The museum jungle has many lianas.
The international museum flora has changed immensely over the last twenty years. The idea that you can count on one hand the number of museums that “count” is a nostalgic memory; it seems every day we hear about a new museum opening somewhere. A recent example, speaking of flora, is the Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation and Tanna Center for The Arts, a contemporary art center started by DJ Spooky located on an exotic island reachable only by a four-hour flight from Sydney.
Even the language we use to define museums has evolved into something more like slang; traditional terms are used with more freedom and sometimes with interesting twists. For instance, Krist Gruijthuijsen and Maxine Kopsa, the founders of the Kunstverein franchise started in Amsterdam (kunstverein.nl) and later transplanted in New York (kunstverein.us) and Milan (kunstverein.it) define it as “a domestic franchise and functioning curatorial office that offers presentations, lectures, screenings and independent publishing.” They go on to explain, “By creating a critical pool and exploring public-private relationships, Kunstverein reflects upon the manner in which cultural practices are traditionally administered. Due to its unconventional make-up it allows alternative methods to be considered in terms of presentation, hosting and exhibition making.” In this context, the use of the German word—the inception of which bears specific meanings and modes of establishing an art institution—is reconsidered and even misused in countries like the Netherlands, the United States and Italy where the notion of “cultural institution” is different from German-speaking countries like Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
Another intriguing phenomenon is the emergence of museum alliances. The notion of traveling shows has become obsolete and the season of the big blockbuster exhibitions seems to have come to an end as well. This, in my view, is related to the ever more visible emancipation of the curator as “exhibition maker.” The curator regards the format of the art show as a work of art in and of itself. In many cases curators are sort of like “cultural Tarzans,” swinging between museums the way Tarzan moves from one tree to another. For instance, Massimilano Gioni rotates from the New Museum in New York to the Trussardi Foundation in Milan. Carlos Basualdo curates contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and also acts as curator at large at MAXXI in Rome. Nancy Spector liaises within the international network of the Guggenheim Museum, of which she is currently chief curator and deputy director. With branches in New York, Venice, Berlin, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Foundation is among the most thriving examples of “museum-flora.” Klaus Biensenbach may be the ultimate Tarzan, swinging from Kunst Werke, which he founded in Berlin, to PS1 then successively to MoMA and finally back to PS1, which was ultimately grafted into MoMA in 1999.
Sometimes these cultural Tarzans use their alliances to explore a body of work more broadly. Massimilano Gioni curated two Urs Fischer shows, one at the Trussardi Foundation in Milan and a more recent show at the New Museum in New York. Gioni showcased Fischer’s work without repeating himself; the significant difference in venue and variation of selected works prevented viewers and critics from conflating the shows, and eliminated the possibility of a blockbuster exhibition.
Perhaps the more common exploit of alliances is to share or repurpose shows. The New York-based artists who were invited by Biensenbach to the “Greater New York” exhibition at PS1 were later given solo shows at Kunst Werke in Berlin and some of them are now part of MoMA’s collection. Nancy Spector curated an extensive Matthew Barney show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and subsequently organized a comparative show between Barney and Joseph Beuys at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. Similarly, she curated the Felix Gonzalez-Torres retrospective in New York and used the Guggenheim appointment for the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale to present a more intimate exhibit of Gonzalez-Torres’ seminal works. Reiteration like this—not to be mistaken with repetition—or viewing similar works in various contexts is crucial to understanding the curator, if we consider the curator a kind of author.
Someone like Hans Ulrich Obrist, for instance, adjusts the notion of a traveling show and a blockbuster exhibition, creating shows that evolve within each venue. In his seminal essay, “Evolutional Exhibition,” Obrist claims to emphasize the unpredictable in exhibitions in order to question the idea of curator as mastermind. He applied this attitude in the legendary “Cities on the Move” co-curated with Hou Hanru, in the recent “Uncertain States of America,” which he co-curated with Daniel Birnbaum and Gunnar Kvaran at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York, the Reykjavik Art Museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague. Obrist, a keen supporter of the cross pollination between visual art and other disciplines, brings this sensibility from museum to museum, producing unexpected and energizing shows.
It’s not always the curators who act as cultural Tarzans; sometimes it is the institutions themselves that reach out to one another to join forces in this jungle of museums that is becoming more and more diverse. A successful example can be found in the Three M Project, a partnership between the New Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Its aim is to commission, exhibit and acquire works of contemporary artists who have yet to gain recognition in the United States. The main partner in this project is Deutsche Bank, which is also the financial identity behind the Berlin branch of the Guggenheim, which is about to close.
A similar organization is FACE: Foundation of Art for a Contemporary Europe, a conglomerate of five European foundations established by collectors: Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation in Athens, João Oliveira-Rendeiro’s Ellipse Foundation in Cascais, Portugal, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Antoine de Galbert’s La Maison Rouge in Paris and Robert Weil’s Magasin 3 in Stockholm. This collaboration’s launching project, officially presented in 2008 at the European Parliament in Brussels, was “Production 5:” five commissions of five emerging artists. Each institution proposes a group of candidates annually and, once decided, the artist will receive support for the production of a work that will be exhibited in all five collections. The first presentation of this project was an exhibition entitled “Investigations of a Dog,” which title comes from a short story by Franz Kafka. The exhibition, showcased in all the five aforementioned institutions over the course of two years (2009-2011), presented works from the collections of all five members of FACE.
Biennials, and more generally speaking, recurring exhibitions, also serve to streamline communication in the “museum jungle.” Think of the People’s Biennial curated by Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann, produced by Independent Curators International and presented in five art centers in the United States over the course of three years: 2010, 2011 and 2012. An even more fitting example, the Biennial Foundation, directed by Marieke van Hal, aims to connect biennials around the world through symposiums, conferences and publications. I remember I felt like Goethe doing a contemporary version of the legendary “grand tour” when, in 2007, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, Skulptur Projekte Münster and Art | Basel were all opening over the course of a month. This cultural “astral conjunction” was then parroted by younger recurring exhibitions: the opening of ArtTLV in Tel Aviv, the Istanbul Biennial and the Athens Biennale coincided in 2009, the Singapore, Shanghai and Gwangju biennials all opened at the same time in 2007. In this scenario, artists—together with curators, museum directors, collectors and biennial directors—are able to link institutions in order to use them not only as showcases for their work but also as a way to channel new modes of distribution. Not to mention that these alliances are also a great way to reduce production costs, especially for catalogues.
The perfect case is Liam Gillick’s “Three Perspectives and a Short Scenario,” a retrospective organized in 2008 by a consortium of four museums: Witte de With in Rotterdam, Kunsthalle Zürich, Kunstverein München and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In Zurich
and Rotterdam, Gillick introduced two parallel exhibitions whereas in Munich he created a film installation and finally in Chicago he presented a more traditional retrospective. “Meaning Liam Gillick,” a catalogue edited by Monika Szewczyk, head of publication at Witte de With, accompanied the exhibition. The catalogue included text by Peio Aguirre, Johanna Burton, Nikolaus Hirsch, John Kelsey, Maurizio Lazzarato, Maria Lind, Sven Lütticken, Benoît Maire, Chantal Mouffe, Barbara Steiner and Marcus Verhagen with introductions by the curators of the four shows, Stefan Kalmár, Dominic Molon, Beatrix Ruf and Nicolaus Schafhausen.
Less established artists also benefit from museum alliances. Annette Kelm was given similar treatment by some of the same players: Kunst Werke and again Witte de With and Kunsthalle Zürich. Additionally, in 2008 Adam Pendleton received invitations from de Appel in Amsterdam, the Kitchen in New York and the Alberta College of Art and Design of Calgary in Canada. Wayne Baerwardlt, curator at the Alberta College of Art and Design, invited Pendleton to make a film for the 2009 edition of the Toronto Film Festival. Following the invitation, Pendleton created a new filmic work entitled Band—inspired by Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil—appointing Baerwardlt as producer and the collector David Raymond executive producer.
Another example that deserves to be mentioned is the Villa project (villaraster.com), an initiative of the Polish gallery Raster. The project is a mixture between an exhibition, an art fair and a residency for gallery owners. Every edition Raster invites a pool of galleries to use abandoned spaces to curate a group show or solo presentation featuring the artists from their gallery roster. A quite unique formula which continues the mission of Raster’s owner Lukasz Gorczyca and Michal Kaczynski who started Raster as a magazine, then turned into a gallery and now in a tentacular foundation capable of initiating different projects. The first iteration of the villa project—called Villa Warszawa—was hosted in 2006 in the private house of the Polish intellectual Antoni Wincenty Moniuszko. Then it was the time of Reykjavik in 2010 right after the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The last version presented in 2011 in Tokyo showcased gallery presentation in a series of buildings in the Kyobashi district and probably the next version will be in Rio de Janeiro.
Going through these cases we realize that for those who want to fully embrace the contemporary art field—or jungle—the creation of works of art cannot be the only aspect to be considered. Instead the visual art explorer must be aware that production, distribution, presentation and communication are as important as the process of creation and conception. And most importantly: forms follow formats. In this jungle we have the tree-structure, with visible hierarchies between roots, trunk and branches, like the Guggenheim
person such as the Ludwig museums in Cologne, Vienna (mumok) and Budapest (lumú) or the Tate circuits consisting of Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives. Next to it we have the rhizome-structure where there are no hierarchies and each identity is individual and at the same time deeply linked to the others, like the Kunstverein franchising. Then we have single cases, which from time to time are fused, grafted and exposed to continuous crosspollination. And obviously these containers are connected and populated by cultural creatures.
For all these reasons the art explorer should keep in mind that in the ever more flourishing museum-jungle these stories can help during the exciting and sometimes dangerous exploration of contemporary art, a territory that is continuously growing and evolving.