VAN March/April 2011: Productive Reflection

Anne Lynott reports on ‘The Museum Revisited’, a seminar on ‘New Institutionalism’ and contemporary art galleries and museums, held at The Science Gallery, Dublin, 16 October 2010.

‘New institutionalism’ has been a buzz phrase in European curatorial discourse since the last decade. The late 1990s saw previously independent curators beginning to move to key posts within major art institutions (1). And by the new millennium, developments were taking place in how galleries and museums were being operated. This ‘new institutionalism’ was characterised by self-reflexivity and an interest in alternative curatorial models, particularly those aimed at debate and dialogue with other fields of knowledge. A defining characteristic was that exhibitions no longer had precedence over other types of activity. Instead, equal importance was placed on discourse, research, analysis and thinking about contemporary art, as much as presenting it. As Claire Doherty has put it “new institutionalism responds to (some even say assimilates) the working methods of artistic practice and furthermore, artist-run initiatives, whilst maintaining a belief in the gallery, museum or arts centre, and by association their buildings, as a necessary locus of, or platform for, art.”(2)

European institutions, which have always been less dependent on private donors than their American counterparts, have had more freedom to make programming changes along new institutional lines. Nonetheless, the key ideas behind new institutionalism – self-reflexivity and responding to new artistic practices, have made it an attractive model to many curators in the United States. Addressing this issue, Amanda Ralph of IADT, Dun Laoghaire organised ‘The Museum Revisited’ a seminar that explored the relevance of these new forms of curatorial practice. The event featured presentations by two US based curators, both working in Los Angeles – Anne Ellegood (Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum) and Shamim M Momin (Director/Curator of LAND, Los Angeles Nomadic Division). The event took place on 16 October, at The Science Gallery in Dublin and was presented by Culture Ireland in association with the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles and IADT’s MA in Visual Arts Practices (MAVIS).

Anne Ellegood began by sketching out an overview of the Hammer Museum’s structure and history. The museum was founded in 1990 by Dr Armand Hammer, a private collector who wanted to make his collection available for the public to view. Three weeks after the opening of the museum, Dr. Hammer died ¬¬– all construction was halted and the building was left unfinished. In 1994, after two years of negotiations, a partnership with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was finalised. The university assumed the management and operations of the museum, and relocated its collections, the staff of UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery and the Grunwald Centre for Graphic Arts to the museum’s building. The director of the Wight Art Gallery, Henry Hopkins, led the museum until his retirement in 1998, after which Ann Philbin was named director.

Ellegood attributes the Hammer Museum today as the one, which Ann Philbin created ¬¬– changing from a museum showing travelling exhibitions in the beginning to one that honours active engagement with LA artists and publics. Alternative spaces were a template for the director, who began her career in the late ‘70s with internships at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and at Artists Space in New York. “Those were totally formative times for me” she told the New York Times in 2004. “That really explains why I can’t get away from the artist as the central figure” (3).

The institution strives for the museum to be a gathering place, a kind of town hall with different options for people; not just exhibitions, but events, screenings, discussions and activities which make the museum a place that people will come back to again and again. Co-ordinated by Anne Ellegood herself, the Hammer Projects offer a dense programme of exhibitions with up to five running at a time, concurrent with the museum’s main programme. These single-artist shows aim to highlight the careers of established LA and international artists whom Ellegood believes to be under-recognised. She cited Friedrich Kunath, Larry Johnson and Tom Marioni as recent Hammer Project artists.

As a collection-based institution the Hammer seems to be engaged in a balancing act between traditional formats of programming and new radical elements. And as with many European institutions throughout the last decade, the Hammer curators have explored different ways to approach the display of their collections through the involvement of artists in the curatorial process. The series of projects entitled ‘Houseguests’ invites local artists to curate a show from the museum’s Grunwald Collection of prints and drawings. These exhibitions allow viewers to examine how artists think about exhibitions and art history, whilst also drawing a contemporary art audience’s attention to historical works.

The museum also runs a public programme of 250 events per year in the courtyard level theatre. Events in the theatre include screenings, talks and discussions on topical socio-political subjects and are organised by a new Public Engagement department. This was created when the museum decided to actively tackle issues that might enhance the museum experience for visitors by hiring a curator of public engagement and visitor services.

The Hammer’s Artist in Residence scheme has also activated new ways for public engagement with recent resident Mark Allen creating numerous novel scenarios in the museum. He orchestrated a ‘Dream In’ where people were invited to sleep in the gallery and have their dreams analysed in the morning, and ‘Micro Concerts’ in the coat check room, where a violinist and a bass player would play for a couple of minutes to an audience of two in the tiny space. By inviting an electric guitarist to follow and play for visitors one at a time around the museum and installing ping pong tables on the museum’s balcony, Allen demonstrated the museum as a space where the public can engage with art in different ways and how the museum can respond to new working methods of artists.

During her presentation, Anne Ellegood attributed much of the Hammer’s success in finding new and better ways to engage with artists and publics to their strong relationship with and respect for the museum’s Artists Council. This is a group of 12 artists, on paid three-year contracts, who meet three to four times a year and advise museum staff on what should happen around the museum. The council is divided into two groups, the ‘innies’ and the ‘outies’, defining those that are interested in what is happening in the museum and those interested in the museum reaching out to the community.

Most of the European curators associated with new institutionalism had previously working independently and had considerable profiles for their freelance work. However Shamim M Momin, Director and Curator of Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), arrived at her current position with considerable institutional experience under her belt. Talking through her curatorial background, which included 12 years at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art in New York – including the co-curation of the 2004 and 2008 Whitney Biennial exhibitions. Momin was also branch director for eight years of the Whitney Museum at Altria, which was a glass-enclosed public space on 42nd Street in New York. She cited the experience of working with artists on a commission basis for the biennials and the quasi-public space of the Altria as two important elements that fed in to the setting up of LAND.

One of the difficulties for the European new institutional curators of the ‘00s was the association of the museum building itself with traditional exhibition formats. The restrictive nature of the building spurred curators to find other ways of presenting work both spatially and temporally. LAND, a non-profit public art organisation that, as its name suggests, is building towards the notion of decentralisation through integrating its nomadic endeavours into the cultural ecology of Los Angeles. Momin considers the growth of the LA art community interesting in terms of its influences on larger practices, and this became a structural analogue for LAND. By taking the experience of qualitative rigour from the Whitney, and also finding a way to represent expanded artistic practices (those that may include music, books and performances as well as paintings, video and other works) Momin is attempting to allow disparate elements fit together in a more holistic sense. The idea is to combine the institutional and qualitative rigour with a more responsive, nimble way of working. In this way, LAND can be tamed in to whatever is happening with the artists. Also, not being fixed to a particular site allows LAND to communicate with several remote audiences, which in some ways are more receptive than a local exhibition audience would be.

Momin described LAND as having three levels, though when one looks in to it, there seems to be much more going on with each event and exhibition expanding or developing into new stages. First there is VIA, which launched with LAND in January 2010. This was a suite of temporary public projects by four Mexican artists whose work was selected based on a unique and distinct relationship between the artists’ practices and the dynamic site of the LA cityscape. This was followed by VIA Stage 2, which consisted of staggered launches of new commissions throughout the year emphasising the conceptual basis of the project by spreading it not only across space, but time as well. The other levels of LAND mentioned by Momin are LAND 1.0, a series of multi-artist/multi-show events, and LAND 2.0, which consists of one off exhibitions. The group also run Nomadic Nights, which is a monthly, salon-style event in roaming locations throughout Los Angeles and Frame Rate, a programming series based on moving image works.

New institutionalism is institutional critique practised from the inside, examining and questioning the ideological structures through which they operate. Both the Hammer Museum and LAND are re-shaping museum and art-viewing cultures in Los Angeles through values of fluidity, discursivity, participation and production. The Hammer is following trends of large European museums, using non-exhibition centred programming to attract larger and more diverse audiences, as a way to sustain the museum. LAND may be looking to smaller institutions in Europe whose curatorial aims were more intellectually and politically directed. Both LA entities are using these event-based curatorial strategies as a way to move beyond the traditional concept of exhibition as the display of artworks in a white cube.

The productive nature of this institutional reflection, with curators working hand-in-hand with artists, provides an openness, which may not have existed before. Local artists can imagine their institution to be what they need it to be, or ‘home’, as Anne Ellegood described the Hammer for LA artists. Although both Ellegood and Momin state they are ‘following the artists’, the spreading trends of New Institutionalism were motivated by curators infused with political consciousness and theoretical curiosity. They had a desire to connect with broader socio-political issues, which, it could be argued, now inform artistic practices. Whichever way one sees the development of artistic and curatorial practices over the last twenty years, it is clear that working together in the institutional framework offers greater theoretical consciousness, critical awareness and political sensitivity for the artist, curator and public alike.

Anne Lynott

1) Several New Institutional examples of the 1990s and 2000s included Künstlerhaus Stuttgart under Ute Meta Bauer, Nicolaus Schafhausen took over Kunstverein Frankfurt, Maria Hlavajova took on BAK in Utrecht, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans became the founding directors of Palais de Tokyo and Catherine David, Charles Esche and Maria Lind took charge of Witte de With in Rotterdam, Rooseum in Malmo and Kunstverein München respectively.

2) Clare Doherty, ‘The institution is dead! Long live the institution! Contemporary Art and New Institutionalism’, Engage Review, Issue 15, Summer 2004

3) Anne Philbin,

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