Now What?

Katy Siegel on the Now Museum conference

Left: Art historians Claire Bishop and Terry Smith, Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor, and New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni. Right: Independent curator Barbara Piwowarska. (Photos: Sirin Samman)

THE CHASM BETWEEN DISCOURSE AND EXPERIENCE is hard to ignore: A museum director muses virtuously about the virtues of doing nothing, and then rushes off to a waiting car and driver. Curators-as-intellectuals offer glosses on the history of exhibitions cribbed from Wikipedia and return to their seats to play with their phones and trade Sephora samples (really) as others take their turn onstage. And academics whose commitment to avant-garde thinking is their currency ritually name-check the standard landmarks of the European/American 1960s. Almost all of them, in an era of collaboration and pressing politics—“the active multitude”—speak in isolation, their often overlong (and overfamiliar or underprepared) performances cutting down discussion time, their precipitous arrivals and departures creating a feeling of just-in-time production before a sold-out crowd of eager graduate students and fellow professionals.

Everyone agreed that consensus was a problem.

And yet . . . The problematics of exhibitions, institutions, and education driving the “Now Museum,” a conference last week organized by the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, the New Museum, and ICI, couldn’t be more important for art museums and the people who love/hate them. At least in New York, one has the feeling that these are the issues being discussed furiously, and always elsewhere. Claire Bishop, Kate Fowle, and Eungie Joo, the conference organizers, took turns framing the four days of panels, pointing to the different sparks for the ambitious event, including the turn of MoMA and the Guggenheim toward performance programming (possibly bad), star architecture and the specter of Abu Dhabi (definitely bad), and the “new institutional” bent of smaller European museums (presumably good). Bishop pointed to the growing numbers of private collections and new solutions in emerging art loci to ask whether we need museums at all.

On Friday, the conference’s first full day, discussion tended toward generalities. Perhaps using Rosalind Krauss’s essay “The Late Capitalist Museum” as a jumping-off point for the day’s first panel was a tactical error—for the most part, participants failed to jump. But occasionally generalities rose to the level of clarifying abstract thought. Okwui Enwezor contrasted the 1990s construction of the local/global binary with its more contemporary iterations—the unfinished business of local/national, as well as the regional/geopolitical and transnational/global. Indeed, his current project, “Meeting Points 6,” a series of events and exhibitions in the Middle East, which he spoke about informally during the coffee break, provides a tantalizing concrete glimpse into these issues.

And there were moments that were not only instructive but inspiring. Van Abbemuseum curator Annie Fletcher spoke strongly in favor of prioritizing the museum’s collection over temporary exhibition. The Van Abbe’s reconsideration of art and institutional history, working together with artists and archivists, is creative in the best sense, generating new scholarship through showing art. Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Madrid’s Reina Sofía, gave what was perhaps the best-received talk of the conference. Brushing aside Krauss, the putative subject (not to mention his former teacher), as well as the specters of both authoritarianism and publicity seeking, he offered a reflection on the value of radical education—an abundance of narratives and voices willing to learn from one another. Fletcher’s emphasis on the physical exhibition of artworks and Borja-Villel’s on structures of thinking together offered a fundamental reconsideration of the museum’s responsibilities and capacities.

Left: Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Right: Eungie Joo, director and curator of education and public programs at the New Museum, with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. (Photos: Alex Kleiman/ICI)

Saturday was in many ways the most compelling day, despite—or perhaps because of—the less star-studded lineup. It largely comprised a series of case studies whose straightforward presentations offset the ambition of the projects. Lu Jie, Zdenka Badovinac, Gabi Ngcobo, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, and Anthony Huberman all articulated clear programs emerging directly from imaginative thinking about material conditions—on both large and small scales. The false notes included Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong—not entirely unexpected, as he’s a nice man who regularly finds himself in the role of apologist for a monstrous project. The real surprise was Maria Lind, regarded as an innovator and a figure of integrity, unfurling a somewhat generic kunsthalle list of art projects that seemed without a real reason for being. Her tactic of “stressing” (portentously repeating) words uttered by other participants—“urgent,” “failure,” “partiality”—underlined her lack of a driving narrative.

Last and perhaps least (here I recuse myself), SF MoMA curator Dominic Willsdon and I undertook the absurd task of summarizing the entire proceedings in all their diversity and promise, fulfilled and otherwise. He delivered the shocking news that museums care little for the doings of art historians, and that perhaps trading this traditional form of knowledge for other (unspecified) knowledges was OK, a sentiment that echoed the wish for experience heard from Paul Chan, Borja-Villel, Huberman, and Massimiliano Gioni. Art historian Pamela Lee, not surprisingly, offered a sharp rebuke, positing that this kind of forgetting harmonized all too well with the bleakest aspects of the larger culture. (As for me, the histories that academics have managed over the past thirty years have been for the most part so timidly imagined that I am happy for curators to have a go at it.)

Here’s what I took from three days of talking: Regionalism is, from day to day, a more operative construct than globalism. The public sphere has given way to civic responsiveness as an institutional ideal. Audiences are not singular. Depending on institutions, the project (education + publication + cooperative art production + peripatetic exhibiting), even more than the collection, is ascendant. There is a need for new histories that are neither foregone nor definitive. These qualities all point to a vision of the contemporary that—far from being a bland and belated synonym for late, late capitalism—has serious possibilities and the beginnings of a real shape. Going forward, the charge seems apparent: not to withdraw but to help do the work of making that form.