In the late 1980s, when museums of contemporary art began to be founded throughout the world, Gertrude Stein’s oft-quoted yet perhaps apocryphal comment to Museum of Modern Art founding Director Alfred H. Barr Jr., “You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both,” came back to haunt us.1 MoMA’s decades-long success as a museum, and as a definer of modernism scarcely without equal, had, it seemed to us then, locked it into anachronism. New kinds of museums were necessary, contemporary ones. Facing the present, and imaging possible futures, we felt a challenge that matched, if not doubled, that confronting the modernist institution-builders of the 1920s. Updating Stein, the dilemma became: “You can be a museum, or you can be contemporary, but you can’t be both.” Yet, like Barr and his team, we forged ahead, energized by the contradiction. Those were postmodern times.2
The temporary closing of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a number of years — in order to reshape the current building, to add new space containing a donor collection, and to reopen in a new configuration — raises a related question. Observing the current scene from her astral plane, Stein might, with her trademark skeptical sarcasm, posit this provocation: “You can be a museum of modern art, or a museum of contemporary art, but you can’t be both.” Already in 1997 philosopher Arthur Danto had pinpointed the core problem, for MoMA in particular, noting that it was obliged “to decide whether it is going to acquire contemporary art that is not modern and thus become a museum of modern art in the strictly temporal sense or whether it will continue to collect only stylistically modern art, the production of which has thinned down to perhaps a trickle, but which is no longer representative of the contemporary world.”3 His implication was that MoMA should stick to what it did best, become a historical museum of modernism, and leave the contemporary to others.
Of course, MoMA forged ahead to try to become the leading museum in the world in both kinds of art, even more so after its four-year closure, from 2000 to 2004. The first chapter of my book What Is Contemporary Art? is a close reading of its successes and failures in this regard.4 I explore statements by its director and curators, its institutional strategies, its programming, and its room-by-room installations, all of them efforts to grapple with the caesura between their historical strengths and actual changes in art and the world around them. To be, in two words, both modern and contemporary at the same time, and in the same place. Yet the success of this double-play is not guaranteed by fervent aspiration, nor is it registered by massive attendances. The deep dice rolled by the modern/contemporary museum is that, however it updates itself, contemporary art will change so fast, or in such inassimilable ways, that its redundancy will be plain for all to see.
Other double-purpose museums have chosen different ways to take the then/now gamble. The Tate Modern, for example, achieves its huge attendances by prioritizing spectacle in the gargantuan works commissioned from contemporary artists for the Turbine Hall, meanwhile thematizing its historical collection of modern (nearly all European and U.S.) art, and shaping perceptions of each theme through gateways provided by striking contemporary works, to which one returns at the end of each journey. Despite its name, the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, displays contemporary art almost exclusively in its new building, reserving modern and older art for its neighbor, the Queensland Art Gallery. Yet its programming, collecting, and identity are driven above all by the recurrent mega-exhibition that it inaugurated in 1966, and has expanded, with considerable success, ever since: the Asia-Pacific Triennials. These two strategies — the first a reversal, and relativization, of the art historical narrative beloved of earlier museums, the second an importation of an emergent mode of temporary exhibition-making into the structure of the institution — have the effect of “contemporizing the modern.” (And may, on a more general level, be regarded as an updating of what the universal survey museums of art, most of which are products of the 19th century, did during the 20th century: that is, modernize the experience of their pre-modern holdings. Most of these, nowadays, are up to postmodernist approaches. None are contemporary museums in any sense, except as attractions.)
All museum officials know that they must meet a deeply-engrained, two-part expectation on the part of those who flow through their doors: that we will find both the familiar and the new, stasis and change, our favorites and some surprises. In traditional museums, we want this experience to feel balanced (after all, we are witnessing what tradition has winnowed; that which, after all, it has decided to leave for us). In modern museums, we want to experience art’s contrariness to its times (art’s instantiation of the dynamic tensions driving modernity). In contemporary museums, however, these lively but ultimately comfortable relationships cannot be presumed: we expect the encounter to be so surprising that we wonder whether these works, and we ourselves, should even be here. Rather, should we not all be out there, in the world itself, with these works, engaged in the excitement, the complexities, of contemporary life? Should we not be engaged in contemporary art before it enters any museum — ideally, before that possibility even arises?
Modern/contemporary museums that treat contemporary art as if it were the current phase of modern art, and world museums that treat it as if it were the most recent instantiation of their various holdings, will fall short of this expectation. As will museums of contemporary art that treat art as if its primary continuity is with the history of art, or even with recent late modern art, rather than with the contemporary life of which the museum is an embedded, not a soi-distant, element. Instead, in practice, most contemporary art institutions try to manage the paradox between institutionality and contemporaneity by hiding their deep commitments to continuity, while at the same time opening themselves out as sites for events, as places ready for whatever happens to them, or as online sites, visitable virtually, rather than as places where art happens.
Which brings us to the service that the museum owes to artists, to those who are now making the art it may collect, those who may do so in the future. As the years roll by and every change at the modern/contemporary museum slowly reverts to something familiar (part of a process I call “remodernism”), the “yes, we are contemporary, really” approach reads like a reactionary insistence on preserving the remains, and the echoes, of modernism within, against, and despite the changing conditions of contemporaneity. It faults most contemporary art as “failing” to be that which it does not intend to be, and cannot be: modern. Nevertheless, right here, we uncover institutional remodernism’s major, albeit inadvertent, service to contemporary art. To put it polemically: Only that art that lodges uncomfortably in the museum’s precincts, art that passes through its shadow, art that rejects its absorptive/exclusionary machinery, that leaves it behind, commits to quite other criteria, and, eventually, forgets it — only this art has the chance of being contemporary. So: against its most fervent wishes, the remodernist modern/contemporary museum continues to serve contemporary artists by steadfastly demonstrating the look of somewhere not to be.
How might these general thoughts apply to the specific situation in San Francisco? I can speak only as a visitor (albeit a fairly frequent and always delighted one). My very first day in the United States — September 5, 1972 — was spent in the Berkeley Art Museum, worrying about the Hofmanns, while the next was spent at the Oakland Museum, where I went to see the exhibition California 1941–50 — an excellent show, highlighted by some stunning paintings by Clyfford Still. A student of Abstract Expressionism at the time, I dutifully wrote about them in my diary, but was most moved to note that the
best thing about the Oakland museum is that access is designed into it. It is raked, in tiers, like a hanging garden. You basically approach it not through a grand entrance but by choosing any one of the levels, walk along them checking out the harbor views, then go in any door. This openness continues inside. There is a whole floor devoted to the popular culture of the district: signs, utensils, dolls, artworks, furniture, tools, anything that someone feels is worth looking at — each item has been brought in, at the museum’s invitation, by a local resident. The exhibit is incomplete. Apparently, they will just keep on adding stuff as it comes in. Great!
I did not know that I had walked into one of Kevin Roche’s premier buildings, that he had amalgamated three distinct local museums into one that presented California art, history, and natural history on three distinct but readily connected layers. In 1961, years before the Centre Pompidou, he had conceived the “people’s museum” in ways that actually worked for the locality, and for a city that had — at least for a time — been near the forefront of being a place of, by, and for the people. The “Great Buildings” website still carries a fascinating cache of images of interiors.
The recent renovation by Mark Cavagnero may have restored the white cube to a series of spaces that favored concrete surfaces and low ceiling heights, but it has also done something Roche did not: amalgamate the art and history sections — including, I presume, the happening-right-now history of the present. Increasing numbers of contemporary artists are doing the same thing. To base the contemporary museum on such a premise might be a first, essential step for a museum of, by, and for the people.
From an architectural history point of view, it is interesting that Snøhetta’s SFMOMA expansion acknowledges the terraces, gardens, and pathways of Roche’s Oakland Museum (and, of course, the many others that adorn the city). But there is little sign, in the published designs, of the other virtues of that precedent: its of, by, and for the people character.
In 1972 I visited every art, natural history, and science museum in the city. Berkeley and Oakland were the only ones about which I wrote excited notes. This alerts us to the other key element in discussions such as these: that a city such as San Francisco can and should sustain a number of museums. It is a matter of getting the configuration right, for these times, and for at least some imaginable futures. If the de Young and the Legion of Honor serve as universal survey museums and SFMOMA as the museum of modern art, where is the museum of contemporary art? Or is it the case that, like Pittsburgh and so many other cities, contemporary art is shown at each of these, some more than others — not enough to satisfy, but just enough to prevent the coming-into-being of a dedicated space. Which leaves everything to the university and art school galleries, to the commercial galleries, and to alternative spaces. The reconceptualization of the Berkeley Art Museum seems to have gone into abeyance, and Hou Hanru has left San Francisco Art Institute, but the Wattis just opened a new space, and there are initiatives such as Kadist Art Foundation. These are, necessarily, small in scale, but are often the most ambitious in scope.
Yet if we acknowledge the massive, widespread, and sustained internationalization of contemporary art since the 1990s (in all its aspects: market-driven notoriety, the postcolonial politics of its biennialization, and the network culture of its youngest practitioners), we can see that for a significant city to have no major site on which this sea change can be enacted, explored, and evaluated — not as an add on to other, older, presumptively overriding narratives, but as a genuine opening to the future that is fascinating, troubling, challenging in and for itself — might just be to invite provincialism back in.
1. Stein cited by John B. Hightower, “Foreword,” Four Americans in Paris, The Collections of Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970), 8. Hightower’s implication is that Stein made the remark to his predecessor, Alfred H. Barr Jr.
2. The first-person tone here reflects my role as a member of the inaugural Board of Directors of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, now the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. See Bernice Murphy, Museum of Contemporary Art: Vision and Context (Sydney: MCA, 1993).
3. Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art; Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 10.
4. Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). See also comments on MoMA’s efforts since then in Thinking Contemporary Curating (New York: Independent Curators International, 2012), 79–81. The persistence of modernist attitudes at MoMA is explicit in Glenn D. Lowry, “Introduction,” MoMA Highlights since 1980 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007): 13–19, and in its statement, Collections Management Policy, The Museum of Modern Art, October 5, 2010.
Terry Smith, FAHA, CIHA, is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and distinguished visiting professor, National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. In 2010 he was named Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate by the Australian government, and won the Mather Award for art criticism conferred by the College Art Association (USA). He is the author of Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America (University of Chicago Press, 1993; inaugural Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Book Prize 2009); Transformations in Australian Art, Volume 1, The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation, and Volume 2, The Twentieth Century: Modernism and Aboriginality (Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002); The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006), What Is Contemporary Art? (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (Laurence King and Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2011), and Thinking Contemporary Curating (Independent Curators International, 2012).