Behind the scenes at MoMA with John Elderfield and Kirk Varnedoe

Exhibitions, projects, budgets, and attendance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York


What’s on this month

The big Jackson Pollock show, with supporting numbers, “Pollock and Print-making”, “The New York School” and prints from Dubuffet to de Kooning. Contemporary sprightliness is added by Ingo Maurer, a Municher fascinated by light bulbs, and Brazilians Fernando and Umberto Campana, who make furniture out of unexpected materials (for all three, it is their first US exposure). The photography department is showing four artists who use the camera: Sam Taylor-Wood (English); Jeanne Dunning (American); Olafur Eliasson (Icelandic) and Rachel Harrison (American) while the design department has contemporary Japanese textiles, with the great Issey Miyake coming over to lecture.

Winning combinations

Attendance goes up when there is a mixed programme. Earlier this year, there was Rodchenko, Bonnard, Tony Smith and Yayoi Kusama: that is, two European modernists of very different persuasion; an American sculptor, and an artist of strong interest to the contemporary community. Rodchenko also brought in the photography enthusiasts.

Who chooses?

There is tremendous respect for the passions of the individual curator. Everybody who is a curator or above, about twenty people, can put forward proposals, which get discussed, sometimes pretty trenchantly, by everyone at a monthly meeting. Then the seven chief curators meet with the exhibitions administrator to shape the programme.

Underlying philosophy

In the early 90s the senior curators performed the exercise of imagining it was the year 2000. Which of the big monographic shows that would have been bound to happen over the decade would MoMA wish to have done? They looked through the collections and decided that their holdings of Mirò, Matisse and Pollock were so strong that these were the inevitable milestone shows.

They have a keen sense of international competition, a desire not to be pipped to the post by another major institution. An exhibition is not, however, about putting pretty pictures on the wall. It is about constructing an argument with particular works.

In general, says Kirk Varnedoe, MoMA is keen to “re-establish that it’s an international museum, and to promote the linkage not only between America and Europe, but also Latin America and Asia”.

We’ve heard that there is to be a Picasso/Matisse show in 2002?

Giants such as this exhibition are born in the upper ranks of the museum, not least because they involve international museum relations. The idea started with the British art historian/artist John Golding who did a marvellous Picasso and sculpture show recently at the Tate.

It is a collaboration between MoMA, the Tate, and the Centre Pompidou and Musée Picasso jointly, with curators from each. The long gestation is partly because the Tate wants it for when its new Bankside bulding will be open.

How do the artists for the Projects series of young contemporaries get chosen?

Rob Storr chairs a separate committee for this, and working closely with the director Glenn Lowry. These shows have shorter lead times and are mostly done by junior curators. Maurizio Cattelan’s work (until 4 December), for example, was seen at the Venice Biennale in 1997.

Community complaints

Surprisingly little from the general public at the nature of the art, however “transgressive”. Outraged from Utah is more likely to vandalise a monochrome abstraction. But in the New York art world, there is constant bickering about whether favourites are being played. Fortunately, there is a very large community for contemporary art, where a great deal of it is constantly being shown in the galleries, so MoMa’s shows are not standing in lonely isolation. An artist flows back and forth between a gallery in TriBeCa , the Whitney Biennale and MoMA’s Projects room.

The average lead time?

Three to five years.

How many shows a year?

In 1998, three changes of the whole programme, which is brutal for the staff and perhaps too much for the public even. With four shows running simultaneously, the catalogues start competing against each other. There is a plan to revert to two sets of shows a year, lasting fourteen weeks instead of ten or twelve.

Permanent display galleries as against temporary exhibition space 5600 square metres and 2800 respectively.

The budget

About $5.5 million out of an annual operating budget of $72 million, but that is more in the nature of a safety-net in case sponsorship cannot be raised to cover all the costs of a show.

Balancing the books

For the last two years exhibitions have broken even or made a slight profit.

Attendance figures

1.6 million a year to the museum as a whole

Entrance charges

To the museum itself but not to most exhibitions. Sometimes though, as with John Elderfields’s big Matisse show in 1993, a show is so expensive that there is an extra charge to view it. Charging for the blockbusters also helps finance the smaller shows which may have scholarly importance.

The ideal catalogue

Rarely a catalogue as such but an illustrated book with at least one substantial essay explaining the rationale behind the show. With Kirk Varnedoe’s Jasper Johns exhibition there was, first, the big illustrated book for the public at the time of the show; then a second, less expensive volume in paperback of all Johns’ written statements, major interviews and sketchbook notes, and finally, an extensive bibliography and exhibition history available on disk and the Internet. In any case, for a serious publication, all the material has to be available a year before the show opens.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'This month at the MoMA: Democratic and international'