PRINT Summer 2010

Helen Molesworth

FOR ME, THE CORE DILEMMA FOR MUSEUMS TODAY is the sheer scale and scope of artistic production. At no other time has the world generated so many people who identify themselves as artists, who make so many things that people can buy, and who have so many places to exhibit. The production and distribution system is so vast that anything like consensus—which I still romantically hold on to as a notion—is at the threshold of impossibility. And if consensus is not quite possible, but one is suspicious, as I am, of one’s personal taste—be it connoisseurship or the whole notion of the “I”—then how does one find and commit to the work that is important? How do we create the conditions for a discussion of criteria? If we’re truly interested in the audience or the public, we in museums have to have some way of making our decisions transparent to them.

Another question facing institutes of contemporary art today is, What happens to our mission—bringing new and challenging art to an audience so it is better understood—when the surrounding context changes? Concurrent with so many museums taking an interest in contemporary art, we have seen a shift in the kind of house-proud relationship to place that Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, for example, like many kunsthalles in this country, originally represented—a kind of intense commitment to one’s region that existed prior to the relatively new tourist economy. When I first worked in museums, some twenty years ago, it was under the waning gaze of this older version of philanthropy, where the wealthy people of a given place supported the institutions of culture structured around that notion of place or region. You supported culture in your city so that you did not have to travel elsewhere to get culture. It was seen as part of one’s civic duty: A great city has a great museum. But consider that today, after the expansion of the ICA three years ago, we’ve gone from an annual attendance of just fewer than twenty-five thousand to an attendance of two hundred thousand, with 45 percent of our audience being tourists. That’s a huge leap in numbers, and it shows that we no longer present contemporary art mainly to New England residents: We now also serve the tourist economy of Boston. In the face of this sort of shift, many institutions—while understanding that the audience for art is largely a self-selecting and educated one—have moved from availability to accessibility.

Think about what it means that we, as curators and as artists, now have to imagine that many of the people who will see our work are from afar. I remember giving public tours as a member of the Education Department at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York during the late 1980s and early ’90s and feeling like I was a New Yorker talking to a crowd of New Yorkers. The Whitney was the hometown museum, and it was for artists. You really couldn’t bullshit on the floor, because you could be lecturing in the Nan Goldin retrospective and find that half the people around you were in the pictures. Thinking about the expanded audience of today reminds me of another aspect of my experience at the Whitney: During the heyday of theoretical art language, our mandate was to translate the most complicated and sophisticated ideas of our time into language that could be understood by someone who visited on a Saturday—someone who went to the museum because they wanted a leisure experience that was stimulating parts of their brain that weren’t getting stimulated at work. Was it possible to translate Foucault, or Judith Butler, for that person? This was my job. And as a curator today, I find myself drawing increasingly on such skills and mandates.

I’ve written elsewhere that since audiences now often visit an institution to have an experience, you see more participatory models in galleries, where the audience itself becomes a subject. (In fact, something similar has happened in museum patronage: The patron class wants to do more than simply write a check. Patrons want the same kind of interactivity that everyone else wants; they want the same degree of choice and involvement and intense personalization that we’re told everybody wants, be it in social networking or the iPhone.) But such post–Felix Gonzalez-Torres work isn’t what’s imagined at the ICA. It hasn’t been a festival of free takeaways, couches, and headphones. Instead, we often display conceptual work with a high degree of physical manufacture that produces feelings of wonder, awe, amazement; that captivates people’s sense of curiosity and makes them ask how something is made. That’s a starting point for other kinds of conversations about what’s at stake in the art of our time. For example, the Roni Horn survey organized by the Whitney and Tate Modern is currently on view here, and Pink Tons, 2008, is in the lobby. We often begin conversations with visitors with that piece, underlining the sheer uniqueness of that object. (Notably, the ICA has a division called Visitor Services, people stationed in the galleries who are not guards per se but are people trained in the art of engaging people in conversation should they wish.) Ostensibly, it’s the largest piece of glass ever made in the world. And from there we build up to a more traditional lexicon around Roni’s work regarding sameness and difference, the mutability of form, and discourses on Minimalism and post-Minimalism.

You can see that the goals here, then, still revolve around historical narrativization—because, I think, this is one way in which you can actually work against the forces of the market and “the new for new’s sake.” You can, in fact, open a space for people. You can say, “Hey, there is a different version of the story we assume to be true. This story has a history. These ideas lead to these other ideas.” Hopefully, this helps to produce a network of ideas, and the museum becomes a place where you can create a multilayered conversation with room for dissenting and competing voices.

As told to Tim Griffin