PRINT December 1981


(THIS CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE in Paris, June 1981, between Ingrid Sischy, the editor of this magazine, and Pontus Hulten, who recently resigned his position as director of the Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture in Paris (known as the Beaubourg) to become the director of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, scheduled to open in May of 1984.).

IS: We have enough experience to know that a museum of Modern art is a very different idea, formally and ideologically, than a museum for contemporary art. There are strong arguments for and against the enormous pressure applied to institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York to actively participate in the realm of contemporary art by exhibiting and acquiring significant work of each prescient period. This debate is complex enough in itself. On top of it, I would like to throw out the not so uncommon thought that the word “contemporary” intrinsically contradicts the word “museum.”

PH: Our discussions in Los Angeles over the question of Modern and contemporary, or singly contemporary, were not very long. It will be a museum of contemporary art—that’s its definition—but if a retrospective dateline has to be given, then it is mid-century. In the beginning we will concentrate all our acquisition activities on current work. If someone wants to give us something important, a seminal “background” work, a Pollock or a Matisse, we would be happy to receive it. Later on, hopefully, we also will be able to buy such important works. When we started the Museum in Stockholm, or when we defined the policies for Beaubourg, we strongly felt the necessity to include the Cubists and especially the Dadaists and Surrealists as part of our collection and our programs as intrinsic to comprehension of the century. Those policies became a rich cultural experience—to see how this century is articulated and, more pedagogically, to make it easier for people to absorb the “shock of the new.” But the situation in Los Angeles is totally different. It doesn’t have the overwhelming ties to Europe and the early part of the century. Generally speaking, as the spirit of a city goes, this is one where a contemporary art museum makes a lot of sense.

In addition, even with huge funds, it is, if not impossible, extremely difficult at this stage to build up a great collection of Modern art. With more recent art—and this I think is the major role of the museum—you can still discover the real masterpieces and that radiates interest that creates a background for living artists. There is an extremely lively artists’ community in Los Angeles.

IS: That this will indeed be a new museum is immediately, symbolically apparent with the unusual appointment of artists to the board of trustees. Despite the romance of such inclusions, doesn’t this present an interesting problem? Couldn’t this, even more than controversial corporate involvement, determine esthetic policy?

PH: No one on the board has curatorial license. Sam Francis and Robert Irwin are there because of what they’ve done and who they are. They don’t represent anybody. I’ve heard them at board meetings; they don’t mix up production and consumption. They talk for themselves.

IS: Speaking of talking for themselves—when we asked Sam Francis about the viability of the very idea of a museum for contemporary art he said “I’ve said it so many times in so many different ways. It’s a circular problem. Without the image, the artist is unhealed. Without the image, the public has no possibility to act, to even be itself. Without the image, there’s no mirror for the person to see himself. Without the image, there’s no rebirth or there’s no birth, there’s no death, there’s nothing without the image action. The museum is just a small part of this problem.”

PH: I would add an important dimension to that: museums can take on works that otherwise might be unrealized, unplaceable, and never seen.

IS: Will you concentrate on local, national, or international developments?

PH: Our number one priority is the arts in Los Angeles and Southern California. We want to become the museum where you can see its entire evolution. We will not only collect the best pieces, we will try to hover in, covering all the intricacies and even dead ends. We will become a reference collection for this region. We will also collect American and international art at large, but we will go for the masterpieces. When we see something outstanding, something that really shakes us up in the sense of positive shock, there is no reason that we won’t acquire it if we can, no matter where it’s from. Good collections often have strange pockets; nothing is worse than finding more or less the same scheme in one museum after another. You build a collection for a museum with absolutely unique pieces. Only as a second thought should the concern be whether or not it fits easily. A significant collection is not a question of representation but of a specific point of view.

IS: Obviously you feel comfortable with curatorial personality.

PH: Otherwise you get people who have no engagement. It’s not a question of liking or not liking, it’s a question of being involved.

IS: Are there going to be curatorial departments?

PH: No. We will have project groups which will stay together as long as the project goes on. In a departmental set-up, inevitably one is bound to feel over looked while another is feeling pressured to produce shows, with or without ideas.

IS: On the other hand, I haven’t come across too many curators who are comprehensively engaged in more than one medium.

PH: This might come up as a big question five or ten years from now, but in the beginning we will certainly experiment with this non-structure structure. At Beaubourg I had three divisions: one for the collections, one for the exhibitions, and one for documentation. I think it works.

IS: Will the members of these project groups come from the permanent curatorial staff? The recent trend of “inviting” guest curators provides an easy evasion for institutions perhaps feeling a bit shaky about the risks involved in backing any single, consistent curatorial analysis. In other words it’s very easy to say ‘we just won’t hire her back’. This kind of convenient disrespect for the profession has at least something to do with the current scarcity of authentic intellectual leadership within the visual arts.

PH: There will always be a core in-house staff. The idea is to invite when necessary or appropriate. If we do a show, which we hope to do, on Hollywood, or on the automobile, obviously we will have to go out and find people who know this and that. Another show we’re planning for which we will clearly need outside expertise will address design, specifically personalization and miniaturization in technology—for instance contact lenses, tiny cameras, Walkman tape decks, hang gliders, roller skates.

IS: That Beaubourg, and the whole district around it, became such an urban magnet has made you some thing of a populist hero. There must be considerable pressure on you to produce a comparable audience for an equivalent cultural monument in California. But a boulevard in Paris is nothing like a boulevard in L.A.—people just don’t stroll around there.

PH: The museum in Los Angeles can never, in any way, aim to be the same kind of place. At Beaubourg we show films in three different cinemas every day. Two or three thousand people come here just to read. We have at least five lectures a day. By the way, despite what people might think, we have nothing to do with most of the carnival outside the building, festivities which we have been alternately credited and discredited with. This area was the only part of Paris in the late sixties that was a little bit dangerous. Where Beaubourg now stands had been a parking lot since 1935. I’ve watched the area change in the past seven years. In the immediate neighborhood there have been drastic changes with galleries and restaurants coming and going. The ones that have a little bit of this and that don’t survive, the specialized ones do. But not further away than two hundred meters up the street where I live, almost nothing has changed. The same shops, the same people have stayed. Urban change shouldn’t be drastic or abrupt. Heavy speculation, like around Lincoln Center in New York, shouldn’t be permitted. I hope it won’t happen too much in downtown L.A.

IS: Like it did in Soho. Speaking of rent, some of the more remarkable-looking houses for art haven’t been the most accommodating to it. The civic pressure to produce art museums that are monuments to their cities have too often produced insensitive walls. I’d hate to be a flat painting hanging in the Guggenheim.

PH: Old buildings are sometimes easier because they don’t have that kind of ambition. But it’s not necessarily negative if the architecture is outstanding, it’s just that that should come second. First, the building must be receptive to art. The model for thinking that we gave to Arata Isozaki, the architect for the new museum, was that we wanted something that looks like excellent studio space. We’re always dealing with fashions or anti-fashions. Beaubourg is quintessentially of the sixties, when the fashion word in architecture was flexibility—and the Beaubourg really has flexibility.

IS: Sam Francis has said that the shape of the program for the new museum in Los Angeles would determine the shape of the building.

PH: Exactly. That’s the way I like things to happen—when you build in an organic manner and strive to make decisions in pace with the art.