novembro 27, 2016
Nice Museum. Where’s the Art? by Tom Rachman, The New Yorker
Nice Museum. Where’s the Art?
Artigo de Tom Rachman originalmente publicado na revista The New Yorker em 13 de maio de 2016.
After all the artist’s struggles, all the critical quarrels, all the millions paid for grand works—after all that, how long will a museum visitor typically stand before a masterpiece? About twenty-eight seconds, according to a recent scholarly study. This average has held steady during the past fifteen years, though the behavior of museum visitors has changed. Today many aren’t there just to gaze; they’ve come for selfies.
The museum experience is shifting in our digital age, and it’s hard to say who is leading the vanguard: the visitors wanting something more than a stuffy salon, or the curators nervously anticipating public fancies. Anyway, the upshot is construction. Since 2007, museums have committed $8.9 billion to expansion, more than half of that in the United States, according to a survey by The Art Newspaper. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art alone, which reopens Saturday with almost three times its previous gallery space, raised three hundred and five million dollars for its growth. (Naturally, it’s promising a new smartphone app for visitors.) Among the other august establishments in various stages of redux are the Museum of Modern Art, in New York; the Royal Academy, in London; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the most popular modern-art museum in the world, Tate Modern, in London.
The reasons for a museum to grow are many. Contemporary artworks—especially installations and performances—demand more varied spaces than those available in older museums. Also, it’s easier to obtain funding for a shimmering new structure than for an unglamorous renovation. Attracting art donations requires space—billionaire X must know that his Warhols, Bacons, and Hirsts will be out there for all to see. Finally, the hushed museum halls of yore evoke an era when the artists were mostly Western white men and the patrons were often the unscrupulously rich. (Some of this hasn’t changed.) The goal now is to welcome the widest possible audience for learning, socializing, and entertainment. That means event spaces, concert halls, film theatres, gathering places, and plenty of shopping. Among the most intriguing expansions is that of Tate Modern, whose towering addition on the Thames opens June 17th. Its ambition could hardly be loftier: to redefine the museum for the twenty-first century.
Tate Modern has a history as a culture-shifting museum. It gained broad acclaim upon its opening, in 2000, located in a shabby area on the wrong side of the river. The architects of Herzog & de Meuron converted a derelict former power station into a cavernous art space, establishing three floors for post-1900 works, plus the vast Turbine Hall for commissions of contemporary art, among them pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Olafur Eliasson, and Ai Weiwei. The surrounding neighborhood was revitalized, crowds poured in, and a rescued industrial building became an emblem, and a motor, of this heady moment of optimism in millennial Britain.
But when attendance hit five million a year, it was double what the facility had been designed for. During peak hours, the crowds remain formidable; tranquil scrutiny of art is not in the cards. Yet art was never the sole reason—perhaps not even the main reason—for the popularity of Tate Modern. Although its temporary exhibitions are often excellent, the works selected from the permanent collection can be disappointing and confusingly organized. Nevertheless, this hip converted power station became a must-see for tourists and a charming outing for locals in a bankruptingly expensive city. (As with other British national museums, the permanent collection is free to visit.) To accommodate their success, the Tate directors moved ahead with an extension. What Herzog & de Meuron came up with is an angular mid-rise building that appears as if pinched near the top and given a twist, then sliced across with long, horizontal windows and clad in brickwork that blends with the connected power station. The project adds sixty per cent more space and comes with plans to develop public squares around the museum.
Within, the renewed Tate Modern promises refreshed displays of its collection, focussing on how art has changed since the museum’s establishment, both in practice and in interpretation. There will be an emphasis on incorporating artists unjustly snubbed by the Western canon because they happened to live beyond the Paris-New York-London nexus, or who worked in previously unfashionable media, or whose renown was diminished by bigotry. The other main objective is a more participatory experience, including music, dance, and “live art.”
During a recent press briefing, Tate Modern’s director, Frances Morris, spoke of the institution’s shift “from being a museum that people come to and look at, spend time in, to a museum that opens its doors to collaboration, conversation, and participation.” This is already evident in a floor plan of the extension: a majority of the ten new levels won’t contain art at all. There’s a panoramic viewing floor at the top, a level for the restaurant, another for learning and events, and one for the bar and shop, leaving the art to three floors, in addition to repurposed oil tanks in the basement for performances and installations.
If there is a spiritual core to the expansion, it might be Tate Exchange, an experiment that enjoys a floor to itself, offering workshops, discussions, and yet-to-be-determined hubbub. Morris described it as “a drop-in space, as well as a curated space, so that any member of the public who wants a deeper engagement, or actually just wants to listen to a talk, or to do something physical, or to have a coffee with like-minded people, will be able to access this space.” Community groups are among those setting the agenda, including a children’s art studio, a local radio station, and an organization for those with Tourette’s syndrome.
The success of an expansion, or of any single exhibition, is often judged by visitor numbers, but there are other markers of success: the degree to which an exhibition illuminates and moves and changes its viewers, or the power a collection has to inspire local artists. Such outcomes provide no data. Therefore, attendance figures weigh on museum directors; their jobs may be at stake.
And perhaps crowd-pleasing should be the priority. Those who advocate a more traditional, contemplative museum sound outmoded, élitist, and narrow-minded—precisely the attitude that museums are running from. In Britain, the matter bumps into class consciousness, because many museums were founded in part to elevate the citizenry, regardless of station in life (that is, very mindfully indeed, with the particular goal of raising the lower orders). A museum leader like the Tate organization’s chief, Sir Nicholas Serota, would be condemned were he not punctilious about creating spaces where all are ostentatiously welcomed, encouraged to hang out, act up, chillax.
The critic Hal Foster, the author of “The Art-Architecture Complex,” among other works, has raised concerns about the ongoing museum boom. For one, all this giddiness about stylish new buildings can overshadow the art inside. “The logic seems to be to build a container and then leave it to artists to deal with it, but the result on the art side is likely to be a default form of installation work,” he writes, in a piece published last year in the London Review of Books. Foster also cites a tendency to patronize audiences. “Another reason for this embrace of performance events is that they are thought to activate the viewer, who is thereby assumed, wrongly, to be passive to begin with,” he writes. “Museums today can’t seem to leave us alone; they prompt and prod us as many of us do our children.”
In the academic paper that researched museum viewing times, the scholars Lisa F. Smith, Jeffrey K. Smith, and Pablo P. L. Tinio cite an analogy: viewing art as eating food. Some people “sample” (just a glance at the artwork); others “consume” (that twenty-eight second eyeful); a few “savor” (perusing for a minute or more). A selfie allows visitors to “consume” without troubling to engage, they observe. Yet the rewards of art derive from engagement, attention, effort. When museum directors speak of “interactivity” and “participatory spaces” and “the site-specific app,” it must sound hip in the boardroom. It can also sound like pandering: that art should be easier, more laid-back, more like online entertainment.
One justification is the democratization of culture, a buzzy concept born of the online revolution and reinforced by page clicks, attendance figures, and other data analytics. Who can dispute democracy, with its admirable pledge of equality and merit? But the metaphor of democracy is false regarding culture. This isn’t the citizenry selecting a leader to govern for a set term; it’s wherever crowds happen to converge, often prodded into position by a marketing team. Consider the movies gaining the most votes of late. Their elected representatives would include an awful lot of superheroes with abs of steel. Were those the best pictures?
Tate Modern should be commended for attending to the diverse art scenes flourishing around the globe today; for embracing thrilling works of experiential art; for reconsidering the history of modernist creativity to include the worthy but unfamiliar. Art should include the alien, the weirdly individual—it ought to confront us with strangers’ visions that are distinctly not our own (and are unlikely to be improved by inserting our faces for a selfie). Art isn’t always about participation and popularity and relating everything back to us. Museums shouldn’t be, either.
Tom Rachman is the author of “The Imperfectionists” and "The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.”