Trends Museums Switzerland

Hey, big spenders…

…there’s more to building a world-class museum of contemporary art from scratch than eye-watering acquisition budgets

A?model of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island. What will go in it?

Will a collection of 21st-century art that is equal to the 20th-century collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) be built in a museum in a part of the world that few would have imagined ten or 20 years ago? Cities in the Gulf and Asia are among the front runners with the money and the ambition to leapfrog into the elite club of places with world-class contemporary art museums as a draw. Although it is a noble aspiration, it poses many questions: what should they collect? Who will visit? And how well will Western-style institutions take root in non-Western soil?

America’s prominence in museum-building in the 20th century has brought along with it US attitudes to the importance of educational missions, openness to audiences, and responsibility to the public as visitors to (and financial supporters of) cultural institutions, says András Szántó, a contributing editor to The Art Newspaper, who is chairing a talk called “Inventing the Museum” at Art Basel tomorrow. “What values and attitudes will reshape museums as the next generation of institutions is built in regions with very different cultural legacies?” is the question that he is putting to his panellists, who are due to be Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s deputy director and chief officer for global strategies, Lars Nittve, the executive director of M+, a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, and Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority.

Nittve downplays the idea that building a museum from scratch means having to reinvent the museum as an institution. “What we are trying to create is, on the one hand, a recognisable museum,” he says. “At the same time, we have to take into account a tradition of art that is different in Asia. Art as we know it in the West is much younger. And the [Asian] audience has had less opportunity to grow up going to museums.”

First mooted in 1998, when the West Kowloon project to redevelop Hong Kong’s waterfront was launched, M+ is one of the biggest new museum projects at around 60,000 sq. m, comparable to MoMA and London’s Tate Modern. “This project has had a number of false starts,” admits Nittve, who arrived in Hong Kong in 2010. On Tuesday, Nittve was delighted to announce that the Swiss collector Uli Sigg is donating a 1,463-strong collection of Chinese contemporary art, worth around $163m, to M+, and that the museum is buying another 47 works for £22.7m. The budget is a reported HK$1.7bn ($219m).

Redrawing the map

“We are not creating a museum of art,” he says, but of visual culture, design and the moving image. “That is partly because of a general development in art. It’s also a concept specific to Asia. In the West, you are either an artist or a designer. Here in Asia, the boundaries are fluid. In Hong Kong, many artists will have an equally valid career in advertising and in art,” Nittve says. “Basically, we are doing what [other museums do]: looking at the world from the point where we are. In this case, we are just redrawing the map and making Hong Kong and China the centre of the world, which creates different hierarchies.”

He admits that some in Hong Kong express impatience when he says the museum will not open for another five years.

Five years ago, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) unveiled plans for the world’s largest Guggenheim museum, which was due to open by 2012. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—unprecedented in terms of both its size (320,000 sq. ft) and its tight deadline—is one of three museums planned for the $27bn development on Saadiyat Island. The architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim satellite is bigger than the Guggenheim Bilbao (250,000 sq. ft), which opened in 1997.

Juan Ignacio Vidarte, who is also the director of the Bilbao museum, admits that the challenges of building a new museum beyond North America and Europe are great, “probably because the ambitions are bigger”. Declining to go into detail about the Abu Dhabi museum, he says that many cities’ attempts to replicate the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao as a catalyst for regeneration fell short of expectations because of a “fundamental failure” to understand what happened in northern Spain. “A cultural institution can be a tool to develop a community, but it is not just about a cultural institution or a spectacular building. Bilbao was just one part of a broader effort—building the metro, cleaning up the river.” He says that the Guggenheim has turned down many cities that have approached the foundation “because there wasn’t a real understanding”.

“These projects are very complex even for a city that is [capable] of doing it,” he says. “It needs clear leadership and a sustained vision. This can’t happen in two to three years. The time has got to be right.”

Adrian Ellis, a museum consultant, has analysed the ingredients of the Bilbao satellite’s success—and the conundrum of why the entrepreneurial plan of its then director, Thomas Krens, did not result in a constellation of similar satellites. There was no shortage of suitors and feasibility studies. Ellis says: “I suspect there is a more measured and considered approach now.” He cites the UBS-sponsored “non-building approach” to creating a global network of partnerships with curators and artists, which was launched in March. Before this, the Guggenheim had become “a slightly sad story of traipsing around the world selling feasibility studies”. In the long term, rather than adopting the Guggenheim’s “franchise” model, Ellis thinks that art museums starting from scratch will become “autonomous museums with their own identity” through strategic alliances involving curatorial and managerial knowledge transfer.

Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, which has launched its own non-building-based global partnership, says that the bricks-and-mortar model in some respects hampers the ability to be flexible. “More nimble would be multi-institutional partnerships that privilege mutual advantage over institutional supremacy. But egotism and nationalism are the adversaries of such an approach.”

The Centre Pompidou—which announced its latest global partnership strategy in May, based on showing parts of its 72,000-strong collection in museums, universities and even shopping malls—has flirted in the past with exporting its brand. Shanghai and Singapore were possible locations. In 2005, the Pompidou and the Guggenheim jostled to secure a share of the West Kowloon Cultural District development. They eventually agreed to join forces, but only after Alfred Pacquement, the director of the Pompidou’s Musée National d’Art Moderne, compared the Guggenheim to a “Coca-Cola factory”.

“Brand equity” has its benefits—and a price tag. Abu Dhabi’s deal with the Louvre to help build and loan works to a museum of historic art on Saadiyat Island will eventually earn the Paris museum around €1bn.

“Objects have to be significant to drive traffic,” Ellis says. “‘How are you going to be taken seriously?’ is a key question in the self-regarding, pretty introverted art world.” Institutions starting from scratch have to think intelligently about what is an appropriate scale. “They have to be big enough to engage the world, but there is a sort of gigantism that makes them problematic.”

The question given the least attention is: “Who is your audience and how do you cultivate it?” It is a problem for long-established museums and one fraught with difficulty for a museum with potential visitors who are not part of the conventional Western cultural demographic.

Different rules

While the museums on Saadiyat Island are works in progress—the opening dates have been pushed back to 2015 for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and 2017 for the Guggenheim—new museums have already opened in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art was unveiled at the end of 2010, and in 2008, the Museum of Islamic Art opened in a building designed by the architect I.M. Pei. But Qatar commands the art world’s attention because the tiny Gulf state is the world’s biggest buyer in the art market, believed to be behind most of the major modern and contemporary art deals over the past six years. As with much in the Gulf, transparency is rare and secretiveness the norm.

Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority, who declined to be interviewed for this article without official sanction, has promised “a series of exciting cultural projects in time for the World Cup in 2022” (in 2010, Qatar secured the right to host the football tournament). The emirate’s museum authority has commissioned works by the likes of Richard Serra, organised shows of work by Takashi Murakami (Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, until 24 June) and sponsored Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern (until 9 September), which is due to visit Doha in September next year.

Since 2004, Qatar has hosted the Doha Debates, which are billed as a forum for free speech. This year’s debates included a discussion held in May about whether censorship makes a mockery of the arts. The motion was narrowly passed by 58% of the 350-strong audience, who were mainly Qatari students. But some have wondered how museums of contemporary art can flourish in societies that have little tradition of self-criticism and are intolerant by Western standards. “I am sure the Arab Spring has made many governments think harder about the domestic symbolism of their cultural grands projets,” Adrian Ellis says. But should the democratic winds of the Arab Spring blow across the Gulf from North Africa, that might change.

Richard Koshalek, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, who spoke at the “Art and Patronage: the Middle East” conference held in January in London, says: “These countries should be engaged in the larger world and become patrons of new ideas; be experimental and support exhibitions and publications that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. They should commission cultural leaders [from around the world] to rewrite a history of art that is not just Western-centric.”

Koshalek says they should be cautious of “marketplace competition” and construct collections that redefine internationally the history of art. Another potential model is London’s National Gallery. “There are only 2,300 works of art in the collection but they are all masterpieces.”

“Inventing the Museum”, part of Art Basel Conversations, takes place on Friday 15 June at 10am

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