Reimagining Museum Design, with Education at the Forefront

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street Entrance Canopy, the Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy of MoMA)

Education departments — with their public programming, outreach, and artistic collaborations — have generally been the most imaginative, responsive, and inclusive arms of museums. So, why are they not given the highest consideration in new museum building planning? Looking at the recent museum architecture in New York City and elsewhere, we identify a general pattern. For instance, both the New Museum and the Whitney have education “floors,” which are under-designed and do not offer significant zones for social gatherings, critical reflection, or teaching. Similarly, at the brand new, Museum of Modern Art building, the education “rooms” appear to be an afterthought rather than an integral part of a grand $450 million architectural vision. So, how should we reimagine a museum today in spatial terms?

At one of the collection galleries located on the fifth floor of the old MoMA (the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building) the current architectural design exhibition, titled Architecture for Modern Art, is dedicated to answering the question of how modern art should be exhibited. New forms of artistic production at the time of that era required new types of spaces devoted to presenting and preserving these works. The many different approaches presented in this gallery demonstrate that the original white box has indeed prevailed and is rationally reiterated in the new MoMA.

North/south section-perspective through the new gallery spaces at The Museum of Modern Art, looking east along Fifty-third Street. © 2017 Diller Scofidio + Renfro (image courtesy MoMA)

The question of how modern art should be exhibited implies a more fundamental question: what is a museum today? MoMA curators answer this question by relying on the museum’s vast collection and by carefully weaving rooms together with a refreshing thematic clustering. Now, “modern” is no longer merely white, Euro-male (WEM). It is plural, and modernism(s) are presented by rethinking gender, race, as well as geographic inclusivity. While the museum still has traditional, media-based departments such as photography, architecture, design, painting, and drawing, work is manifested more fluidly in the new rehang allowing transitions and transgressions between genres and occasionally generates surprising groupings through diverse subject interests.

While MoMA’s curatorial team reorganizes their collection by employing some contemporary rethinking infused with liberal political and cultural sensibilities, the architectural reconsideration falls short in introducing an innovative building for the 21st century. The new MoMA has generous exhibition spaces and perhaps better audience circulation, but where are the transformative architectural gestures that would propel the museum into the future?

Interior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Flagship Museum store, the Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy of MoMA)

For contemporary artistic production, curated exhibitions are undoubtedly necessary, but they are no longer sufficient for a robust museum program. Focusing solely on exhibitions undermines what should be the core missions of an art institution: to rapidly respond to the ever-developing social, political, and cultural milieu; to be an integral part of civic dialogue; to support and disseminate cultural production to the broad public; and to be hospitable to a variety of cultural actors. A courageous architectural proposal could have challenged presumed spatial and organizational hierarchies by actively centering, at the very core of the museum, its critical public engagement program with its inclusive pedagogy.

Let us argue for a comprehensive rethinking of organizational structure where curatorial functions are manifested under the umbrella of a unified education department. This fundamental transformation would swiftly redirect our attention from the art market, high rolling collectors, trustees, oligarchs, or Hollywood actors, to creative public engagement, which is about creating salient conversations around artistic production, forming new communities, imagining a better future for many publics.

So, what is the ideal museum today?

Although museums have been one of the engines of gentrification and development projects and tourism-oriented reimaginations of post-industrial, global cities, they still play a vital public role in cultural production, presentation, and the preservation of cultural heritage.

Installation View of “Fossil Psychics for Christa” (2019) by Kerstin Brätsch in the Caroll and Milton Petrie Terrace Sixth Floor Café, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy MoMA)

Museums are fundamental in producing new forms of knowledge through their interdisciplinary programming; they are no longer pretty containers for art collections. Instead, they are sites for meaningful social engagement and cultural transformation.

To have a legitimate function in a community as a site of cultural production and dissemination, a museum needs to secure its role as a genuinely public institution. In other words, unlike a private collection or a commercial gallery, an art museum’s mission needs to be governed by its civic concerns. Even small museums with limited resources now aim to be inclusive. From school-age children to university students, from senior citizens to art teachers, a museum addresses many people. In return, all these social groups have a stake in the museum’s achievements. Because of this public nature, cultural producers, including activists, art critics, artists, and students, scrutinize the museum’s administrative decisions such as funding sources, the selection of board members, curatorial choices, and the degree to which the organization represents diversity.

Similar to its objects, a museum classifies its audience: Specific departments handle trustees, members, artists, journalists, art critics, teachers, children, students, and senior citizens. For instance, while the education department works with children, students, art teachers, and senior citizens, administration and development tend to be involved with trustees, donors, collectors and galleries, and so on. Especially in the United States, curators are expected to cultivate high-level donors and collectors; socializing is part of the job description. In other words, museums effectively reiterate and reproduce social class dispositions through a discriminatory categorization.

While stakeholders demand cultural institutions be accountable to them, as well as transparent and inclusive, museums have been going through a steady (neoliberal) structural reconfiguration since the 1980s, which, in turn, has engendered new forms of cultural production most of which are framed by marketing and PR machinery — the soul of new corporations. An absence of public funding is leaving museums in the US more vulnerable as they face a dilemma: surrender to private donors, public-private partnerships, and corporate sponsorship, or disappear.

The New Museum as it looks today: Chris Burden, “Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers” (2013); Chris Burden, “Ghost Ship” (2005) (© Chris Burden / Licensed by The Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Building: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013 (photo by Dean Kaufman)

In this respect, the rise of development and marketing departments in museums undermines the very idea of inclusivity. Furthermore, within this funding milieu, the sleek WEM curators have gained unfair importance. Many museum workers, specifically those who have been fighting for the public good in the institutional trenches, have been excessively unhappy with this market-oriented configuration, which lacks diversity, intellectual character, clarity, and commitment to making a better society.

Perhaps today, many contemporary art institutions are better equipped to activate a network of global associations by extending their curatorial approaches and reconsidering exhibition making, public engagement, and education. However, this slow ideological rupturing of nationalist, patriarchal, WEM-Judeo-Christian traditions was only possible through steadfast and creative interventions by cultural workers. For instance, the first-wave of institutional critique artists were instrumental in this transformation and challenged the museum’s production and maintenance of cultural norms.

Since the onset of the grass-roots, international uprisings including the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, however, we are witnessing a resurgence of the second wave of critique. Cultural practitioners — who emerged from OWS, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Decolonization movements, armed with intersectional theories — have been demanding structural transformation from top to bottom. Furthermore, “the second wave” does not fall into the pitfalls of its first iteration — namely co-opting with the institutional mechanisms and the art market. For instance, see the work of Decolonize This Place. These second-wave artists are addressing issues beyond bureaucracy, the art market, and conflict of interests, and working within a generalized social justice framework, demanding cultural representation, political recognition, and historical accountability by collectively activating museums as sites of contestation.

Following the global trends, over the last decade, New York City has witnessed three major museum construction projects: the New Museum, the Whitney and the new MoMA. Designed by well-known architects, these brand-new spaces provided a blank canvas for administrations to rethink their programming and the ways in which they engage their audiences. And their opening exhibitions have acted as manifestos for the museum’s renewed programming.

For example, the New Museum opened its new building in 2007 with its Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century exhibition, which was a compelling proposal about a new kind of materiality, displaying contemporary art that is ephemeral, often brittle, and gendered. With its “fragmented forms, torn pictures and clashing sounds,” this exhibition made a statement about the nature of contemporary art and was presented by the curatorial department as a collective effort. What happened next were troubling: exhibitions including Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty; Carsten Höller: The Experience; Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection by Jeff Koons, and a market-oriented gimmicky Younger than Jesus triennial lacked rigor. The New Museum was once the artists’ museum, but it felt like it became the trustees’ playground. Recently, the museum made considerable effort to fix this issue, but the staff and public still seem to be displeased with its market-oriented ideological dead end.

Installation view: Collage: The Unmonumental Picture New Museum, New York, 2008, with on the background, on wall, Wangechi Mutu “Perhaps the Moon will save us” (2008) (photograph by Allison Brady)

So, what can be done to rethink museum architecture today? The New Museum’s cheese grinder, the Whitney Museum’s copy machine, and now, the new MoMA’s updated hotel lobby, are rather inhospitable spaces for an inclusive public engagement and those without wealth and power.

It is time to imagine museums as social, educational centers with libraries, classrooms, gathering spaces where everyone — especially young people — love to hang out. In light of the new MoMA, I want to specifically address the New Museum’s upcoming $63 million expansion designed by OMA. Perhaps the museum can use this opportunity to be innovative again, and leap into the 21st century by reclaiming its position as an artists’ institution.

Daytime View from Prince Street (image by OMA/Bloomimages.de)

Finally, for this transformation to take hold, we should not rely on the architects who seems to fluidly transform from capitalist developers to critical theorists, from social engineers to romantic writers, although ultimately selling forms of bourgeois utopias to their privileged clients. With their sterile spaces, starchitects such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhas, or Frank Gehry, and their alternatives have betrayed us over and over again. Museums are like universities: They play a vital in our democratic life, and they are sites for true social and cultural hybridization. It is time to radically rethink their design programs and architecture to make them truly public.

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