Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Permanent Collection Blockbuster?

While others continue to work out whether the museum blockbuster is the root of all evil in the art world or not (see here*), I'm personally more concerned about the quality of an exhibition (irrespective of its size) and feel that a well-curated blockbuster is better than a mediocre smaller exhibition. Remembering how incredible the 1995 Mondrian blockbuster that traveled the country and landed eventually at MoMA was (and how it still stands as one of the most informative and illuminating shows ever in my mind), I'm more inclined to categorize blockbusters as the type of exhibition that can be done poorly and still consume a lot of undue attention but not necessarily. Sometimes a grand scale and scope is appropriate. As the current economic crisis has led even our biggest museums to cut back (on staff and programming), we're seeing a move away from the blockbuster to what's being called the permanent collection exhibition. explains:

Instead of the blockbuster, there seems to be a new brand of exhibition, which involves taking another look at the old works in the permanent collection. Indeed, [Thomas Campbell, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum] plans to get curators who previously worked on the special exhibitions plan to put a new spin on the Met’s permanent collection. While it’s not unusual for a freshly hired director to make his mark on a museum’s permanent collection, Häntzschel believes Campbell’s plan is part of a larger paradigm shift across the country.

“If one looks at the programs of American museum for the beginning season,” writes Häntzschel, “one finds different versions of the same exhibition everywhere: ‘Works from the Permanent Collection.’ The museums are doing the same as the American people: forgoing consumption. Instead of shopping, they are doing the best with what they already have.”

The way that's phrased however---"doing the best with what they already have"--- seems to imply that working from the permanent collection will automatically result in exhibitions that are somehow inferior to other shows. From what we saw in Berlin last week, though, I'd argue that all depends on who's doing the curating. While not entirely from its own collection, the "Die Kunst ist Super" exhibition (yes, it's a really bad title) at the Hamburger Bahnhof is predominantly the same sort of effort and it had us gasping at every turn.
Die Kunst ist super ! (Art is super!) is the title under which the National Gallery at Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart - Berlin is showing a new presentation of works from its collections. The exhibition uses thematic, monographic and motivic constellations, surprising dialogues and individual appearances rich in associations to cast works from the National Gallery, the Marx and Marzona Collections as well as the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection in Hamburger Bahnhof in a new light. At selected points the museum's collections are complemented by works loaned by artists, some specially created for the rooms at the museum, as well as by loans from the rich collections of Berlin's museum landscape.
We did hear some criticism from a few Berliners that the exhibition was playing it safe with their tried-and-true crowd pleasers, but in the same way that the TV show Friends, which had been plummetting in the ratings, made a huge comeback after 9/11 (presumably because Americans were looking for something familiar and reassuring), every now and then an exhibition that confirms the quality of a collection, especially when there's so much uncertainty and anxiety elsewhere, can be exactly what that institution should provide to its audience. Of course, we had never visited the Hamburger Bahnhof before, so we didn't have other more adventurous exhibitions there to compare this one against. We did, however, have a wonderful time moving from gallery to gallery within the museum, each new room revealing a treasure that knocked our socks off. So, to my mind, the question isn't whether a museum can't afford a traditional style blockbuster (with loans from around the world)...but whether or not a home-grown blockbuster from their permanent collection is the right exhibition to offer now (and whether they have the curatorial talent to create one). The show in Berlin with the dumb name and truly spectacular art impressed me deeply.

*While you're over at Tyler's don't miss his interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips today in which they discuss the museum's semi-permanent collection and other related issues.

Photo above: Bambino (as always, looking up to MAO ;-) ) at the Hamburger Bahnhof.

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Anonymous Larry said...

There are really two issues here: the blockbuster vs. the smaller exhibit (like MoMA's recent "Van Gogh and the Night"); or the exhibit drawn from the permanent collection vs. work borrowed from outside.

Blockbusters can be exhausting if you don't pace yourself, but well-curated ones can be very rewarding if you do. I remember spending nearly a full day at the MoMA's Matisse blockbuster about 10 years ago, and it was well worth it. Others can be just, "oh God, how many more rooms do I have to go through." I think the Turner show at the Met last year would have been only improved if cut in half.

Seeing work that would be hard to view unless you can travel is the main attraction of the borrowed show, and is well worth the admission price for that kind of exhibit. I can't get to Amsterdam each weekend, so seeing the Vermeer show at the Met will be a treat. These kinds of shows can really fill in the gaps that are inevitable in any museum's own collection.

But seeing an exhibit drawn from a museum's permanent collection is most valuable, IMO, if it brings together the work in a new way. I thought the DeMontebello acquisitions exhibit at the Met a real success in this regard: instead of being arranged in the usual didactic or art-historical manner, it was arranged more or less by acquisition date, which meant that the works were jumbled informally in the various salons. For once these vast, elephantine rooms felt closer to the way one might display a collection in one's home rather than the usual formal arrangement.

10/01/2009 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger james wagner said...

on the subject of blockbusters, see my September 25 post, "New Museum commits suicide with banality", which triggered Tyler's interview.

I can't believe almost no one seems not to care about this incredible scandal: coverage in the media, even on the art blogs, looks like puff pieces coming from the museum itself, or at worst, a straight press release.

But can I still call it a scandal if folks are inured to this kind of corruption, or afraid of the powerful players involved? As artists and art fanatics can we afford not to speak to money and power when it is using public funds and public trust to advance [their own] careers and fortunes?

10/01/2009 01:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Julian Lorber said...

I agree with Larry that a "blockbuster can be exhausting" but for someone that wants to be exhausted, it is better than being let down, as does happen far more often.
As far as your friends in Berlin commenting about "playing it safe" in regards to the Die Kunst ist super !, I think that is always a fall back argument about shows at institutions, especially ones that use !! in the title. I remember not hearing one positive comment about the New Museum show "Unmonumental". Which lends to James Wagner's post about their banality. It actually raises the question of what do people in this day and age expect from an art show at larger institutions? Especially a show that people refer to as a "blockbuster". I've never curated a museum show but attracting an audience to the MoMa when the Abacrombie & Fitch store and Trump Tower are just around the corner, must be a challenge. ;)
I agree with what you wrote about the quality of a large or small exhibition and that at the moment we are looking back at collections.
Did you see the movie about the Vogals?
Here is one of the MET's re-envisioning projects to inspire the up and coming

I also believe the MoMa is going to do dance nights with hip DJ's and bands.
I heard Alona Heiss has brought back clocktower.
Next thing you know they'll be renting out condemned buildings in Ridgewood and having parties like Jeffery D. Nothing says blockbuster at MoMa/MET like sweaty naked artists and Pabst Blue Ribbon hipster troughs.

10/01/2009 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger tantrumette said...

To me it sounds like part of the overall current economic obsession with cutting costs...the equivalent of "shopping your closet."

10/11/2009 10:25:00 AM  

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