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#Hashtags: Critiquing Museums from the Outside In

#museums #architecture #philanthropy #urban development #institutional critique #spectacle #metaphor

In January, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of thirteen experts convened by the Los Angeles City Council to assess the city’s civic problems, delivered a damning report. Titled “A Time for Truth,” it begins with the statement “Los Angeles is barely treading water while the rest of the world is moving forward,” and gets progressively bleaker from there. Citing economic shrinkage, severe poverty, income inequality, an intractable traffic-congestion problem, and a government that will soon be too broke to provide basic services and promised pensions as among the city’s plagues, the report effectively suggests that nothing short of a white knight could reverse the process of decline.

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Exterior of the Broad from 2nd Street and Grand Avenue. Image courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Yet people do not seem to have given up hope for Los Angeles, in particular its potential as an art capital. The Hammer Museum was recently able to eliminate its admission fee thanks to a generous gift by two longtime donors, joining its neighbor the Getty in this regard, and LACMA may follow suit: The Dallas Museum of Art is currently using a $450,000 grant to study how its novel free-membership program could be applied to the West Coast institution, among two others. Across town, philanthropist Eli Broad is preparing to consolidate his formidable art collection at the Broad, his new storehouse-cum-contemporary art museum on Grand Avenue. Broad’s investment is a strong vote of confidence for the city’s downtown, which has long wavered between abandonment and renewal. Moreover, the museum is not to be a billionaires’ club; admission will be free here as well. Come 2015, L.A. will be able to boast, by many measures, greater access to major museums than any other American city—provided the traffic isn’t too bad.

While the Broad stands to offer a significant economic and symbolic stimulus for downtown Los Angeles, it is less clear just how much such a collector-founded art institution will add to the city’s cultural life. In contrast to institutions like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which both began with the express intention of building upon their initial holdings to amass ever-expanding collections of present and future art, the Broad has conveyed no such intention to grow beyond the founder’s influence. Instead, it presents itself as above all a lending library and exhibition space for Broad’s existing 2,000-piece collection, of which it will be able to show roughly 300 works at a time. “I don’t feel good about things in storage. I want to hang them, lend them, or show them,” states Broad on the Broad’s website. With this as the institution’s raison d’être, the Broad would be more honestly suited by a name like the Broad Collection, as it originally called itself before adopting the phrase “contemporary art museum” for its branding materials instead. Indeed, the Broad is perhaps most comparable to the Frick Collection in Manhattan, a jewel-box display space for industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen’s collection of Old Master paintings.

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With no long-term commitment to expanding or altering its collection, the Broad is unlikely to foster adventurous curatorial work—or indeed, allow for much of anything that does not actively affirm the value of its current, market-driven holdings—other than by lending works out to more progressive institutions. If the Broad is to make any truly substantial impact on downtown L.A.’s culture of art, it will more likely be through spillover benefits to its neighbor, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a historically forward-thinking institution that may have a new lease on life with the departure of its beleaguered former director, Jeffrey Deitch, and the arrival of Dia Art Foundation head Philippe Vergne in his stead. Broad happens to be a trustee at MOCA, and has been credited both with saving the institution, by injecting $30 million when its finances were a wreck (for comparison, he has endowed the Broad with $200 million), and hamstringing it, by imposing the blinkered focus on increased attendance through the showy exhibitions that characterized Deitch’s tenure and led to the firing of esteemed curator Paul Schimmel. Angelenos may sense a worthwhile tradeoff here: Broad establishes his influence as bedrock at a so-called museum of his own, in exchange for loosening his grip on another.

Fortunately, art institutions are always capable of changing. (Even the Frick just announced intentions to expand, which would give it the leeway to lean less on its permanent collection in future programming.) Should Angelenos decide they want to hold the Broad to higher standards, they would do well to look east, where criticism of museums remains a proud regional sport. The Guggenheim and Dia Art Foundation have both been sites of recent protest, the former for poor labor conditions at the site of its rising Abu Dhabi outpost, the latter for a retrospective of Carl Andre, who was acquitted of charges for the murder of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, but still provokes bitterness about the continued dominance of minimalism over the deceased Mendieta’s feminist oeuvre.

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The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. Entrance at 53rd Street. Photo © 2011 Timothy Hursley.

The institution most in the crosshairs of late, however, has been New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has endured a firestorm of bad press this year for decisions seen as corporate or vulgar. Most of the flak has been aimed at the museum’s expansion plan, which first began to draw protest when it was announced that MoMA’s architecturally significant but idiosyncratic neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, would be razed in order to cleanly adjoin MoMA’s existing structure to an adjacent luxury condominium tower, the bottom floors of which MoMA secured for itself when it sold the land. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects handling the expansion, have proposed two “flexible spaces” (as opposed to “medium-specific” ones[i]) to replace the AFAM structure: a “grey box” for performance art and events, stacked atop a street-level “art bay,” geared for large-scale installation, that will be visible to the public through a double-height glass façade capable of lifting in warmer seasons to fully open the space. DS+R’s avowedly transparent, egalitarian reconfiguration of the expanded ground floor further entails opening the now-secluded sculpture garden to the general public.

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Concept design for the Museum of Modern Art. Axonometric plan. © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The announcement of these details could hardly have been received worse. Many critics viewed the opening of the sculpture garden as a pointless sacrifice of one of midtown Manhattan’s few remaining sanctuaries, and the new “flexible spaces” as proof of what art historians like Rosalind Krauss have long forecasted[ii]: The debasement of the museum from a steward of high culture into a theater of mass entertainment. (People are not quick to forget celebrity stunts on the order of Tilda Swinton-in-a-box.) As New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz railed in a public letter to MoMA’s trustees, imploring them to reject the plan in favor of one that would emphasize more traditional gallery space for the museum’s permanent collection, “This isn’t museum architecture; it’s heady stagecraft that trivializes most art and turns looking into nifty convivial public entertainment.”[iii]

Thus, architecture became the battleground for a debate about an institution’s identity and values. At once concrete and expressive, architecture functions as a helpful stand-in for organizational structures we have difficulty articulating or critiquing directly. MoMA seems intent on disappearing architecturally into the fabric of Midtown and neighboring Times Square by expanding into nearby condominium towers, opening its garden to crowds, and allocating much of its space for what are essentially to be theater areas. By the logic of the metaphor, then, there is reason to fear that the institution will itself become indistinguishable from the matrix of profit and populism that surrounds it.

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Concept sketch for the Museum of Modern Art. View of the Sculpture Garden entrance on 54th Street. © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Such metaphorical logic is prone to warp, producing scapegoats (in this case, DS+R and MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry) more readily than insight. Perhaps the most productive outcome of the discussion has been a turning of the critical gaze backward in time, toward MoMA’s 2004 renovation by Yoshio Taniguchi. Upon its unveiling, Taniguchi’s remodel received praise for its elegant inconspicuousness, emblematized by the architect’s reported statement “if you raise really a lot of money, I will make architecture disappear”[iv]. (Taniguchi did not receive the blank check he wanted from the MoMA board, chaired by real-estate developer Jerry Speyer, and reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with his building’s detailing and finishes). At the time, this was seen as a refreshing rejection of the tendency toward grandiose, “iconic” buildings like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, which had come to be associated with spectacle culture. In light of the present expansion, however, Taniguchi’s remodel looks more like groundwork for the “surgical”[v] mission that DS+R are now orchestrating: repurposing MoMA as a machine built to generate buzz, maximize attendance for installation and performance-heavy programming, and control crowd flow, rather than to nurture sustained attention to discrete art objects.

DS+R makes for an easy segue back to the Broad, which happens to be the firm’s other high-profile museum project of the moment. Nicknamed “the veil and the vault,” the structure consists of a huge, opaque storage unit for Broad’s collection, cantilevered over a lobby space and enclosed within a white, honeycomb-like “veil” designed to let in filtered natural light. Far from subordinating the institution’s functions as storehouse and lending library, the design elevates these aspects in a monumental spectacle: Visitors travel by escalator not around but through the vault to get to the main exhibition space—a marvelously airy, column-free acre that can be divided into any number of gallery configurations to accommodate works small or gigantic—and on their way out descend a glass staircase that provides glimpses of the treasures and curatorial operations tucked away within.

The Broad Collection: Exploded Axonometric. Diller Scofidio+Renf

Illustration of the two main components of the building: the veil and the vault. Image courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The emphasis on literal transparency, to the street and to the storerooms, serves the Broad’s presiding narrative of accessibility—of making an important collection available, free of charge, to Los Angeles and the world. One may also read an implicit critique of traditional museum structures as intransparent, prone to the kind of mismanagement that nearly sunk MOCA. Transparency, and vision more generally, has long been a prized concept for DS+R. Its design for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which Elizabeth Diller described as a “machine for looking,”[vi] functions as a kind of prism, ever directing and redirecting the visitor’s gaze between the art inside and the striking harbor vista that the site affords. Their MoMA expansion plan, which itself involves a lot of glass, clearly reveals similar concerns that have lead Saltz to pessimistically describe its spaces as “designed primarily so people can look at other people looking at other people looking at people.”[vii]

The design for the Broad, however, adds to this an element of iconicity that is a departure from the firm’s usual tendencies. The veil is arresting from the street not just as architecture but as sculpture, rendering the building capable of standing up against its flashy neighbor, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (for which Broad led the fundraising campaign), in this regard. Such an aberration from DS+R’s signature style speaks volumes about the priorities of the project. The Broad will be adept at showcasing Broad’s collection of painting and sculpture, yes, but it aims to be yet more successful at separating itself from the bland office towers of downtown Los Angeles and providing for the city a distinctive, metaphorically laden form signifying urban renewal and cultural vitality. In other words, it is designed to look like beating the 2020 Commission’s prognosis—a picture that allows Broad to assume the position of civic hero.

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View into archive storage from the vault stairwell. Image courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, is significant in its conjuring of a near-future Los Angeles that is effectively the antithesis of Los Angeles today: vertically developed, uniformly prosperous, connected by an efficient public rail system. Such a world is where DS+R’s Broad building seems to belong, suggesting that the fantasy could perhaps be built into existence. But as Taniguchi’s MoMA has revealed, architecture is capable of betraying those who invest unduly in its metaphorical promises. Angelenos should deal squarely with the Broad as a different kind of institution than MOCA, the Hammer, or indeed Broad’s own wing at LACMA. For all its real promise, it will not be able to stand abreast of these institutions in terms of cultural value until it broadens its ambitions to entail investment not just in the future of Los Angeles as a real-estate developer would define it, but, like its 20th-century forbears, in the future of art.

[i] http://www.dsrny.com/#/projects/moma-expansion

[ii] See Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” in October, no. 54, Fall 1990.

[iii] Jerry Saltz, “Jerry Saltz to MoMA’s Trustees: Please, Reject This Awful Expansion Plan,” Vulture. N.p., 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.

[iv] Alexandra Lange, “This New House,” NYMag.com. N.p., 2004. Web. 14 June 2014.

[v] http://www.dsrny.com/#/projects/moma-expansion

[vi] Nicholas Baume, “It’s Still Fun to Have Architecture: An Interview with Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro,” in: Baume, ed., Super Vision (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006): 187.

[vii] Jerry Saltz, “Saltz: The Next MoMA Expansion Is as Big a Mess as the Last One,” Vulture. 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 June 2014

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

 

 

 

 

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