The Revolving Door

Read J.J. Charlesworth on the blurring boundaries between galleries and museums

By J.J. Charlesworth

In the power game that is the world system of contemporary art, a longstanding border is in the process of being torn down. Where once there seemed to stand a clear distinction between the private interest of the commercial gallery and the more elevated role of the museum and public art gallery, today that distinction is becoming hard to define, as commercial galleries behave increasingly like public institutions – hiring curators to produce ‘museum grade’ shows, developing publishing activities beyond the usual exhibition catalogues – while museums are becoming more like corporate, commercial entities – charging the public, fundraising from private donors and competing as brand names on the world stage. Meanwhile, the concept of the museum is itself being reworked by an explosion of privately funded museums, designed to showcase the tastes, collections and projects of private individuals rather than represent a more aloof overview of artistic culture – private ventures, moreover, with which public institutions are increasingly happy to partner.

When Paul Schimmel was ousted from his longtime position as chief curator of MOCA LA in June 2012, it was less than a year before he was hired by megagallery Hauser & Wirth

On one level there are pragmatic reasons for this increasing traffic between the commercial and the public. The vast expansion of the top end of the commercial market means that professional expertise in dealing with large-scale exhibitions and audiences is an increasingly valuable asset: when Paul Schimmel was ousted from his longtime position as chief curator of MOCA LA in June 2012, it was less than a year before he was hired by megagallery Hauser & Wirth, to head up their new LA outpost Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. Speculation as to what financial incentives might have lured Schimmel to the commercial side aren’t as interesting as the detail of what he is doing now that he’s there. Opening in 2015, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel won’t be a typical commercial gallery branch: occupying a vast complex of old warehouse buildings, it will be, according to the gallery’s publicity, ‘a dynamic multi-disciplinary arts center’ offering ‘innovative exhibitions, museum-calibre amenities, and a robust schedule of public programs’.

What’s striking about such an initiative is its ambition to assimilate the breadth of informal, noncommercial activity associated with nonprofit art centres, and the aspiration to assume the mantle of authority of the museum; but then such was his standing in LA that to some degree during his 22-year tenure at MOCA Schimmel had become the museum. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2013, he imagined producing exhibitions that ‘come out of the Hauser & Wirth program but feel more museum-like in terms of scale, scholarship and complexity’. Such a scale of endeavour projects the power of the commercial gallery into the public realm in an entirely new way. Other private interests are busy with similar projects: in October, megacollector Bernard Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton will finally (after several delays) open its doors, offering the Parisian public a mix of Arnault’s collection, temporary exhibitions and live performances, and, at the opening, a string of concerts by electro godfathers Kraftwerk. As Arnault would have it, ‘We see our role as bringing the artists we show at the Fondation closer to the public.’

The expansion and evolution of these new institutional formats, which has been ongoing for the past several years, signals a profound development, in which the characteristics that once distinguished public institutions from private interests are constantly being blurred and fused. In that, Schimmel’s contemplation of a ‘museum-like’ activity of ‘scale, scholarship and complexity’ is key. Although that ‘-like’ suggests that he still believes a space operated by a commercial gallery cannot be a museum (no matter how much it’s run in a principled and public-minded fashion), the idea that it could perform the same kind of function has taken hold.

How has this come about? A bit of long-range historical perspective is useful. Up until the 1970s, the separation between the commercial gallery, the museum and the nonprofit or publicly funded ‘art centre’ was distinct. Museums tended to see their role as that of preserving, building and presenting collections of historical work, in which the presentation of contemporary artistic production was only a minor part of their activity, more properly dealt with by commercial galleries and the emerging small publicly funded art centres and artist-run spaces. With museums, the general idea was that a work needed time for evaluation and consideration before it could enter the canon. But from the 1970s onwards, larger institutions evolved or emerged to focus more fully on contemporary production. Paris’s Pompidou Centre and London’s Hayward Gallery are early examples of largescale institutions of contemporary art, established in response to demands that contemporary practice be better represented by public institutions.

So where there had been a strong distinction between public ‘museum’ and public ‘gallery’ (art centres, kunsthalles and other publicly funded and nonprofit forms), the last 20 years has seen the business of presenting contemporary activity folded into the functioning of major institutions, in which collection-building and historical exhibitions happen side-by-side with contemporary presentation, to the point that they have begun to eclipse many nonprofit and smaller public art galleries. And when it comes to historical exhibitions, museum institutions are also no longer so passive, no longer merely rehearsing the canonical definitions and interpretations of art history; if anything characterises the style of historical exhibition of today’s big museums, it is the breathless rediscovery of neglected or overlooked artists, movements and parts of the world, the hyperactive revising and reinterpreting of past art into a new global art history – ‘history’ is no more stable than the present.

If commercial galleries, with their ever-increasing resources, are behaving in a more ‘museum-like’ fashion, museums have moved in the other direction

In other words, if commercial galleries, with their ever-increasing resources, are behaving in a more ‘museum-like’ fashion, museums have moved in the other direction – into influencing the production and presentation of contemporary art, to the point where the two sides are beginning to occupy common ground. The fusion and incorporation of these previously distinct activities produces a new middle-ground type of institution, in which the priority of ‘public’ or ‘private’ in what defines it has become ambiguous. After all, there are now many ‘public’ institutions that derive the majority of their income from private sources, so what makes them ‘public’?

When this is the case, the ‘museum-like’ mix of contemporary currency, historical overview and scholarly and theoretical authority becomes something up for grabs. Anyone, today, with sufficient resources, can create an institution that incorporates all the aspects of a major cultural centre: shows of current art, shows of historical art, live events, talks programmes, curatorial scholarship – nothing distinguishes these as the exclusive activity of ‘public’ or ‘private’ institutions. What, after all, is Tate Modern, for example, other than just a very big building where a lot of art-type things happen? Nothing inherently distinguishes these, other than one residual characteristic that public institutions retain – the ideal (or the myth) of their impartiality, of their position as deciders of what art matters most, in the long term.

But if it appears that commercial interests can almost step up to the level of public institutions, it is because, in many ways, the cultural function and purpose of the big public institutions have declined. In fact, the claim of impartiality is increasingly difficult for large institutions to maintain: all presentations of contemporary art are a form of value-judgement; all historical exhibitions are subject to revisionist interpretation, based on academic and scholarly debate, over which museums do not have a monopoly; the rise of the proactive museum implicates it in shaping the field of contemporary practice and its transition into history.

It is no secret that many of the biggest now-public art institutions were founded out of the enthusiasms and resources of private individuals

It is no secret that many of the biggest now-public art institutions were founded out of the enthusiasms and resources of private individuals: the Whitney, the Guggenheim and Tate, for example, all find their origins in private wealth. Yet these institutions were set up with a view to a bigger purpose, championing ideals that went beyond the immediate interests of their founders. The original Tate Gallery, for example, born out of the private collection of Henry Tate, began as a gallery for the celebration of British art, when none existed, helping to define the idea of a ‘national’ art in the age of European empire; the Whitney set out as a museum of American art; others, such as the Guggenheim, championed the cause of Modernism and ‘nonobjective’ art, when forces such as Nazism sought to destroy it. And throughout the last century, these large institutions evolved into institutions increasingly closely associated with a national audience, especially in Europe, as social-democratic states took on a greater responsibility for the support of culture.

Today, however, those trends are in abeyance. No one cares much for a national perspective, and contemporary art doesn’t really incite much serious cultural conflict. Nation-states are little interested in asserting a national culture in the era of globalisation, where fluidity and exchange are privileged, at least for the very rich. In these circustances, the big public institutions have reached outwards, towards the international stage, since, shorn of their earlier rationale, they risk looking merely like big versions of smaller institutions, all of them involved in the homogeneous circulation of international contemporary art.

At its origin, the public institution was always to be found in the desires of private individuals, but it was bigger ideas, about history, or artistic progress, or nationhood, that turned them into truly public institutions. Today, those big ideas are conspicuous by their absence, and big public institutions are slowly winding back towards their origins. The border between private and public steadily dissolves, and the revolving door becomes a merry-go-round. 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.