MoMA + The Market, or: What Do We Look at When We Look at Art?
On Monday morning, the eminent New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz dipped his pen in poison and penned a searing open letter to MoMA imploring the museum to halt its controversial expansion plans. For anyone who hasn’t been following the story, those plans include the imminent demolition of the American Folk Art Museum (owned by MoMA), which would be replaced by new structures from starchitects (and modernist punctuation champions) Diller Scofidio + Renfro, most recently lauded in NYC for their redevelopment of Lincoln Center.
More details on the MoMA proposal, including images, can be found here. For the purposes of this post, I think it’s fair enough to define the new art exhibition spaces as slick glass boxes. This even includes the sculpture garden, which would actually go one step further than the enclosed structures by leaving one side completely open to West 54th Street. The intention is for passersby to be able to walk right into the sculpture garden, spontaneously and gratis, rather than paying an admission fee for access to what would traditionally be a walled-in area.
The pro-DS+R faction will tell you that the heart of the proposal is “openness,” or, if they’re fresh out of an undergrad seminar, “engagement with the city.” If they’re really feeling themselves, they might even describe the redesign as a “dialectic with the contemporary urban community” - an idea that suggests the goal is as much about bringing art out to pedestrians as about inviting them in for close viewing.
Of course, there’s an alternative interpretation too, and yesterday Saltz leapt out from the shadows to pound it into the museum’s trustees with a sock packed full of loose change. In his words:
The conventionally chic spaces DS+R is offering you will not alleviate MoMA’s overcrowding or its lack of space for the permanent collection before 1980. This design is an illness pretending to be its own cure. What DS+R propose will forever alter the course of this great museum, transforming MoMA into an amusement park where people will look at other people looking at other people looking at people trying to look at art. This isn’t museum architecture; it’s heady stagecraft that trivializes most art and turns looking into nifty convivial public entertainment.
In other words, Saltz believes that DS+R’s proposal sacrifices the intimate, sanctified viewing experience museums and good galleries have been built to enable for eons in favor of a disruptive level of transparency. Instead of filtering out the world at large, the MoMA expansion makes the crowd inescapable, and meaningful contemplation impossible.
My aim here isn’t to debate the architectural or philosophical merits of the proposal. This is, after all, a blog about the business of the art world. What I want to focus on is whether or not how we’re viewing art today - the actual experience of going to a gallery or museum, I mean - has changed, and what it might indicate about the industry as a whole.
Over the course of the past year, I began noticing a distinct dividing line in the photo policies of the different museums I visited. A security guard threatened to eject me from The Hammer’s Llyn Foulkes retrospective in May when I took out my phone to try shooting one of the artist’s late assemblages. But when I made it to the Perez Art Museum in Miami for the Ai Weiwei retrospective in December, perusing the galleries felt like being thrust into a mass ballroom dance number where the choreographer had gone AWOL. Each visitor was almost constantly adjusting their position inside the space to either properly frame a photo for themselves or clear out of the eye line for someone else’s smart phone camera. Photography was not only allowed, it seemed encouraged. What resulted was the most courteous chaos imaginable - a fundamentally different museum experience than I used to have in the pre-social media age.
Thinking back to other recent exhibitions I’d attended, the museum’s policies and the crowd’s behavior at the Perez seemed a lot more representative of modern art viewership than the Hammer’s. I think it’s difficult to deny that documenting and sharing artwork via social media has become at least as important as observing and quietly contemplating it - if not more so. (Lest you think I’m passing judgment, my Instagram feed, especially from early December, confirms that I am as much a part of this phenomenon as anyone else.)
It’s irrelevant whether museum and gallery visitors primarily do this out of genuine desire to share exciting work with others, or for personal branding purposes, i.e. wanting to demonstrate that they are the types of people who go to art exhibitions in general, and specific exhibitions in particular. The point is that patrons want this ability to shoot and share inside art venues, and art venues are increasingly open to providing it. Forward-thinking museums are even actively attempting to leverage technology, interactivity, and social media for their own benefit, as I just discussed last week.
All of this makes art viewership a more broadly social experience than in the past. I say “more broadly” because couples, small packs of friends, and larger tour groups have been attending museums and galleries together for, if not as long as the concept of museums and galleries has existed, then at least long enough that I can’t conjure an obvious demarcation point.
But now, even when we’re visiting alone, we can share what we’re seeing with other people. The resulting dialogue is severely limited, of course; often all that’s being said is “I’m here!” so our friends can reply “Cool, we see you!" But it’s dialogue nonetheless. And it also means that the people on the receiving end of those digital blasts are doing something similar to what Saltz fears will happen if the DS+R proposal moves forward: looking as much at other people, and what those other people are looking at, as concentrating on the art.
This is what makes his criticism of DS+R’s proposal so interesting. His argument is that the MoMA redesign would detonate the traditional conception of how art should be experienced. But my anecdotal history suggests that model may already be nothing but ash and shrapnel - and I suspect a lot of people would agree with me, however reluctantly. But this viewership phenomenon isn’t flourishing because of museum or gallery design. It’s flourishing because technology has fundamentally altered the way we now want to experience art, to say nothing of life in general. Like it or not, DS+R may simply be acknowledging a reality that Saltz is still battling against.
I’m not necessarily arguing that this generational change in how humans look at art is the, or even a, driving factor in DS+R’s ideas about how to redesign MoMA. I don’t have a mole at the firm. Judging from what I’ve read, they seem to have been heavily focused on the new space’s versatility for events like lectures and performances - though that may be an equally telling facet of the state of art viewership today.
However, I am saying that the social proof of visual art is an increasingly dominant factor in how the industry behaves. This goes past museums into the commercial realm. The contemporary art market of recent vintage is nothing if not a smoking gun for the theory that what other people are buying trumps how the individual feels about an artist’s work. Auction prices are, for once, an especially clear indicator. The life cycle of record prices is now closer to a fruit fly’s than an art collector’s. As I’ve argued before, that only happens through fierce competition - competition born out of the knowledge that many people all want the same pieces on the auction block. Waiting lists in commercial galleries operate on the same principle. For more and more collectors, where the artist has exhibited or what her unique voice is now matter far less than which other collectors already own her work and how many others want to buy in.
On one hand, I agree with Saltz’s take. If it comes to pass, the DS+R MoMA expansion will solidify the museum as a place “where people will look at other people looking at other people looking at people trying to look at art.” But to my eye, the art world is already full of people looking around at each other to see what art they should be looking at. Some are even raising auction paddles or arranging wire transfers based on this meta-gazing. It’s true in museums. It’s true in the market. For better or worse, I don’t think either is going to change anytime soon. The more intriguing questions to me are, how many people inside the industry are willing to acknowledge it? And how do they react and evolve because of it?
Something to watch for as the curtain gradually rises on the future…