The New MoMA: a roundtable moderated by Aaron Yassin with Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Deven Golden, Susan Jennings and Christian Viveros-Faune
The place of contemporary art in New York City is changing. With the scheduled reopening this November of the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street, the $858 million project will create 125,000 square feet of new and renovated gallery space, and a new era for the museum will begin. It will unquestionably be an event to remember, and will reaffirm MoMA’s primary mission to be the foremost museum of modern art in the world.
This is only one of many New York art museums where significant changes have recently occurred, are in process or have just been announced. In fact, all of the major museums are in various stages of planned projects. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will expand its modern art department, a decision triggered by its upcoming $155 million remodeling project. The Whitney has recently announced that it will hire architect Renzo Piano to design an expansion for its permanent collection. Construction is underway on the New Museum’s new $35 million 60,000 square foot facility, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2006. Although no additional gallery space will be added, the Guggenheim will spend an estimated $20 million on restoring its landmark Frank Lloyd Wright facility.
All of this activity totaling over $1 billion of construction will change not only the physical structure of these institutions, but also the way they operate. There will be a need to raise more money annually as general operating expenses will increase for a larger facility. The size of the staff will also need to grow and likely so too will the bureaucracy, and the need for continued patronage will place greater demands on the museum’s administrations. There can hardly be a question that big donors will have their sway.
Although it’s unlikely the museums themselves would admit it, these institutions compete not only for patronage and prestige, but also for the millions of visitors that make their way through their doors each year. In most cases a decent argument can be made that competition is good, but when MoMA reopens the competition may be over. The result will have a definite effect on other museums and, in addition, everyplace else that shows contemporary art.
Now, on the eve of MoMA’s reemergence in Manhattan, it’s important to ask questions about what this means for this institution and more broadly for contemporary art in New York.
Aaron Yassin: What are your expectations for MoMA when it reopens?
Susan Jennings: I am very pleased to hear that the bulk of the additional space that MoMA will acquire through this renovation and expansion will be dedicated to contemporary work. I expect that there will be regular temporary exhibitions of new work. I think MoMA’s commitment to showing both Modern and Contemporary art is very intelligent. Showing the work of artists who are still working keeps the museum alive. I hope that exhibitions of contemporary work will be more heterogeneous in terms of their media. Painting, video, sculpture, photography and other media should co-exist. It is anachronistic to separate curatorial efforts by media, and to separate media with walls.
From what I understand, the floor plan is much more open to an organic circulation, rather than a fixed route of passage. I think this is very wise. To attempt to tell the story of Modern and Contemporary Art linearly is probably impossible and definitely an ill-advised task.
Christian Viveros-Faune: My expectations for MoMA’s reopening are simple: it looks like it will finally become possible for the museum to reengage itself with the business of being a dynamic museum of contemporary art as opposed to being a museum of historical art exclusively. The original mission of the museum as set forth by Alfred Barr, the museum’s founding director, was for MoMA to act as a laboratory for the new. He not only purchased contemporary work for the museum in a wide-ranging way, he also aimed to deaccession work that was 50 years old or older to pay for the museum purchases of the future. That policy went out in 1953 and we’re probably all glad the museum decided to hang on to most of its treasures. Nonetheless, the museum clearly suffered from curatorial schizophrenia from the moment it shuttled its explicit interest in the art of today. Its purchase on the new, on the nominally modern, began to quickly slide into a closed canonical past as soon as it disengaged from the tradition of Modernism. Leaving aside significant purchases, its “Projects” series of small if important contemporary exhibitions and the museum’s somewhat ambiguous partnering with P.S.1, MoMA has largely found itself at odds to explain its position vis a vis contemporary art. I honestly look forward to the museum returning to a sustained and growing level of interest in the art of today, and I say this not only because I aim to sell the museum more work, but because I genuinely think that this city and the world deserve a more energetic and ambitious institution than the one we’ve had for the last 20 odd years. MoMA’s present curators clearly think it’s possible to be both historical and contemporary. I say bring it on. I couldn’t think of anything more salutary.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: To be honest, I’m uncertain. I took part in a panel discussion held earlier this year at El Museo del Barrio, during the run of MoMA@El Museo exhibition and it was surprising in many ways. One of the young curators from MoMA showed installation images from the mid 20th century, in which Latin American artists were integrated in galleries with their American and European colleagues. It was refreshing to see this kind of installation, rather than the one seen at MoMA in the recent past, in which the same seven or eight Mexican works were always on display. I asked one of the panelists from MoMA about the re-installation in the new building and he said that he believed that, once again, objects would be installed by department rather than integrated in a more eclectic fashion.
Aaron Yassin: Do think that the new MoMA building will allow more space for experimental works to be shown, which is good. Their Projects series, I think, will have a stronger presence.
Deven Golden: From looking at the original model, and the exterior of the newly completed building, I expect to find a physical space that is open and visually sophisticated. In fact, my initial overall impression of this expansion is how seamlessly, how organically, the new addition appears to grow out of the earlier building – and, in its understated elegance, how this expansion is kind of the antithesis of the Guggenheim idea of the “blockbuster” destination building.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Frank Gehry, and I haven’t been inside the new MoMA yet, but it appears that Taniguchi’s design is going to be less about the building and, perhaps, more about the art inside.
I am, of course, as curious as the next person to see how they re-install the collection. Is there any museum as famous or, depending on your view, infamous as the MoMA for its unwavering hieratical take on art of the 20th century?
Aaron Yassin: There is obviously tremendous interest in the reinstallation of the collection. The key Modernist galleries set the stage for everything else that is shown and as a result significantly influence our understanding of contemporary art. If you could make one suggestion to the curators about installing the collection what would it be?
Susan Jennings: Concerning the Modern collection, I have a suggestion for John Elderfield, the chief curator of Painting and Sculpture. There is a debate at MoMA about which painting to “start” with, meaning which painting should appear on the opening wall of the permanent collection of painting and sculpture. The painting and sculpture curators seem intent on beginning at the beginning of Modernism and the question is: “Which painting in their collection represents the nascent movement?” Should it be Cezanne’s “The Bathers,” an 1890 Paul Signac portrait of Félix Fénón, or even a Manet or Seurat, though the museum doesn’t own good examples of these artists’ work?
But I say hang an Ad Rienhardt black painting in this spot. Then let the story unfold to and from it. How did we get to the point where painting progressed from areas of slight flatness within a narrative depiction to flatness alone? How did story and color flee the canvas? What led to this pregnant pause and how did we proceed from there? Why and how did we find our way back to narrative meaning and expressive use of color? And how is where we are now different from where we would have been without modernism reaching its ultimate conclusion? Reinhardt’s work represents the conundrum of art from 1889 until now. His work is the quintessential fold at the center of the page. It is the story of Modernism in a nutshell. We somehow found our way to black emptiness and then had to figure out how to continue. How did this evolve? Let that be the question asked of the viewer upon entry to the permanent collection, the work for which the museum is named.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: I agree with Susan’s remarks earlier in her hopes that the new installations will feature a variety of media, though I’m not sure this is their plan. I found the modern starts series particularly interesting because of the unorthodox installation of a selection of works in the same gallery. I think that many people still favor chronology for a variety of (legitimate) reasons; however, some very interesting installations could be made, given MoMA’s collection. I would also urge curators to think about changing the permanent collection galleries more frequently and, particularly, to vary the kind of work seen in them. As MoMA@El Museo proved, the Museum of Modern Art has one of the best collections of modern art of Latin America and much of it has never been seen. I would love to see more of these works integrated into the new installation.
As everyone else has also pointed out, by maintaining a relationship with living artists and their work, MoMA will continue to flourish and to provide new audiences with the opportunity to experience wonderful and challenging works.
Deven Golden: In the end, the presentation of the permanent collection and the various temporary exhibitions define (or at least should define) the museum more than any building. In this regard, I would say the insightfulness of the Tate Modern’s installation of its collection is what makes it a pretty fantastic museum, even if it is its bombastic home that draws in the massive flow of visitors.
As much as I like Susan’s suggestion for a Reinhardt-centric installation, it sounds more like an exhibition (albeit a fun one with a potentially great catalogue). Unfortunately, for me, it’s a little too linear in its thinking, echoing, as it does, the basic historical problem of Barr’s MoMA: too neat. Which, of course, is kind of what Rocio is getting at: MoMA has traditionally sidelined art of the Twentieth century that didn’t fit into their straight and narrow path from Monet to Pollock. And not only have the great Latin American artists been marginalized by MoMA, in some cases relegated to the hallway spaces, but to a very real extent so have the German Expressionists, Dadaists, and Surrealists.
If I were to pick an overall model for how I’d like to see MoMA’s permanent collection installed, I’d have to point to the Art Institute of Chicago’s re-installation of their modern collection under then 20th Century curator Charles Stuckey. Stuckey went for a fairly straightforward, room-by-room, chronological installation: placing, say, the Picasso paintings from 1927 in the same room as Stieglitz photographs, Klee watercolors, and Thomas Hart Benton paintings from the same year. The effect was cacophony, to be sure, but, for one thing, those artists really were all working at the same time. More importantly, I believe that cacophony is far more reflective of what the 20th Century was about than order. Order and progress were what people wanted to believe the 20th Century was about, but wars and chaos did far more to define it.
So while I think exhibition’s like Susan proposes are great for looking at a particular train of thought in art, I’d be much more in favor of less dogma and more democracy when it comes to the re-installation. But like everyone else, I can hardly wait.
Susan Jennings: I would like to clarify that I do think the work from the permanent collection should be seen chronologically, but I think that it is impossible to do this linearly since so many things were happening at the same time. A more open floor plan, which I believe renovation includes, would allow for viewers to wander around looking at work all made at generally the same time.
And I love the idea of changing the galleries of the permanent collection more frequently. I want to see more of MoMA’s Latin American collection.
Aaron Yassin: How do you feel about the phenomenon of the mega-museum? What practical and psychological effect will the new MoMA have on the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the other museums that show contemporary art?
Deven Golden: I’m not sure that, after visiting the Tate Modern in London, one can refer to the new MoMA as “Mega”. Considering the vast wealth that has been accumulating to certain individuals in our current time – witness the new condominium tower being designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava at South Street Seaport that will cost $30 million per unit – and considering the unarguable importance of MoMA’s collection, it seems to me that their new building is more aptly described as being appropriate.
Will the new MoMA bring a renewed focus on New York’s cultural scene? I’m not sure. The building itself, again unlike the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim Bilbao, does not advertise itself as a new “must see” piece of architecture. And MoMA’s collection is, well, MoMA’s collection. So we’ll have to wait and see how the curator’s use the new space and exhibition program to re-invigorate the collection’s dialogue.
For the Whitney, I would think the new MoMA would help them make the case to their Board for their much needed expansion, although I would have to add that the Whitney’s problems would seem to have more to do with their mission – being a museum dedicated to American art in an international time – than to their physical space.
Conversely, with their global strategy, Gehry building in Bilbao, and thwarted (temporarily at least) Gehry building for Manhattan, one might say that the Guggenheim has practically invented the idea of the “Mega” museum. So in their case, I’d say if anything, the new MoMA is a response to them and not the other way around.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: The mega-museum seems to be a fact of life, particularly since the American obsession with entertainment seems limitless. The mega-museum is one of the many results of this cultural phenomenon, the quest for being constantly engaged in some seemingly important activity. The contemporary art world is large enough and rich enough in our region, I think, so that MoMA will fall into place as another significant part of it. Without eclipsing any of the other institutions that work in this same arena, MoMA will continue to contribute to the dialogue of contemporary art, its presentation and its function in contemporary society. One of the most essential programs has been the artist talk series. With its reputation, MoMA can continue to bring some of the most interesting artists working around the world to speak before packed audiences in New York.
Susan Jennings: A problem with large museums with large spaces is they limit themselves in the type and scale of work that can be shown. I am hoping that the plans for MoMA will have circumvented this issue by incorporating into the design galleries of varying sizes. MASS MoCA, for example, is an impressive place, but the curators are limited in what they can exhibit because the spaces are monumental. Not all great art is huge. And obviously, not all huge art is great. It becomes a challenge simply to find work that can hold the space.
In the best possible world MoMA’s expansion and greater commitment to showing contemporary work will create an atmosphere of healthy curatorial competition. The branches on the tree of contemporary art are growing exponentially. We need the space to reflect the explosion in the making and public interest in art. New York City is full of artists who should be having mid or even late career retrospective shows. Chuck Close at MoMA was terrific. I want to see more of these shows at MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the New Museum. It’s time.
Christian Viveros-Faune: Frankly, this is not an issue that bothers me with respect to MoMA, though admittedly it did very much in relation to the botched opening of Thomas Krens’ Guggenheim in lower Manhattan. The latter would have been a disaster because the Guggenheim under Krens has been, above all, an institution devoted to the spectacle of architecture as opposed to art and it has also been speculative in the extreme (the man nearly ran the museum into the ground!). MoMA, it is fair to say, has always been a more buttoned-up institution, an organization that keeps its eye firmly on the bottom line and also on its mission of cultural stewardship (which, as I’ve argued previously, should only be part of its mission). It is, essentially, a conservative institution loosening up its tie. Its expansion has been in the cards for a while (this is, after all, part of what big museums do), and I would guess that the expansion of the Tate in Britain lit a serious fire under its elegantly appareled keister. The thought of having the story of 20th and 21st century art yanked out from under its nose by those gate-crashing Brits is too bitter a pill to swallow. The psychological effects of the MoMA’s reopening I can only judge, again, to be salutary in the extreme, and that’s so for everyone involved: artists, galleries and perhaps especially other museums. The prospect of even one major museum in this city getting it mostly right might rub off. The one issue I’m not so optimistic about: how a $20 entrance fee will square with students. They may quit coming altogether. God knows $20 buys a lot of, well, you fill in the blank.
Aaron Yassin: I, too, am optimistic about MoMA’s expansion. Yet, I am still concerned about their motives. The new whopping $20 entrance fee heightens my concern, and I’m certain that the museum will be filled with “profit centers” on every floor. There is no question that MoMA has adopted a new business model. We have begun to expect this from our museums, but I wonder, is there a point when museums can just be too big?
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: The admission fee is frankly ludicrous. I don’t know how they expect people to pay that. I, too, am certain that the museum will be filled with little black holes of business. Working in a small institution, I understand the need for income at every level. However, if having those little sales shops means that the museum can bring works that we might otherwise not get to see, perhaps it has to be a trade-off. I don’t think a museum can be too big. Some of the best galleries in large museums are the ones rarely visited – such as the period rooms. Like Susan, I also hope that they have created smaller gallery spaces for smaller works that are just as significant and gratifying as larger works.
Deven Golden: Honestly, I don’t quite know what to say about the $20 visitor’s fee. I, too, would hope they either have a student price or, better yet, free admission with college i.d. and for younger students as well. When I think of the dozens of times I went to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was a teenager and paid “what you wish” – usually a nickel – I’m saddened to think that the new MoMA might reduce the viewing of art for students to a special event. On the other hand, I think $10 is too much for the movies as well – even when things blow up really well.
Susan Jennings: I think MoMA should charge $10 or $15 for students, and as they have done in the past, give artists a reduced rate membership if they supply an exhibition announcement card within the last year. As I have said before, MoMA should not be only a tourist destination, but should be a vital component of the art-making process and this should include affordable access to those who are making art.
Aaron Yassin: While the large museums plan construction projects smaller non-profit galleries struggle to survive. With the current downward trend in public as well as private arts support what does it take to foster growth in non-commercial galleries and how can they sustain themselves in the shadow of the big museums?
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: Fortunately, there are funders (such as the Dodge Foundation and the Warhol Foundation, for example), who really understand the importance of supporting smaller, alternative art spaces. It is unfortunate for many of the smaller institutions, however, that the largest museums with the largest budgets continue to get the lion’s share of funding from corporations. Non-commercial galleries and alternative art spaces end up relying a great deal on the generosity of artists, who are willing to give time and even donate work when necessary. These kinds of relationships between smaller spaces and artists are essential to their growth.
Christian Viveros-Faune: Let’s face it, public support for the arts is going the way of the Dodo. It’s a crying shame, but the survival of not-for-profit spaces today depends largely on private monies, which fortunately I do not see shrinking. You may have information that I have yet to see, but the growth of the number of galleries in New York also includes its share of not-for-profit spaces. An important number of historical not-for-profits survive and do quite well. On the other hand, I do think an examination of the role of the not-for-profit space is under way right now. It’s entirely possible that the default mission of not-for-profit spaces, to show emerging art, may be done better and more efficiently by commercial spaces or that, to the degree that not-for-profits insist on this as their primary mission, that their exhibition programs ratify the tastes of the commercial gallery world. As for smaller not-for-profits sustaining themselves in the shadow of big museums, well, frankly they’re two different beasts altogether. There’s room for carnivores and herbivores on the meadow.
Deven Golden: With nearly $1 Billion in museum building going on in New York alone, is there really a downward trend in support for the arts? In any case, institutions, large or small, are going to be successful in direct proportion to their ability to clearly define and implement their mission. Large institutions by their very nature are exceedingly slow moving. One of the recurring jokes of the Whitney’s Biennial is that by the time it opens the artists selected are old news. Small non-profit galleries have a distinct advantage in this regard, and if they have a curator or exhibition committee with a dynamic vision, and are willing to act on it, they should be able to attract the necessary patronage. I would point to the Drawing Center in Manhattan, L.A.C.E. in Los Angeles, and the Renaissance Society in Chicago to name but three excellent examples of this point.
Susan Jennings: If New York can continue to thrive as an art center I think the non-profit spaces will survive and thrive. Artists love the small non-profit spaces. Many artists received their first opportunities to show at Artists’ Space, White Columns, Exit Art, and Momenta. We do whatever we can to help them survive. We give art and time and whatever else they want. Of course these spaces cannot expect to survive solely through artist donation, but these places are much beloved by artists. I see no problem with museums getting bigger. Presumably we will see more well-curated shows. There is nothing better for artists and their practice of art making than seeing art. But MoMA’s patrons should be aware that the contemporary artists MoMA has collected and/or exhibited recently – artists like Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, either had their first shows at White Columns, or curated shows at Artists’ Space or simply admire and support Exit Art or Momenta. New York would not be what it is, a rich center of art, without these spaces. It is very important that these places exist outside of the commerce of art. They need to be supported, and not only by artists, if New York is going to continue to be vital. MoMA and the other New York City Museums could and should encourage its patrons to support these smaller institutions.
Much more concerning to me for the health of the New York art community is the problem artists are facing finding affordable studios and living situations. If young artists cannot work in or near New York, the city will become a showroom rather than a thriving art center. MoMA will be only a tourist destination and not part of the circulatory system of art making.
Aaron Yassin: I agree that the health of small non-profits does depend on artists’ support. So, I’d like to pick-up on this issue of affordable housing for artists, because I think the two are related. There is no question that New York continues to get more expensive. It used to be easy to find cheap loft space and artists lived nearby local non-profit galleries and supported them. Now, artists that are relocating or coming to the city are moving to places like Bushwick, the Bronx and Newark. How can artists, who are so important to this dialogue, survive and prosper in this increasingly expensive environment?
Deven Golden: I guess we’ll have to see what will happen with artist spaces in New York, but it’s hard for me to see affordable space as an “artist” problem. If you want to start freaking out about space, try having a 3 year old in New York when you don’t already own your own building, loft, or apartment. If the real-estate market continues the way it has for the last few years, it’ll be interesting to see just who can afford to stay in New York – and not interesting in a good way. The vitality of New York, for me at least, has always been defined by its mix of people from all economic strata living side by side – much more than in a city like Chicago, where I’m from. Artist’s can and do live anywhere and everywhere, but if they can’t afford to live in New York anymore, that bodes far worse for the city than the artists.
Susan Jennings: The developer Bill Ehrlich has gambled on the idea that Beacon, NY where DIA is located should be an artist outpost of New York City. Not a bad idea. DIA draws visits from art lovers, curators and artists. It’s a short Metro North train ride from the city. The problem with Beacon is that Ehrlich bought most of the available real estate and is renting the spaces for prices that are too high. Art centers are not something that developers can create like the Spice Girls. Artists move to places the mainstream considers undesirable like Beacon, with its aluminum siding, down-and-out bars and distance from the city, because there are large spaces available that are very cheap. If we are going to find nearby outposts the deal has to be really good. And we have to do it ourselves. Soho and Williamsburg had huge spaces for very little money with no developer schemes.
I think a great idea that has been discussed a bit amongst artists I know would be for one or many groups of artists to organize and convince art loving patrons to buy a building with live/work spaces. The artists would “buy” their spaces but their payments would go into a fund to be used as seed money for the next group of artists to do the same. The original patron investment would start a chain of building buying in and around New
York. Artists would have the option of selling out and they would receive what they paid in as the new artists pay into the fund. Nobody would make a profit on these spaces. Everyone would pay fair prices and over time New York would have a large number of artist-owned buildings.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: This is an extremely important issue, and one that cities and their governments don’t seem to appreciate. How can it be that when it has happened time after time, in various places, there is no understanding of how significant artists are for neighborhoods, businesses and urban living? It is extremely disheartening to see the vitriol that is launched against artists who are merely attempting to eke out a living in a city the size of New York. Many young artists are poor, just like others living in New York; why should their housing not be subsidized? Here in Jersey City, artists have made the waterfront a space that has become attractive for business owners. But instead of continuing to support them and their work, they are treated like pariahs.
Aaron Yassin: In a similar way that MoMA will become the institutional center for contemporary art, West Chelsea has become the commercial art center. Although it is convenient to be able to see so much in one place do you think it encourages real competition, growth and dialogue or instead does it create a situation where galleries follow the latest trend and too many shows start to look alike?
Christian Viveros-Faune: Yes, Chelsea has become the world’s most important art mall. That it is ground zero for the international art market is a fact so obvious few folks bother with the observation any longer. It is undoubtedly good for collectors in the sense that it makes shopping, and comparison-shopping at that, much easier. As a dealer, and particularly as one that just opened a space in the neighborhood, there is no sense in my making light of convenience. Chelsea works and it works because collectors can take things in at a glance, on a single trip or pair of trips a month. I do think the neighborhood does engender a certain sameness: many of the spaces look the same (many, in fact, were designed by the same architect or at least in imitation of that architect’s minimal-looking design) and there is a tendency for shows to take on a homogenous look, if not to actually mimic themselves along the neighborhood as certain trends ripple across the art world. At the end of last decade, there was an expansion in the number and kind of exhibition spaces in New York and they made the city an even more vibrant and interesting place to see art. Unfortunately, today what we see is a contraction of those energies. Partly, this is due to the old ineluctable outsider/insider process. Outsiders, if successful, don’t stay outsiders. Still, there are at the very least a dozen fantastic galleries outside of the precincts of Chelsea. Most of those are in Brooklyn, where the artists live and work.
Susan Jennings: I don’t think it is true that Chelsea galleries show work that is all alike. Who thinks this? Of course there are artists in New York City, some might say bitter holdouts working in anachronistic styles that are irrelevant to today’s conversation, who might feel shut out of Chelsea and claim that all of the shows look alike. Is this who we are addressing with this question? Throughout art history there have always been currents of common thoughts and styles. This is a normal process, the ebb and flow of dialogue and influence. It is the artists themselves who are elaborating on common themes, as they always have from decade to decade. This does not have to do with the proximity of galleries. Indeed right now in Chelsea there is a far wider range of art than one would have found in Paris in 1910 or Uptown in the late 50’s. Of course, forces other than proximity, such as collector demand can be driving decisions that galleries make about what is exhibited and, sadly, the work that some artists put out. It goes without saying that it is the responsibility of good artists and good dealers to avoid this trap.
On another note, like the mega-museum issue, there is a Chelsea gallery size issue that I think effects our impression of what is there to be seen. Many galleries in Chelsea suffer from the same size-creepage problem as McDonald’s french fries, Starbuck’s coffee and American clothing, cars and people. Though “small” seems to be a word in exile there actually are some small and smallish galleries right in Chelsea that show good challenging contemporary work: Derek Eller Gallery, Oliver Kamm Gallery, Feature, Inc., Michael Steinberg Fine Art, Mitchell Algus, LFL Gallery. But galleries like Paula Cooper, Metro Pictures, Barbara Gladstone, Gagosian, and Mary Boone all have the problem of filling their spaces with varying degrees of success. Mary Boone just showed 3 small Hilary Harkness paintings in her monolithic space. I don’t think it worked but I admire the guts to challenge the scale of the space. I think there are a variety of spaces in Chelsea showing a range of work, but the large ones really stick in our minds, maybe because the shows frequently seem to be about bigness more than anything else. It is just not enough to leave a gallery with the thought, “That sure was BIG!” But then again, Douglas Gordon’s elephant at Gagosian made me happy for weeks.
Luckily, Chelsea is not the only neighborhood with galleries. There’s Williamsburg! There are excellent small and medium-sized galleries over there and like Chelsea, visiting these galleries can be a superb way to have dialogue with other artists and art lovers. Both places provide community and ample opportunity for conversation. This is a great argument for the concentration of galleries.
Deven Golden: Well, first of all, I’m not sure if you mean to say “the” institutional center for contemporary art, and if you do, I don’t agree. The contemporary art world is, at this time, international. The new MoMA will still be just another stop on the culture train, albeit a pretty spectacular one. In the same way, West Chelsea is just the most recent manifestation of the cultural marketplace. Fifteen years ago it was SoHo, fifty years ago it was 57th Street, eighty years ago it was the Left Bank in Paris. In fact, one main difference between today and those previous times is the fact that while the gallerists in West Chelsea may represent the single largest concentration of contemporary galleries, there are many other large, viable contemporary gallery centers around the world, for example in Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Cologne, and Berlin. Moreover, the so called problem of “the latest trend” or, put another way, the problem of sameness is not, I would think, about geography as much as it is about the paucity of idiosyncratic collectors and the strength of market forces. Fortunately, I think we’ll all agree, much good art always seems to find a way to be seen.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: I believe it was Jerry Saltz who recently described the New York art world as a giant blob (I hope that’s right!), a large thing which can’t really be controlled and in which things are beginning to look very much the same. I find that occasionally I spend three hours in Chelsea and don’t see anything truly inspirational. Williamsburg, however, is a different story, as is Newark. I believe sometimes that the more interesting things happen in the (perceived) periphery. There are some extremely motivated and wonderful young artists doing great work and organizing themselves in significant ways in these places that get less attention.
Aaron Yassin: Artists started moving to Soho in the 1960’s and the galleries followed them there. This was less the case with Chelsea as it has always been primarily a commercial center. As a result collectors have a significant influence on this market. We all agree that there are interesting things happening in other neighborhoods often closer to where artists live. How do you see the future of what is shown in Chelsea compared to what is shown in other neighborhoods?
Susan Jennings: Oh, that’s funny that it was Jerry Saltz who said that everything in
Chelsea looks the same. Well, I think this statement is probably being taken out of context or else I just plain disagree. In Chelsea you can see artworks as varied as those by Ricci Albenda and Luc Tuymans, Olafur Eliason and Lydia Dona, Carroll Dunham and Walton Ford, Devendra Banhart and Leo Villareal, Scott Grodesky and Kara Walker, George Condo and Anselm Kiefer, Paul Ramirez Jonas and Peggy Preheim, Do-Ho Suh and Eric Hanson, Justine Kurland and Yuri Masnyj, Maurizio Catalan and Lucky DeBellevue, Elizabeth Peyton and David Shaw – Really a wide variety.
I have often heard people say that they spent an entire day looking at art (say in Chelsea) and saw nothing they liked. When you consider that in any given 10-year period of art history there are only a handful of artists of significance, I say, “Well what do you expect? Great, inspirational art is not something that happens easily. Did you really think you would find some in just one day or even one month of gallery visiting?” When I do come across something that shakes me up, it makes me very happy. It doesn’t happen all that often. I think that is just how it is.
And yes, there is good work all over the greater metropolitan area in artists’ studios and in small artist-run spaces in outlying places, but there is also a lot of uninspiring art in these places. I am amazed when I go to open studios, say in Brooklyn, by the sheer number of artists paying rent for studios. The ratio of interesting to not is very low. Hopefully, the truly good work does eventually make it into Chelsea and the Museums. I agree that shows in Williamsburg can often be very good. ATM Gallery in the East Village has great shows, too. Many times these shows are curated by artists, either the gallerists are artists themselves or artist guest-curate. I think artists often do a good job of discovering the next good art. That is why I try to go to these places and then tell people at White Columns, for example, about what I see that is outstanding. It is also why it is so important for curators, critics and dealers, not to mention artists, to go to Williamsburg, Jersey City, Bushwick, wherever the artists are. Gone are the days of finding all of your artist friends at Food in Soho after a day in your studio around the block. Jerry Saltz, actually, is great about not being a lazy Isle-of-Manhattan art looker.
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado: I think that because there are still small galleries showing strong work by emerging artists in Chelsea and because some of the best from Williamsburg and other places are moving there, it will continue to be a vibrant place to see art. There is no doubt that the bigger spaces get more attention but smaller galleries and non-profits like White Box also make contributions. I forgot to mention that I think Harlem is an important area that is developing also…it’s not so inconceivable that the west side of Harlem could become something akin to Chelsea. With a significant museum in its midst as well as important non-profit spaces like Triple Candie, Harlem is clearly a contender.
Deven Golden: We seem to have gone from discussing the new MoMA to speculating on how real estate prices are going to affect how and where we view art, and I’m not sure where we’re going with this. Galleries, like the artists, go where they can afford to go, only unlike artists, their calculation for deciding that has a lot more to do with available foot traffic (although if you can’t get the gallerist to come by your studio because you’re in Sheepshead Bay, that’s not an unrelated consideration). However if, in ten years, neither the galleries nor the artists can afford to be in Manhattan anywhere, then they’ll have to move somewhere else and the collectors and curators will follow them. But who knows, perhaps in 20 years, when 90 percent of all artworks are digital, and most adults have been going on-line for all of their information for 30 odd years, people will just download new art and view it on their huge living-room wall screens, and brick and mortar galleries will be a thing of the past, just like people thought it would be in 1997.