PRINT Summer 2010

Kathy Halbreich

Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 15, 2010. Photo: Kate Lacey.

HAVING COME OF AGE IN THE 1960S, I’ve been unable to abandon a belief in a certain utopian imperative. But it was being at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center—a medium sized museum in the middle of the country, with an incredible historical legacy—that first provided me with a platform for thinking about how to materialize this imperative and, more specifically, for asking questions about what the social backbone of such an institution could be. When I became director in 1991, I began to work on joining the inside and the outside, beginning with efforts among the staff and then within the community.

First, I wanted to help people grasp the power of a flat organization governed by a shared mission. I wanted to see whether some of the class divisions within an institution could be erased, so that, for instance, the extraordinary people who worked in the basement—the so-called crew, many of whom were artists—would know that their voices were important in the galleries. Similarly, I wanted to bridge the gap between administrators and programmers. We were all creative partners, and emphasizing this would, I hoped, make everyone feel deeply engaged in the institution. I also sought to erase any sense that I, as the director, was the embodiment of the institution. In the past, museum directors have been portrayed as these great puppet masters—the person who invents the story, writes the script, and manipulates the characters—and even at Walker, the PR people were apt to say yours must be the hand people shake in order for them to feel connected to the institution. I just never believed that. And this isn’t to say that established standards were to be sacrificed, but rather that they were to be debated. The heart and soul of an organization is a discussion of what matters; it is to ask what is meaningful and, moreover, to ask, Whose values are on view, anyway?

Then I began to consider whether that openness could be reflected in our engagements with a wider audience. Museums today are increasingly recognized, I think, as site-specific institutions. Yes, we all have the same deliberations about conservation, about how our collections should be organized, and about what to do regarding financial challenges. (I don’t know a single cultural organization that is properly capitalized. The business model for great institutions remains a philanthropic one, and I don’t believe that will—or should—change.) But institutions really do offer reflections of their individual communities. Ultimately, where the museum is rooted—who its patrons and audiences are—gives shape, if not to its program, then to its ethical and civic posture. When I sought to diversify the audience at Walker, it wasn’t a question of bringing a greater number of bodies through the door but rather of amplifying cultural biographies, of bringing more perspectives and stories into the institution and onto the walls, screens, and stage. For example, when I first tried to find out how many people of color visited the museum each year, I discovered the number wasn’t even being tallied—which is in itself a very telling detail about who was visible and who was not. By the time I left, our audience was between 13 and 17 percent people of color, which tracked roughly to the demographics of the Twin Cities, and far more teens were choosing to come to Walker on their own. That took a herculean commitment to those audiences, to artists who were interested in them, and to educators, as well as to curators, like Philippe Vergne, who wanted to spend several years thinking alongside artists, like Kara Walker, who were creating a new art history. That’s what I mean by joining inside and out.

I was considered naive by some board members when I first talked about this, but before long there were an increasing number of business models steeped in this approach. In fact, when we were designing the program—and then the building with Herzog & de Meuron—we felt we had to look at the corporate world, because we were in the land of the Mall of America. That was our competition, in a sense. We felt we had to understand that model better, and partly that meant looking at experience planning, which—and this was before the burst of social computing—was totally driven by corporate research. Joseph Pine, who cowrote The Experience Economy [1999], came to talk with us about the idea that people are in touch with you personally the very minute they call. So we started to think about the building in terms of what happens from the moment you dial our number for information, all the way through to making our offices visible to the public, to moving curators and educators into the community to plan and realize programs. We began to study what was going on in the corporate world in order to bend it to ours. You ignore such things only at your own peril.

View of “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” 2007, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Cameron Wittig.

BUT TO GET BACK TO THIS IDEA THAT museums are set in motion by their surrounding contexts, I’ve found that working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York requires a whole different set of skills. In fact, in a funny way, I’m beginning to grasp my own naïveté here. If I once was critical of MoMA’s architecture, it was in part because I never understood the circulation problems of getting 2.8 million people through a building annually. (It’s interesting that museums such as MoMA are destinations, with foreign-born visitors making up between 50 and 60 percent of the audience.) I also had been warned that living in New York offered little time for reflection. But when I joined MoMA in 2008, I discovered it to be a much more self-critical place than I had imagined. Today, under the guidance of Glenn Lowry, it’s actually animated by a kind of useful self-doubt. Some days I wish we made that a bit more visible to the outside.

To give an example of what I mean, right now we are creating a series of three-year research projects on the problematics of abstraction, the artistic and political drives that shaped the Fluxus movement, and the postwar history of the performative. Each is designed to focus on a geographic area that hasn’t traditionally been a major concentration for us but is evident in our history: Brazil, Eastern Europe, and Japan. Each of these projects is cross-disciplinary. Each allows for local and global scholars to work with us over time. Obviously, of critical importance for us is to learn about unfamiliar ideas, artists, and movements. But these endeavors also are significant in that they force us to make new partnerships with organizations—archives, universities, other museums, and artists’ collectives—and become a research hub within a larger international network. By inviting fellows from Eastern Europe, Brazil, and Japan to use our collection, library, film archives, whatever, we can be a resource for them. But they are also a huge intellectual resource for us; there is reciprocity here and an understanding that institutions of differing scale have different resources to share. It’s a beginning.

This touches on another really important thing for MoMA: an acknowledgment that our expertise is limited. You can have exacting standards, you can have extraordinary ambition, you can have an amazing number of absolutely central objects, but you don’t know everything. I often say that we can learn a lot from American foreign policy about how not to operate. When you say you’re the best, you never are. Our job at MoMA is to learn what we don’t know and—rather than, say, build another annex on another continent—pursue the myriad meanings of globalization by engaging thinkers outside our own areas of expertise, some of whom may have a critical approach to our own institutional history. We must increase our knowledge. It’s soft power, and that requires a high degree of self-awareness.

MoMA isn’t the only place that sets standards, but it sets a certain kind of standard, and when it comes to twentieth-century modernism it isn’t too presumptuous to say its collection sets the gold standard. But now, in the twenty-first century, I would rather the institution set standards in terms of permission rather than of canon. In other words, if the canon is about a kind of certainty, perhaps permission could usefully be about a kind of fluidity—a different way of constructing reality. Right now, I think MoMA has to speak with multiple voices, and this is quite a task: Certainty is easy to represent when you have authority, but to speak in terms of multiplicity and not have it sound merely dissonant is very hard to pull off. There have to be exhibitions where the cognoscenti are most engaged in the argument, but also others with wider appeal. And there has to be ample room for alternative histories—though, in fact, our acquisition of the Silverman collection, with its important holdings of Fluxus works, is already a monumental leap forward in terms of telling other stories of modernity. MoMA PS1’s history also offers some clues: While PS1 is known for introducing emerging artists, it constantly casts a light on an older generation of artists who, if not forgotten, became less visible—both Lee Lozano and Jack Smith had solo shows there, for instance. Moreover, the recent exhibition “1969” was an experiment to see whether the orchestration of artworks owned by MoMA, by a different group of curators (including MoMA’s archivist) in a different place, could change the works’ meaning. As MoMA and PS1 curators begin to collaborate more often, their distinct methods and criteria will create a more buoyant debate and, consequently, a more expansive and elastic platform for artists, scholars, and curators. It’s not a question of making one institution like the other, but rather of creating a more dynamic dinner conversation among family members.

Change was taking place at MoMA long before I came here. Five of the seven chief curators have been here three years or less, and they are of a different generation than mine. I truly believe technological innovation is a reflection of something very deep inside us, and while I may be too old to fully possess the collapse of linearity, my colleagues instinctively find the computer to be a useful institutional model when it comes to looking at reality through the prisms of simultaneity and networks. Certainly, these ideas are already evident in the rehanging of works and the changing of their neighborhoods in the galleries. Questions of specialization and medium also arise frequently. For example, Leah Dickerman is doing a show on the origins of abstraction and plans to invite specialists in dance, poetry, and music to advise her—and hallelujah, because here, at an institution that could organize that exhibition almost entirely from its own collection, we’re going to attack it as a set of provocations and questions, with synesthesia at its core.

Mel Bochner, Theory of Painting, 1969–70, spray paint on newspaper, Letraset. Installation view, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York, 2009. From “1969.”

FOR ME, IT IS STILL ABOUT LEARNING from the artists. Maybe museums are inherently conservative, because they are about the patient care of objects and maintaining historical continuity. But that’s why I think it’s so important to engage artists in raising and wrestling with new questions. Dealing with a sense of rupture is a necessary part of an artist’s life. This is where performance becomes a very important battering ram today: Is it possible to collect something other than an object? What does it mean to reperform one’s work? Or for the public and the performer to stand in the same space? In forcing these questions, artists shape us more than we shape them, I hope. I’m also interested in people who make expressive things—films or dances or music compositions—on YouTube but who don’t call themselves artists. I wonder whether they aren’t part of our audience. We’re beginning to look at how to engage those folks, and I think doing so could really change the demographics of who we’re serving and involving. This leads us to new distribution and display systems we need to understand and embrace.

I think that, as a culture, we really are scared of artists. I think, as a culture, we’re really not interested in ambivalence or ambiguity. I think, as a culture, we give no reward to intelligent failure. We teach people answers but never how to ask good questions. That’s why I love working in institutions, because my job is, in part, to help people understand that ambiguity may be the only truth we can hold on to as human beings, that failure has its own rewards as long as it’s about an intellectually rigorous adventure. I think if we give up on constructive failure, what are we? I mean, then we really are banks for objects. I’m interested in the fact that objects don’t have fixed meanings. They have as many meanings as there are people viewing them. Meaning is fluid, shifting over time and in various contexts. And yet a question remains: How do we persuade the audience to stop looking for certainty and encourage them to use their own powers of invention?

Glenn, the curators, and I are always productively arguing about the contemporary collections. Why does there need to be a drawing gallery or a painting and sculpture gallery? Is it possible to break down those disciplinary silos even further, and what do we gain or lose by doing so? When it comes to conveying history, how do we know what we know and don’t know, and how do we go about amending the story that gave us such knowledge? Again, artists who don’t identify themselves as medium-specific creators assist us greatly. For example, when Christophe Cherix and I approached the next installation of the contemporary collection, we decided to ask Yoko Ono to help us in slowing down the visitors’ experience by creating a series of interactive interventions in the galleries, garden, and atrium—because the truth is that when we’re talking about these issues, we’re talking as much about changing the visitor’s behavior and expectation as our own.

I think the question of authority is really crucial when it comes to how museums engage their public. You can say to people, “Come see what we’re doing,” and many folks who have never been to a museum will say, “What’s in it for me? Where will I find myself in the institution?” But if you ask people about the issues that shape their lives and then think about that in terms of how you develop or interpret your programs—if you actually, when you’re talking about Kara Walker to a group of African-American people, grasp that you are not the only expert in the room—you have a greater chance of engagement. What do you learn from a teenager who says, as one did at Walker about Kara’s show, “You know, my mother washes floors for a living. I’m not bringing her here. This is too painful.” I don’t think we even asked that question ten years ago. That isn’t really how we operate anymore.

I have great faith in museums and the freedom they embody. They’re incredibly fertile places. Embedded in the art and actions we shelter are ideas from so many spheres of knowledge that a museum provides an unusually capacious umbrella for personal as well as communal investigation. Inherent in art is a search for meaning, and great objects don’t always resolve that search. That conundrum is so central to the human condition. So for me, the question is, How do we make that search alive for our visitors? How can we invite people to look at van Gogh and feel a world falling apart? Can we help our audience see the poignancy and urgency of that extraordinary struggle for stability, or is it really just a pretty postcard?

—As told to Tim Griffin