Monday, February 15, 2010

Artist Vs. Museum

Before learning about the Mass MoCA v. Christoph Büchel case, when I considered the relationship between museums and artists, I imagined a kind of content symbiosis, artist and institution working together as one operational entity. However, it would be naïve to continue to think that neither presents problems for the other. Especially when money is involved, interactions tend to get more volatile. The following story presents a disturbing and uncommon perversion of this already unstable relationship. This is not in any way, shape or form status quo, but I think sometimes we forget the difficulties in arranging an artistic production when money, deadlines and personalities are involved. Moreover, the GMOA blog rarely delves into intellectual property and art theory and this case presents the perfect opportunity to explore the extent to which an artist maintains ownership of his or her art. 

 Christoph Büchel, a Swiss conceptual artist, creates highly sophisticated realist situations where the viewer’s position is elevated to that of a participant within a carbon-copy environment. Artleak describes his work thus: “His detailed installations are three-dimensional renderings of interior spaces and/or situations that often convey extreme psychological mindsets, such as that of a survivalist, a homeless person, or an agoraphobe.” In 2007, Nato Thomson, the curator for the Massachusetts Museum for Contemporary Art, invited Büchel to organize an installation at the museum titled “Training Ground for Democracy.” From the get-go, Thomson and Büchel didn’t get along, but the project was such an exciting one that the two men kept their disagreements to a minimum. The Boston Globe writes, “And despite months of bitter arguments with the artist, the work had begun to take shape. So much had been installed: A 35-foot oil tanker, a two-story house, a carousel of bombs, and an old movie theater, rebuilt down to its water-stained ceiling tiles”. The New York Times described it as a combination of “artifacts of Western culture with scenes from a land of war and paranoia”. 

In no time, completion of the work was indefinitely postponed. The relationship between museum and artist had progressively degenerated, and the museum director and staff decided museum morale was under too much tension to continue working on the project. Due to fuzzy budget delineations, poor communication and a lack of contractual accountability, tension intensified and Büchel left the United States, leaving barely any directions for the museum, which eventually issued an ultimatum, reported in the Boston Globe: “Come back and finish no later than May 25, or pull out. But if you don't come [back to finish the exhibition you have started],” Thompson wrote, “you have two more options. Pay to remove everything in the galleries, and reimburse the museum for the $300,000 to $350,000 it has spent. Or accept that the museum will either remove the material itself or open the unfinished installation to the public.” Büchel called Mass MoCA’s tactics “black-mailing”  and, in a note to his gallery, suggested suing the institution for “a very very big amount of money.” He refused to agree to any of Mass MoCA’s terms. 

In what may have been an attempt to pay for some of the outrageously high production costs, the museum exhibited the work as-is, with some of the elements covered with a tarp (Thomson denies having done so in an interview here). Susan Cross, a curator at Mass MoCA not directly involved in the debacle, emailed Thomson about the ethical and intellectual issues at hand. Her email was used in the court case as evidence that the museum was concerned with preserving the artist’s integrity. She offers some advice to Thomson: “At what point, if at all, does an artist lose his right to owning the idea as his/her “intellectual property”? If the Büchel exhibition is not finished and thus not art, then if we show it to people as is—is it Büchel’s intellectual property—is the unfinished work still “art” or is it just “stuff”—raw materials… I think it is still art and still belongs to Büchel. (think about Huang Yong Ping and the Bat Project—when the Chinese govt dismantled his airplane and put it in the part—even taken apart, wasn’t it still Huang Yong Ping’s?).”  In 2007, the museum sued Büchel to get the opportunity to display his unfinished work or, as Mass MoCA describes it, “seeking a very narrow ruling only on the right to let the public view the materials assembled for the installation”. The judge ruled that the museum had the right to display the exhibit as long as it disclosed that the work wasn’t finished. 

After the decision, Mass MoCA dismantled the project, but the struggle is far from over. The United States Court of Appeals revisited the issue several weeks ago and discovered that the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA) had been overlooked. VARA essentially protects artists against having their names associated with works “in the event of a distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work,” according to the New York Times, which recently published an article on the trial in the appeals court. “The court of appeals, in its ruling, said that evidence it reviewed “would permit a jury to find that the museum forged ahead with the installation in the first half of 2007 knowing that the continuing construction in Büchel’s absence would frustrate — and likely contradict — Büchel’s artistic vision. . . . The appeals panel found that the district judge improperly granted the museum summary judgment in parts of the case and that there were “material disputes of fact” that should be decided by a jury about whether the museum distorted Mr. Büchel’s installation by showing it to several people after making changes in it without his approval” (nytimes).

Mass MoCA’s Web site has its own interpretation of the decision:

"January 28, 2010 Update: We are pleased that the First Circuit upheld the district court's opinion on January 27, 2010, on the Büchel matter in most respects. In particular, the First Circuit affirmed that the museum did not act in violation of any law by covering the unfinished installation from public view, nor did it create any “derivative work” by our considered actions. The court also re-affirmed the district court's denial of Mr. Büchel's various requests for summary judgment.
The court did grant Mr. Büchel the opportunity to return to the district court to once again try to prove his theory that isolated viewings of the unfinished work in progress may have harmed its integrity or his reputation. While we had obviously hoped that this dispute had finally been resolved, should Mr. Büchel decide to proceed further with this case, we are confident that we exercised appropriate curatorial care and diligence in our handling of the work in progress - according to recognized practices that we and most other museums and artists follow in creating such works - and we are prepared to demonstrate that again in court."


Interview with Joe Thomson, director.

Gawker also speaks up about the case, in a funny, lighthearted way.

In the aforementioned article in the Boston Globe, Geoff Edgers includes court documents from the 2007 trial and a great video narrated by Edgers. 

You can also look at the Büchel case brief here.

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