Trends Fairs Museums USA

Move over Old Masters

Encyclopaedic museums are embracing contemporary art, but what kind of collections are they building?

Chris Burden’s work has helped to update the image of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Finding contemporary art in a great historic museum is the new normal. Visiting the Louvre this summer, it was hard to miss Suppo, 2012, Wim Delvoye’s Gothic-style tower in the Paris museum’s pyramid (below right). Think of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) and chances are Chris Burden’s Urban Light, 2008, out front comes to mind first, or Michael Heizer’s granite boulder in the museum’s backyard. Levitated Mass arrived with much ado this summer, attracting at one point more than 2,000 people a day.

Works do not have to be large to be just the ticket. When Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum (BM), describes the institution’s global mission, he typically illustrates his argument by showing an image of Throne of Weapons, 2001, by the Mozambique artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester). The BM acquired the chair, made of decommissioned AK47s, in 2002.

“Rethinking the Encyclopaedic Museum” and the way big, historical art museums are embracing contemporary art is the subject of an Art Basel Conversation on Friday organised by András Szántó, a contributing editor to The Art Newspaper. Szántó will be asking Michael Govan, the director of Lacma, and Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: what does the encyclopaedic museum mean today? And how do museums, already repositories of global culture, redefine themselves in earnest as hubs of contemporary global culture?

The sustained, in-depth, engagement with contemporary art raises fundamental questions of encyclopaedic museums, says Szántó, as they aim to remain relevant to their local audience while engaged with the wider world whose cultural heritage they preserve and display—not always with the blessing of the countries of origin.

The public’s increased appetite for contemporary art is one reason behind this desire to devote time, money and space to the art of today, in institutions hitherto largely focused on the art of the past. Govan and Campbell stress that encyclopaedic museums have always collected contemporary art, albeit with fluctuating degrees of enthusiasm. “It goes in waves,” says Govan. “There was an artificial barrier in big museums for a long time but they tend to embrace the mainstream, and now contemporary art is part of everyday life and very mainstream.”

Campbell says the Met is re-engaging with new art and living artists also in part because of visitors’ heightened awareness of contemporary art. “The successful marketing of art by artists and dealers and the level of media interest has created a glamour that is new,” he says, admitting that people’s responses range from “bafflement and outrage to huge enthusiasm” when they find contemporary art on show in the Met.

Another factor driving this trend in US museums is the increasing number of contemporary art collectors on the board and among the ranks of its big donors, says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. In these circumstances, directors have little choice: embrace the contemporary or miss out on potential visitors and funders.

This is fine if you lead a museum that has sufficient prestige and is supported by donors with deep pockets, such as the Met, Lacma or the Dallas Museum of Art, but many are already struggling to care for their historic collection. For a museum that wants to get up to speed, “going from nought to 60mph is hard,” says Anderson.

The diverse collections in encyclopaedic museums make them well placed to show the influence of historical traditions on the global art of today. This could lead to contemporary collections that are diverse and distinctive, rather than duplicating the “orthodoxy and predictability” of galleries of Modern and contemporary art, which, according to Nicholas Penny, the director of London’s National Gallery, too often feature “the same white walls with the same loud, large, obvious, instantly recognisable products lined up on them”.

When Campbell announced the Met’s plan to take over, albeit temporarily, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Breuer Building to show its Modern and contemporary art, he promised something different from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney, Guggenheim and New Museum. As well as showing Modern and contemporary art in the context of the historical traditions that artists are either embracing or rejecting, Campbell says that the Met “can provide context and understanding for parts of the world very much in the news”.

But how does the the inbuilt conservatism of great encyclopaedic museums—where the public assumes, and institutions often boast, that the collection is one of the greatest in the world—square with the inherent volatility of the avant-garde? The storerooms of art museums are full of works by artists celebrated in their day and now forgotten. Will encyclopedic museums inevitably opt for work by blue-chip, uncontroversial artists? Govan does not think that is inevitable. “Encyclopaedic museums tend to look at art with an eye on what lasts,” he says.

Sceptics argue that Kunsthallen and museums of contemporary art are better placed to make judgements about the art of today. Campbell disagrees. “I think we should be engaged now, not retrospectively. We’ll make mistakes, of course, while prices will rise and fall inevitably.”

“Rethinking the Encyclopaedic Museum”, Miami Beach Convention Center, tomorrow (10am-11.30am)

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