Illustrations by Sahar Baharloo for ArtAsiaPacific

A Fine Mess!

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

We all seem to have gotten used to living in a Kafkaesque world in which public institutions are governed by shadowy pseudo-professionals: managers who have little knowledge of or regard for the institutions that they administer. Hospitals, museums, schools or broadcasting—they are all run the same way. Management has become elevated as a skill in itself that has no relation to any particular discipline or knowledge. In many museums and other public institutions, the “mission” has seamlessly morphed into the “vision”: the means have totally submerged the ends and, like the robin that has to consume twice its weight in worms every day just to survive, there is a search for funding at any cost. This is not the survival of the fittest but of the most compliant? Even the language of survival has become homogenized as consultants have swarmed around museums and government agencies like flies—all preaching the same, “safe,” irrelevant gospel.

Statistics, not art, now matter. Bodies through doors. Shadows on surveillance cameras. Boxes ticked. Excuse me, Sir/Madam—what’s your demographic? Click!

The curator’s delicate but vital task of disinterestedly assessing, preserving, nurturing, collecting, writing and speaking about a broad field of contemporary art on grounds of its aesthetic qualities alone, is continuously and increasingly overlooked. In the headlong, vainglorious lust for size, event status, celebrity and the chimera of total accessibility, the hyperbole of corporate marketing has become an end in itself. All things to all people, it flattens everything in its path and is as disdainful of any dissenting voice as it is of the native intelligence of the general public.

How did we reach this tragic state? 
In 17th-century Europe, the first prototype museums grew out of a sense of wonder, bringing together in cabinets of curiosities fine, rare or strange examples of the creations of both man and God. During the 18th-century Enlightenment, emulating the classical Muses, museums took it upon themselves not only to show creativity in the arts, but also to research, discover, rationalize and categorize the arts, celebrating the expansion of knowledge this entailed and examining the moral complexity of the idea of beauty, one 
of the touchstones of aesthetic quality.

Measured against this, the success and ambition of many museums of contemporary art today seems superficial or illusory—their waistlines have certainly gotten bigger, but only at the expense of content. Pressure has induced them to take completely different paths, often under the rubric of “reinventing” or updating the museum, as if this would not have happened as part of normal development. As a result they have failed to build on what they do best.


Good museums are never “universal”—the sovereign Eurocentric mandate of many museums to be so is now deeply suspect. Rather, museums today increasingly relate to the places where they have grown, and are crafted over time by the vision, knowledge, desire and love of highly motivated people. They are, or should behave as, public institutions rather than try to be mirror images of multinational corporations. Yet the boundaries between “public” and “private” in culture are no longer clear and, since the early 1980s, the stakes in the game have been made higher by the explosion in value of the art market.

Some privately funded museums, such as the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, which I helped set up in the early 2000s, clearly developed in a public spirit, following new research in exhibitions, providing broad-based educational initiatives and supporting artists through commissions and purchases. The payoff is partly in philanthropy; and with a development company covering the costs of the Mori, the main justification for public programs is the competitive edge that high-level cultural activities have brought to Roppongi Hills, the newly built residential and commercial complex where the museum is situated. This makes business sense for both the developer and the museum. The favorable media coverage that has resulted from the desire to achieve artistic excellence could never have been purchased. Other museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, do this and much more, building large and historic permanent collections.

Yet, the majority of museums of contemporary and modern art in the United States are largely dependent on sponsors or trustees to provide funding for purchases, exhibitions and other large projects, in return for which the donors receive tax breaks. The problem here is that trustees and sponsors generally only support what they already know, and are often collectors themselves, so they are hardly disinterested in the process, unless of course they are looking for an “emerging artist,” in which case they have a pretty good idea of what form the work may take and may already have bought some examples.

Both these models are sensitive to the impact of commercial downturn, which inevitably limits the income and therefore the output of the museum. Yet, what is particularly worrying about the US model is the Rumsfeldian dilemma of it privileging only “what one already knows (and in some cases, possesses) as well as what one knows one doesn’t know.” The greater, more massive, “unknown unknown” escapes totally unconsidered. This is a trap that the system of public museums prevalent throughout parts of Europe should avoid—despite the market overtaking their limited funds and the commercial and political pressures that have been making themselves increasingly felt—so as to continue to serve public interests.

But, over the past 30 years, the whole notion of public interest has come under serious threat as the reasonable idea of specialists guiding organizations along the best paths for them to follow, has been replaced by the ubiquitous, far more expensive, and differently motivated idea of the importance of consultants. The banner of “better management” has too often been a pretext for cutting services and costs. The principle of “arm’s length,” the distance between government and governance, has been virtually amputated at a time when the managerial cliché of “he who pays the piper calls the tune” rules the day.

The reasons for such fundamental changes in the ways we look at what is public, and not, are complex. In the European and American worlds, at least, increasingly prevalent neoliberal ideologies have blurred political distinctions between right, left and center. To an extent, museums have become victims of their increasing popularity and growth, which has created a consequent need for greater funding. But while politicians have been delighted to see such growth, they have very rarely been willing to grant commensurate increases in funding to sustain, or restore, essential core activities as well as to cover the costs of coping with more visitors. At the same time, leading international commercial galleries such as Gagosian or Haunch of Venison, untrammeled by increasing governmental regulation and the reduction of financial support, have expanded into large Kunsthalle-type spaces and have adopted an increasingly “museological” approach by publishing weighty scholarly catalogs written by leading specialists.

There is an underlying political dogma that “if people want to see contemporary art, they should be prepared to pay for it,” rather than the conviction that open access to the best art of our times is an essential right in all civilized societies. And who should decide what is any good? Many politicians would argue, “certainly not the museums.” For those on the right, the demand of the audience is paramount, and satisfying this also increases income. For those on the left, the aim is to empower the audience so that it feels that the museum is relevant to their interests. No one mentions art, the raison d’être for the whole operation. And all this implies that the audience knows what contemporary art actually is—a wholly unrealistic expectation in light of the fact that it is a widespread international phenomenon that is constantly in the process of becoming, and therefore not yet widely disseminated. With no benefit of hindsight, making sense—joining up the dots—is surely the contemporary art museum’s primary role. This is not to suggest that commercial galleries do not have an important part to play, but they are far from unbiased and they have no public remit.

However, many contemporary art museums, such as the Tate, have shot themselves in the foot in their search for wider public relevance. In response to political pressure, and probably through conviction that this is the right thing to do, they make the case for their continuing existence by offering the museum as a means for achieving other ends: inner-city development, growth of tourism, renewed urban identity, social engineering, rural regeneration, cultural theme parks and so on. In fact, this instrumental approach to art has become so destructively widespread in the United Kingdom that one could describe it as le vice anglais. While all the above could be described as favorable outcomes for particular projects, they bear little relation to what the museum’s core functions actually are and to the fact that, if they do their job well, museums add immensely to the experience, knowledge, enjoyment, quality of life and cultural discourse of all those who have access to them. Surely this must be the main reason why contemporary art museums should have core support? The rest is gravy.


The resulting vacuum of belief and function that is now found in many contemporary art museums is perhaps even more clearly shown by the increasing importance attributed to the conception of new architecture. While this works well when the building fits its purpose (Richard Gluckman, Herzog & de Meuron, Kengo Kuma, Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor have all designed elegant buildings that are sympathetic to art), too often the museum has been hijacked by wrongheaded and sometimes grandiose ambition. Here, like a corporate HQ, the building becomes the symbol, the event, the logo; the art is relegated either to the status of sideshow, “fitting in” with the brave new architectural concept, or it lurks in the shadows, virtually unseen.

The dramatic rise in value of the contemporary art market and the growth in the number of collectors and investors has also had a serious effect by making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for public museums to build up their collections without outside help. As a result, confusion has arisen between the value of the market—no more than a monetary mechanism in which people bid on what they already know and speculate on what they do not—and cultural or aesthetic value, which may at times coincide with the market but which in the way it is constructed is essentially unrelated. Thus, the importance of connoisseurship and the idea of aesthetic value have become eroded by the blunt weapon of financial worth. In a brave, new, conformist world, in which difference is suspect and everything has a price, museums cower expectantly, no longer sure of who or what they really are, querulously dependent on the kindness of strangers.

In this I do not mean to imply that the designation of cultural value is the gift of the museum alone. Artists, collectors, gallerists, academics and art lovers also play important roles, but contemporary art is different from other art in that it has not yet stood the test of time, and educated risks have to be taken in making choices. Within this potential jungle, the research, knowledge and accrued experience of the museum curator (or of some academics) are crucial simply because when making a choice they have no commercial conflict of interest and can be seen to concentrate only on the quality of the art itself. Of course, like anyone else they can get it wrong, but such independence as this is beyond value or price because it plays the role of umpire in the game of aesthetic attribution in contemporary art, which has to be, in the end, a team effort.

I also do not wish to suggest that curators working in the public sector should have a monopoly on the ability to recognize good art—the vital historical role that artists, private collectors, gallerists and others have had, and continue to have, in the development of modern art gives lie to this. Good curators, like good artists and collectors, are committed, driven, knowledgeable individuals who take risks and follow hunches in their search for truth and quality. They deserve to work in public institutions and other frameworks that will value and protect their independence.

So where does this leave us in the future development of the contemporary art museum? The choices are becoming increasingly limited. It can be the poodle of the market, frenetically chasing funds and funders at any cost, or be like Ivan Goncharov’s fictitious character Oblomov and just sit, waiting for something to happen, and in the process be priced out of the game. But there is a third, proactive possibility based on the history of many great museums: engaging actively with contemporary art and making informed decisions about it based on knowledge, research and privileged access. This last option ensures that the museum itself benefits from the skills and resources at its disposal.

It seems to me that the only honorable and sensible path for any contemporary art museum is one of rigorous, independent, open research. This must be linked with the desire and ability to think beyond a purely monographic approach in order to construct thematic, cross-cultural displays that proactively create different frameworks, some of them time-based, within which individual works can be viewed. This automatically expands knowledge by creating structures that are true to art and its practice but are also both an attraction and a challenge to the public because they cannot be seen in any other kind of institution. Museums that have followed this path, such as the Queensland Art Gallery, with its series of Asia-Pacific Triennials since 1993, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, at the time I was director there, have not only created valuable public resources that have added to their collections but have also attracted sponsorship and further investment by keeping the enjoyment and study of contemporary art firmly at the center of their activities.

This is what museums do best, and the alternatives seem far from attractive: get bigger and do less; get smaller and do less; or just do less.

SCAF Mikhael SubotzkySOTHEBY'SDe Sarthe E-flux