Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Itinerant Museum

As a doctoral student whose research interests cut across contemporary literary and visual art practices and theories (and a poet and dabbling multi-media artist, myself), I found a recent article published online in the Art Newspaper particularly fascinating. In this excerpt of a talk he gave at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors in Indianapolis, director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Maxwell Anderson, proposes a significant, perhaps even radical shift in how museums should define their mission. Once encapsulated by the quasi-holy trinity of “collect, preserve, and interpret,” Anderson claims not only that current curatorial philosophies and culture are moving away from this once hallowed directive, but that material realities are rendering it obsolete. Regarding the latter, he points out not only the economic difficulties with which many museums are faced and which increasingly limit their acquisition budgets, but the fact that art since Modernism has turned to more ephemeral materials and forms, from performance pieces to large-scale works and several-room installations that are either not possible or not practical to add to a museum’s permanent collection.

To the financial and practical reasons, Anderson adds the ethical. The history of the museum is blighted by numerous instances of the pillaging of other countries’ treasured artifacts and the exoticizing of “primitive” cultures for the spectacle-hungry gaze of the ticket-buying public. Anderson therefore proposes that museums begin to think in different terms, those of his paper’s title, to “Gather, Steward, and Converse.” Borrowing works becomes the dominant paradigm rather than buying them, and collecting and preserving is replaced by a model of stewardship that works hand in hand with the exhortation to converse, nurturing an ethic of sharing, dialoguing and respect for the artists’ original context and, where possible, intentions. The museum would become—is becoming, Anderson argues—less of an archive and treasure trove than a public forum for the presentation of artistic works and the fostering of discourse on their significance and effects. Instead of having works merely interpreted for them by the curator-scholars on high, the museum-going public more and more participates in forming the terms of its own reception of the work, further democratizing it. The digital revolution has a strong hand in this; museum websites and blogs such as this one provide forums that not only allow for, but actively solicit feedback from museum visitors. Geez, ever’body’s a critic these days!

But in all seriousness, I find this proposal cum observation not only astute and on the mark, but the direction it delineates for the future of the museum quite exciting. It doesn’t dispense with collecting completely, of course, and the anxiety it may incite in some over no longer being able to visit one’s favorite piece at one’s favorite institution is therein allayed. Acknowledging and responding effectively to the contemporary material conditions Anderson cites, however, is not only an ethical imperative, but due to the nature of much of contemporary art and our grim global economic reality, a fiscally driven inevitability, as well. I am inclined to believe Anderson when he claims that it will transform museums into “more nimble, responsive, and accountable” cultural institutions, and in my own experiences this seems indeed to be a shift already in process.

[Image of Cai Guo-Qiang's Inopportune: Stage One, 2004. Shown here installed in the atrium of the Guggenheim Mueseum, New York in 2008, photo by David Heald.]

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