Since the original title of this panel was “Museums and the Reality Principle,” the artist-listener might have expected an adrenal in-rousing discourse on exhibition politics, how artists are chosen or ignored, the manipulations of trustees, the perfidy of curators and their lovers, etc. Instead, the Reality Principle at issue quite reasonably concerned the costs of running a museum, the problems of attracting a broad public, and how, having done so, not to go broke being popular. Hilton Kramer described the task of a museum over the past thirty years as changed, from an agency showing classics of modern art to an institution whose function is also to introduce new and emerging artists and movements.
Theater of Exhibitions, a slender new book by Jens Hoffmann published by Sternberg Press, offers fifteen brief chapters on curatorial work. While Hoffmann, a 41-year-old curator, writer, and deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the Jewish Museum in New York, rarely mentions specific works of art, he discusses his own exhibitions and criticizes—in a casual way—the alliance between museums and the wealthy, the blandness of international biennials, the overproduction of artists, and the extension of curatorial work into publications, conferences, screenings, and workshops. Unlike Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whose recent reflections on the profession were published in Ways of Curating, Hoffmann is not a storyteller. Instead he writes gently provocative essays that immediately make you agree or disagree with him.
A panel on “The Changing Landscape of Museums Today” coincided with the release of the Asia Society Museum’s anthology of essays, Making a Museum in the 21st Century. Responding to a question asked by Josette Sheeran, president and chief executive officer of the Asia Society—“What does a successful museum look like in the twenty-first century?”—the museum directors Richard Armstrong and Melissa Chiu talked about collections, buildings, and exhibitions, while the bureaucrat Tom Finkelpearl zeroed in on diversity and audience.
The symposium on “The Relationships between Artists and Museums”—featuring David Bourdon, Richard Hennessy, Diane Kelder, Barbara Rose, and Marcia Tucker—was a formal display of sparring and volleying between five panelists, some of whom raised genuine questions. A few presented themselves as ideologues. Only the final speaker attempted answers.
In April 1968, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brought together museum professionals, academics, and computer technologists from IBM for a “Conference on Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums.” A postconference report,” said Ross Parry, senior lecturer and college academic director in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, indicated that participants and attendees imagined their technological future in the year 1980. They envisioned a computerized image-search database that would allow a person to pull up any artwork that depicted, for example, “sailing vessels,” or to get information on objects in storage or from other museums. “This was reverie,” said Parry, of these predictions for a digital institution.
What happens when artists act as curators, organizing exhibitions for museums, commercial galleries, and other venues? Well, they become curators, if for one show only. Is this new? Is it a trend? What advantages and complications result when an artist takes on a different professional role? The third session for the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” simply titled “The Artist-Curator,” explored these ideas and more.
Not only is art alive, it is thriving, was the assessment given by some of the nation’s foremost museum officials, art dealers, and artists to some four hundred persons at the first World Art Market Conference over the weekend. “Far from being less pertinent, the fine arts and the art museum will become more important,” declared Thomas P. F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For artists, the solo exhibition reigns supreme. For curators, it’s the group show. From major events such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and Whitney Biennial to curator-driven institutions like the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, Witte de With in Rotterdam, and MoMA PS1 in New York, the authorial curator’s name has typically transcended the artworks on view (or so the story goes). While the art-publishing industry ceaselessly cranks out new books on curatorial issues—nearly always an edited, multiauthored tome—few critical studies have considered the theory and practice of showing the work of a single artist, which is perhaps the bread and butter of art museums worldwide.
Back at A.I.R. again, there was at last an exception to panel chaos, perhaps because only two panelists—Marcia Tucker and Barbara Haskell, both of them Whitney curators—showed up. With Mary Beth Edelson moderating, their talk was focused. “Changing and Stabilizing Women’s Art from the Curator’s View” was the title, but discussion was about the woes of the curator.
Boris Groys presented a keynote address called “The Museum as Gesamkunstwerk” to kick off a daylong conference, “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” that explored historical and contemporary approaches to organizing exhibitions. His accent made it difficult for me to concentrate, and he repeatedly chuckled at what seemed like minor disciplinary quibbles between he and other theorists. He relayed that, according to the nineteenth-century composer Richard Wagner, “the artist of the future must be radically indifferent” and boldly claimed that “dictatorship is a curatorial project” and documentation of it supplies nostalgia for the ephemeral event.