EssaysMuseums

New or Same Old Museum?

by Hrag Vartanian on October 13, 2009

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New York-based art blogger James Wagner recently declared “New Museum Commits Suicide with Banality” after the institution on the Bowery announced that they will be exhibiting the collection of one of their mega-rich trustees, Dakis Joannou. To add insult to injury, the whole museum show will be curated by one of Joannou’s BFFs, Jeff Koons. While James is right, I would argue that there have been signs of the institution’s death wish for some time.

From day one, the new New Museum has been presenting odd shows with allusions to trendy topics that feel disconnected from its roots as a barometer of the city’s artistic culture. Remember “After Nature?” Well, I’m trying to forget. And how about the Michelle Obama portrait that was carted in for the Elizabeth Peyton show after Obama’s election victory? How delightfully chic!

Its most recent show, Younger Than Jesus, proved to me that there was no turning back. Sure there were some talented artists on display–including crowd favorite Ryan Trecartin–but the whole concept of the show was bizarre to say the least. Why limit yourself to artists under the age of 33? What value does that bring? They aren’t exactly an oppressed or underrepresented minority, in fact, quite the opposite. You can’t wander into a gallery, museum or art fair without some recent MFA graduate (particularly a Yalie) popping up somewhere. If any group deserved more exposure, it would be middle-aged and older artists and no one is holding a high-profile biennial or triennial for them.

Excuse me for being cynical, but I can’t seem to not see the “Generational” thing for what I believe it was, a clever ploy–and in some ways quite brilliant. Older critics seemed to try and like part of it (and this is my cynicism talking) for fear that they would seem old-fogey (Jerry Saltz called it a “flawed but tantalizing new triennial,” Holland Cotter called it “large, buzzy, international in scope and age-specific“) while younger critics I spoke to wanted to celebrate it because it institutionalized their contemporaries, some of whom are promising but most of whom aren’t yet brilliant. I will mention that Stephen C. Squibb of ArtCat Zine did pen a good review that took the show to task, but I digress.

I didn’t fit into either group (I was 35 at the time) and at first I didn’t see the point….then I did.

Before the art market crash, collectors were running around eager to find the next hot young thing with the promise that in a few years time (or when Gagosian or Deitch added him or her to their stable) you could make a killing and triple your money. The problem is that that was then and this is now. Already in the midst of the economic recession, Younger Than Jesus felt like a relic of another era…a shopping mall of novelties that lacked any cohesive logic–malls never do.

So, what was the next unnatural step? Well, why caterer to collectors when you can service, I mean serve their interests directly? It was only a matter of time. When Cotter wrote, “it’s business as usual for a museum ever conscious of its clientele,” I guess I didn’t realize he may have meant the trustee/collectors.

Perhaps next the New Museum will add condo units above their building and create a residency program for collectors. We can all subsidize their rent with our admission tickets, government grants and underpaid staff while they continue to shop for shiny trinkets to fill the halls. It would be a perfect marriage of money, commercial interests, and trendy intellectuality and all in an up-and-coming location. I know that not everyone at the New Museum likes the direction things are going, but judging by what’s happening there, the voices of dissent don’t seem to have much power to change things.

In other words, how can you kill an institution that is already dead?

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  • http://www.lorenmunk.com James Kalm

    Great post Hrag.
    I think the situation points to a crippling dilemma, not only with the New but various other “institutions” that purport to be “of the avant-garde”. How can you put forth a valid “institutional critique” once you’ve become an institution? We’ve reached the juncture were “Post Institutional” art is, for advanced practitioners, the only way forward. At least until that concept becomes “institutionalized”.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Good points, but what do you mean by “post institutional” James?

  • Pingback: Same Old New Museum — Hrag Vartanian()

  • http://newclenblog Lawrence Swan

    Maybe we need halfway houses for the formerly institutionalized avant garde.

  • http://www.furiousdreams.com/blog/ Victoria

    I’m waiting for the show; ‘Older than dirt’.

    • http://hragvartanian.com Hrag

      There was a rogue show around the corner from Younger Than Jesus, one of the people I know who works at the New Museum told me that and someone else confirmed it (though I never saw it), it was called Older Than God (or was it Moses)…something like that.

  • http://www.markstaffbrandl.com/ Mark Staff Brandl

    Excellent article Hrag. I agree with James too. The idea of trendy problems from day one has seldom been mentioned before.

  • highlowbetween

    Great rant Hrag. When visiting, I always find myself thinking about how cheap the building materials look – not good for an Art Museum.

  • http://neditpasmoncoeur.blogspot.com Leah Sandals

    Thanks for this post, Hrag. I’m a bit late coming to it, but it is definitely informative, as well as saddening. I will keep in it mind here in Toronto as Richard Flood gives a couple of talks at our wee art fair this weekend.

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