Art museums are recruiting experts from outside the art world to address problems in the real world.
A biologist, an urbanist, an economist, and a sewage expert walk into a museum. And they say, “Let’s get out of here and go fix some problems.”
This conversation, in so many words, has been occurring simultaneously at several New York museums, where experts from outside the art world are converging to collaborate on projects that extend far beyond the galleries—and beyond conventional definitions of art. This spring, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the New Museum launched multidisciplinary, multisite, goal-oriented programs to take on such issues as housing, the mortgage crisis, and waste management, to name a few.
While these projects might seem far afield from museums’ traditional mission—to preserve, study, and show their collections—directors say they reflect a logical evolution of their founders’ intentions. The Guggenheim was created “to change behavior through looking at beautiful objects,” said director Richard Armstrong at the launch of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a six-year international initiative involving artists, politicians, a musician, a psychologist, an activist, and a microbiologist. “Now it’s, ‘How can we take that activity to the streets?’”
The project’s first “Mobile Lab,” a structure conceived by the Tokyo-based architects Atelier Bow-Wow as part think tank, part community center, part public gathering space, opens August 3 at 33 East 1st Street in New York before traveling to Berlin and then on to Asia. Its mandate is to use workshops, experiments, tours, discussions, and other activities to address the theme “Confronting Comfort,” encouraging “everyday people” to help solve problems of sewage, transportation, and other areas of urban life. Two more structures, each by different architects, will later travel to three other cities around the globe.
These initiatives differ from conventional exhibitions in their focus on transforming the audience experience—from the relatively passive act of looking to the more active ones of speaking up and pitching in. “The outcome of what we’re doing depends on people who live in these cities,” says Guggenheim curator María Nicanor, who is co-organizing the project with curator David van der Leer. “We want a two-way dialogue.”
At MoMA, experts in urban planning, housing policy, ecology, landscape design, engineering, and the social sciences will brainstorm on issues affecting homeowners as part of “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.” For the first phase in the 14-month initiative, supervised by architecture and design curator Barry Bergdoll, five teams—each charged with a particular mega-region—will create proposals reflecting “new and inventive thinking about the relationship between land, housing, infrastructure, urban form,” and what the idea of “public space” even means. The workshops will be followed by a symposium and then an exhibition of proposals, opening in January. Like “Rising Currents,” last year’s project addressing climate change and rising sea levels, “Foreclosed” reflects a new sensibility in American museums, says MoMA director Glenn Lowry. “If the 20th century was primarily about collecting, I believe the 21st is about programming,” he says. “This project is not about collecting anything. It’s about engaging in serious research that results in vibrant public programs.” The focus is the process, not the immediate outcome, Lowry stresses. “Our goal is not so much to be the change agent,” he says, “but rather, to create the kind of conversation that might lead at some future date to change by addressing critically important problems that engage specialists within the field as well as a more general public.”
Last May about 70,000 people turned up at the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City for events featuring mayors, architects, economists, technology experts, farmers, and more. Along the Bowery, the StreetFest celebrated a sustainable, do-it-yourself esthetic, with a “Hug a Worm” booth, shakes made in bike-powered blenders, crochet-covered performance artists, and the Ghana Think Tank, a trailer that sends first world problems to be solved in Ghana, Afghanistan, Serbia, and elsewhere. More than 100 other downtown spaces staged parallel events.
“Museums have long been interested in education and community,” says New Museum director Lisa Phillips. “But the interpretation of that is changing as cultural institutions recognize the influence they have in the community—how they have effected and can effect change and transform communities as destinations, architectural projects, civic projects.”
Phillips says the event highlighted the deep need among different constituencies for inspiration, collaboration, and communication. She was surprised and delighted when St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Little Italy joined in the fun, hosting art projects and staying open all night long for a video installation by Marco Brambilla.
Though she’s not sure yet whether they’ll reprise StreetFest next year, Phillips and her staff are contemplating how to harness the energy it ignited. “There was a desire and willingness to participate on every level,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.