Monday, July 02, 2007

The Büchel-Mass MoCA Debacle: Trust on the Ropes

Without saying that I'm convinced Büchel's going over budget at Mass MoCA wasn't a stunt, I am now convinced that the way Mass MoCA is handling the affair is problematic. Via The Art Law Blog (which is written by Büchel's lawyer, Donn Zaretsky, who seems quite intent on winning the PR war side of all this, I must say), comes this link to Ken Johnson's carefully considered and highly convincing assessment of the situation in the Globe. Here's some background:

As Globe readers may recall, last year Mass MoCA invited the Swiss sculptor to create a giant installation at the vast former factory complex it occupies in North Adams. On paper, it sounds like it should have been a great match. Büchel has an international reputation for creating ambitious, marvelously complex walk-in environments using all kinds of found materials, and Mass MoCA is known for sponsoring artists with ambitious, big ideas.

What went wrong in the fall of 2006 -- when Büchel and his assistants took up residence in North Adams and began working on his project, which was to be called "Training Ground for Democracy," his first major US museum show -- is in dispute. Mass MoCA says Büchel's unreasonable demands pushed the project way over budget, from $160,000 to $300,000. Büchel says Mass MoCA's incompetence and disregard for his expertise caused unnecessary delays and expenditures.

In any event, the exhibition did not open as scheduled on Dec. 16, and it remains unfinished. In May, Mass MoCA declared the exhibition canceled and then, paradoxically, said it would sue for the right to open Büchel's unfinished installation to the public as an "open back lot workshop." Büchel has strongly objected to his work being shown in its current state.

In fact, the installation is now open to the public, but under odd conditions: Yellow tarps affixed to construction fencing block the visitor's view of most of the materials assembled for the project. This is to propound the idea that the museum is not actually exhibiting Büchel's unfinished work and cannot therefore be sued for doing so. If the US District Court in Springfield rules in the museum's favor, then the fencing will be removed.
More problematic to my mind than this decision, which I think is novel enough to let the courts have their say about it (why waste the opportunity to get a ruling or elevate the case further up the judicial food chain...its outcome is important), however, is Mass MoCA's own PR counterstrike to Büchel's. In this regard, I totally agree with Johnson's assessment:

Leaving aside the strictly legal issues, there are larger concerns at stake, which have to do with the relationship between the artist, the museum, and the public. In this regard, Mass MoCA has compounded its wrongs by mounting a slick, disingenuous, egregiously self-serving photo and text display called "Made at Mass MoCA" in a small gallery at one end of the Büchel hall. It tells viewers all about the many successful large-scale projects it has produced with well-known artists such as Tim Hawkinson, Ann Hamilton, and Gregory Crewdson. The implicit message is that Büchel must be a real jerk to have been so uncooperative.

"Made at Mass MoCA" also includes a bulletin board adorned with newspaper articles describing the controversy, mainly in terms unfavorable to Büchel. Among them is an editorial from the North Adams Transcript that reads, in part, "Kudos to Mass MoCA for not only taking Swiss artist Christoph (The Great) Büchel to task but also to court for his shameful behavior regarding his long-promised but still not delivered 'Training Ground for Democracy.' "

"Made at Mass MoCA" usefully explains something important about how the museum operates. It prides itself on its ambition not only to exhibit works of art that challenge conventions in terms of scale and media but also to participate with artists in the actual production of large-scale works by providing funding, materials, labor, fabrication expertise, and other kinds of resources.

This is different from how art museums traditionally operate, which is to exhibit artworks created at the artist's expense in the studio or in the workshops of professional fabricators. Mass MoCA's approach entails significant risks for the museum. Budgets can be overridden, chemistry between artists and museum personnel can go sour, and a successful end product is not guaranteed. To collaborate with an artist in the production of a large-scale work is a leap of faith.
Originally, as I noted in this post, my concern with all this was what it would do to other artists, who would most likely see more scepticism from institutions and might lead to incredibly detailed (read restrictive) contracts for similar collaborations in the future. Now, however, my concern is for other institutions, who might have a much harder time convincing artists they won't pull a MassMoCA-style counterattack on them should things go sour. Things go sour between artists and those promoting their work all the time. It's the nature of working within such a personal realm. Professionals agree to part ways under civil terms and tend to keep their bitterness to themselves.

I read the "Made at Mass MoCA" exhibition in the same way Johnson does: its "implicit message is that Büchel must be a real jerk to have been so uncooperative." I can't help but feel that no matter how sincerely the institution feels that's the case, broadcasting it this way will only serve to weaken the trust between itself and other artists, not help it.



Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Without having read any more than you have, I would venture that this debacle seems to show both sides behaving badly. The museum got burned and went on the offensive. Really, "showing" the work behind hanging tarps?? However, this may be less about egos than it is about attendance, as summer is the big tourist season in Western Mass, and the museum may be trying to recoup its loss.

The artist got burned and withdrew, leaving his attorney to go on the offensive. However, Buchel does seem to have gone way over budget. Since there seem to be contracts and attorneys involved, let's assume the artist understood the terms of the contract. He's done these kinds of installations before, right? He knows what he can and can't do for the money allotted.

If there's going to be finger pointing, it would seem two fingers are needed.

Meanwhile, it sure is an interesting story: As The Art World Turns.

7/02/2007 10:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

He's done these kinds of installations before, right? He knows what he can and can't do for the money allotted.

Well, if this is Buchel's first U.S. museum show I can imagine that there could be typical cover-your-ass expenses he didn't anticipate (e.g., meeting building codes, using a structural engineer, etc.). But that's just a guess.

7/02/2007 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Two Coats of Paint said...

The well-chronicled Mass Moca /Buchtel dispute has all the earmarks of a messy divorce. The "he said/she said" attempts at spin control, the division of allegiances, the scrapping over assets. Rather than taking sides, which will just prolong the agony and make the process that much more acrimonious, perhaps the art community should try to help the two come to an amicable resolution. It’s not as much fun as drawing lines and staking out positions, but in the long run, isn’t the most important thing to heal the relationship between the artist, the museum, and the public in order that future projects aren’t jeopardized? How about some constructive ideas on how the parties can move beyond the current deadlock?

7/02/2007 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Excellent suggestion Two Coats of Paint.

I'm not sure there's much that could be done schedule-wise to complete the installation, but it would be very nice to see Mass MoCA and the artist come together, review how things got to this stage, and review a joint statement that will help others avoid this moving forward.

7/02/2007 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

As a member of the art community who works too many hours a day in the studio already, I don't see that it's my job, nor do I have the inclination, to help an artist and a museum resolve their legally contractual differences.

Certainly, though, a conversation between museum and artist is a good idea. Mediation is always a good idea in a dispute.

Ethan, I don't believe the issues were about building codes but about money. I believe Buchel wanted to install a jet fuselage in the space--to go with the semi and the house trailers already in there. This was the metaphorical straw.

7/02/2007 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Two Coats of Paint said...

"I don't see that it's my job, nor do I have the inclination, to help an artist and a museum resolve their legally contractual differences..."
Well no, of course I'm not suggesting that members of the art community should personally drop everything to perform an intervention, but coming up with notional creative solutions rather than fanning the flames is certainly a worthwhile intellectual endeavor. (Althoughnow that I think about it, an intervention might be a good idea for a performance piece...)

7/02/2007 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Joanne, I realize it's about money, but I'm trying to interpret Buchel's statement that "Mass MoCA's incompetence and disregard for his expertise caused unnecessary delays and expenditures."

That sounds to me like Buchel was having to deal with red-tape issues (such as safety inspections) that he isn't used to. I'm sure it's a lot cheaper to hang a jet fuselage in a "by-the-seat-of-the-pants" fashion than to do it in such as way that satisfies the local & state building regulations.

7/02/2007 01:36:00 PM  
Anonymous ferretito said...

Martin was way ahead of you on this,that guy you asked not to return...(re:puking about mfa shows in galleries)

7/02/2007 08:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


7/02/2007 08:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Giselle Borzov said...

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7/03/2007 09:31:00 AM  
Anonymous ronald said...

What does a business contract for a custom art installation look like?

I'm an artist and been asked by a private client to do what will be my first "installation" piece.

Any suggestions for must-include clauses in such a contract?

7/03/2007 04:22:00 PM  
Blogger sergio said...


There is no one model contract or clause(s) that can be given out. Each situation, agreement, and work/performance elicits its own needs and requirements. If you're in NYC, come see us at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, or give me a call there next week and we'll do our best to help you out. You can also call me at 212.319.2787 x13.

All best,
Sergio Munoz-Sarmiento

7/05/2007 09:37:00 AM  

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