Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art Paperback – August 12, 2007 by Bruce Altshuler (Editor)



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Collecting the New is the first book on the questions and challenges that museums face in acquiring and preserving contemporary art. Because such art has not yet withstood the test of time, it defies the traditional understanding of the art museum as an institution that collects and displays works of long-established aesthetic and historical value. By acquiring such art, museums gamble on the future. In addition, new technologies and alternative conceptions of the artwork have created special problems of conservation, while social, political, and aesthetic changes have generated new categories of works to be collected. Following Bruce Altshuler’s introduction on the European and American history of museum collecting of art by living artists, the book comprises newly commissioned essays by twelve distinguished curators representing a wide range of museums. First considered are general issues including the acquisition process, and collecting by universal survey museums and museums that focus on modern and contemporary art. Following are groups of essays that address collecting in particular media, including prints and drawings, new (digital) media, and film and video; and national- and ethnic-specific collecting (contemporary art from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and African-American art). The closing essay examines the conservation problems created by contemporary works–for example, what is to be done when deterioration is the artist’s intent? The contributors are Christophe Cherix, Vishakha N. Desai, Steve Dietz, Howard N. Fox, Chrissie Iles and Henriette Huldisch, Pamela McClusky, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Lowery Stokes Sims, Robert Storr, Jeffrey Weiss, and Glenn Wharton. Read more

Review “In this volume of thoughtful essays, curators, conservators, scholars, and others in the museum world address how institutions should collect, exhibit, and care for the new art. . . [T]he essays by seasoned professionals bring a new dimensions to the museum-going experience.”—Ann Landi, ArtNews”This book is a sensitively-edited collection of twelve essays (including a historical introduction by the editor), which addresses the complexity of the problems and issues that Western museums confront in dealing with contemporary art today. With its selection of diverse and intriguing case studies and specific focus on the contemporary art scene, it is an important and welcome addition to one of the primary fields of museum studies concerning the significance of collecting and collections for museums.”—Masaaki Morishita, Museum and Society Review “By bringing together such a diverse range of informed voices, this book wonderfully succeeds in suggesting not merely as theory, but with the nitty-gritty feel of reality the very specific considerations that a museum’s staff must take into account in determining whether or not to acquire, whether by gift or purchase, any particular work of art. I know of no other English-language publication that has previously addressed this issue with comparable depth or breadth.”―Stephen E. Weil, Scholar Emeritus, Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, author of Making Museums Matter”Particularly well-organized and accessibly written, this book explores the collecting and preservation of contemporary art created in a wide range of media. Its variety of essays, especially those addressing different types of institutions and various spheres of ethnicity and region, provides a very rich, stimulating, and useful introduction to this important topic.”―Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University From the Back Cover “By bringing together such a diverse range of informed voices, this book wonderfully succeeds in suggesting not merely as theory, but with the nitty-gritty feel of reality the very specific considerations that a museum’s staff must take into account in determining whether or not to acquire, whether by gift or purchase, any particular work of art. I know of no other English-language publication that has previously addressed this issue with comparable depth or breadth.”–Stephen E. Weil, Scholar Emeritus, Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, author of Making Museums Matter”Particularly well-organized and accessibly written, this book explores the collecting and preservation of contemporary art created in a wide range of media. Its variety of essays, especially those addressing different types of institutions and various spheres of ethnicity and region, provides a very rich, stimulating, and useful introduction to this important topic.”–Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University About the Author Bruce Altshuler is Director of the Program in Museum Studies at New York University and former Director of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, New York. His books include The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century and Isamu Noguchi. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Collecting the NewMuseums and Contemporary ArtPrinceton University PressCopyright © 2005 Princeton University PressAll right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-691-13373-7Chapter OneCOLLECTING THE NEW: A HISTORICAL INTRODUCTIONBruce Altshuler DIRECTOR, PROGRAM IN MUSEUM STUDIES, GRADUATE SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCE, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY The collecting and preserving of objects has traditionally been marked as a-if not the-central function of the museum, but discussion of museums and contemporary art has focused almost entirely on issues of display and exhibition. This is not surprising, as exhibitions are the public face of the museum, being the primary attraction for visitors and the central object of attention in the press and in the academy. But the collecting of contemporary art by museums raises a wide range of issues, from challenges to the traditional conception of the art museum to practical questions relating to the changing character of contemporary art itself. The purpose of this volume is to investigate these concerns, and to do so from the standpoint of those who deal with them in the course of active museum work. To set the stage, it will be useful to look at some of the critical moments in the history of, and conceptual tensions occasioned by, museum collecting of contemporary art. Gertrude Stein reportedly observed that something could either be modern or it could be a museum, but it could not be both. Stein’s remark points to a dilemma central to the museum’s engagement with contemporary art: since the eighteenth century the traditional view of the art museum has been that it is an institution intended to preserve and display works that have withstood the test of time. Given the fallibility of aesthetic judgment, this has seemed the most reliable way to identify artistic quality. Thus the validation that artists and contemporary collectors seek from the display of their works in museums is based on the association of the museum with the time-tested masterpiece, a normative connection grounded in a convergence of historical opinion that seems to rule out the new. Of course, curators make qualitative judgments all of the time-about new works as well as about old-but such assessment implicitly is done in the subjunctive mode. To designate artworks as museum-worthy is to mark them as objects that would deserve a particular place in what Philip Fisher has called “the future’s past.” This past is that of art history, whether viewed as a linear narrative or, in tune with recent directions of inquiry, as a more variegated story. Contemporary works valorized by entering museum collections-and, to a lesser extent, by being exhibited in museums-are in a sense projected into the future, identified as playing a role in an anticipated history. This same kind of projection also connects with the art market for contemporary works, for putting a price on a recent work of art in part is to place a bet on how important this work will be in the art historical future. These two aspects of anticipating the art historical future are closely related, and in fact they are two sides of the same coin. A familiar example is the influence of Clement Greenberg during the 1950s and ’60s, when his critical writing and art world activity guided contemporary acquisitions by both American museums and private collectors. During this period Greenberg’s view of artistic progress yielded expectations of future art historical significance, which in turn determined judgments of both museum-worthiness and market value. The connection between art history and the art museum makes the collecting of contemporary works just as much a matter of guesswork as are dealers’ prices, and equally problematic. In addition to general skepticism concerning aesthetic judgment of the new, the pedagogical function of the museum-established in the eighteenth century alongside its moral purpose of developing taste through exposure to exemplary artworks-required that works brought into an institutional collection be located within a fixed art historical narrative. It is this narrative that was to be taught to visitors, making the museum, as Christian Mechel wrote in his 1781 catalog for the Habsburg imperial collection that he had installed in the Belvedere in Vienna, “a visible history of art.” Especially in the modern period, when artists pushed the boundary of what counts as a work of art-certainly one source of Stein’s difficulty in conjoining “museum” and “modern”-problems of historical anticipation were pronounced. And with recent resistance to the modernist story of late-nineteenth and twentieth-century art, as well as the proliferation of alternative narratives and artistic practices, the very enterprise of constructing definitive accounts that situate new acquisitions in terms of historical place and importance has been called into question. So throughout the history of the museum, arguments have been available to steer the institution away from the art of its time. Such reluctance, however, generally has existed alongside a fervent desire to embrace the new. The museum as exemplar of civic pride and national heritage was established in eighteenth-century France and promulgated by the French. Initiated by the transformation of the Louvre in Paris into a museum and its opening as a public institution in 1793 after the Revolution, the conception of the public museum spread throughout Europe. With the nation’s artistic patrimony expanded through the confiscation of works from the aristocracy and the Church-and by Napoleon’s looting of the Continent’s artistic treasures-museums were created in other French cities, and a number of important European museums were established in the early years of the nineteenth century in territories occupied by Napoleonic forces. Although their primary displays were of works of the past, a rising sense of national identity often resulted in the exhibition of local artists, such as the room of contemporary paintings by Goya and other Spaniards that led toward the central gallery at the opening of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Such nationalism influenced the creation in the latter half of the nineteenth century of many public institutions dedicated to the display of contemporary art, from London’s Gallery of British Art to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, and here the precedent also was French. In Paris in 1818, with the Louvre reserved for the masterpieces of the past, a place was made for contemporary French art when the Palais du Luxembourg was converted into a public museum, the Muse des Artistes Vivants (Museum of Living Artists). (The name would be adapted by A.E. Gallatin when he established one of the first modern art museums in the United States at New York University in 1927, the Gallery of Living Art.) With works by important French artists passing from the Luxembourg to the Louvre within five to ten years after the artists’ deaths, room was freed in the Luxembourg for new art, and an institutional structure was created for an ongoing state commitment to the collecting and display of contemporary work. This commitment soon was expressed by large-scale state purchase of paintings at the annual Salons, works bought for the Luxembourg and, increasingly, for the expanding system of provincial museums. But it is important to note that these state purchases were primarily of academic art, and that “the new painting” would largely be excluded. Only in 1896 did a significant number of important Impressionist works enter the Luxembourg, after a compromise was reached allowing the museum to accept a portion of Gustave Caillebotte’s controversial bequest of his collection to the nation. The predominantly academic character of the French state collection during the nineteenth century raises an important question: What exactly do we mean by contemporary art? It might seem most natural to identify as “contemporary” those artworks created by living-or recently deceased-artists, but this is not how the term currently is employed. There is an additional filter, a presumption that “contemporary art”-the subset of present artistic production that finds its way into significant galleries and museums-is more adventurous, more “cutting edge” than work made by traditional artists. Of course this distinction presupposes the historical break between the academic and the avant-garde-a break that first occurred in the nineteenth century in France. But the institutional identification of the contemporary with the up-to-date originated not in France but in Germany. For it was in Germany that such works were first brought into public collections in significant numbers and that museums first committed themselves to what we would call contemporary art. A 1912 guidebook for Berlin’s National Gallery stated that its “principal task … was to be for the art of the present what historical art museums are for the art of the past,” but the collecting of modern art by German museums did not come easily. With acquisition committees governed by establishment artists, it took radical purchases made by progressive museum directors to change the course of German museum collecting. Ironically, the greatest opposition came from artist organizations, pressed by competition from increasing numbers of artists and threatened both economically and aesthetically by the new French painting. The exemplary figure here is Hugo von Tschudi, who was appointed director of the National Gallery in 1896. Tschudi was an expert on Italian and Flemish painting and senior assistant to the conservative Wilhelm Bode, head of the Prussian museums, but soon after his appointment he had a kind of conversion experience while looking at Impressionist paintings in Paris. Bode believed that museums should hold only work that represented time-tested aesthetic values, but Tschudi came to identify the role of a museum of contemporary art as facilitating the development of modernity. Relying on funds provided by wealthy patrons, he was able to purchase progressive French and German art without the use of state money or the approval of the official acquisitions committee. His purchases and his reorganization of the galleries, especially his support of modern French art, brought him into conflict with both Wilhelm II and local artist organizations, and in 1909 Tschudi left Berlin to become director of the Munich art museums. In Munich he brought the same modern program-and controversy-to the Neue Pinakothek, which had been created in 1846 by the Bavarian king Ludwig I as Germany’s first museum dedicated to the work of living artists. Tschudi’s efforts to transform German museums would be emulated by others, such as his successor at the National Gallery, Carl Justi, and Gustav Pauli, whose 1910 purchase of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the Bremen Kunsthalle provoked Carl Vinnen’s vehemently nationalistic Ein Protest deutscher Kunstler. Outside the state museums, Karl Ernst Osthaus’s privately financed Folkwang Museum in Hagen opened in 1902, designed by the Belgian painter and architect-designer Henry van de Velde, who encouraged Osthaus to purchase the modern art for which the museum was best known. By the 1920s museum directors throughout Germany were acquiring the art of the international avant-garde, including works by members of Die Brcke, the Blaue Reiter, the Neue Sachlichkeit, and others. Ironically, the extent of these purchases would become clear only in the late 1930s, after the Nazi confiscation from museums of about sixteen thousand works, a small portion of which were shown at the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. In the late 1920s, the German museum with the greatest reputation abroad for its support of modern art was the Landesmuseum in Hanover. This was less because of the quality of its contemporary collection-though that was high-than it was due to the gallery in which it was displayed, the Abstraktes Kabinett (Abstract Cabinet) designed and realized by El Lissitzky in 1927-28. The Abstract Cabinet was the culmination of a series of “atmosphere rooms,” in which the director, Alexander Dorner, had reinstalled the collection in galleries meant-through wall color and decorative appointments-to immerse the viewer in the spirit of each art historical period. The design of the Abstract Cabinet was intended not only to present the spirit of modern art, however, for in its interactivity and flexibility it embodied Dorner’s notion of a museum appropriate for the modern age. (Like Tschudi, Dorner wanted the museum to be more than a mausoleum of past artistic achievement, believing that it should play an active role in preparing the public for modern life.) Visited by progressive critics and museum people from around the world, including the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr, Jr., Hanover’s Landesmuseum represented the European museum’s most advanced engagement with the contemporary. (Soon significant attention was also directed to Lodz, Poland, after the outstanding modern section of its Museum of Art opened in 1931.) Like their European progenitors, American museums collected works by living artists, although they generally confined acquisitions to the traditional and the indisputably acceptable. But the civic spirit that was so much a part of their founding led to plans such as one proposed in 1833 for the creation of a museum in Detroit, which called for collecting one or two examples of the work of “every American painter, living or dead, who has attained to a certain standard of fame,” plus “original works by the great modern European painters, to be chosen on the same principle” and copies of Old Masters. By the 1920s the city’s art museum actually did move into the modern and contemporary, under the leadership of German scholar William Valentiner, who acquired German Expressionist works soon after his 1924 appointment as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and later commissioned Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals for the museum. For many years there would be no national museum charged with collecting the work of living American artists, until the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York opened in 1931 as an institution meant to perpetuate the commitment of its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, to the country’s advanced artists. Throughout the United States, museum funds were allocated to purchase the work of living Americans, most notably donations given for that purpose by George A. Hearn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But some time after the donor’s death in 1913, the museum’s Law Committee interpreted the gift’s terms so that “living American artists” was taken to mean living in the year that the relevant fund was established. Thus the Met was free to use the Hearn funds to purchase older American art of recognized historical importance-such as that of John Singer Sargent-rather than restrict acquisitions to the work of contemporary artists. Because of the museum’s lack of interest in contemporary American work, the Hearn funds were used little and their accumulating income largely went unspent. Well into the 1930s, American artists would protest this withholding of acquisition funds meant for them. It was in part to obtain use of the Hearn funds that the Museum of Modern Art-despite its European focus-began talking with the Metropolitan Museum about establishing a relationship like that between the Luxembourg and the Louvre. But more to the point for MoMA was the question of what would be the most appropriate sort of collection for a museum of modern art. (Continues…) Excerpted from Collecting the New Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site. Read more

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