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PRINT September 2007

US News

Anne Doran on the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“WHO WOULD HAVE thought,” wrote William Olander, a curator at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, in 1986, “even two or three years ago, that the annual budget of the organization for which I work would be over a million dollars or that its development department would number four full-time individuals, one whose sole job is to coordinate an annual benefit?”’

These words might seem quaint now, as the New Museum prepares to reopen this December in a stunning seven-floor, sixty-thousand-square-foot building—designed by the Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA—on a steadily gentrifying stretch of the Bowery, but when the museum was founded in 1977 by Marcia Tucker, it had no endowment, no collection, and no home of its own. It was one of a number of alternative spaces created in the ’70s to provide venues for new and challenging work, and its mission was implicit in its name: to be a museum for the art and ideas of its time. “It’s the ideal name for the institution, because it’s a paradox,” explains director Lisa Phillips. This fall, the name might ring truer in one sense, but its real provocation is further removed. Phillips herself admits that the museum’s “biggest challenge is to not become too institutionalized.”

As an alternative space evolves into an institution, how does it stay responsive to the art of the moment as well as to communities beyond the art world? Under Tucker, the New Museum mounted prescient shows of art not yet seen in bigger, more established museums: art that fell into the categories of performance, film and video, faux naive, outsider, feminist, appropriation, commodity, political, regional, and collective. Its group exhibitions, in particular, such as “Bad Painting” (1978) and “Bad Girls” (1994), were both famously irritating and famously influential. But by the mid-’90s there was a shift—in arts groups across the board, responding at least in part to economic and cultural forces—away from personality-driven institutions and toward those run by executive, rather than artistic, directors. In 1999, Phillips succeeded Tucker (who died last year at age sixty-six), and, just as the museum’s exhibitions had once reflected Tucker’s iconoclastic personality, the museum as an entity began to reflect Phillips’s penchant for resourceful affiliations and partnerships.

In the last five years alone, the New Museum has brought in the online digital arts group Rhizome.org as an affiliate and formed a consortium with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to commission new artworks by emerging artists and present them jointly. A new initiative is Museum as Hub, a partner- ship with four other organizations—Insa Art Space in Seoul, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City—to generate exhibitions and additional programming. The New Museum recently announced its partnership with Creative Link for the Arts (formerly the Penny McCall Foundation) to administer the Ordway Prize, awarded biennially to a midcareer artist and a midcareer arts writer or curator who have contributed significantly to the field of contemporary art; Phillips has expressed hope that the Ordway Prize will become “as well known as the Turner or the Pritzker.” But more in line with the museum’s original mission, perhaps, is the new Altoids Award for emerging artists. Selected by a panel of artists, the winners will be announced early next year, appearing in a group show at the museum the following fall.

The building also opens with a new team of curators: chief curator Richard Flood, formerly at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; senior curator Laura Hoptman, curator of the 2004–2005 Carnegie International and previously a curator in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art; and curator Massimiliano Gioni, one-third of the Wrong Gallery and director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan. (Havana-based Gerardo Mosquera will serve as an adjunct curator.) Flood, Hoptman, and Gioni organized the museum’s opening exhibition, a sculpture show titled “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century.” Featuring thirty international artists who use assemblage in their work—including established midcareer artists such as Isa Genzken and Sam Durant and younger artists like Nate Lowman and Shinique Amie Smith—“Unmonumental” focuses on the ways in which this technique relates to contemporary society, through works that emphasize the impermanent, the antiheroic, and the everyday.

The show will build in layers over the five months of its run through the addition of three more sections, all on the theme of collage. The first of these, “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture,” will be devoted to wall works by an additional eleven artists, including Martha Rosler and Nancy Spero, with commissioned pieces by Wangechi Mutu and Mark Bradford, among others; “The Sound of Things: Unmonumental Audio” and an online show of new-media art curated by Rhizome will follow. Three additional commissioned projects will complement “Unmonumental”: a flash-animation projection by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries; “Donor Wall,” a graphic installation by architect and city planner Jeffrey Inaba that tracks the global flow of money; and an outdoor sculptural work by Ugo Rondinone, the first in a series of public art installations.

As the exhibition title underscores, the stress is on the new. “Nothing in the opening exhibition will have been made in the twentieth century,” says Flood. “Nothing. And that is a very important message. It’s how we’re going to open, and it’s how we want to communicate. It’s how we are different from everybody else.” Echoing the works in its opening exhibition, its partnerships, and even the architecture of its new building, the new New Museum’s approach to exhibition making is intentionally layered, associative, and fluid. New can have many connotations, not all of them positive, and at a time when culture is showing an alarming tendency to consume its margins as fast as they are created, the paradox between new and museum can cease to sound like a paradox at all. Nevertheless, although the institution can perhaps no longer claim to be alternative, the New Museum’s strategy promises to ensure its continued relevance.

Anne Doran is a writer and editor based in New York.