Arts laboratory in constant flux

Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) conceived of the museum as a venue for scientific and aesthetic experimentation, as a «metabolic» institution that operated on self-renewal. This concept of a museum in constant flux has remained its fundamental principal, according to MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, its director since 1995. Lowry, who visited Athens a few weeks ago for the first time to give two lectures at the Megaron Plus and the Athens School of Fine Arts, spoke of «Making the Modern: A Disruptive Theory of Art» and set out his concept of the museum as a «disruptive innovator» and as a «laboratory» of new ideas. He traced the development of the Museum of Modern Art and referred to Barr’s ideas. Lowry’s visit to Greece was organized by the Fulbright Foundation in Greece (in cooperation with the American Embassy in Athens and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation). His lecture in Athens was given as part of the «Great Ideas» series launched by the Fulbright Foundation in December for its 60th anniversary. Glenn Lowry has made significant contributions to the development of the Museum of Modern Art. The construction of MoMA’s new building, which was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, was completed in 2004 and the merging with P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in 1999, have been two important initiatives. A landmark in the cultural life of New York City, the new Museum of Modern Art provides an opportunity to consider how museums have often used architecture as a spectacle that can draw a broader public to their exhibition halls. «From my point of view there is nothing wrong about architecture that is powerful and expressive and creates a sense of excitement but the critical issue is the relationship of architecture and art. I think the issue becomes problematical when the spectacle of architecture replaces the experience of art. If you take a building like Yioshio Taniguchi’s new Museum of Modern Art, the exterior is relatively restrained but all of the excitement is generated by the interior of the space, which is meant to be a kind of catalyst between the experience of looking at art and the impact of the dense urban fabric of New York. So this is one kind of expressiveness. It is quiet on the exterior but once you get inside, it has its own dramatic play. It is different from Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, which is an extraordinarily beautiful, sculptural form, a powerful expressive shape but in fact on the inside it is relatively restrained and in fact surprisingly traditional in terms of the organization of the spaces,» Lowry told Kathimerini English Edition on the occasion of his visit to Athens. The museum’s expansion, including the merging with P.S.1 is the outcome of various factors: the growth of the collection (from 1980 to 1995 the permanent collection has grown from 60,000 holdings to over 110,000) and an escalating attendance (Lowry said that 2.3 million people visit the museum each season) which in turn, is a result of the popularity that art and visual culture in general have enjoyed in recent years. How does this new reality affect the museum’s policy? How do museums cater to an audience that is becoming more diverse? «We are living in a far more connected and global world, which places a lot of pressure on being pertinent to our times but also more interesting. Audiences are becoming more diverse, and as an institution, that means listening to what is happening and addressing a greater public. This has enlarged the activities of an institution. We now generate literally hundreds of educational programs for all sorts of audiences,» Lowry said. This dynamism also permeates the ways in which the permanent collection develops over time. «Permanent collections are rarely fixed, especially when you are dealing with a museum of modern art where you are constantly in the process of acquiring new works of art and assessing the relative importance of older works of art. More importantly, the interpretation of the collection is always changing so that over time there can be very significant alterations both in what is seen and the way in which this art is seen. So there is an inherent change built in this evolution of a museum, based on the constant reconsideration of the collection itself,» Lowry said. When acquiring new works, is a museum seriously affected by the forces of the art market? «I think that a museum should be audacious; it has to be taking risks. Museums cannot avoid being involved in the art market. However, for a museum to fulfill its role it must also be beyond the market, it must make decisions with a long-term perspective and with the understanding that whatever the forces of the market today, they are ultimately not the decisive, most important forces that will determine a critical reading of art. The art market is really only interesting in terms of the relative judgment you can make at any one time about what it values as important, which over a longer period of time changes dramatically. In the 80s for example, when the Japanese were buying impressionist art, second- and third-rate Monets were valued at extremely high prices. Today they have been revalued and cost only a fraction of art by a younger generation. That too is going to be revalued in the future,» Lowry said. On the issue of private versus public funding, the former a practice in US museums and the latter how most European museums operate, Lowry thinks that private funding is probably the most effective in helping a museum fulfill its role. «It is certainly an issue, but an issue that cuts both ways. For example, state-funded museums in Europe may find obstacles when wanting to buy works that are offensive. So the challenge with the private collectors is to guide their tastes rather than be guided by them, and, by and large, I suspect that there is greater latitude and greater capacity to develop a collection through the private sector than through the public sector. I do not think that any system is perfect, so that there is always a balancing of a variety of setoffs,» Lowry said. One of the greatest challenges for museums and international art events in general is to achieve a balance between local and global. «I travel a lot, go to many biennials, and honestly the ones that look like those of other cities, I just tune out of. The challenge is to recognize that there is indeed an international movement of artists and art that is global but that in every location there are always going to be unique sensibilities that are important, that require attention and nurturing. I think the great institutions are the ones that are able to strike a fine balance between the global and the local. That, inevitably is the result of curatorial prowess.» «I think that what is happening is that there are so many centers of production around the world that maybe there is no longer a center, which means that there is no longer a periphery. It is our responsibility to be looking carefully at what is happening around the world today and try to make thoughtful judgments about the artists and art and that is mostly interesting from our perspective, but by no means has to be interesting from others’ perspective.» Becoming more globally aware is, according to Glenn Lowry, one of the challenges that will increase with time. «Institutions will cover far more territory and be more global in their reach. They will still be grounded in their presentation of art, but will move at a faster pace, in terms of generating exhibitions and a mulitiplicity of programs.» At present, both art and museums are enjoying a period of significant growth and popularity. «I think the world has enjoyed a relatively stable and affluent period over the last decade and that this wealth has converged with an interest in contemporary art. What I also see is a kind of effervescence as places both large and small are acquiring museums which are critical aspects of their civil society, not just venues for showing art. Museums are given prime locations, they become symbols of cultural aspiration, points of tourism, places where the community meets,» Lowry said. In New York City, MoMA has played that role long before museums became a fashion that spread all over the world. The paradigm set by MoMA is based on a long tradition which Glenn Lowry keeps enriching with new ideas and projects.

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