The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

A Fifteenth Sounding: Remaking Utopia in the Museum

Artists As Curators

How and why, asks Miranda Stearn, should museums engage with and encourage work with contemporary artists? Is it possible that, in these interventions, new Utopias can be created?

Mark Dion once wrote that artists working in the field of institutional critique fall into one of two camps - one who sees it as wholly negative, and those who want to change them from the outside, through the creation of their own utopias.

Inviting practitioners of institutional critique into the museum is, for a curator, both appealing and problematic. Mutual benefits can certainly be gained; new knowledges can be created around collections, and artists are able to gain access and new information upon art and objects of interest. Museums are also able, through these processes, to engage in self-reflection.

The turbulent transformation of Hans Haacke from outsider critic to internal collaborator shows how the relationship between museums and artists has not always been a smooth one. In 1971, the Guggenheim insisted that Haacke omit three of his works from a proposed exhibition. Haacke refused, and the museum canceled the show. After doing so, the director lost his job, and the institution was boycotted and criticized. Haacke's work was not shown in or bought by another American Museum for 12 years. In 1974, in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, politically difficult biographical details of an organizer's links to the Nazi party did not, of course, go down well.

This often resulted in his being shown mainly in small, commercial or private, galleries. But eventually, he did return to the museum - and it is interesting that he was invited to do so, even though he remained as controversial as every. In Mixed Messages at the Sepentine in 2001, he was permitted to dispense with normal display conventions, and make connections between objects not typically displayed together. Haacke emphasized the importance of drawing out the imperial, colonial context of the collections of the V&A, which he tried to express and undermine in Mixed Messages. For Haacke, though imperialism is only one of many elements of the V&A, it's important that there are nuanced understandings of as much as possible of their underlying ideologies.

We also sense, however, a mellowing of Haacke's attitude - which he attributed himself to a shift from the specific, present situation of any particular institution, to broader historical and social concerns.

Thus can the museum be transformed from a purveyor of institutional attitudes, to a facilitator of more personal responses. In Haacke's work, new attitudes towards objects which it would take many lines of texts to create, are brought into being.

But why don't curators do this themselves, rather than inviting contemporary artists in? The risk is isolated to a single project, and responsibility for it is transfered. But the skills of the artist, and their particular ways of seeing, should also be considered.

The institutional critique offered by these practices is, of course, to some extent limited by the fact that the museum has chosen, and commissioned an artist - the situation is complex. It is true, certainly, that the messages received by visitors are changed by artistic interventions. But we have to understand how the status of museums, and the status of the artist-curator invited to perform institutional critique, affect the meanings which the audience make, and the results which eventually transpire from the collaboration and engagement of museum and artist.

We're talking around utopia. We're circling it, and never yet quite reaching it. This morning we dreamed it - but that dream remained deferred - and we have just queried some of its problems, of a practical and more abstract, ontological nature. It's almost time for us to take a break now, but I'll leave you with this question - will the next session, 'Questioning the Profession', further distance us from our destination? Perhaps, instead of continually reaching and not quite touching, we need to reconsider the nature(s?) and location(s?) of that as yet nebulous destination.

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