08 10 05

Contemporary Art Practices and the Museum: To Be Reconciled at All?

Stella Rollig

As an independent writer and curator, I have collaborated only occasionally with museums in the fifteen years of my professional life. For a long time, I believed that museums - especially when it comes to contemporary art - suck the life out of art and the artist, embalm them, and disconnect them from their potential audience, instead of encouraging a vital dialogue. One of my own projects seems worth mentioning as it shaped my view on museums. During my term as the Austrian federal curator for visual art from 1994 to 1996, being enabled to spend a generous amount of public money, I initiated a temporary gallery in Vienna’s Museum for Applied Arts, which is, in spite of its name, to a large degree committed to contemporary art.1 I conceived this gallery as a showcase for young local artists working predominantly with new media.

One of the participating groups, Klub Zwei, had been involved in a quite strong movement of institutional critique, examining the structural conditions of exhibiting. The group proposed to set up a production studio in the gallery, instead of showing a finished and polished work. So they did. They provided a Hi-8 camera and an audio recorder and installed an editing place. They also provided a small archive of videotapes and invited friends and colleagues to discuss and watch documentary art videos at night.

Most of the time, the gallery was empty, the editing facility unused, people rarely watched the tapes, and only the usual small crowd of their friends and acquaintances attended the talks. Klub Zwei had appropriated a model that was successful elsewhere and failed at the museum - the model of a ”project space,” an independent, self-organized artists’ space.

I recount this because back then, in early 1996, it seemed to confirm my own prejudices against museums and, for that matter, other high-art spaces. The living exchange system that I wanted art to be seemed inevitably paralyzed within museum walls. Since then, contemporary art museums everywhere have gone to great lengths to prove that, yes, there is life inside, even trying to suggest that it’s in the museum where ”It” is happening. In that sense, they find themselves competing with street fairs, football games, car shows, movies … all kinds of events offered to get the boredom out of one’s weekend.

Museums occasionally become sites of production (think of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s sound-recording studio, set up to be used by visitors), relaxing zones (the environments that Charles Long designs for listening to Stereolab’s tunes), and social gatherings (Tiravanija’s Thai dinners). With perhaps a more education-oriented intention, a museum exhibition can also serve as a research archive (Renée Green’s Import Export Funk Office) or a para-academic site of theoretical discourse (Rainer Ganahl’s Reading Seminars) or can replace separate education programs by education-as-art-projects (Maria Eichhorn’s or Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler’s workshops with children in the museum). In all these practices, the status of the museum is at stake.  

Then there are the projects that examine the museum itself: Andrea Fraser’s gallery talks, Fred Wilson’s provocative revisioning of museums’ collections, Ute Meta Bauer and Fareed Armaly’s look behind the scenes of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark for the Now/Here show in 1996, and numerous other projects where artists have storage areas made accessible, involve the security staff, or rent out their exhibition space to a commercial car dealer as a showcase for the latest BMW model. (Austrian artists Swetlana Heger and Plamen Dejanov made the cover of the Summer 2000 issue of Flash Art magazine with this idea.)

One could easily name a number of activities that seem to have turned upside down the museum’s traditional purpose as well as its cultural identity as it has been developed for two centuries in Western societies. Key terms in the traditional notion of ”museum” are:

· the white cube (coined by Brian O’Doherty): the elimination of context in terms of architecture and space as well as of institutional conditions

· cultural consensus: a broad consensus about hierarchies and values defined and perpetuated by the museum

· timelessness: the claim to represent these values without being affected by any changes in the world outside, without having to reconsider the criteria that lead their decisions.

There had been attacks on the museum’s exclusive, ”sacred” walls a quarter of a century ago. (Actually, a harsh critique of the museum was already standard in the writings of the Russian constructivists from 1917 on.) The emancipation movements of the 1960s have unveiled the museum as not representing some integrating ”metaculture,” but rather providing a stabilizing structure that perpetuates the difference between the educated and the underprivileged. It was not by chance that New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was the target of a demonstration and a strike by leading artists. Established in 1969, the Art Workers’ Coalition set up a catalogue of anti-hierarchical and anti-exclusive demands concerning the politics of museums on every level - from collecting to displaying, from staff to education - to accomplish a fair, maybe even collaborative, representation of the various segments of society.

In the same distant era, the term ”museum” was used by critical individuals for their own projects, precisely to distinguish them from the bourgeois institution and its understanding of culture. In 1970, in an arguably more concept-driven than institutionally oriented move, Californian artist Tom Marioni founded in San Francisco his Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA).

A ”large-scale social and public work of art,” MOCA functioned as a museum with a membership and a collection that presented social actions and ”situational art.” The museum’s permanent collection included documentation in the form of photographs, films, and videotapes as well as physical residues or changes to the site’s architecture, of the activities it presented. [Tom Marioni recalls,] ”When I started MOCA in early 1970, it was underground, because it dealt with something that no one else was doing.… So because of where it was, and the style of it, and the name of it, and nature of it, and the esoteric and ephemeral quality of it, it was an underground museum.2

Seven years later in New York, a former Whitney Museum curator founded her own museum to operate in opposition to everything she’d experienced inside museums. Marcia Tucker’s intention was to set up an organization that on every level, from managing to exhibiting, questioned and redesigned common museum structures. She chose a seemingly paradoxical name: The New Museum of Contemporary Art. What she wanted, at least according to legend, was clearly anti-establishment, ”alternative.” I would guess, though, that the addressed ”real museums” in town did not even get the message.

Today it’s different. Museums listen.

The Museum of Modern Art, not only the most famous one but all of them bearing that name, faces strong competition from a younger, seemingly more attractive generation of successors: The Museum of Contemporary Art has grown from alternative ”off”-venue to mainstream art provider founded by civic and national governments as an important asset in city marketing. The trendy Museum of Contemporary Art is quickly passing the not-so-hip Museum of Modern Art in the favour of public funding agencies and corporate sponsors. In Austria in the late nineties there was a significant change in the operating mode of museums - they were essentially released from direct public administration and funding into corporatization. Public funds were cut back, and museums are now forced to raise large amounts of their budget by themselves, through adjoining restaurants, gift shops, higher entrance fees, renting out their space for corporate events, and so on. The ”American model” has reached the formerly sheltered island of cultural Austria.

At the same time, we should be aware that there is no easy good/bad distinction between public and corporate money. In Austria, that became crystal clear with the government change in February 2000. Since then, there’s been an extreme nationalist right-wing party in government, which after its inauguration has caused intense debates in the art world and cultural scene on the acceptability of public funding. Soon, however, the vast majority of institutions and cultural producers had to acknowledge their inability to finding any other financial solutions to continue working but to cooperate with governmental funding agencies. It was, after all, ”public” money they were working with, and not to be seen as being sponsored by one political party.

Regardless, a hip image has become vital for an art museum to attract sponsors. ”The time is always now” - the motto of the ”here-and-now” intensity worshipping society combines perfectly with the idea of a Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s one in Chicago, one in Los Angeles, one in Helsinki, one in Zurich … and these are only the first few examples that come to mind.

In 1993, Douglas Crimp published his book On the Museum’s Ruins, a collection of essays written between 1980 and 1987. The force that he names as endangering the museum’s traditional function and its secured authority is postmodernism.3 In these essays, Crimp speaks about both younger artists such as Louise Lawler, who contributed a photo essay to his writings, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and older ones such as Richard Serra and Marcel Broodthaers. He describes the shift from the autonomous modernist object to the postmodernist acknowledgement of context and its critique of institutions. However, this critique, I would argue - at least regarding the artists mentioned as many other ”postmodernists” - is delivered via more autonomous objects. They are certainly different from modernist artwork in their reference to other artworks, except in the mode of presenting them. Yet that does not prevent them from becoming an art market commodity in the same way as their modernist predecessors. A Louise Lawler photograph of an art collection display or a Sherrie Levine painting such as After Egon Schiele, enters market circulation smoothly and has become part of so many museum collections. Among the first artists to go beyond these inherent limitations was Andrea Fraser, who developed her investigation and critique of the museum in a performance during the 1980s, in the form of a gallery talk.

The dematerialization of the artwork is not exactly new. Museums have been forced to deal with non-object-oriented practices for more than three decades. And they are still struggling. But distinct from conceptual art - which meanwhile has entered museum collections, often as documentation - what has been most influential in the last decade is the changing role of the artist. She or he acts as a cultural analyst (Hal Foster describes the artist as an ethnographer in his book, The Return of the Real), a communication agent, an activist, a social worker, an educator, or a service provider. Quite often an artist’s physical presence is at the core of what can’t really be called an exhibition anymore, but ”the project.” (These projects often have an educational purpose, such as like Mark Dion’s ecologically motivated excursions or so many others that aim or at least claim to involve specific communities.) Of course, this doesn’t leave the role of the curator unaffected. What, in an earlier optimistic moment in that specific art history, seemed to develop the artist-curator relationship into an equal collaboration has actually drastically limited the curator’s creative aspirations, often reducing her or his contribution to that of a manager and fundraiser.

When Crimp wrote his essays, the Museum of Contemporary Art was not yet a widespread mainstream institution. More than a decade later, we live in the era of post-postmodernism, which some may even want to term a ”second modernism.” It reintroduced a desire to connect art and life, the old call to action by the historical avant garde, as different as the Russian constructivists and the futurists, the Bauhaus, or Piet Mondrian. But what idea of life is it exactly that art is supposed to connect to? The ”new appropriation artists,” as I call them, don’t appropriate other artwork like their postmodern predecessors, but rather lifestyle components and strategies and offers of the entertainment industry and consumer culture. They claim to connect to ”life” by imitating the corporately designed everyday life as it is presented in advertising, mainstream media, and Hollywood movies. For example, when Rirkrit Tiravanija gathers a crowd of museum visitors around a dinner table, what is imitated has been invented by the advertising industry, the happy and healthy social group united by its consumer and entertainment needs. The Art and Life Connection: Activists would say that it is a responsible, politically aware, and ready-to-engage way of living they want to connect to, and they intend to involve people in a specific agenda. As different as these types of artists are, both see themselves suddenly embraced by the museum, and naturally this embrace means something different to both.

In the early 1990s, so-called project-oriented practices, or interventionism, were adopted by big temporary exhibition projects (in 1993: Sculpture Chicago / Culture in Action, Soonsbeek, and Project Unité in Firminy, France). And museums were soon following, forced to develop an image in today’s competition within the ”Economy of Attention,” a term used by Austrian philosopher Georg Franck in Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit. Of course, regarding intervention art, the new conditions for production - being a supplier and contractor to institutions that the artists once had set out to oppose - create a contradiction. But what actually happens when critical practices are institutionalized? Some think they necessarily lose their bite. In his essay ”How to Best Serve the New Global Contemporary Art Matrix,” Gregory Sholette argues that museums, even former anti-institutionally oriented ones such as the New Museum in New York, have all become outposts for a global art market and that everything incorporated by the global players in this market tends to become just another commodity.4 Others, more optimistically, believe that because of greater visibility, more media attention, and bigger audiences, the museum provides a better chance for critical voices to be heard than through self-established structures. But what about the practices that for some reason are not compatible with the museum, mostly because their intention is sitespecific, often the so-called ”public” space?

The problem is that in our society, where content is reduced to or replaced by image, to communicate ”their” image, museums need artwork that translates easily into images - visual material for strengthening their brand name. A shocking sculpture by the Chapman brothers definitely serves this purpose better than a bus tour organized by Pia Lanzinger, a Munich-based artist, which invites you to explore gendered public space.5

Some of the artists whose work interests me most might be totally unknown to a wider circle: Pia Lanzinger, Jeanne van Heejswik from Rotterdam, the Stalker Group in Rome, Marion von Osten in Berlin and Zurich, and WochenKlausur in Vienna, for example. Their engaged practice is too locally rooted to be injected in the global contemporary art matrix, and they rarely generate visuals that serve well as eye-catchers on a museum folder.

All of them do collaborate with art institutions. They just don’t use the museum as a shop-window in an international chain of art stores, but as a base for a context-oriented collective cultural production (ranging from social interventionism as in WochenKlausur’s solution-driven projects, to Marion von Osten’s network money nations, bringing together artists and media activists from Eastern and Western Europe).6

There seems to be nothing wrong with making the museum livelier and more dialogue-driven than it used to be. Much has been said, especially by museums themselves, about an intensified connection with the ”community,” a more-often-than-not fictitious body that has become the museum’s favourite addressee. So, is there anything to mourn for? Anything being given up? Anything lost on the way by the speed at which a contemporary museum has to drive? What can/should artists expect from the museum? How can they use it for their purposes? How fast must a museum act to deserve the name of ”contemporary”?

”Art museums today” is a broad subject. One could talk about collectors and boards, increasing management challenges, and decreasing research capacities. Plus, there are the many challenges presented by contemporary art itself, not only by the practices I’ve talked about, but by Net art, film and video work, and the revival of performance art. Ongoing changes in society don’t leave the museum unaffected because they call into question the museum’s core purpose of collecting and displaying. The availability of information, both visual and text-based, in the media and especially on the Internet has created a rising consciousness against the accumulation of things. The need and desire for lightness and mobility, the increasing loss of a general agreement on ”values,” and the ubiquity of entertainment, spectacles, and attention deficit disorders each reflects the reality of our times. To quote Andrea Fraser from an e-mail exchange between us: ”The challenge is to understand the relationship between the kinds of recent developments in contemporary art that you mention (project-orientation, pop culture, participatory strategies, and interventionism) and the institutional developments. Is the relationship critical? Symbiotic? Parasitic?”

What is the challenge for the curatorial practice? I’ve diagnosed an increasing limitation on the curator to design her or his own product within the conventional exhibition model. This actually does not depress me. Curators today are continuously challenged to reflect critically on the art system, the ground we work on. Applied to the collaboration of curators and artists within the museum, it means developing a specific theory and practice of site specificity and an understanding of a museum’s often hidden intentions and interests, as well as an understanding of the audience’s needs, and an ability to decide which ones we’re ready to serve and what other expectations we want to question or even oppose. To decide what art projects to bring into the museum’s walls and which others are better situated elsewhere, we should ask, Will the intervention create a change, and if only a tiny one, will it be sustainable? Will it question the position of the institution, or will it affirm it? Will it challenge the audience’s notion of art? Can it add another idea to what I, the curator, and the audience always thought that art and also life should be about?


 The text was written in 2000, published in: „Beyond the Box: Diverging Curatorial Practices“ (Banff Centre Press, 2003)


1 Museum for Applied Arts. Vienna / MAK-Gallery: medien. apparate. Kunst, October 1995–June 1996. (Klub Zwei: Präsentationsräume, January 1996).

2 Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer: Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995).

3 Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, with photographs by Louise Lawler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).

4 Gregory Sholette, from Roswitha Muttenthaler, Herbert Posch, Eva S.-Sturm (eds.): Seiteneingänge. Museumsidee & Ausstellungsweisen, Museum zum Quadrat #11 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2000), 147.

5 Lanzinger organized these tours as part of the multi-site exhibition project Dream City, held in Munich in 1999.

Stella Rollig