Solution: Tear Down All Museums

New Museum facade. Image courtesy of collaborator Shauna Thompson.

The title of Richard Flood's (Chief Curator, New Museum) Power Talk during the Toronto International Art Fair, "Tearing Down the House: Notes on Contemporary Curating" developed out of a discussion he had with Helena Reckitt (Senior Curator of Programs, The Power Plant) about what should be done to solve the current problems faced by contemporary arts institutions. Response: just tear them all down. Why bother with such a bold (and sarcastic) statement if you're not about to incite an exciting movement from it? Artists-run centres (ARCs) back in the day made their own spaces in response to what artists weren't getting from the major institutions, and now, maybe we can just tear them down and re-build yet again...if anyone wants to. Just as the ARC model is outdated, so is the idea of an all encompassing survey institution as described by Flood and his other panelists at another discussion at TIAF called "Curating in the New Economy" with Louis Gracos (Director, Albright-Knox), Sarah Milroy (Toronto art critic) and Daina Augaitis (Cheif Curator, Vancouver Art Gallery), so it lends the question as to whether we should in fact tear them down. Unfortunately, lacking anarchist conviction, Flood never elicited a call to arms.

One question that beat on the brain is "What are the problems that are so unsolvable that would cause us to consider utter destruction?" Well, none. But the current economic climate makes things more difficult. During his "Tearing Down the House" talk, Flood instead offered advice on how to be a good curator in order to improve the perceived situation rather than starting again from scratch. This advice was in the form of a list of things to remember, or what, in his opinion, should be the new focus of curators today. Keep in mind, this is the type of curator with a PhD, caring for a large collection, working for a significant international institution - think Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada, and the Museum of Modern Art (in any city) etc. - who is also well seasoned in the field:
  • Analyze your collection;
  • Know your institution's mandate;
  • Create a long-term and short-term collection plan;
  • Know the markets in which you plan to purchase items for your collection;
  • Be charming;
  • Know the difference between opportunity and impulse;
  • Know your director, your personnel, your trustees, and the philanthropists, knowing that they have different expectations [enforce the hierarchy];
  • Understand the importance of facilitating artists' production and promote artists' residencies;
  • Know how your institution will develop its 'online presence' (my quotes);
  • Hold a willingness to overcome convention.
Some of these seem a bit off the mark for someone in my position who has no desire to fit into the hierarchy of a larger institution as a curator, nor to necessarily work with a collection. Oddly enough, from my narrow and obsessive focus within contemporary art curating and non-profits, I forgot that curators are sometimes in charge of collections. Therein lies an intrinsic problem: Flood never acknowledged that curators could be anything else than what he is (except maybe less progressive and pleasurably unaware).

The New Museum's programming appears culturally rich in Flood's description, drawing from its permanent collection as a method of saving money in reaction to budget cuts, and doing it in a very smart way. Many of these exhibition spaces are on high rotation and are presented in public areas that you don't have to pay to access as a visitor with some even visible from the street for passersby. There is also a strong programme to promote young artists, which reflects the mandate of "New Art, New Ideas" quite well. Flood was emphatic about the promotion of new talent, saying that museums have to act as conduits for cultural production, not simply as preservers and presenters. It also follows his line of advice to my colleague and I after his talk that, even when you find yourself unemployed or not attached to an institution: you must remain a cultural producer. Welcome to the blog.

Described nonchalantly as a 'revenue generator' by Richard Flood, the Sky Room sits in the highest cube of the New Museum. Image courtesy of collaborator Shauna Thompson.

In response to an audience question asking Flood how the New Museum is surviving in the 'Recession', Flood offered his observation on a recent trend of institutional collaboration, or what I would call 'relational aesthetics for administrators'. Museums around the world are coming together to share resources (and money) to plan projects that have mutual promotional and cultural benefits for all the participants. The New Museum's programme called "Museum as Hub" brings together institutions from Egypt, Mexico, Holland, Korea and others on the premise of exploring new ways of communicating, collaborating and planning exhibitions. Flood described this sort of project as a positive response to the poor economic times because it has developed a space for open dialogue and collaboration between heretofore autonomous institutions. There is no criticism in concern of nepotism or shallow meaning in the practice of 'institutional relational aesthetics' since there are real and successful results among internationally respected institutions. The only problem for me is that it still looks like a glossy, well-funded project presenting ideal forms of production and dissemination without the grass-roots, real community appeal.

There remains a divide between grand institutions like the New Museum in relation to the smaller public institutions like an ARC as to how they have been effected by funding challenges brought on by the 'Recession' along with how a curator operates within each context. The New Museum upholds the ideals of a well-funded, hierarchal museum that all of us expect to exist through time; sure they struggle, but they still have enough money for the shellac to polish things over....often assisted through low-level layoffs *cough* AGO *cough*, while the big-wig Directors and Curators with the recognizable names spearhead the programming that valiantly continues (well, they're keeping the institution afloat, right?). In the case of smaller institutions, with few people filling many roles, relaxed hierarchy among curators, contributors and directors, focused programming, locally involved: they get closed down, like the Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver (R.I.P, and hope for the walking dead).

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