PRINT Summer 1987


On the job.

THE MUSEUM AS AN institution evolved from being essentially a storehouse, its rooms, no matter how rich (and made rich by the art they held), functioning in the end as simple containers, to being a vital place for art, a space both activated and activating. Yet this development is often ignored by contemporary curators, some of whom seem to prefer an unadventurous conception of their roles to a fully alive one. In so doing, they are neglecting a pleasure, an opportunity, and indeed a responsibility.

Even when painters and sculptors began to address the issues of the frame and the pedestal in the last quarter of the 19th century, the relationship between environment and work did not fundamentally change—in painting, for example, the canvas was basically still seen as a window into another space rather than as an object functioning in this one. During and after World War I, however, the foundations of a new dynamic between art and the space it occupied were laid. Looking only at Russian Constructivism, which was not the only movement exploring these issues, one finds Vladimir Tatlin’s “Corner Reliefs,” 1914–15, breaking away from the wall and into the third dimension of the exhibition hall; Kasimir Malevich’s nonobjective canvases, which not only finally demolished the notion of the painting as window but sometimes were hung, by the artist’s choice, high up and away from the viewer, interrogating the traditional relationship between viewer and work; and the exhibition rooms El Lissitzky created in 1923, and which he described as follows:

The large international painting exhibitions are like a zoo, where visitors are simultaneously growled at by thousands of different beasts. In my room, objects are not supposed to assault the viewer all at the same time. Elsewhere, the spectator passing along the walls of paintings is lulled into a kind of passivity, but my setting is meant to make him active. That is what I am aiming at with my room.1

This attitude involves a reversal of the esthetic codes that preceded it and a breakdown of the old distinction between the different disciplines of the plastic arts. Freed from the role of the window, the painting, for example, becomes an object behaving inside a room, and as such it demands a reconception of the idea of the space around it. As a response, two basic exhibition options have developed: either space and work share a relationship, with the elements of the one in some way conversing with the elements of the other, or the space reduces itself to the minimum, to the most neutral possible context, so that the work takes as little as possible of its reading from its direct environment, and thus is liberated for a kind of associative contact with the world of experience brought to it by the viewer. The approaches are opposite, yet in both the environment takes a role integral to the reception of the art, and thus as important for the artist to consider as the art itself.

In this situation, one might ask about the role of the organizer who installs a show, whether a dealer or a museum curator or a worker in some other kind of space. To me, the organizers are the artists’ assistants, people who can shift from one artistic vision to another and give each its optimal setting. If the organizer is a dealer, he or she must be concerned not only with exhibiting works to their best advantage as objects for purchase, but also with the creative ideas that inform them. For the men and women who install art, Fingerspitzengefühl—“finger tip feeling,” tactile sensitivity—is as important in their work as their resources of intellect and knowledge.

To be a good curator of contemporary art, I think, is not necessarily to know that a Rene Magritte can comfortably be hung in the same room as a Salvador Dali. Instead, a good curator is one who sets out to forestall that way of looking at art in which a work serves only to recall to the viewer its own reproduction, one who tries to return to the work its energy, even if that means juxtaposing it with art against which it seems completely anachronistic. The creation of quiet, balanced installations is not enough. To treat art, and particularly contemporary art, from a historical point of view only, as if one were simply laying out on the wall the consecutive pages of a book, is a falsification and a shameful betrayal of the work. In galleries of ancient art one generally finds a display of souvenirs, completely torn from their context. With contemporary art, which is so near to us, this problem need not arise. In addition, contemporary art often incorporates a consciousness of the idea of the environment as a frame for the work, and the museum has the capacity to adapt itself to that imagined frame, to become it. Any kind of space can be constructed in the museum, any room created. A responsible curator needs only the courage and ingenuity to see that the works have a chance to keep their original sharpness.

The museum can be a mausoleum, a kind of data bank, a warehouse. It can also be an active source of ideas, with its own inquiring energy. For me, this second approach is the right one. Perhaps I should say at this point that I certainly don’t advocate using works of art as props in some kind of theatrical scene. The setting of Goya’s The Third of May 1808, 1814, for instance, in the Prado, seemed dreadful to me the last time I saw it. It was as if a curator had decided that the white blouse of the man being executed in the picture wasn’t white enough as Goya painted it, so a spotlight had been trained on it to enhance its whiteness. The painting itself no longer really mattered—it became an illustration of an illustration. The visitor, misled by bad reproductions, wants a white blouse? The visitor will get a white blouse. This kind of reasoning needs to be replaced by the demand that the setting of the work always respect its qualities. The kind of brutality that the Prado has shown The Third of May is appropriate only where the works themselves request it. The point is to show the utmost respect for the work, the utmost delicacy in its handling.

In many museum exhibitions today the art is supported by didactic panels of text. The gesture springs from the good intention of making art understandable to as broad a section of its potential audience as possible, but nevertheless I think it is a mistaken one, for an image, by definition, cannot be unraveled like a verbal puzzle. These text explanations are at best only a path toward comprehension of a work. All too often they stand in for comprehension, bringing viewers to a point at which they can effortlessly obtain a superficial degree of comfort with the art, and leaving them there. Viewers themselves should be acting in some ways like artists, using their powers of receptivity and sensitivity, becoming active and inquiring. A museum should not be didactic in the conventional sense of the word; it should be plastic, aiming at the greatest possible number of opportunities for confrontation and comparison, at a destabilizing rhythm that would bring spectators to a stop and spark in them their own ideas. It is conveying the enigma of the works that matters, not a guided tour through a series of pictures.

The visual setting of the art in an exhibition is only one of the levels on which decisions must be made. The largest contribution by the organizers is on another level. The public’s idea of a museum, and the public’s interpretation of any particular exhibition, are determined by such factors as the artists each features, the genres of works it includes, the space the exhibition is allotted in the museum building, the timing and amount of time the exhibition receives in the museum’s schedule. In these decisions the organizers play the major part. They have to make choices, and this is why they cannot be considered merely administrators. The public’s understanding of what is exhibited is their central responsibility.

Most galleries have commercial possibilities to realize: what is the work’s strongest selling point right now, how is that to be balanced against the artist’s intentions and prospects, how can the artist’s personal vision mesh unharmed with financial considerations. The museum’s decisions are made with an eye on the long term. The degree to which a body of work is publicly accepted is secondary; an exhibition that merely confirms the importance of an already acknowledged artist makes no sense for a museum dealing with contemporary art. A gallery may be able to make its choices through the simple criterion of its belief in the work, but a museum must consider its own history, tradition, and environment, and the environment it has created for art. It must take into account what it has shown before, its collection, the properties of its architecture, its public, its location. An artist may be received very differently in a large urban space and in a rural town, or in the residential area of a city. And the work may be more or less relevant to its likely audience.

Beyond these only slowly changing and local factors, the exhibition organizer must consider the mood of the times. Art is not fixed, and neither is the spectator. Each period has its own expectations, its own needs, its own tolerance of some qualities and intolerance of others, and its own particular sense of the options of thought, and it projects these into the process of how it sees art. A retrospective of an artist’s work today may uncover a meaning in it that was not perceived ten years ago. No exhibition can really work unless it takes into account this changing climate, which the curator must ponder or fail to meet the challenge of fulfilling the role of the museum. Formal ideas are only a part of the thinking that must be applied. If one sees the museum only as a kind of art-history text, a place for the increase of knowledge, one closes one’s eyes to the visitor’s need for an enriching experience–for art.

Chambres d’Amis,” which I curated in Gent last summer, and in which the art was installed in the houses of 58 citizens of the town, was not done because of the public interest it could be expected to arouse. (Publicity and acclaim cannot justify an exhibition; they are only lagniappe.) The real source of the concept was a series of considerations about the museum, and especially about that particular museum in that particular city. Other concerns were the exceptional interest of the environment, the challenge to the artists, and the creation of a new kind of activity for the spectator. Traveling from house to house, viewers were confronted in each with only one or a few works at a time, so they could not just pass quickly on to the next one, as they can in so many museum shows. Furthermore, they were encountering art in situations often approximating those of their own lives, and in consequence, one hopes, were prompted to new questions. One could see in “Chambres d’Amis” both a city engaging in art and art activating a city, with each proving challenging in a different way from the automatic responses that normally influence the spectator’s responses to it.

In Kasper König’s and Klaus Bussmann’s show this summer in Münster, “Skulptur Projekte in Münster 1987,” sculptures will again be placed throughout the city. The importance of events like these, as Rudi Fuchs has rightly observed,2 is certainly not in the proof they provide that art can exist outside the museum. That by now we know. Their meaning lies in their contemporary renewal of the question of art’s function. Exhibitions like “Chambres d’Amis” and “Skulptur Projekte in Münster 1987” are invitations to art to claim a contemporary social function. Getting art outside, into the world, may give birth to some new ideas inside, in our heads.

Jan Hoet is the director of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Gent.



1. El Lissitzky, “Demonstrationsräume,” in Uwe M. Schneede, Die zwanziger Jahre, Cologne: Dumont Buchverlag, 1979. p 223.

2. See Rudi Fuchs, “Chambres d’Amis,” Art Monthly 99, September 1986.