Wednesday, January 21, 2009

MoMA: Artist's Choice, Deep Storage, and the Curatorial Prerogative

Here is my response to Jerry Saltz's recent article Manhattan Mega Storage, in which MoMA's initiative of artist-curated exhibitions, drawn from the permanent collection, is posited as an aesthetic solution for museums during our challenging economic times. My comment also appears on the New York Magazine website.

This is the twentieth year of Artist’s Choice at MoMA, in which certain noteworthy practitioners are periodically chosen to organize an exhibition around a theme of their own device, with all work drawn from that august institution's unparalleled holdings from its various departments: Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, Photography, Film, Design and now Media. It started in 1989, when Kirk Varnedoe invited Scott Burton, maker of benches and plinths, who responded with an exhibition of Brancusi’s bases as sculpture in its own right. Subsequent exhibitions were organized by Ellsworth Kelly (1990), Chuck Close (1991), John Baldessari (1994), Elizabeth Murray (1995), Mona Hatoum (2004), Stephen Sondheim (2005), and Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (2006). The latter was widely perceived as a consolation prize for their not getting the commission to build MoMA, and resulted in Perception Restrained, an exercise in institutional critique which archly proposed a model for the museum as an inaccessible, departmentalized vault for art.

"Rebus", the current exhibition organized by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, is only the ninth in the Artist's Choice series, which
remains positioned as a fairly rare occurrence, similar to the conferring of a knighthood. To be chosen is MoMA's bestowal of a singular honor.

Scheduling more shows organized by artists and drawn from the permanent collection, as Mr. Saltz suggests, would confer greater frequency on Artist’s Choice and dilute its current quality of encomium. This could still be an aesthetically resonant and economically expedient solution, placing more of the museum's deep storage on display while avoiding costly procurements, the shipping and insuring of work from elsewhere. But it could also lessen the role of MoMA's self-important curatorial staff. Recruiting artists to organize shows tends to make professional curators redundant and therefore expendable. For their part, the curators might understandably recoil in great horror from such an initiative, in much the same fashion that a literal reading of Jonathan Swift's essay, A Modest Proposal, scandalized readers in 1729.

It was Swift's satirical conceit to deal with famine and deprivation in Ireland by selling the children of the poor for the dining pleasure of the well-to-do: a horrifyingly elegant but impossible solution.
As MoMA feels the pinch, sacrificing some of its curators to the common good might also seem useful and prudent. The logical extrapolation of Mr Saltz's thesis could encourage just such a development. But don't expect these worthy ladies and gentlemen to give up their positions, their perks, their travel, their precious entitlement, even their daily bread, without a very loud squawk.


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