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Let Us Start by Identifying Differing Ends

I have been asked to consider this moment as an opportunity to elucidate what we can learn from what happens when a major museum decides to expand and the contingent consequences of that decision as it affects the future of art within the city. Problematically, the question was where to start. Subsequently, what follows is a list of the points of entry into any discussion that issues from the Museum of Modern Art’s recent actions. So:

1. Let us start by articulating the cultural standards, criteria, and values that this situation reflects. What I mean by this is: What is the measure we might use to judge MoMA’s actions? Determining such a measure would be useful, in that it moves us away from subjective and emotional arguments.

2. Let us start with the ideal of the museum as an embodiment of our cultural standards, criteria, and values. Here again, I thought how might we think about “the museum’s” mission. What is that we expect of it, and are such expectations reasonable?

3. Let us start by identifying how our cultural standards, criteria, and values conflict with one another. Such a discussion would dismantle the notion that how we understand/interpret our beliefs concerning the behavior of such institutions are not easily defined.

4. Let us start with the fact that in the United States most museums are private institutions rather than public ones. This entry raises questions about whom the institution is morally or ethically responsible to—in whose voice does it speak, and in whose interests?

5. Let us start with how the theoretical and practical concerns that circumscribe architecture as both a thing in itself and as utilitarian reflect the conflicts inherent in our cultural standards, criteria, and values. This point I do not think I need to explain—it seeks to identify those contradictions that are in play and how they may be reconciled or negotiated.

6. Let us start with the idea that architecture is a critical practice, and not a mere reflection of the powers that be—in other words, can or does an architect approach architecture as a self-interested concern whose standards, criteria, and values stand beside its own grounding within the social, cultural, and economic superstructure?

7. Let us start with the dilemma of the architect who wants to express their ideas, vision, and creativity relative to some larger social and cultural tasks than the one immediately at hand.

8. Let us start with the conflict between the vision of the architect and the actual, social ideology of the museum in general.

9. Let us start with James Turrell, who in his talk at the Guggenheim Museum—in his own quiet way—identified the antagonism that exists and between artist and architect when it comes to museums as a consequence of the museum board’s (or the president of the board’s) desire for signature buildings whose features are detached from the function they are to serve.

10. Let us start with architects who produce unusable, novelty driven art spaces that are hostile to their contents—works of art and the work of living artists who today no longer look upon the museum as a site of preservation, but one of production and distribution.

11. Let us start by considering the exteriority of this situation—that is, the museum’s logic and rationale—relative to sustainability, exhibition space, administration, and those of its community within the present cultural and economic environment.

12. Let us start with the question of ethics, professional responsibilities, cultural values, and the economic reality and necessity of both the architects and of the cultural institution.

13. Let us start with the idea or ideal of the notion of the museum’s mission to serve the greater good and its self-interest.

14. Let us start with the relationship of client and service provider: if Diller Scofidio + Renfro is a service provider, then ask what their responsibility is to those who their actions will affect/impact.

15. Let us start with characterizing the present conflict created by MoMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum, as being the result of material culture and cultural heritage conflicting with a cultural institution’s property rights and the responsiveness of its programming to social ideals rather than corporate pragmatism—which we all know is often instrumental.

16. Let us start with the question of whether there is fault here—or, is the present situation merely a consequence of the types of relationships that are sustained by the “force” of law, which these days includes an understanding of corporations as existing as an über-person with rights similar to or greater than those of the individual citizen or those organizations that come into being meant to express their common interests and goals?

17. Let us start by determining if this situation is a violation of our trust in the museum as corporate entity—in that we must remember that though it is not for profit, it is still a corporation. Here we might discuss what is the nature of the museum as a corporation, rather than a public institution.

18. Let us start with the question of common interests. In this case: What is MoMA’s common ground with its benefactors? Funders? Backers? Patrons? Sponsors? Supporters? Clientele? Members? Regulars? Visitors? Cultural Tourists whose dollars contribute to sustaining the institution?

19. Let us start with the question of what is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s common ground with its: Benefactors? Funders? Backers? Patrons? Sponsors? Supporters? Clientele? Members? Regulars? Visitors? Cultural Tourists whose dollars contribute to sustaining the institution?

20. Let us start with reflecting on how the contradictions and conflicts manifested by this situation might be resolved in everyone’s interest. What might that common ground look like?

21. As such let us start with who is willing to act—who will call for a boycott over such a small thing as the demolition of a building that stands in the way of an institution of note that needs to expand to better serve its community and expanding audience of visitors and tourists? Who will demand that its board be reordered so as to reflect a broader base of interests? Who will propose other solutions? Who will call for a boycott because this act represents a violation of our cultural values, standards, and criteria—which seemingly takes us back to the start?

22. Now let us re-start with discussing how our reaction to this situation may be mechanical, a manifestation of habit, in that it is easier to oppose this in the abstract, rather than to articulate what it is we might want in the concrete.


Saul Ostrow

Saul Ostrow is an independent critic, and curator, Art Editor at Large for Bomb Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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