council of Museums said in 2007, a museum is defined as ‘… a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.’ Traditionally, one would argue that there is a need to preserve the heritage of the given place and that one has to enable independent and long-term research to propose an agreed-on canon of what is relevant for a society and time, and that there should be a stable organization in the short-lived art world that collects, preserves and exhibits the very best of art. However, reading the above definition nowadays, we realize that there is not one but many very different heritages, that it becomes more and more difficult to define what art actually is and how to preserve it, and that most museums don’t really do a good job in research anymore. For museums, especially in Asia, serious collecting is also totally out of the question, as the short-term interests of the auction market have pushed prices far beyond the already super-inflated western art market and out of reach of any public institution.

In Asia the biggest competition to museums seems to be the relatively new format of the international biennial. Gwangju Biennale (founded 1995), one of the oldest Asian ones and, with attendance figures of 750,000, the most visited worldwide, has proven a successful model for places like Guangzhou, Busan, Shanghai, Yokohama and the latest addition, Singapore. Biennials seem to be preferred by politicians, as they are cheaper — not having huge overhead costs — are great events at which to shake hands, and, internationally, have a higher profile. Artists and curators love them because they provide bigger freedoms and the possibility to actually produce new art works — which is especially interesting for a generation of artists who do not produce easily saleable works. In the long run, biennales seem to be catalysts, not competition, for museums, as seen in successful biennials founded a few decades earlier than the Asian ones: like Sydney (founded 1973) or Istanbul (founded 1987). It is evident that they helped to establish major museums for modern and contemporary art in the host city and greatly developed the general art scene. Some museums, like those in Busan, Auckland, Shanghai and Guangzhou, use the format of the biennial very successfully to stage regular international contemporary art exhibitions that they could not do otherwise.

But why is this the case? Why can’t museums be challenging, why can’t they take risks, why can’t they involve the public in many more ways than giving regular ‘guided’ tours. A few museums are actually managing successfully to do so. When Charles Esche talks about the Van Abbe Museum he directs in Eindhoven, he says he wants it to be to be radical, hospitable, reflective with a strong dose of criticality. By radical, he means it should be an engine of potentially new artistic production and forms of presentation, and provide, through confrontation with art, the possibility for artists and the public to get a feeling for contemporary production of meaning, and not of typology and classification. The museum should be hospitable, welcoming for diverse target groups that are more diverse interest groups — groups from different local, ethnic and educational background — which are in themselves diverse, critical, political engaged. It is easy to sum up this idea with Derrida: ‘just saying yes to who or what turns up’. Criticality for Esche means that the work is in full knowledge of the inconsistencies of the capitalistic contemporary culture, in which we are completely dependent on its structures, but still have to maintain a critical dialogue that could ultimately mean replacing it with a more emancipatory system. And, indeed, visiting the Van Abbe Museum one has the feeling of being taken seriously as a visitor: it is challenging, and not only because the exhibitions are not held in consecutive rooms but splattered all over the museum, and the works are not always orderly and hung at the same height, but also because the who and what that is exhibited is much more interesting than the usual ‘international style’ we find in so many museums today (a Warhol here — a Judd there).

But it is not only critical distance to the political/economic system that should be observed. Yuko Hasegawa began to build the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in 2004. Her goal was to replace the three M’s — man, money, materials — with the three C’s — co-existence, collective intelligence and consensus. Not only did she help to build a museum that is distant, even in the way it is built, from the old ideas of stringency — having independent spaces/rooms that can adjust easily to new artforms — but she also had the resources and trust to build up a great collection — an important fact that is often underestimated in today’s museum projects, where the architect seems to become more important than the curator and the cover outshines the content.

These little changes make a huge difference. The Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, opened in 1988), for example, opened up and trusts in a pedagogic of emancipation where seminars on discourse and gender are held, and political economy and public space is discussed. The museum involves activists and sees the museum structure as one of mediation and not a structure of representation, which is borne out by the fact that they hold a lot of workshops — but NOT guided tours.

David Elliott’s success at the Mori Museum in Tokyo (opened 2003) — interestingly, a private museum without a collection — was due to the fact that he made it a platform for discussion on the art and culture of our time and radically questioned the definition of the way we see art, not only by showcasing very different genres, periods and methods together, but also by going outside of the usual museum context. Most of this is nothing new to the international museum scene, or to Elliott’s practice (he had successfully run museums before he went to Japan), but it seemed a successful strategy in Japan, where the museum scene is quite ‘regulated’ with very rigid hierarchies that do not allow for much innovation. Looking to the foundations of new museums or the day-to-day running of the organization, one has to realize that the most successful institutions are permanently questioning themselves and the environment they operate in.

And here may lay the problem for the future of museums, especially in non-democratic societies. Art, particularly western art, is grounded in a revolutionary idea. Each ‘ism’ wanted to revolt against the established one. Abstract Expressionism against Surrealism; Pop against Abstract Expressionism; Minimal against Pop, and so on. Not every artist is political but most art is embedded in a political system. Ad Reinhard’s idea of art for art’s sake still presumes an autonomous art — a luxury not found in most parts of the world, especially in the 1950s when it was proclaimed. Even though we don’t really live in the time of one dominant artform — the idea that there are actually multiple, very extreme, utopian, sometimes questioning, ideas that can live happily with each other is also not really a concept appreciated by politicians who believe that they know better, and therefore regulate the information people obtain. If you cannot accept the view of the other, why would you establish the interactive, critical and free space you need to run a decent museum? Then there rises in the question of censorship — no politics, no sex and no violence — the fact that there is not a lot of space left for good contemporary art to be shown.

Exciting museums are run by very knowledgeable and independent-thinking people who are well embedded in the art scene and not the local political scene. These directors have independent visions and not only do courageous exhibitions with challenging art and artists but also take the artists and the public seriously. A crucial point is the selection of these museum directors, who will often be chosen by politicians or from boards selected by them. Art, especially contemporary art, is not harmonious; it is full of inconsistencies, challenges and celebrations of difference. Some of it is anti-government and anti-authoritarian and in the end it does celebrate and reward the individual that rebels best against the mainstream.

Museum directors have to be activists for art, they have to publicly advocate it, campaign for it, and convince public, patrons and politicians that theirs is the most out there and important institution that not only shines on the city but also from the city, even or especially if it is critical, sometimes very hard to understand, and even annoying to some people. It can be risky for the museum directors: both the Museum of 21st Century and the Mori Museum unfortunately lost their curators soon after their very successful starting phase.

In the end it is about the public, and how seriously we take this public. Do we want to guide or integrate the public into a meaningful discussion? How seriously do we take individual opinion and how do we deal with difference — be it aesthetically, historically or politically? The kind of public we want in the museum reflects the kind of citizens we would like in a state. Personally, being educated in the 1970s and ’80s in Germany, the country’s main concern was coming to terms with the incredible crimes of the past and the developing of civil strategies. Artists, always well connected, could look towards the international avant-gardes for inspiration, but how to develop the military — a hierarchical structure that was used and took part in a criminal system — was a more complex problem. The military had to re-think the status of the soldier as an individual and the contradiction of command — obedience and personal freedom. During this time, the idea of the mature (mündige) soldier was born — or the citizen in uniform. A soldier is a mature citizen and should be treated as such. In museums today you sometimes feel like recipient of orders, but the visitor in the modern museum should be treated like a mature person who is taken seriously: that is, challenged, able to interact, and does not just accept ‘orders’. In recent days, when once again the Olympic Charter, which forbids the competing athletes any type of political articulation, has been bought into question, we hear the idea of the mature athlete popping up.

So what would be a mature museum like — or maybe, more importantly, what would a museum look like that expects a mature ‘audience’? Museums have to establish a real public — actually not a public but different publics — from art-interested locals to short-term tourists; from special political interest groups to new migrants. It has to be an interface between art and public — it has to provide a public space where different artistic and community needs are negotiated. It has to work on these issues and try to visualize and understand of processes of contemporary life. The museum is no longer there to provide the impression of a non-existing consensus, but to make differences challenging. It has to try out alternatives — because these seem to be the exhibitions that make an impact — but it has to debate the different forms of presentation. In short, it has to make possibilities possible. And permanently question the state of art and the museum in contemporary society.

Imprint

Author

Tobias BERGER

Topic
Essays
Date
Thu, 1 May 2008