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(image by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

On Tuesday, artnet News posted an article by Christian Viveros-Fauné with the attention-grabbing and self-explanatory title, “MoMA Curator Klaus Biesenbach Should Be Fired Over Björk Show Debacle.” The piece detailed how members of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) board have expressed their extreme displeasure over the Björk show organized by MoMA Curator-at-Large Klaus Biesenbach — so much so that Biesenbach, and even MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, a supposition based on a quote by Jerry Saltz, citing “long-time MoMA watchers” who believe that Lowry should have been fired long ago. While Viveros-Fauné’s sourcing is highly questionable, his story has caused an understandable furor and would be extraordinary if true. Here are some thoughts on the matter.

There have been other rumors that Lowry has been formulating an exit strategy, possibly because he sees the handwriting on the wall. I’m no fan of his, but it is the case that he has been dutifully executing the will of the board, whether that’s meant tearing down the American Folk Art Museum at the whim of MoMA Board Chairman Jerry Speyer or doing any of the other things meant to increase attendance and expand the museum. In fact, Lowry once told me in an interview that his primary job as director is to “serve” the board.

So, it’s a bit rich that unnamed board members are now shocked, SHOCKED! that MoMA has been catering to tourists. I certainly agree that the Björk show stinks up the joint, but in theory it could have worked had the star not stayed in her dressing room instead of going onstage. It’s evident to me that’s precisely what happened. After all, nobody complained about the Tim Burton show that I recall, but that’s probably because he actually showed up and did the necessary work to make it fly.

This is obviously about the board members going to dinner parties and such, and being told by friends and associates that they should be embarrassed by the show. And they should be, I guess; the problem is that they refuse to accept any responsibility for fostering the conditions that allowed it to happen. I also think it’s interesting that the story suggests it’s more important that the board didn’t attend the show rather than the public — though the jury is still out on the actual number of visitors. In the scheme of things, that’s true, but again it’s a case of chickens coming home to roost; the board is just trying to get out of the way of all the chickenshit falling from the skies.

I have to say, I feel bad for Klaus. I personally like him, and while I haven’t necessarily agreed with everything he’s done, I also like that fact that he’s a populist. Is he a publicity hog? Absolutely. So is Jerry Saltz. At least Klaus is involved in good works like helping his neighborhood, the Rockaways, recover from Sandy, because it’s the last f-ing place in New York that artists can afford to live (for now, anyway). He doesn’t spend all of his time looking in the mirror.

Finally, why shouldn’t everyone be let in on art? What sacred, ecclesiastical idea is contemporary art promoting that requires a group of the elect to govern, when contemporary art itself has become little more than an asset for plutocrats? True, a lot of academics think their theoretical exertions in Artforum and elsewhere are worth something, but their arguments are in inverse proportion to the thinness of most of the art they support.

So why this pantomime of defending vestigial ideas that the little guy supposedly doesn’t get when they no longer exist? Why wouldn’t ordinary people get the popular-culture references riddling art, or even abstraction at this point? And if popular culture is such a linchpin for artists, why shouldn’t the real deal be represented in museums? The point is to do it right, as opposed to not doing it all. And if it’s so difficult to balance the popular with the elite, why are collectors gobbling up crap like Jeff Koons? Because it’s okay for the rich to do it (when they feel like it) but not anyone else? That’s messed up.

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37 replies on “Who’s Really to Blame for MoMA’s Björkgate?”

  1. LOL—Artforum is the most out of touch of all of the contemporary art pubs. It’s laughable when a publication tries grasping onto its perceived continued relevance—near Octoberian one may say!

    The MoMA is a fucking trainwreck. Why should Klaus be spared when his brother from another clown Deitch got sacked for pulling the same celebrity pandering maneuvers? I don’t care for either of their ‘labors’, but the fate should be the same. And it’s not to do with a form of museopopulism—it’s to do with an attempted lowering of contemporary art below that of American pop culture, which itself, is as far down as one can go.

    The Hollywoodization of art is ultimately going to devalue and eviscerate it.

      1. That happy medium is Spike and Frieze.

        At the moment, the more relevant pubs are are N+1, Mousse, e-flux, Texte zur Kunst—though those too may lessen in sight over time. It all fluctuates. October and Artforum currently seem to be more concerned with legacy preservation. We don’t need any more Richard Serra pieces.

    1. Art is ultimately already devalued and eviscerated. It began around the time the painting of a soup can became art. It continues when photography and bricks laid out in a square on the floor pass for art.

      What MoMA is trying to do ( and failing) is what Broadway is doing mixing the well-known (Hollywood) with the somewhat known, and the new. The MoMA biggest issue is that they have no one on staff who gasps the new; so they try for the well-known to get people in the seats and shops.

      The MoMa has lots of money and lots of “things” but it is not a great place. It is like the 2014 Yankees; lots of money, talent, and smart people, but living on the past and currently disappointing.

      1. The first step of what I’d like to see happen to MoMA is the removal of its not-for-profit status.

        1. Now you have jumped the shark. What would taking away their NPO status do? The MoMA has made a number of mistakes but given that most Broadway theatres, Paley, FIT, the National Football League, Columbia University have made bigger mistakes. I would put them all on this take away non-profit status head of MoMA.

  2. It’s not the populism of the Bjork show that bothers me, it’s how poorly it was installed/conceived.

  3. What if Jef Koons decided to have a “band” and played in Lollapalooza? I don’t think he’ll do too well either…. I agree he makes expensive crap for an over-bloated market but he at least his work has a historical significance. At least he is honest doing his crap, I assume he believes in it, we might not like it… so its our right to criticize it, private or publicly, their are means to do so (orally or written). From artist to artist (or critic to artist). The problem with the Bjork show and the load of crap that Moma is doing with their wired pop-star agenda is that it over shadows the honest and real research (historical and contemporary) and any communication attempt the museum might have to reach all viewers/visitors the best way possible. Moma is a world famous museum with thousands of tourists pouring in just to see the building and to say they have been there. And in the way of doing so they see the collection, and a show or two, great. Why would Moma need to “improve” its visitor numbers? Does it really need to be more populist (or popular) than it already is? The building can hardly manage normal shows… It might just be a case of a institutional delusional-ego-trip? is it competing with the MET? is it jealous of the new Whitney? It’s hard for me to believe the argument of having to “open up the museum”. And if thats the real reason well I can think of a 100 ways of doing so that doesn’t involve pop starts that are already famous and gain nothing with a show at Moma. Serious community outreach for example. Close the museum one day (as it used to be) and bring in the schools. Bring in seniors from community centers. Teenagers and pop lovers have a world out there that is already theirs.

  4. I miss Robert Storr being at MOMA. I still remember that Elizabeth Murray show and treasure the wonderful catalog. That’s the kind of in-depth retrospective contextualizing a substantial artist and her achievement that they should be doing. By the way, I thought LACMA’s Stanley Kubrick show in 2012-13 was excellent, so it is possible to do a show about moving image art in a gallery context that introduces their work if you didn’t know it previously (like my son, who was in college at the time), but has plenty to offer people who’d actually seen some of the movies. Whatever level of previous experience you had, it contributed to one’s understanding of his working process, how paintings and photography influenced his work, and his evolution as a storyteller. There was tons of interesting stuff to look at that took you behind the scenes of the moviemaking process.

  5. Populism is not the problem – Bjork is hardly Top 40 fare – it’s a curator who has no idea how to mount a show (that was always going to be a version of David Bowie @ V&A – but smaller, cheaper). The show by overwhelming reports is cramped, unhelpful and scarcely does the artist justice. Klaus deserves the chop for incompetence, not for his pathetic schmoozing.

  6. Jeff Koons is a great performance artist and absolutely responsible for anything that goes out under his brand. Bjork apparently not so….perhaps this is the divide between art and entertainment.

  7. How did Klaus Biesenbach help the Rockaways? By bringing a few celebs to help muck out my neighbors basement one day? By erecting a geodesic dome in a parking lot, a dome in which almost nothing happened, save one Patti Smith performance (I concede, pretty cool). Oh, there was a Terence Koh vitrine with an egg, what a weird choice of art to engage the public. I have an MFA and was scratching my head. And don’t get me started on “Rockaway!” A self serving installation concert hipster onslaught that took over one of the actually populist spaces in Rockaway. None of these things are populist, they are masks.
    Haven’t seen the Bjork show, her overwrought warbling is no more art than an egg in a glass box plunked down in my shit and sand covered hood.

    1. It helped your neighborhood in the sense that it called attention, in however an elitist manner, to the situation there. We can certainly argue about the efficacy of his activities, but in his own way, he tried, even if his efforts were ultimately self-serving. He didn’t have to bother at all. I personally think he was being sincere, if tone-deaf, but that’s just me, so we can agree to disagree. But I do think everything he does is motivated by a genuine populist sensibility; that also gets him into trouble, even with the people he’s trying to appeal to (especially with the people he’s trying to appeal to?). He wants everyone in on art because he believes in art as a force for social good. (I don’t, btw; I’m not an elitist, though. I’m a closest formalist.) Even the fame-whoring serves a purpose: Consorting with movie stars and such taps into the drawing power of celebrity. Again, a paradox that doesn’t resolve itself. But remember, he is a German from a generation deeply enthralled by Beuy’s idea of art as social sculpture. The fact that he’s German also makes his stabs at populism seem awkward in an American context. Ultimately, I don’t thing he understands that what he’s doing is bullshit. He’s a believer, believe it or not.

  8. Am glad someone is saying this. The vast majority of the reviews of the show put the blame for it squarely on Klaus Biesenbach and give Bjork herself a pass. But the show has to have been a collaboration between the two of them, and for that matter between the two of them and a larger team–how many of the ideas were hers, how much of the show reflects Klaus trying to realize her ideas, has to be at the very least a complicated story. And within the museum, a lot of people besides Klaus have to have signed off on the show–Christian V.F.’s idea of him as a lone wolf just isn’t the way museums work. As for V.F.’s idea that MoMA-bashing is “unthinkable,” that’s utterly laughable, as anyone who reads Roberta Saltz/Jerry Smith should know. A lot of the reviews of the show are scapegoating and ultimately dishonest–the museum has given the writers a big fat safe target and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.

    Which isn’t to defend the show, which is a mess. But people try things, fail, learn, and move on.

  9. I’ll admit that MoMA has problem between it’s real estate ambitions and it’s desire to draw to tourists with exhibitions desisgned to entice them and their $20

  10. Terrific analysis. The beginning of the end for MoMA’s leadership (whether board or staff inititiated) was tearing down a noteworthy, possible great, example of urban architecture and design–and a neighbor to boot–when they supposedly collect and celebrate same through a major department of the Museum that has been in place nearly from the origins of the museum and its mission.

  11. Thank you for pointing out that maybe, just maybe, it’s not so bad to have “ordinary” people come to a museum to look at art. Come for Bjork/Tim Burton/High Heels, etc., stay for Jean Dubuffet/Bill Morrison, etc.

  12. I live in Houston and make art from the unclaimed cremated remains of American left behind in funeral homes for infinite reasons. I doubt they would have been to concerned with these inbred dynamics. But, I suppose we all have to be busy with something while we’re sojourning through this little atomic wormhole. Best of luck to all of us.

  13. So something’s rotten in the state of artsville? Well as long as everyone’s in such trenchant trench-mode, why not remove the bayonets from the celebrity-petting curators and lob the odd grenade at the plonk-whatever-in-white-room-voilà-installation brigade? The gallery establishment has sequestered Duchamp’s supreme radicalism and melted it down to forge a template that churns out an endless stream of vacuous, stultifying and fundamentally superfluous installations. Worried about selfie-snapping hoards surging through MOMA, sucking the lifeblood out of contemporary art? The real nasty business is going down elsewhere. I reckon.

  14. Great article and great discussion… some of the most pertinent observations i’ve read in a while! Thanks folks! …

    All i can say is hegemonic capitalism turns every pursuit into a marketing exercise. Art becomes marketing and artists and art-worlders lobotomize to marketeers. Crap. We have devolved “civilization”, arguably never civilized, into a free-for-all spectacle for money-power rather than an evolution of intelligence, understanding and higher quality of everything. This is the turn of events that proceeds from the political unplug that came after shutting down the Vietnam War. Villainizing, executing and incarcerating revolution, and gutting eco-consciousness with Reagan me-me-me greed. I love well done popular culture exhibits that brings everyone together. But now the entire modern culture worldwide is managed by capitalist tweekers run amok. MoMA’s trainwreck mirrors the 1%’s decadent empire of stupidity. What can we expect?

    Monoculture… eliminating all competing life forms or ideas separating the 1% and their gremlin hordes from profit and hegemonic control. I will bet most of the real art of value at this time is being created outside the museums, universities and commercial galleries. Diversity, openness and risk. Capitalist marketing is an obsolete dead end. Those of us working outside the system are just waiting for everybody else to realize there’s a better, funkier, cheaper, egalitarian and more fun world outside that’s being created now.

  15. Seriously – he probably gets paid a fortune to deliver – and didn’t. He should be held accountable. To blame this train wreck on Bjork – seriously? She was smart to not get too involved. The execution was abysmal and he is responsible for that – nice guy or not.

  16. Exactly… Biesenbach is an activist in his own backyard because it benefits HIM… however no help for Tania Bruguera when arrested in Cuba?

    1. Suggesting someone start a protest against the Cuban government is expecting a lot, particularly since the real chronology of events always seems clearer in retrospect. It’s easy to point out nice things people should’ve done.

  17. Maybe this will help stifle the attempts by musicians to get “fine art” cred (Kanye, Jay Z, Bjork, etc..) while giving artists more pop cred (Abromovic and Barney).

  18. Great article! Your observations about contemporary art and the “theoretical exertions” of many academics — spot on.

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