The Museum and its Responsibilities, CIMAM 2016 Annual Conference

Issue no4
Aug - Sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

The CIMAM Annual Conference is the 'Davos Forum' of the museum world, having an amazing list of top museum directors on and off stage, including Tate Modern (London), MCA (Sydney), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), MMOMA (Moscow), MMCA (Seoul), MUAC (Mexico City), MUHKA (Antwerp), Reina Sofia (Madrid), and many more. Theme of this year: The Museum and its Responsibilities. Unfortunately only a few of the speakers knew how to come to terms with such a big issue.

“We need to extract from what is called culture ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger,” argued Spanish philosopher Marina Garcés during her opening speech for the CIMAM annual conference. Last weekend, one of the world’s leading committees for museums of modern and contemporary art held its 48th meeting at the MACBA, la Caixa and the CCCB in Barcelona.

Over 200 museum professionals were attracted by this three-day program filled with museum visits, and presentations and discussions by some of the art world’s most heard voices: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Ferran Barenblit, Dave Beech, Ticio Escobar, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Francis Morris and Mari Carmen Ramírez. The audience would have made up for at least one more week of conferences with next to me (I was one of 20 museum professionals who received a travel grant) the directors and curators of prestigious institutions from across the world—such as MCA (Sydney), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), MMOMA (Moscow), MMCA (Seoul), MUAC (Mexico City), MUHKA (Antwerp) and Reina Sofia (Madrid). Of course, business cards were exchanged at all times, collaborations were established, and deals were made, but the official reason for attending the event was to reflect upon the challenges to the modern and contemporary art museum and more specifically, upon the responsibility of the museum. Three keynote speakers (one per day) and a number of so-called perspective-speakers were given the ambitious task to break this issue down into smaller, yet still very big, questions such as:

With the growing number of biennales, art fairs, and other events of modern and contemporary art, should museums be aware of any changes in their fundamental role and responsibilities? What responsibilities do museums have for the different communities and their audiences, both locally and globally? Does the funding model of the museum influence its social and artistic responsibility? And what would be the responsibility of the museum when it comes to collection building, collection display, (re)writing Art History, and archiving materials that might otherwise be lost in time?

Keynote speaker 1, Garcés, took a step back from the cultural institution. After giving a general outline of its history, she zoomed in on what was her core interest: the people behind, or even outside of, the institution. She argued how we who work in culture, should expose our hunger and necessities instead of hiding behind great words and noble virtues. Only by being honest about how hungry we are— culturally, materially, physically and spiritually— we can create a sense of collectiveness, and therefore a new encounter with culture. Garcés brilliantly explained why creating new encounters is so necessary: the art world has become a closed circuit in which we make critical exhibitions which only we see, and we ourselves criticize. But she did not clarify what would emerge from these new encounters. I understood that we should all commit ourselves, be honest, and create a new “we” outside of the institutions, but still wonder: Who are these “we”? And, how do we become a “we”?

Mass encounters between people and culture take place in Bucharest. With some irony, the director of Bucharest’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, Călin Dan, showed us a picture of thousands of people standing in line to get into his museum, located within what used to be “Ceaușescu’s Palace”. After almost fifty years of communism and fifteen years of dictatorship, especially young people, he explained, are eager to finally get a platform for expression and to make their way into the world of contemporary art. He was torn between on the one hand showing their works, and on the other hand giving visibility to a collection of historical portraits of politicians, mainly the Ceaușescus. His anecdotes were entertaining, but failed to give insight into the question we were all here for: what responsibility does the museum have toward the large number of students that come out of art school, and toward the collection and its researchers?

The director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), Alistair Hudson, was struggling with how to run a museum in an era of decline. While the region where MIMA is located was once the heart of the Industrial Revolution, in recent years it has changed into a node of political instability and economic hardship: thousands of people have lost their jobs after the closure of the city’s famous steelworks and it has seen the inflow of what is now England’s largest community of asylum seekers. Hosting weekly community lunches for refugees, exposing their paintings, creating an exhibition about the closure of the steelworks and fostering discussions about how to make decisions about the future of the steelwork site — this is just a selection, claimed Hudson, of the many attempts to still the hunger of local communities and to use art as a tool for social change. Hudson’s attempts are noble, but also just drops in the ocean. No weekly lunch, no exhibition, can make up for poverty, or for the violence and discrimination with which asylum seekers were received in Middlesbrough— a city that housed them behind doors that were painted red, which made them targets for racism and vandalism.

Almaty based curator Yuliya Sorokirna showed how in Kazahkstan contemporary art is searching for a mode of existence. In the world's ninth largest country there is not one institution of contemporary art. Propagandistic art by official artists remains the norm in this ex-Soviet nation and platforms for contemporary art are only constructed bottom up and without government intervention. On this account, artists and curators have created archives of contemporary art, published journals and organized the no-silk way trip: the annual vacations with artists and art professionals to the South of Kazakhstan. I know this could sound naïve, but I saw Sorokirna’s examples as a way of making virtue out of necessity. The lack of an institutional framework for contemporary art, I thought, has resulted in a truly curious community of art professionals that are not taken over by institutional, administrative, technocratic or methodological issues.

While most of the speakers reflected upon the rather immaterial practices in which museums are involved nowadays— virtual archives, performances, socially engaged practices— Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, keynote speaker 2, spoke about objects. She believed that our digital age has created a need to hang on to embodied things and to concrete objects of art. This counters, she said, Benjamin’s idea that the aura was lost with the technological reproduction. Benjamin, together with many other 20th century thinkers, were frequently referred to in this presentation. But it was difficult to figure out what Christov-Bakargiev’s own thoughts were (which I think is intentional since she often uses what she calls double-entendre), and especially, what position she took on how financial pressures affect museum and curatorial practice—the issue she was supposed to reflect upon. The most straightforward thing she said about this was that she found it boring to get into the question of corporate funding versus government funding, because both are often very intertwined.

There could not have been a greater difference between Christov-Bakargiev and Mari Carmen Ramírez, keynote speaker 3. Her presentation revolved around the immaterial aspects of the art museum: about research and digital archives. Archives and archive based initiatives, she argued, defy and offer an alternative to what the museum has become under neoliberal capitalism: a temple of leisure and entertainment for corporate investors, philanthropists and mass audiences. Archives are inscribed in a much slower temporality, one based on critical analysis and reflection, that is the opposite of the fast-track, project-driven, cost-expected and impact dynamics that characterizes museum practice today. Of course, it is not surprising that such claim came from Ramirez. She is the director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) and of the ICAA Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art digital archive, the most comprehensive digital archive of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino art. In any case, in contrast to most of the other speakers, Ramirez’ presentation was based upon extensive research and upon a clear-cut mission: to redress the invisibility from prevailing art historical accounts and museological narratives of key artists and groups from Latin America, the Caribbean and Latino USA, and thereby to rewrite art history.

After three days of conferences I go back to the question that got us in Barcelona: what are the roles and responsibilities of the museum? Garcés, Hudson and Ramírez came closest to answering this question. And even though their reflections were at times abstract (Garcés), or romantic (Hudson), they made a sincere attempt. Most of the other speakers seemed either to be afraid to speak out and get their fingers burned, or really did not know how to come to terms with such a big issue.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2021