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The Art of the New


The art of the new - By Dushko Petrovich | September 17, 2006 - Boston Globe

As Boston gets ready for the new ICA, a skeptic might ask: What's a contemporary art museum really for?


BESIDES TRANSFORMING a Basque industrial city into a tourist destination virtually overnight and dramatically enthroning Frank Gehry as the World's Greatest Architect, the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 marked a watershed in the history of the art museum.

The Guggenheim's gambit-that the permanent collection was not the raison d'etre of an art museum, and that one could start an art franchise (now in New York, Berlin, Bilbao, Venice, Las Vegas, and, coming in 2011, Abu Dhabi) by simply combining hot real estate, stylish architecture, and blockbuster shows-has now been repeated in other cities, with local variations. In 2000, London's Tate Museum opened the huge Tate Modern branch in the converted Bankside Power Station along the Thames, and in 2004 New York's Museum of Modern Art returned to a nearly double-sized home in Manhattan after a two-year stint at a converted factory in Queens, next to its newly affiliated PS1 Museum of Contemporary Art.

Aside from the flashy renovation of industrial space, aggressive high culture branding, and multiple-location franchising, there was another important and largely overlooked shift: All of these trendsetting museums dedicated more space than ever to new art.

The Guggenheim started it. Having a modest collection to begin with, the Guggenheim's controversial director, Thomas Krens, decided to let the big name and grand space come first, and let the art and attendance follow. But the Gehry building had a lot of space. To fill the Bilbao museum's 427-foot-long Fish gallery, Krens paid Richard Serra $20 million to permanently install his 100-foot-long, 1,000-ton steel sculpture, Snake. Then the Tate Modern, which has a formidable permanent collection, also chose to commit a lot of space to new art and, eerily, also brought in a gigantic foreboding animal to help fill it. This time it was a 35-foot-tall metal spider by Louise Bourgeois, which stood guard in the museum's imposing 500-foot-long, 100-foot-tall Turbine Hall.

Not to be outdone, MoMA, which has the world's biggest and best collection of modern art and no inherent need to exhibit contemporary objects, also decided to get in on the game, devoting an entire floor of its new building to contemporary art and building a 110-foot-tall atrium, where it did the snake and spider one better by installing an actual helicopter to hover above its visitors. The floating Bell-47D1 might have been put there to distract from the skyrocketing admission price (which jumped overnight from $12 to $20), but everyone finally noticed that MoMA-and perhaps the institution of the museum itself-had decisively entered a new era.

Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art, whose $50 million new waterfront building was originally slated to open today-but will now open later this fall-has announced no plans to install a stealth bomber for its first show, ``Super Vision." But there is no question that the ICA aims to better locate Boston on the contemporary art map in a style very reminiscent of the developments in Bilbao, London, and New York. Visitors will flock to the waterfront, but not to see a permanent collection. Instead, a beautiful building, a calendar of multimedia events, and a savvy marketing campaign will be expected to court an audience.

Even at the Louvre or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it's easy to forget that a museum's power derives not from the grand architecture or scenic locale, but from the art itself, which has stood the test of time. But what if the artworks a museum displays are not from the past, but are contemporary, made specifically for the museum, or even commissioned by the director himself? This new kind of arrangement might inspire a certain skepticism: that the idea of a contemporary museum is a contradiction in terms.

We are indeed a long way from the days when a massive collection of artworks was a necessary precondition for the building of a museum. Starting with the Uffizi in 1765 and the Louvre in 1783, public museums were formed as a way to store and exhibit the objects of the deposed nobility. Dispossessed objects like royal portraits and altarpieces, which had served very different functions previously, were now put on display ``for the public good."

Theoretically, the contemporary museum has its own noble goals. At its best, it can bring artists and audiences together while disregarding the usual pressures of the marketplace. Ideally, contemporary museums survey the artistic terrain for the rest of us, selecting the best new art for special recognition, serving art much in the same way literary anthologies and film festivals serve writing and the cinema. This role also allows them to be a special space for discourse about contemporary life, less intimidating perhaps than commercial galleries, and more intellectually ambitious than libraries.

In reality, however, the contemporary art museum is a lot more conflicted.

As museums have displayed more and more work by living artists, their involvement in the marketplace has increased. From 1945, when the Louvre's director, Georges Salles, let his friend Pablo Picasso hang some paintings up at the museum-secretly, at night-"for comparison," to 1971, when the same museum broke its ban on living artists by giving Picasso a show for his 90th birthday, a lot had changed: The museum show began to mean the culmination of a great career.

By 2005, the artist Dana Schutz could have three paintings up at PS1 in Queens, a large picture featured prominently at MoMA, and what people were calling a mini-retrospective at Brandeis's museum, the Rose Gallery-all at the age of 29. In the 21st century, museums can not only confirm and congratulate careers, but actually make them.

Naturally, artists aren't the only ones who want to get their work into museums. Gallerists and collectors know the best way to improve the value of their collection is to lend it out for public viewing. Museums, for their part, often buy the work of the artists they display, in a maneuver that aspires to self-fulfilling prophecy: Watch, this art we bought is going to be valuable.

If this sounds like tricky business, it is-the commercial aspect of contemporary art in museums has in some cases become startlingly transparent.

Some critics noticed, for example, that the recent Greater New York 2005 show at PS1 bore a strong resemblance to the huge trade shows like ArtBasel in Switzerland and the well-known Armory Show in New York. Not only did the panel of curators cram the nearly 200 young artists randomly into every corner of the building (including the basement and the bathrooms), they also decided to include each ``emerging" artist's gallery on the title tag along with the more traditional information about date, size, and medium used. It was a small detail, but because it was a kind of advertisement, it was also a kind of confession. When artists changed galleries mid-show, and the title tags reflected the upgrades, the statement became a little more overt: We're all doing great business here.

A practical problem also haunts the speedy induction of art into museums: There simply isn't enough high quality work to fill the profusion of buildings. Even as artists tend towards cheaper and reproducible media like videos and digital photographs, it seems hard to fill the spaces. The effect on art seems, to put it plainly, bad. Jasper Johns, who made his genius little flag paintings in 1955 as an unknown 24-year-old, began making much bigger and more repetitive versions as soon as he got famous. And he wasn't alone-if every museum from Omaha to Rio needs an exemplar from the cutting edge, big name artists had better produce, and re-produce.

At the Guggenheim, Krens's ways of filling the proliferating branches-the famous ``Art of the Motorcycle" show (130 bikes displayed as ``an immortal cultural icon...considered a metaphor for the 20th century"), the exhibit of Armani suits (``the very name Armani has become a talisman"), and Jeff Koons's 43-foot-tall Puppy (``made of over seventy thousand multi-hued flowering plants weighing 25 tons")-were all hailed at the time for their business savvy and cultural daring. But as former Guggenheim employee Paul Werner chronicles in his punchy little book, ``Museum Inc: Inside the Global Art World," Krens's bold maneuvers didn't stand the test of even a decade's time. When you learn, for example, that BMW underwrote the motorcycle show, Krens's cultural daring loses some of its luster. When you find out they gave Krens a motorcycle (which he later returned), it doesn't even look like good business.

The riskiest moment of this new era is not, however, when the status of the museum is summoned to affect the monetary value of its collection or even when the museum tries to turn motorcycles into art. The worst danger comes when the authority of the museum is brought to bear on an artwork's meaning. From the catalog essay and wall paragraph to the audioguide, website, and docent, the repertoire of devices that museums developed to provide context for older objects is now being applied to new ones. But while a wall paragraph may be helpful when confronting, say, 12th-century Tibetan art or a Byzantine icon, its presence at a show of art from our own time and culture should be met with a wary eye.

The paradox of a contemporary museum becomes most overt when an institution that deals in established status enters a realm where doubt is both inevitable and essential. It isn't clear that the museum is the best place for new objects to be tested. With so much invested-financially, culturally, and even politically-in these institutions, their tendency is to cover up the vital uncertainty of the moment (everything from the quality of the work to its meaning and eventual role in history) with a wealth of supporting material.

At the Dana Schutz exhibit at the Rose in Waltham, a wall paragraph informed visitors that her ouvre tells ``the story of the history of painting in the twentieth century (German Expressionism, Matisse and the Fauves, Gauguin and the Symbolists, and Philip Guston, among others)...[in] a unique pictorial language that, just like her own narratives, has no beginning or end."

The oblique grandeur of this claim-typical of curatorial attempts to prematurely canonize artists-inspires nothing so much as a nostalgia for commercial galleries, where at least they are only trying to sell you the thing.



Dushko Petrovich, a painter based in Cambridge and the art critic for the journal n+1, will be the Starr Fellow at the Royal Academy in London starting in October.

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.




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