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Art is like that these days – available, reaching out, no longer content with sitting in quiet corners waiting for our epiphanies. Waiting is out, luring is in.
It is certainly working. Last Monday, 20,516 people visited the British Museum, and its annual figure is now at 6.03m, a step change from the 4.5m-5.5m visits of the past five years. Visits to national museums as a whole have risen about 16% over the past four years. Tate Modern had 100,000 visits over the Long Weekend and is running at 5.2m visitors a year. Other museums have had more spectacular leaps. The V&A jumped 138% in the five years to 2006, but this was primarily due to the ending of admission charges in 2001. Whatever the cause, the new reality is that art and heritage have taken on a central place in a leisure economy previously dominated by sport and Thorpe Park. In that role, for good or ill, art finds itself playing by different rules…
The metaphysics of art do not inhabit the contemporary vernacular. We don’t know what it is because we haven’t got the language. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square makes the point. We can’t agree what to put on it, so we hand it over to a succession of artists. Currently, it has Thomas Schütte’s Model for a Hotel 2007, which looks feeble from a distance. The next one is being chosen from a shortlist, only one of which, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Plinth, makes any attempt to engage with the space and the plinth itself. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Make Art, Not War is so glib, I can’t actually believe it’s seriously being considered. Empty, the plinth attests to the metaphysical void once inhabited by art.
Down at the Science Museum, I can barely move for the giant baby buggies. This is where you go with children on a rainy bank holiday. It has everything: interactivity, weird stuff and gee-whizzery on a huge scale. It does it well. No wonder – the current director is Chris Rapley, one of the best scientists we have. At the moment, however, there is an oddity lurking on the first floor. This is Listening Post, a work of art more than science, by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. It consists of a wall of tiny dot-matrix screens, across which flow and shimmy fragments taken from internet chatrooms. The words are also spoken by a neutral voice. The work shifts through different themes and rhythms, giving it a symphonic aspect.
It is superb. The New York Times critic rightly said it suggested a chapel of the age of communication. It has two big problems, however. First, it is partly disturbing, suggesting loneliness and anxiety. Second, you need to sit there in the half-dark, quietly doing nothing, silent and still. That’s what I did and, in the midst of the buggy-infested Science Museum on a wet bank holiday Monday, I was – entirely and at last – alone.
It’s time to challenge “long-held and cherished views about what it is to be an artist and what art is”, Brad Haseman [of Queensland University of Technology] says, but that does not mean it is no longer worth pursuing art for art’s sake.
“There’s still the expectation that you have to be poor and struggling to be an artist,” Haseman says, “and then there are many young people who want to pursue art for the celebrity very often, so this is all very vexed.
“What we do in the arts is so important and significant that we shouldn’t get too anxious about the diversity of applications in which we work. If we think of art practice as an ecology, there’s a place for people who want to pursue art for art’s sake and those who want to broker their skills for commercial and national benefit…”
“The latest thinking is that innovation isn’t linear,” Haseman says. “It operates in a complex system, and that’s where artists live and work. Innovation is what they do with the symbolic forms they create, and artists also have greater understanding about risk taking, about analysis and interpretation, approaching it quite differently from the way science approaches risk, for example. It’s the way artists engage with curiosity that make them innovative.”
Haseman has traced the shifts in arts and cultural policies back to the “first national cultural policy in our nation’s history”, Creative Nation. Written in 1994, Creative Nation explicitly stated that a cultural policy was also an economic policy, but while it said “Culture adds value, it makes an essential contribution to innovation, marketing and design,” it underplayed the link between the arts and innovation.
“The idea has been there from the beginning (when Creative Nation was written),” Haseman says, “but over the past 14 years innovation has been linked to science, technology and engineering.
“It has been seen only as an economic benefit, but there is the idea now that benefit is a quadruple bottom line, not just economic. It must also capture social equity, social justice and sustainability.”
Across 17 policy documents, reports and reviews, Haseman traces the tentative rapprochement of arts and culture on one side, and research and innovation on the other.
“They have been allowed to grow together (a little) and apart (a lot),” he says. Now that the Government is focusing on innovation, the arts must nurture the relationship and prove that it is a symbiotic one, rather than marginal or optional.
“I’m working on a fabric metaphor to present at the workshop,” Haseman says. “If you look at the arts and culture policies over the years, it’s brocade, while technology is white-coated, sober. There has been the odd stitch between the two fabrics, but we, the humanities and social sciences, remain on the margins of the innovation agenda, and the arts are on the margins of that marginal group…”
Haseman says that one of the reasons the idea of art as innovation has not secured traction at a policy level is that people have tended to “bundle up” the arts within the wider definition of “creative industries”, where they are subsumed.
“We need research and attention to what’s specific in the arts,” Haseman says. “We need to find out how we can set up training schemes to commercialise arts practice, which leads to entrepreneurship and creative enterprise which compliments skills in the art form.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sellout or a dumbing down. The arts are too durable to be hijacked by anyone.”
For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.
Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.
Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.
There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.
“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.
Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”
For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.
In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.
“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.
Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.
“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.
“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.
The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”
But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.
“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”
Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.
Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”
One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”
Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor
A former Guardian art critic, who now delivers Olympian judgments for one of the Sunday newspapers, recently moaned to me that no one took him seriously any more. The “any more” bit was a trifle deluded, in my view, as I have never taken him seriously in any way. We have lost our authority, he wailed. “What authority?” I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one’s power, such as it is, is to not think about it.
Which is not to say that what one writes doesn’t matter. The opposite is true. The only authority a critic or an artist can claim lies in the work they do. Everything else is just wind.
I don’t know what I think, often, till I write. The act of writing shows me what I think. I never know where things are going till I get there. There is an element of fiction and invention even in criticism. Being a critic has its performative side. For the writer, the problem, as much as it might be one of interpretation, is felt first of all in the difficulty of describing what one is looking at.
Description, however plain it appears to be, is never neutral, however technical it gets, whatever its claims to objectivity. And while we’re at it, criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan. What else would you expect?
Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art – not speaking about it, not writing about it – is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it – which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.
In the end, we are all critics. Listen to the babble of conversation as you leave the cinema or the theatre, or to the chat in the gallery. People argue about what they have experienced and about what the critics have said. This is good. But some voices might be worth attending to more than others, just as some artists, some playwrights, moviemakers, composers, choreographers are better than others. The fact that we can’t all agree on what is valuable (and why) keeps things interesting. It also keeps criticism alive.
Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.
Offering a sharp contrast to the Denver Art Museum’s massive, flamboyantly angled addition, the Clyfford Still Museum’s planned $33 million building will be a place of “reflection, refuge and intimacy,” design architect Brad Cloepfil said.
During a Monday news conference, Cloepfil, founder of Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Ore., unveiled a low-lying, unobtrusive design for the 31,500-square-foot structure on a mid-block site just west of the DAM’s Hamilton Building on Bannock Street between 12th and 13th avenues.
“It’s not about about the building as an object,” he said. “It’s not about the building as a form. But it’s about what we hope is a series of spaces that provide moments for introspection and repose.”
The Still Museum will house more than 2,400 of the famed abstract expressionist’s works — about 94 percent of everything he created. In 2004, Patricia Still, the artist’s widow, agreed to donate his estate to Denver.
The rectangular, rigidly rectilinear building will be 39 feet tall, almost exactly the height of the Hamilton Building’s sculpture deck, thus not blocking views from that key vantage point. It will have two stories, with a geometric interplay of 14- and 18-foot-tall galleries on the top floor and offices, archives and educational space below.
Cloepfil wants this building to exert a solid, compressed feeling that is achieved in part by the building cantilevering over a 3,600-square-foot unimpeded area on the ground level that is divided into a long, narrow patio and a 10-foot-tall lobby. There is no grand atrium.
“Around the central space, there are slots that you get glimpses up,” Cloepfil said. “It’s all about glimpses. Given that the building is small, they’ll have a real impact.”
Except for a few places around the ground floor, the building will be largely devoid of windows. What might best be described as slits and slots, including ones capping the taller second-floor galleries, will channel natural light onto both floors.
The building will be constructed of textured concrete, which will be visible not only on the exterior but also on the ceilings and some of the interior walls, with the look and character of the concrete varying depending on its placement.
Although final decisions have not been made, the concrete could be mixed with an aggregate — perhaps crushed obsidian or quartz — that will reflect and refract light. No color has been set, but Cloepfil said it has to be neutral — perhaps a shade of white on the exterior.
Visitors will enter the building through a dense grove of trees, most of which will be planted on an adjacent city-owned lot on the southeast corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street. This tiny forest, which will largely screen views of the museum, is designed to serve as a kind of natural outdoor foyer.
“It’s almost as if you enter the building when you enter the trees,” Cloepfil said. “And then you sort of find the building in the trees.”
Inga Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril…
Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition”…Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy…”
That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper…
In a perfect newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach…Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia…”
“Architecture is unavoidable,” [Saffron] says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share…The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”
We have a special prejudice about materials. The Japanese have Zen words to describe the beautiful way in which stone, wood and other natural materials age and patinate, acquiring charm and character as they deteriorate. We lack that. No one has yet coined a term, at least not a favourable one, to describe the way man-made materials grow old. There are no haikus about plastic. There is not much Zen in an old Ford Mondeo. There is even less Zen in an old housing estate.
This is specially so if it is made of concrete, the fashionable hate material of today. The only words that concrete attracts are ‘grimy’, ‘stained’ and the ones they tag with aerosol paint. Right now culture minister Margaret Hodge has taken very badly against concrete. The particular object of her vengeful, twin-set loathing is Robin Hood Gardens, a failing social housing megastructure near the north end of London’s Blackwall Tunnel that was completed in 1972. Mrs Hodge does not have council household taste. She wants it demolished. It does rather remind us that nothing dates quite so quickly as visions of the future.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed by the husband-and-wife partnership of Peter and Alison Smithson, a couple fully possessed of a vision of the future which seems as quaint in our day as John Betjeman’s soppy idylls about honey on the vicarage lawn seemed in theirs. The Smithsons were the great intellectualisers of British postwar architecture, but that is not meant to sound as faintly praiseworthy as it does. British postwar architecture needed it. In the same drab landscape of beige rissoles and rationing which inspired Elizabeth David to discover the exoticism of lemon, oil and garlic, the Smithsons sensed the excitement of a future designed by architects…
The Smithsons were great connectors. Alison wrote an appreciation of the Citroën DS that was as sibylline as Roland Barthes’s, even if it did not become so famous. They were often criticised for this unrepentant, lofty, continental-style intellectualism. But the pair saw architecture and design as part of a whole cultural continuum.
The influential 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow was where Pop Art was launched into Britain’s grey spaces. The Smithsons showed a plastic house and proposed a self-cleaning bathroom. The mood is brilliantly described by JG Ballard, one of their collaborators, in his new memoirs. One of their other collaborators was the architectural historian Reyner Banham who later gave the world the term ‘Brutalism’. This is how, and however wrongly, the Smithsons will always be remembered.
Brutalism was not originally a term of opprobrium, but because of a prejudice about concrete and the debatable, one-dimensional ‘failure’ of Robin Hood Gardens, it has become one. As teachers and polemicists with an eye to European fashion, the Smithsons were among the most articulate champions of le Corbusier. Robin Hood Gardens is a development of the Swiss-French architect’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. This was designed as a whole city within a single building: with shops and schools within an apparently simple, but subtle, structure. Before Mrs Hodge and her elfin helpmates condemn the sinister influence of Corbu on the British idyll that was life-before-concrete, I suggest she visit Marseille. I have stayed in the Unité d’Habitation and it is magnificent: an architectural masterpiece and a social success.
Robin Hood Gardens is, essentially, two large blocks of 10 and seven storeys comprising 213 flats arranged as one-storey apartments or more spatially interesting duplexes; every third floor there are what the Smithsons idealistically called ‘streets in the sky’.
Alas, their architectural reach exceeded the grasp of the builders and Robin Hood Gardens suffered from the start with a singular lack of commodity and firmness. Worse, the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies…
The Smithsons were the angry young architects of their day. Concrete Brutalism suited their mood. No one among the supporters, probably not even Richard Rogers and Robert Venturi, signed up to the cause by Building Design, the trade paper, thinks Robin Hood Gardens has any more delight than it has commodity and firmness, but the campaign against is uninformed and unfair. True, le Corbusier’s style often worked badly in interpretation: the first riots in the French banlieues were at Toulouse-le Mirail, designed with streets in the sky by his disciples. Robin Hood Gardens has been a social calamity. But the architecture alone is not to blame. Its neighbour is Balfron Tower, designed by Corbu student Ernö Goldfinger (dashing inspiration for the Bond villain). When people criticised Goldfinger’s design, he went to live in his concrete tower block ‘to taste his own cooking’. That he pronounced it delicious is maybe not surprising, but its twin sister, Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, has people fighting for flats when they come on the market. As Marx asked, does consciousness determine existence or does existence determine consciousness? Or to put it less correctly, do the pigs make the sty or does the sty make the pigs?
Margaret Hodge’s remarks about concrete are ignorant prejudice. Concrete is a fine material, but needs maintenance and care as much as marble and oak need maintenance and care. Denys Lasdun once told me it would have been cheaper to make the National Theatre out of travertine, but who says this cared-for concrete on the South Bank is anything less than wonderful? Granted, these are strange times when Modernists fight the conservation cause and Labour ministers attack low-cost housing. Robin Hood Gardens is a test for lots of things: a test for taste, for intellect and vision. And a test for the government’s ability to seize an interesting opportunity which could act as a model for benign redevelopment in every city in Britain.
The Smithsons used to say that good architecture was ‘ordinariness and light’. I wonder if so fine and rare a sentiment is known to the minister…
Art and wealth are rarely strangers—one person’s history of art is another’s sociology of conspicuous consumption. So it is not surprising that today’s tipping of the world—the convulsive and regressive changes in the distribution of wealth both within the West and between the West and the rest—is transforming the art world. The effervescent art market, its fairs and auctions; the global museum building boom; and the increasingly complex and conflicted relationship between active private collectors and public museums are all manifestations of large-scale change in the institutional ecology of art. Eli Broad’s funding of a “museum within a museum” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the uncertainty around the eventual destination of his collection is the latest example of these criss-crossed lines between private collectors and public institutions.
But perhaps the most significant phenomenon attributable to changes in wealth distribution is the increase, globally, in new museums and galleries that are conceived, funded and run privately, usually but not invariably through the vehicle of a philanthropic trust or foundation, in which tax breaks are traded for ceding formal legal ownership, but not necessarily control. The US experienced a similar phenomenon in its last Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th century, when many of its leading cultural institutions were founded on the private collections of the industrial and banking titans of the day.
There was a steady trickle of new privately funded museums throughout the second half of the 20th century. But for the most part the destination of choice for most collectors with a philanthropic bent, uninterested heirs, or an aversion to inheritance taxes was a public or a publicly funded museum that would give the collection the imprimatur and care the collector believed it deserved. The courting of collectors has always been a more significant source of acquisitions for public museums than buying or commissioning. Today, inequalities of wealth have created a second Gilded Age, with a similar burgeoning of institutions.
Many significant collections will never find their way into public institutions but form the nucleus of new private museums. New York’s Neue Galerie and Rubin Museum, to cite two obvious examples, are not vanity museums. They are permanent, vital additions to the cultural fabric of the city, with a full range of curatorial, conservational, public and scholarly programmes. Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, the Pulitzer Foundation in St Louis, Shanghai’s Zendai Museum, La Colección Jumex in Mexico City or Viktor Vekselberg’s recently announced plans for Moscow and St Petersburg are all fuelled by the immense wealth and entrepreneurial drive of collectors who, with some justification, do not believe that donation to a public institution would afford them the degree of control, the opportunities for display, or even the conservational standards that they will get by going it alone.
The trend is viewed with consternation by many in the museum community. These new institutions are often erratic in their governance, especially in their early years when their often restless founders are still around; the lines between the private and public interest are frequently blurred. Above all, like their 19th- and early 20th-century forbears—the Gardeners, the Morgans, the Barnes and the Fricks—the collections represent the acquisitive interests of a single individual and, often, the small coterie of advisers he or she has chosen to surround themselves with. The collections represent a passionate and single minded interest—the antithesis of the universalist impulses of the encyclopaedic museum.
There are good reasons to believe the trend will continue. Inequalities in wealth are widening not narrowing, and the international super-class of collectors is growing—there are, according to Forbes magazine, just under 1,000 dollar billionaires in the world today—twice the number there were four years ago. Much of the art market today has been annexed by the global luxury goods and services market that has grown up around the newly super-rich and is relocating to where they live and play. And the larger, older public institutions, with the inbuilt inflexibilities inherent in their organisational design and their operating models, find it increasingly challenging to be able to offer this cadre of collectors propositions for stewardship or display of their collections that are more attractive than a museum of one’s own. A world recession may slow the rate of increase, but the tiny cohort is largely protected from the vagaries of recession.
As the scale and number of private art museums increases, their influence on museum practice will too, and codes of practice and policies around such issues as de-accessioning, conflict of interest policy and reciprocity in loans will come under pressure as these new institutions explore and test received wisdom and standard practices. Some of this disruption will be healthy, forcing museums to revisit long unexamined practices. But there is also a very real danger that the appropriate conservatism of the museum sector will be challenged aggressively by a new generation of proprietorial museum board members who feel that, as in their own professional lives, “rules are for other people” and that, whatever the formal legal status, these institutions are an extension of their own private property and can be run as such.
The Art Newspaper
The over-population and over-use of the museum space is an issue that needs addressing. In James Cuno’s 2004 publication Whose Muse?, a group of (mostly American) museum directors pleaded for the museum as a place of contemplation. Arguably, their approach is primarily valid today in metropolitan terms in museums such as the Frick Collection, appealing to an older public interested in older art. For some modern art collections, particularly those in major tourist cities, the public wishing to score a fashionable site has become so large that any quiet personal experience is effectively unachievable. It is not just the number of visitors that makes an impact: in an age when neo-liberal values influence our conduct, the notion that we might be governed by any polite restriction on our behaviour in a public space is undermined.
What is more, the predominance and ready availability in our society of visual images can mean that apart from the (sometimes over-exposed) icon, works in a gallery risk becoming another form of rapidly-absorbed consumer fodder. Ironically, the relationship with other forms of the arts has been reversed. Eighteenth-century opera-goers talked through performances, only concentrating on famous arias: visitors at many contemporary art museums now often behave similarly, pausing only to take pictures of celebrity works, whereas opera and music performances command reverent silence.
Does this matter? Is there any need to suggest to visitors, not that they should behave in an inhibited “museum” way and resort to whispers, but that visiting a museum is a social shared experience, in which consideration for strangers (and communication, perhaps) is appropriate? Is there any reason for people to postpone incessant mobile communication? Is the viewer’s experience of a visual work diminished if their sense of hearing is constantly assailed, or their vision interrupted by unbearably high light levels?
I think the answer is yes, in each case. Not because museums should be reserved for the few, or made inaccessible or forbidding. But because, as Neil MacGregor [director of the British Museum] has emphasised, looking at art is a difficult experience, one that has to be learnt and that requires concentration. Little art was created specifically for the museum or gallery, at least until recently, and the museum is not necessarily the best place to appreciate it. If the museum experience becomes one in which the visitor is regularly concerned with negotiating a way through the crowds and avoiding noise, the status of the museum as a vehicle for displaying art becomes highly questionable.
The Art Newspaper
Olafur Eliasson, a Danish–Icelandic artist whose installation “The Weather Project” drew 2 million people to the Tate Modern in 2003 and 2004, has designed what will likely be the city’s biggest public art project since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates”: a series of freestanding waterfalls in the East River.
Mayor Bloomberg and the Public Art Fund, a private nonprofit organization that produced, among other works, Anish Kapoor’s “Sky Mirror” and Jeff Koons’s “Puppy,” both at Rockefeller Center, are scheduled to announce Mr. Eliasson’s project at the South Street Seaport tomorrow.
The New York Sun