Interview with Marcia Tucker on building a truly contemporary museum: “Process, not product”

Marcia Tucker, the founding director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, reviews her work of the past twenty-two years

The New Museum of Contemporary Art at 583 Broadway, in SoHo, is the only museum in New York devoted exclusively to living artists. Founded in 1977 by the then thirty-year-old Marcia Tucker, the New Museum started with two rooms in Hudson Street on only $3,200, given by anonymous donors with two staff plus a trainee. Today the museum employs about forty people and occupies 33,000 square-feet spread over three floors.

Marcia Tucker’s (see Vernissage front cover) ambition was to create a museum that would be different from those already in existence: more democratic, much less hierarchical, in touch with the public and artists, and possessing no permanent collection. From the start it was intended to sell the contents of the collection ten years after their purchase, making it possible for the New Museum to be truly contemporary.

Over the years the museum has concentrated on young emerging artists from all over the world, and on older artists whom the traditional art world has tended to ignore. In April, Marcia Tucker, now the Founding Director, was succeeded by Lisa Phillips, formerly curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum. The recent show, “Times of our lives” curated by Marcia Tucker deals with the perception of the various stages of life in Western society.

When you look back at your twenty-two years as director of the New Museum, what were the most significant events?

Marcia Tucker When I began I had a straightforward, although not a particularly simple, idea. In 1977, during the recession, all the big museums in New York were distancing themselves from contemporary art. It suddenly became clear to me that, in museum terms (I’m not talking simply in terms of space), it was essential to create an organisation that would deal with living artists and which would also fulfil an educational function and provide conditions for scholarship. This is what I felt was lacking: there were interviews with artists and “historical surveys” of their work, and, of course, exhibitions and retrospectives, but no coherent effort was being made to publish critical essays on contemporary art.

I was highly critical of art institutions, and although was interested in the nature of institutions, I still wanted to create one that functioned in a different manner, I found myself walking a tightrope between monolithic institutions that never change, on the one hand, and, on the other, exhibition spaces managed by artists that can generate new ideas, but do not have the resources or financial support that permits academic and critical work and educational activities to be carried out.

Are you talking about an art-historical or an academic approach to the management of the museum?

No, my models for the way to run the museum came from feminism, from self-help and community action groups, from alternative structures that are outside the art world and are based on collaboration with individuals whose points of view are totally different. Collaboration is always central to my way of seeing things; I still consider it to be the most useful way of learning. One’s personal opinion is limited; after all, you already know your own opinion. I have been saying for years that there are two ways of organising an exhibition: the first is the didactic method, the second is investigative. The first came about as a result of the Enlightenment’s distinction between mind and body, reason and emotion, whereby the rational is privileged over the intuitive. The truth is that we spot something that creates an emotional response in us, and from there it goes on to become a source of new ideas.

In an interview in 1984 you defined the two contrasting methods of curating an exhibition as the “taste-making” method (didactic or art-historical) and the “interpretive function”, when the curator asks questions and thereby increases public participation.

I would not talk about “taste-making” nowadays. There is a difference between saying, for example, “this is the most important painting of the Renaissance”, and “there are various opinions about what might be the most important painting of the Renaissance”, five or six opinions by different critics. The spectator’s job is to reflect and to make his own choice. This investigative method presupposes that a question does not always have an answer. It surprises people when questions remain unanswered or when the expected conclusions are not reached. Of course, then you run the risk of appearing not to know, a terrible thing in this society where you are supposed to know everything, but it does not matter to me if I don’t know something.

The exhibitions in this museum were always quite “anti-conformist”, in both their selection and their curating. Was it your intention to be provocative?

No. It would be short-sighted and limiting for a curator to have this as an objective. What I was trying to do, as director of the museum, was to confront those questions that have no reply or which pose a challenge, and have yet to be answered by the experts; these are the things that interest me. It was never my intention to provoke. To be truthful, I’m amazed at the degree to which some people regarded my exhibitions as provocative and confrontational.

Weren’t your ideas for the museum rather drastic and utopian?

I wasn’t attracted by the idea of change for the sake of change. It was more a desire to learn something, to improve things, to look at things from a different point of view. I must admit that I have never felt comfortable with the status quo in general.

I believe that contemporary art, even at its most difficult, belongs to the populace, to everyone. It was born in the society to which we all belong, but it has been marketed as elitist, because this is the way to develop financial support. I think that everyone understands contemporary art much better than the professionals would have us believe, and better than they themselves claim to understand it. A myth has been created. The general populace and children aren’t scared of art—until someone tells them that they should be scared: “You don’t know enough; you can’t tell us what you think”. If you look at children, though, no matter what their age, when they look at a picture, even an Ad Reinhard or anyone, they see and they understand; they are very sincere. What worries me most is that people feel they don’t belong to this world. Art, like music, literature and poetry, should be accessible.

You have talked about the need to deconstruct museums, to abolish hierarchies and to divide up the various tasks. There is one point that needs to be address and that is collections. If you want to create a museum you need a collection. Without a collection surely it becomes a gallery, like a Kunsthalle.

This is really crucial. I used to be very interested in the exemplary function of the collection. I have spent my whole working life in museums. I trained as the most traditional kind of art historian, so I knew about the importance of the collection. But I always thought: there must be another way of making a collection. Should we have a collection or not? This is why I experimented with a semi-permanent collection, and in many respects it has been a failure. What I learned from this experience is that you can begin building a semi-permanent collection at a time when no market for the actual objects exists, and that’s fine. Twenty years later, however, a market has grown up and if, as a museum, you buy, or, worse still, sell, you are messing with things that are not so good. Now is the right time to reconsider everything and to decide whether to change, and how to change. I’ve done it now, and I see it as a long-term experiment because, if we agree that a museum is defined by its collection, I was interested in exploring the unknown quantity of a museum without a collection.

Do you have other memories, or other comments to make?

The idea of an institution completely without hierarchy proved impossible as time went on, as the place grew. Hierarchies form naturally through differences in experience, differences of personality or of ability to communicate, but I still remain passionately committed to the principle. The principle concerning the transparency of the organisation dictates that everyone should know what other people earn and how much the museum receives and spends, and everyone is involved in creating the programme for the coming year.

All sorts of things result from these meetings, but someone always takes notes and this is how the main programme is planned; it is the curator’s job to sift through the huge number of possible exhibitions that could be related to the topics discussed. But to plan an exhibition solely on its appeal to the curator is not compelling enough a reason, either intellectually or from a philosophical, political or conceptual point of view.

One of the many errors we have made in the past was a series of mixed exhibitions (“In transit”, “The last frontier” and “Trade roots”) all curated by three people, a curator plus two people from outside the art world. The mistake was to choose three academics. We should have limited this to only one person from academic life and one from a different background. The aim was correct (to get away from the art world), but the exhibitions turned out to be damp squibs.

What do you say to the criticism levelled against you about having made the museum too political?

I have said in the past that there is a clear difference between art and propaganda, because propaganda tells you what to think; art just tells you to think. Never, never have we tried to influence the way people think. When we put on “Art and ideology” it was a period when many artists were tremendously aware of Realpolitik, and to ignore this, on the pretext that art was still in the realm of aesthetics, would have been an error of judgment on our part.

Is there a difference between a social and an aesthetic approach to art?

I don’t feel comfortable with the word “aesthetic”. I don’t think there is such a thing as pure aesthetics, and I’m not even sure that such a thing as a common aesthetic exists. I think the term “pure aesthetics” has been used as a way of separating art from life, from experience, and of confining its use to an elite. It belongs to the private language of a small group of people. I have always held the view that even the most difficult art can be discussed in such a way as to make people feel involved. In conclusion, I believe that the division between politics and aesthetics is imaginary. The truth is that we spot something that gives us pleasure and we realise there and then that it is a source of new ideas.

What are the positive outcomes of twenty-two years of museum life?

It was all positive because the process of working always interested me more than the product. When I began, I never imagined that an idea would turn into this tangible, functioning museum. It is a monument to all the people who have worked here, and a monument a period in time in which it was possible to create such an institution.

To be a curator or to work with art does not, in my opinion, mean that you have to know everything. Some curators have a problem keeping up to date or remaining viable. They may have been superficially slick or have created movements, but this is nonsense. When I hear the expression, “to discover an artist”—it makes me laugh—or, “This is my artist”. MY artist! One of the fundamental aspects of the work of a curator is the visit to the artist’s studio, during which the curator should avoid behaving like a Roman emperor, you know: “thumbs up, thumbs down”. It should be a meeting of two equals enjoying a real exchange of ideas based on the artist’s work. The curator does not give career advice or ask questions, such as, “Who are these paintings aimed at?” When you spend a couple of hours in an artist’s studio and you manage to communicate with one another on a really profound level, then something magical takes place. These have been the happiest moments of my professional life. I do not only make these visits when there is an exhibition in prospect. For an artist, I think, it is more important to be visited in the studio than to have a painting in an exhibition; for the curator, to see something which at first does not appeal, and then to learn to see it with a different eye.

I’ve gained a huge amount of pleasure from the artists we’ve worked with; we offered them the chance to make their work known, the chance to experiment and to work freely in creating exhibitions and the pleasure of doing this without anyone saying: “You can’t do that”. This, in particular, has been a great privilege and a lot of fun.

A lot of people have asked me what my role as director of a museum like this was. I would reply: my role was to stand next to staff members on the edge of the cliff and encourage them to jump.

o “The time of our lives”, an exhibition which looks at how age is represented in Western culture, organised by Marcia Tucker and with images that subvert prevailing concepts of age and ageism, is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway, New York 10012, Tel: +1 212 219 1222, fax +1 212 431 5328, e-mail (until17 October)