19 April 2010

There is more then one artful way to expand a museum

In a New York Times article by art critic Roberta Smith her wishful thinking on the Piano-designed expansion in the Meatpacking District was right on: "A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles.... It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly." I would add Dia:Beacon to that compliment.

If the Whitney would expand at the old DIA Chelsea site as it has been rumored, or better yet, if the DIA would take on the site originally proposed for the Whitney without a starchitect to design it, most of us would be content. In all cases, New Yorkers would not be getting the short end of the deal, but more space for art - as despite the number of museums in the city they all remain log-jammed with visitors. So, for us, more museums the better.

I would take Smith to task for one comment, however, when she states that we should put all our faith in the current museum building trend in the hands of dealers and artists (NYT, April 12, 2010): "Whom should the people in charge of museums listen to? Perhaps to those who have consistently made art look best because they are most directly dependent on it looking best: artists and dealers. A well-chosen committee of such people would probably be able to pare down and improve....... the design even more."

It has been a proven track record that artists are generally the poorest at considering how art (theirs or others) should be viewed; and dealers experience in what a wide range of visitors need to take away from art viewing (the visitor is their to learn something after all and not just have a breathtaking moment) is far more complex than providing for airy spaces, even as beautiful as they come in the pared-down versions by Gaggosian.

Smith fails to mention that there are professionals out there, committing most of their time and energy to actually doing what she says the dismal quality of museums built in the US lack - or her expectation on what the Whitney expansion will deliver – great new galleries and installations rather then another event-space with art tucked into a corner: "The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned." Our young track record should be a good antidote to that comment, but more is a stake then how our practice is doing.

This week, Smith writes, as others , that the museum curatorship should be pulled out into the streets just as we see architects taking the reigns of museums (newly parted director of the Miami Museum of Art now under construction; the current director of the stalled expansion of St. Louis Museum of Art are two examples of note). In essence we are seeing revisionism of the advice given freely ten years ago and which colored every article on the building of new museums and expansions at the time (the Getty and Bilbao notably): art dealers are not to be trusted. To let the least trained in the field run the museums, and rely on the artists to advise on how best to install them are ideas that are doomed approaches and hopefully the Whitney and Dia's expansions - financial and land logistics apart - will take that advice for what it is - a provocation and self-interested reversal of what journalist have espoused before.

But this discourse is becoming mainstream: we are seeing collectors and their artists take over full-handedly the New Museum (Skin Fruit by Jeff Koons and Dakis Joannou) with questionable results; art dealers leading major museums (the much written about Jeffrey Dietch at the much maligned MoCA); and dealer-sponsored art fairs have taken the wind out of so many "block-buster" exhibits (the Serra retrospective and the current Marina Abramovic are exceptions). But the off-off pier fairs, favored by newly minted artists and galleries, such as Independent, are worthy new collaborations and art viewing strategies that are far more inspiring then the art/dealer paradigm advocated by Smith.

There are professionals, however, that have lasted the time to see the nature of Smith's discourse reversal (dealers are now to be trusted, to catch-up on wasted time ignoring each other), as committed as ever to both the art and the visitor (a changing, hard to pin-down group). And there are those new in the field that are doing stunning jobs, without the baggage of an older generation of curators (the Times highlighted a few of these under 30-curators in "The New Guards Step-up", March 18, 2010). And there are newly minted museum designers – or museographers, a word taken from the French - that are filling the void of a field that was largely held by theatre lighting designers and in-house museum installers for the last 25 years. All of this is good news, in the right hands.

These new museographers are advising colleagues (architects or exhibit designers) and museums on everything from the proportions and lighting of spaces, to vitrine fabrication and performance, to exhibit installation themselves. Coupled with an eye for three dimensional space and a trained background in art (or the reverse: trained in 3D space design, with an eye for art and aesthetics), the new museographers should take back from all of the Pritzker architects the core value and the core vision of museum projects - putting art back in mind.

Footnote: The writer - an architect and museographer - is an unabashed lover of the Marcel Breuer's Whitney, designed the galleries and vitrines for Piano's "event-space expansion" of the Morgan, as Smith would call it and has worked in various roles on the design of museum projects by 5 Pritzker-Architects - Nouvel, Koolhaas, Pei, SANAA, Piano - mostly invisible to the public and journalistic world. A thank you to Roberta Smith for raising the unanswerable question on how to expand a museum, such as the Whitney and to Rirkrit Tiravanija for his reflective ping pong table at Independent.