Museums have long been considered as “the cemetery for art” and “the heaven for dead useless objects.” In his conversation with HOU, Seth Siegelaub stipulates that the old-fashioned definition of the functions of a museum is “historicization,” that museums are to “kill things” and “distance them from people by taking them out of their real everything context.” The reason why all the curators interviewed in this book are regarded as pioneers of curating is that they are all fighting against such a traditional definition of museums by doing exactly the opposite: to make works of art alive and bring them closer to people and their life, giving the museum an open and experimental character.
There are quite a few points around the subject of art museums that are shared by these interviewees. Walter Zanini and Lucy Lippard both highlighted the importance of a curator being as close as possible to the artists; documentation and archives take considerable spaces and importance in the curatorial practices of Pontus Hultén and Harald Szeemann; one can easily observe a strong focus on interdisciplinarity and the inclusion of multimedia in shows organized by Jean Leering, Zanini and Hultén; etc.
Apart from these, I would like to point out that I think Hultén really made his point on the role of collection to the curators and visitors (shared by Anne d’Harnoncourt and others): “I think the encounter between the collection and the temporary exhibition is an enriching experience… A collection isn’t a shelter into which to retreat. It’s a source of energy for the curator as much as the visitor.” I have to admit that I have since long treated the temporary exhibition separately from the collection. It is indeed hard for the public to establish such a link by themselves. Maybe what the curators should do is to reference works in a temporary exhibition to the permanent collection. Such a practice already exhibits in some museums (from my personal experiences, MFA Boston does a great job), but has not been fully exploited and requires more discretion. The programing of the temporary exhibitions should therefore also takes into consideration what can be on view in the permanent collection.
The point that curators have the mission to help visitors establish a link between temporary exhibitions and collections also reveals the primary task of a curator or a museum director: to create a public and to make connections between art and the public, reckoned by Hultén, Leering and d’Harnoncourt. The issue of audience participation is therefore a central point here. For example, in the show Poetry Must Be Made By All! Transform the World! organized by Hultén in 1969, a wall was created for local organizations could affix documents stating their principles and goals. To me, audience participation goes beyond just making art closer to the public by facilitating exactly the reverse: bring the public closer to art. However, participation has to remain relevant in the context of the artwork and the exhibition. In Poetry (1969), the participation of local political groups is justified by the fact that the intention of the show was originally political. However, if we look back at the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot show at Palais de Tokyo, where visitors were invited to ride a boat inside the museum, the participation was purely entertaining, making Palais de Tokyo a playground.
Inviting the public into the realization of exhibitions isn’t in itself sufficient unless the programming of exhibitions actually takes into account the interests of the people. People could be tired of playing meaningless games in the museums. It just makes them feel worse about the fact that they can’t comprehend contemporary art. I loved what Leering had said in his interview: “in a certain way, art was being “used” to get people to think and be aware of their own situations.” This explains why, for example, several shows organized by Hultén or Zanini in the 60s and 70s were very political in their nature. Those were issues that the public cared about at that time. I’m not saying that art should serve for something larger, such as politics or society. Rather, the role of the curators is to present the many different possibilities of thinking about these issues. I think people very often confuse between “political” shows and “propaganda” shows. Personally, I have always enjoyed the interaction between art and politics, like the Dinh Q. Lê: Memory for Tomorrow show I saw at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo last summer.
The issue of audience participation therefore opens up a deeper and larger debate on the democratization of a museum, as discussed widely by the 11 interviewees. The first level of the democratization of a museum lies again in its relation to the public. Talking about an unrealized project, d’Harnoncourt said hers was “to make the entire museum always free to the public.” Both d’Harnoncourt and Leering compared the “ideal” art museum of a public library: the principle is that everybody should have access to it. Johannes Cladders talks about the second level of democratization, which is to free the audience of the route of visit: “I want a museum that has no predetermined route.” A predetermined route implies an imposed vision. The public is therefore restricted in their appreciation of an exhibition. It also reduces possibilities of confrontation. The democratization of allowing people to wonder around and to move back and forth was perfectly experienced, for example, in the exhibition What’s Happening! (2015) at the National Gallery of Denmark (Read my piece here). The third interpretation of democratization lies in the possibility of liberating art from the museums by creating new exhibition spaces. For instance, the Museum in Progress in Vienna organized exhibition on billboards.
The interviewees and HOU also made interesting points on aspects that are normally marginalized in discussions about exhibitions, such as the role of texts and catalogues. I tend to echo with d’Harnoncourt that “a thoughtful text of some kind is really helpful because even if you disagree with the text, it gives the visitor something to push back against.” Even though many artists today claim that the public only need to “sense” with their art, we have to admit that the practices of contemporary artists have had a strong tendency on the valorisation of extensive researches into history, society, religion and cultures. It is to somewhat extent almost impossible today to echo with an artwork without any given framework to understand. Among the 11 interviewees, we see quite a divergence in their attitudes towards catalogues. William Sandberg, Siegelaub and Lippard all produced wonderful publications accompanying their shows, while Szeemann, at some point, even stopped publishing catalogued and just printed newspapers. I reckon that a strategy of segmentation could be employed here. Many museums have been doing this. The Tinguely Museum in Basel and National Gallery of Denmark produce on one hand small newspaper-magazine style brochure free for the public and on the other hand, academic catalogues for a smaller group of people who would love to dig further into the subject, a perfect demonstration of a balance between the popular and the specialized field.
In my opinion, however, HUO is not a good interviewer. He raised a few interesting questions in his conversations but often failed to question them further in order to discuss them more profoundly with the interviewees. For example, he raised the question of whether exhibition has become the new artwork. Such a question to me is beyond the innovation of exhibition design and penetrates to the deeper issue of the role of the curators and their relations to artists. Are curators becoming too powerful? Are artists sometimes overshadowed by curators? In my opinion, it is exactly what is happening today, for example, in the Inside show at Palais de Tokyo last year. (Read my article on this exhibition here.)
I would like to end my review with the energetic statement of Cladders, that summarizes very well the passion that is shared by all of the 11 interviewees:
"I have always believed that it is the artist who creates a work, but a society that turns it into a work of art, an idea that is already in Duchamp and a lot of other places… So it was always clear to me that I did not need to do anything for works already declared art by common consent. Instead, I was interested in those that had not found that consent and so that were still works, not works of art…Art must move forward!"