PRINT Summer 2010

Ann Temkin

ONE OF THE CONTEMPORARY MUSEUM’S SECRETS—not exactly dirty but far from squeaky clean—is the storage dilemma resulting from the exponential growth of its collections. While this is a problem that affects all museums to some extent, of course the challenges facing an institution that actively collects the art of the present are far greater than those confronted by an institution focusing on the art of the past. Though rarely the subject of philosophical debate, storage provides a useful lens through which to examine several of the most pressing issues facing museums today. These range from the obvious—“Too much stuff!”—to far more nuanced questions revolving around how much and what to collect going forward.

A certain romance surrounds the notion of storage, and in this regard I confess to being one of the great romantics. My curatorial work at MoMA is based on a deep conviction that we cannot afford to allow the displays in the so-called permanent-collection galleries of painting and sculpture to be static, precisely because of what awaits us in storage. While this is a conviction shared with colleagues worldwide, the impulse toward fluidity feels more exceptional at MoMA, given that for a long time the painting and sculpture galleries were seen by many as providing the history of modern art. The curators’ choices were canon-defining. Today I believe it is my responsibility to present over time a far wider range of works by canonical artists, as well as to present works by artists who had not previously made the cut but look interesting now. The possibilities for display according to monographic, thematic, chronological, and other organizing principles are infinite.

That is why I don’t mind being the one to say that, nevertheless, there generally is a significant amount of art in storage that is of little consequence. The cumulative effect of collecting over the past fifty years or so is mind-boggling by any measure. Since 1960, the painting and sculpture department at MoMA has added to its collection 1600 works of art made after that date, many of which could be politely termed “inactive.” There are any number of reasons that such a fate befalls a work in the collection: The curator firmly believed in something when he or she proposed it, but time has been unkind in its appraisal; a gift unnecessary in the first place was nonetheless accepted; a work’s physical condition has deteriorated to the point of its being unexhibitable. Of course, the most interesting category is the first. Our files bulge with confident pronouncements on certain artists and works—both pro and con—that now make one cringe.

Alfred Barr often and famously cited the 10 percent success rate he expected of himself and his colleagues when choosing art of the present moment. While the rosters of Dorothy Miller’s midcentury “Americans” shows still impress, of course they include their share of now-forgotten artists. Even long-held convictions can prove erroneous, as in the case of Barr’s steady championing of André Derain’s late work. Less long-ago examples are more painful to cite, yet the truth is that with as little as ten years’ distance, we feel sadder and wiser in relation to much that we were passionate about at the moment it was made. For those lacking access to a museum’s warehouse, the same point can be quickly proved by looking through the pages of old biennial catalogues and art magazines.

In the 1930s, with the newly founded Museum of Modern Art a prime but not exclusive example, museums began to collect contemporary art in unprecedented fashion. Until then, the certainty of historical significance had been a sine qua non for museum acquisition. The exception was the Musée du Luxembourg, which acquired contemporary art as a feeder museum to the Louvre and was cited as a model for MoMA. But given the newness of the concept of collecting without waiting for posterity’s verdict, the first decades of MoMA’s history were marked by a confused and shifting attitude toward the collection: For a surprisingly long time, the notion of a collection of modern art was itself a work in progress. Barr’s initial vision of the collection as a torpedo is well known; he imagined a museum that shed its earliest works as it advanced steadily into the future. What is less well understood is that, from the start, there was no assumption that works acquired would be permanently maintained. Works that proved unimportant would be appropriately dispersed—and so would works that proved too important. For more than a decade, there was episodic discussion regarding a plan by which certain objects would graduate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when they reached a certain age and stature. This was definitively abandoned in 1953, due to the scores of questions it raised, not least of which were those concerning how the Modern should be compensated. At that point, Barr proposed that MoMA start its own masterpieces collection, retaining from the Metropolitan Museum plan the concept of declaring some works the “greats” while the others remained less sacred and therefore subject to eventual disposal. Of course, it was quickly realized that this was impossible for many practical reasons—e.g., the dubious viability of soliciting gifts of objects or money for purchases when the museum’s endorsement of the work was merely provisional.

During the second half of the twentieth century, this notion of a collection that was not sacrosanct gradually disappeared. As MoMA steadily became a more conventional museum, preferring to retain Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy rather than send it uptown, for example, the conventions of traditional museums took hold there as well. This meant a policy of keeping unimportant works as well as important ones and abandoning the admittedly fuzzy notion of constant winnowing that had been there from the start. In accordance with its early history, MoMA has through the years engaged in a bolder program of deaccessioning than many of its fellow institutions, but the sale of works of art is nevertheless infrequent. It is a graver matter to sell than to buy—as is reflected by the fact that acquisition decisions must be approved only by individual departmental acquisition committees but deaccession decisions must be approved by them and also the board of trustees.

Perhaps you see where I am going. When the museum began its policy of aggressively buying new or recent works, it did not see the collection as permanent. As the “permanent” viewpoint set in, there was not any attendant reconsideration of the museum’s investment in and commitment to the work of the present moment. Most other museums, whether encyclopedic or contemporary, had not even entertained a “purgatory” status of the sort that Barr envisaged in tandem with substantial collecting in the present. William S. Rubin considered a plan by which to separate out the least active works in storage, but it was never developed, surely owing to the daunting scope of the enterprise.

So here we are, in a position that threatens to become untenable, with vast storages that will start to resemble cemeteries nobody visits any longer. What conclusions can be profitably drawn from this? First and most obviously, overstuffed storage facilities function as a word of warning to the voracious curator. Before introducing a new set of acquisitions, we all should take a trip to storage, or at the very least spend an hour with the photo binders or digital files documenting the complete warts-and-all collection. Women’s clothes closets are not a bad analogy for what Barr had in mind, and I think with admiration of my friend who adheres to a strict “something goes in, something comes out” policy. Of course, there is no such easy solution—at this point, a massive sell-off or giveaway would wreak ethical, aesthetic, financial, and political havoc. But heightened attention is a first step toward proceeding with acquisitions less casually and more thoughtfully and toward considering new approaches to “inactive storage.”

The real reason we have to look hard at the issue of storage, then, is the essential part it plays in our ability to procure the new works we deeply desire for the collection. At the very least, we should have the same opportunity to make errors of judgment that our predecessors did. At best, we should be able to do much better, if only due to a sharpened awareness of how relatively little really does end up mattering in the long term.

Such awareness is doubly crucial since the challenges we face today are far greater than those of our forebears. At the time that Barr expressed his concerns, the works of art in question were of ordinary size and format. Not so long ago, James Rosenquist’s F-111, 1965, and Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, 1988—both single works fully occupying a single gallery, or multiple large crates in storage—were anomalies. Today, a room-size work of art is not unusual, and it brings with it a greatly increased demand for storage space. Indeed, the pressure to buy the convenient is one of the great forces limiting the progressive quality of museum collections. Heaven knows there are already unspoken deterrents to buying demanding art. A curator who has had a taste of proposing work that raises the eyebrows of practical-minded patrons, only to then need to invest countless hours discussing installation and preservation requirements with the artist, conservators, and preparators, may be in no hurry to take on a similar challenge soon. We might smile at the image of Barr fretting over the size of Monet’s “Water Lilies” panels when Dorothy Miller was choosing them in Paris in the late ’50s, but the worry remains, writ large: How many entire rooms can we buy? And—a newer question—how many whole rooms made of perishable or obsolescing materials that will need to be restored, refound, or remade? Certainly, conservation is a topic that goes hand in hand with that of storage. As Jim Coddington, MoMA’s chief conservator, says, we constantly make posterity decisions de facto, by allotting limited resources to preserve some works but not others. (An only half-joking truism in conservation circles is that a work of art has been canonized only if it’s been conserved.) But if we overextend the storage we have, and do not either increase space or decrease population as necessary, even those objects considered most precious are put at risk. The more crowded storage becomes—the more tightly squeezed its crates, screens, and bins—the more endangered are its occupants.

In order to proceed ambitiously into this century, new storage solutions will have to come into being. Admirably, when MoMA undertook its expansion in the ’90s, a large new warehouse facility in Queens was included in the mandate. That facility—initially used as the temporary site of the museum itself while the new building in Manhattan was under construction—will fill up over the next decade, and the next steps will need to be taken. Do answers lie in options such as devising secondary storage areas far off-site, at less expense, and with less state-of-the art conditions? Can creating opportunities for long-term loans of works of art become a priority? Can storage be conceived at a wholly different scale, as an intrinsic part of a museum’s plant and program? All are viable. The last has already been achieved at the Schaulager in Münchenstein/Basel, conceived by Maja Oeri as a storehouse (lager) where works belonging to the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation are accessible for viewing (Schau) when not on display at the city museums of Basel. Opened in 2003, the Herzog & de Meuron–designed building is a mammoth edifice on the edge of the city that gives equal pride of place to storage and to exhibition.

I propose that curators directly confront the question of storage as we consider our museums’ futures, rather than leave the topic to the head-shakingly cognizant registrars, conservators, and other personnel who must deal daily with the problems of overcrowding but who have no authority to change the curators’ acquisition policies and practices. There is no question in my mind that eventually our museums—and new ones yet to be created—will have the buildings and the grounds necessary to show the important art of our time and of theirs, in ways we cannot now imagine. It is our task, in the meantime, to follow where the artists lead. Rather than expect them to conform to our parameters, we must accept that often the work that proves significant specifically defies them. Therefore we must equip ourselves with storage programs and spaces that permit the judicious acquisition of the most challenging work. It will otherwise be left to our successors to rectify our omissions and to lament our lack of vision.