PRINT Summer 2010

Lars Nittve

A SWEDISH COURT will soon decide whether local authorities, sports clubs, and companies were justified in charging skiers a fee this past winter for skiing in the tracks these institutions had laid through the countryside. This issue is not just a legal one. It also cuts deep into the passionately held, age-old right of public access, or allemansrätten, “everyman’s right,” a right that everyone living in Sweden takes for granted. The right of public access is the same for everyone and entitles people to roam freely in the countryside, regardless of private property or zoning. The right of public access itself is not regulated in detail, but it is guaranteed in the Swedish constitution. It strikes me that this is an excellent and concrete example of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call commonwealth—a kind of “third place,” neither public nor private but having dimensions of both. Those who want skiers’ fees will probably lose the battle against this medieval custom, which has survived the advent of property rights well into the twenty-first century. But the issue, arising as it has today, obviously holds implications for other areas, too.

The road from the ski track to the art museum is shorter than one might think. Museums of modern art could, in fact, be defined as attempts to establish various forms of intermediary “third spaces.” These institutions offer different kinds of freedoms, yet they are always more or less conscious of a context that is actually entirely closed. I could make another sporting comparison here: Like Alain Robert, the “human Spider-Man” who scales the empty space between two buildings, there is an impression of considerable freedom. Only the toes and the fingertips need a structure for resistance. But dependence on this support is, of course, absolute. For museums, support from the public sector, the private sector, and the market, as well as from history, expectations, and formal and informal power and influence, is omnipresent. The intermediary spaces of the museum exist in a world that cannot be transcended, that has no “outside.”

From the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Stedelijk Museum, Reina Sofía, the Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and Moderna Museet, we know them well: classic museums of modern art, defined by years of practice. Indeed, they are fundamentally paradoxical creations that have become the dominant model for art museums. Some of these spaces have successfully cultivated the tension between the modern and the museal, between serving as contemporary arenas and as collecting, historicizing institutions. The same tension arises in the symbolic—and often physical—space of these museums, which is the core (in the broad sense of the word) of all art institutions: a meeting place for artists and works of art on one hand, and for the audience on the other; a place where everything is done to optimize that decisive encounter in which art is activated by contact with viewers, where two entities with diametrically opposite needs meet each other, creating a space where art, people, and ideas can indeed roam freely, as if granted their own right of public access.

The art museum is, quite simply, exposed to pressures coming from many directions today—and I am not referring to the financial pressures experienced by museums, particularly in the US, over the past two years. On the contrary, I am thinking of the pressure from art itself: of the expectations placed on the museum to reshape itself and follow art wherever it may lead—to offer white cubes and black boxes when needed. At the same time, we are coming to realize that the museum is no longer synonymous with a building but depends on an institutional relationship between art and audience. (And this, incidentally, is where the symbolic implications of the institution have grown increasingly and surprisingly important for art.) In other words, a museum needs to be an exceptionally good dancer in order to follow art, in whatever form it takes—materially, conceptually, socially, you name it.

As a consequence, what potential does a museum have today to be meaningful within the structures that support it? Not even an institution like Moderna Museet, which in many ways holds a privileged position with respect to various economic interests, has any external place of refuge. This is true even though the Swedish government has undeniably sought to achieve an open situation that is related to the right of public access, where the director is granted an extraordinary executive freedom and, as of the past couple of years, does not have to report to a board of directors. However, not even this hands-off policy will open the secret door to another, more liberated world. The question is which of all the forces influencing the museum’s capacity to establish a “third place” is the strongest—and which force is strategically the most effective in creating or maintaining such a place.

Funding is, of course, decisive; but it is relatively manageable (especially if there is a balance between public and private funding), since its influence is so obvious and comparatively transparent. Factors that are infinitely harder to define—such as audience expectations—can be much more difficult to handle. Yet expectations generated by history or media must be adopted by the museum as part of its own identity and self-image, since its entire existence is based on the interface between art and audience—and those museums that forget either party in this equation tend to perish. To the same extent that, say, Tate Modern and Moderna Museet are defined by their collections and events, they are also defined by their millions of visitors. If I think back carefully on my twenty-five years of experience as a curator and museum director, it is here—in the perceptions and expectations of the audience—that the feeling that “there is no outside” is most evident. But it is also here that the potential to create a third space, a “commons,” has appeared most strongly. The key is public trust.

Public trust is the crucial factor in any museum’s quest to succeed in the difficult task of existing in this world, of being defined by it yet able to open up alternative spaces within it as well. Establishing public trust takes time. Ultimately, doing so requires that the public have a solid perception of what the museum is doing and believe that it is doing it with the best of intentions. It involves disclosing the reasons for all major and minor decisions, but also engendering trust in the integrity of the management and staff. Integrity, integrity, integrity, must be the mantra. The slightest suspicion of hidden agendas or ulterior motives must be dispelled. Only then can we open up the possibility of alternatives to prevailing formulas for representation, to “given” hierarchies and working practices. I saw this happen in 1996 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, when the exhibition “NowHere” broke up the exclusionary, monolithic museum policy that had been the norm until then. The entire museum was emptied of its permanent collection; in flowed a cluster of five disparate projects, whose overall name itself signaled a third space. The show aimed to dismantle any idea of a mainstream, of a totalizing truth or art history, by presenting the present through a number of curatorial perspectives. It challenged the traditional way of mounting a large exhibition by, in point of fact, offering clusters of smaller shows; moreover, “NowHere” actually let the space be invaded by outside agents, namely, the curators Laura Cottingham, Bruce W. Ferguson, Ute Meta Bauer and Fareed Armaly, Iwona Blazwick, and Anneli Fuchs and Lars Grambye. Thanks to public trust, this project, which broke all the rules and expectations of its tradition-laden institution, was received with openness and enthusiasm and served as a catalyst for an art discussion of an entirely new caliber, among a much wider set of audiences.

Similar events have occurred at Moderna Museet over the past decade. For example, the museum had to close for two years for technical reasons in 2002–2004, and a nomadic museum was established—“Moderna Museet c/o”—relocating artists’ projects to other venues, including a building site (Clay Ketter), a palace (Henrik Håkansson), and a so-called expomobile that toured small communities from south to north (Andrea Zittel); and organizing a suite of “small adventures,” thirteen-day exhibitions with twenty-three hours for installation, under the collective name of “Odd Weeks.” Thanks to solid public trust, this nomadic existence, in which the museum as a place, a building, was gone and only its activity remained, led to an exchange of ideas and to contact with an astonishingly large new audience. Likewise, public trust made it possible for Moderna Museet to stage a gigantic Paul McCarthy retrospective in 2006—“Head Shop/Shop Head,” the first large-scale McCarthy exhibition ever—without being inundated with public outrage over the work’s explicit content.

Public trust has also allowed projects such as Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska’s Museum Futures: Live, Recorded, Distributed, an artistic intervention that took place as part of Moderna Museet’s fiftieth anniversary in 2008. For the occasion, a critical “autobiography” of the museum was published, titled The History Book, for which historians and critics were invited to write alternative histories of the museum. As we know, every museum is full of myths and constructs about its history—and so Cummings and Lewandowska inserted their own commentary and designed the book as if it were a catalogue discovered in the year 2058, thus couching the entire publication as a futurist artifact. They also produced a poster, titled Souvenir of the Future, and the film Museum Futures: Distributed, a fictional interview with the “director” of this future institution. All these projects were portrayed as preparations for a supposed launch, in 2012, of what the artists called “Moderna Museet v. 2.0,” where v. 1.0 was a conventional modern art museum surveying twentieth-century art. By 2013, the artists proclaim in these materials, all new activity and knowledge production would be open source.

We still have a few years until then. But a modern art museum, founded on the principles of twentieth-century modernism, can only challenge itself, its prerequisites, and its existence in this way if it enjoys substantial public trust. A free space exists there—not outside but inside the empire described by Hardt and Negri. Unstable it may be, but it is there, waiting.