Notebook, 1993-


Art Rearranged: The Shock of the New and the Comfort of the Old

Published: July 22, 2006 - NYTimes

PARIS, July 21 - Pity the curator in the age of the blockbuster. While art museums are usually rated by the quality of their permanent collections, it is all too often their temporary shows that stir excitement and draw crowds. Not infrequently, a work of art that is barely noticed while on permanent display is suddenly lionized in a short-term exhibition.

One answer is to make the permanent collection seem, well, sexier. And to this end, some leading museums of modern and contemporary art are testing a fresh approach: if collections are frequently rearranged, either by bringing works out of storage or by changing the focus of installations, they can acquire something of the buzz of temporary shows.

"It's something we talk about a great deal," said John Elderfield, chief curator of paintings and sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "How does one try to engage people with the collection as much as people seem to be willing to be engaged with temporary exhibitions?"

At MoMA, Tate Modern in London and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, which boast the best 20th-century collections, curators have even given conceptual names to some displays to suggest they are pursuing an innovative intellectual theme rather than simply offering a lesson in art history.

"We have become more like temporary exhibitions," said Frances Morris, who is in charge of displays at Tate Modern, which has just reinstalled its collection only six years after opening. "Temporary shows have driven the agenda for the last 30 years. It was always in these shows that new ground was being broken. I'd like to think that we are also now being experimental with permanent collections."

Alfred Pacquement, the director of the Pompidou's National Museum of Modern Art, which has a busy program of temporary exhibitions, said it was essential for museums to boost their permanent collections - "and in doing so, I think it is also a good strategy to present them in different ways." He added, "Every new director here usually reinstalls the collection as a way of making his mark."

True, this method does not suit museums with collections dating back thousands of years, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum. They prefer to assign regions, periods and movements to specific galleries and are reluctant to change them. Visitors too like to know where to find, say, the Venus de Milo or the Rosetta Stone.

But with contemporary art, where history is still fluid and museums have yet to become pantheons of unchallenged masters, flexibility seems advisable: it is far too soon to know which post-1970 works will eventually assume iconic status. Further, since most collections of new art are far larger than the available gallery space, rotation of works is doubly appealing.

Indeed, even with modern art, which dates from 1880 for MoMA and from around 1900 for Tate Modern and the Pompidou, there is a lively debate on how best to present it.

Tate Modern began with a clean slate when the old Tate Gallery near Parliament became Tate Britain and the Tate's 20th-century international collection took over a converted power station opposite St. Paul's Cathedral. Its first display, Collection 2000, was blatantly attention-grabbing. It organized modern and contemporary art into four 18th-century categories - landscape, still life, nude and history paintings - and ignored chronology and art movements.

Now, in this summer's much-publicized "rehang," Tate Modern is grouping modern and contemporary art around abstractly named "hubs," each reflecting its own chronology: States of Flux (Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism); Poetry and Dream (Surrealism and Beyond); Material Gestures (Abstract Expressionism and European Informal Art); and Idea and Object (Around Minimalism).

"Collections are not static, so why present them statically?" asked Vicente Todoli, Tate Modern's director. "When works are always in the same place, people say, 'Oh, I've seen it already.' You have to encourage visitors to come more than once because, with each visit, the work is viewed differently. You have to surprise and confront the visitor."

As it happens, because access to Tate Modern's collection is free, it has no trouble drawing crowds. But if it has already decided to change works in its current hubs in 2009 and to reinstall the entire collection in 2012, this is also because the Tate's modern collection is weaker than those of the MoMA and the Pompidou. And, in that sense, "rehangs" allow it to play to its strengths.

"There is some virtue in museums not being alike because people travel so much nowadays," noted Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate director. "In Paris, I want to see something different from what we have in London. The danger is also that you turn the whole thing into a temporary exhibition."

While Tate Modern has so far opted to mix modern and contemporary art, since the Pompidou's opening in 1977, its fourth and fifth floors have traditionally divided 20th-century art between pre-1950 and post-1950 works, with each installation combining chronology with art movements.

Since June last year, however, first one floor and then the other has been closed while sprinklers were fitted. During this interruption, rather than presenting a slimmed-down collection, the Pompidou chose to organize two temporary shows. The first, "Big Bang," explored creation and destruction in art. And now, through Jan. 29, "The Movement of Images" examines the impact of cinema on 20th-century art.

In both cases, as with any temporary show, the idea was to create an event. But unlike exhibitions that display many works on loan, here everything came from the Pompidou's own collection, reminding us how little of this collection is usually seen.

When the Pompidou recovers both of its museum floors next year, something resembling its traditional installation seems likely, with its most treasured art again on display. But, as part of what the museum's Mr. Pacquement calls "the construction of art history," he also favors confronting little-known artists with those long enshrined by the marketplace.

Still, if Tate Modern and the Pompidou treat modern and contemporary art as a work in progress, history weighs heavily at the Modern in New York: its extraordinary modern collection has known only four major installations in more than a half-century.

The architecture of the Modern's vastly expanded quarters nonetheless offered new possibilities. Specifically, Mr. Elderfield explained of his November 2004 installation, the new gallery design enabled him "to get away from the relentlessly forward-driven feeling of the earlier installation" and, in a sense, release visitors from a single reading of modern art.

Thus visitors can now go from Post-Impressionism to, say, Cubism, Fauvism or Expressionism. "I wanted each room to have a coherence and continuity of its own," Mr. Elderfield said in a telephone interview, "but at the same time to provide the sense that modern art is not one continuous narrow narrative. It is, I think, a more dynamic version of the history of modern art than the more deterministic one which it replaced."

The Modern's new approach to post-1970 art is still more dynamic: it has put history on hold by presenting slices of its huge collection through temporary displays.

The inaugural installation of paintings and sculptures lasted nine months and was followed last September by "Take Two," focusing on new media. A third show, "Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection," has just closed, while "Out of Time: Contemporary Art from the Collection" opens Aug. 30 and runs through April 9.

In other words, at least once a year, the Modern will celebrate its contemporary collection.

Joachim Pissarro, an organizer of "Out of Time," said he was impressed by how the public reacts one way to museum collections and quite differently when the same paintings are in a special exhibition. "And one way to deal with this is to present the permanent collection as a temporal event, so that it appears to be a temporary exhibition," he said.

So far, this marketing experiment has principally involved modern and contemporary art. Yet, in an art world where success is increasingly gauged by attendance, guardians of older collections also yearn for greater attention. After all, when art lovers ask "What's on?" - whether in New York, London and Paris or in Amsterdam, Vienna and Madrid - every museum director would like to answer: "Our collection."

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