The Next Step
The title we have chosen for our conference – The Next Step – expresses our feeling that something must necessarily change in the field of museums of modern and contemporary art. It indicates our concern about how the current economic crisis may endanger our programs, and our dissatisfaction with the present situation, in which museums are still not keeping up assertively enough with the opening of the spaces of the Other, which began twenty years ago with the fall of the communist regimes, to be followed by the new political geography of Europe and the increasing globalization. At present we cannot yet formulate a clear idea how long the current crisis will last, or know whether we have made the essential steps toward coming to know the so-called peripheral spaces and all the facets of globalization. We still seem to be at the dawn of a new era.
Recently I looked up museums and financial crisis on Google; I got approximately 1,800,000 relevant hits in English. A quick scan of a few pages gave me mostly information on the Western world, principally Anglo-Saxon, more specifically American, which is not surprising, since my search was in the English language. When I used the same search engine to look up financial crisis without museums, the number of hits was much greater, and they related to the words global and world. We can deduce that English is more global when writing about economy than in the matters of art, and also that the Western art world still sees itself as the universal space. It is also true, however, that the financial crisis has been – at least so far – more spectacular in the United States than elsewhere in the world. With the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, American museums, first and foremost the New York MoMA, have lost their number-one sponsor. What is spectacular in this case is not only the name of the bankrupt company, but also MoMA’s endowment: last June it was reported at $818m. Google has also yielded the fact that the crisis has deprived a majority of American museums of 20% of their funding on average. Of course, Western European museums have been feeling the crisis too, even long before it officially began in the United States. Thus the media reported on the serious financial straights in which the Cologne museums found themselves as early as 2004, when a 23% reduction in their budgets was announced. It seems that the crisis has not fully manifested yet in Europe, that we may see conditions get worse in the near future. In Slovenia, the cuts in program budgets is only expected this year. We do not dispose of much information on how other Eastern European museums are experiencing the crisis, so I also see this conference as a good opportunity for us all to share information firsthand. At the present it seems that our museums have as yet not come to feel the full impact of the crisis; it is questionable, however, how much will be written on that when they do, and to what extent this information and any analyses of the situation will become known internationally.
The World Wide Web is undoubtedly a yardstick for the visibility of a given space, but not of its potential visibility. Every unrealized, failed, or merely invisible or unmarked social or artistic project has a certain potential which can become unlocked under altered circumstances. To a large extent, the potential of an individual project depends on its collective potential. Speaking about the visibility of individual cultural spaces, we are now primarily interested in this collective potential. In addition to discussing specific spaces and their contexts we thus speak about potential spaces. In the era of socialism, artists often joined in artists’ collectives in order to devise alternative ways of working and form a microcosm of what was possible. The history of postwar avant-gardes and spaces in Latin America reveals similar examples or situations. Cristina Freire describes the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Sao Paulo after the 1964 military coup as just such a microcosm of possibility, which took an active stand against the dictatorship. Experiences of this type remain deeply engraved on a local art scene, also as potential tools to be used, should a parallel situation arise in the future.
The potential of a given space must thus be taken into consideration when presenting its art. This potential most frequently forms under diverse conflictual social circumstances. Art and art museums reflect real-life gestures and then throw back these reflections at reality. Igor Zabel defined this characteristic of the museum very precisely. I quote: “As the museum of modern art ‘mirrors’ the world, its numerous practices and realities, it at the same time brings order and discipline to it, turns it into a system of knowledge, establishes structures of power through it.” By presenting an artifact, a museum almost automatically fits it into a certain system of knowledge. And if a certain space has not yet constructed its own system of history, compatible with the broader international system, individual works may, as it were, float in some undefined space. An artwork can safely move into other spaces or migrate as an idea into various global networks only once it has been firmly anchored in a system of local knowledge, not necessarily national, but possibly covering a wider region, such as, for example, Eastern Europe or Latin America.
A local system of knowledge is a precondition for a global exchange of ideas on an equal footing. Devising such systems is, in part, the responsibility of local museums, and the way to do it, is by interpreting art in its local and international contexts. On a number of different occasions I have called attention to how imperative it is for the Eastern European space to first define its own symbolic capital, if it wants to remain an equal partner in the global cultural exchange. Most of you are familiar with the work of Moderna galerija and know that we have started the international collection Arteast 2000+, the first collection and series of exhibitions to give an insight in Eastern European art, with the goal of becoming the agent of our own change.
The increasing intensity of the global exchange calls for complexity in the forms of cooperation, and also plain solidarity. I won’t be the first to speak of inter-museum cooperation as a form of help in the time of crisis. What turns out to be very important in such cooperation is an institution’s own resources. We could probably all give examples of museums cutting the high costs of insurance and transport by incorporating works from their own collections in their exhibitions. A spectacular example of that can be again found on the Internet: the MoMA displayed as the central piece of its Van Gogh exhibition, Starry Night from its own collection. A stroke of genius in solving financial problems was the 2004 Picasso - Blauer Reiter project, when the Museum Ludwig and the Staadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich exchanged their unique collections for three months. And to give another example of inter-institutional collaborative work: recently Moderna galerija has reached an agreement with three other European institutions – the MACBA from Barcelona, the Vanabbe Museum from Eindhoven, and the Július Koller Society from Bratislava – on a long-term collaborative project. Based on the existing museum collections and archives, our joint work derives, first and foremost, from the need to find new forms of collaboration between museums that are not mega-institutions of the capitals of the Western world. The aim of our collaboration is to call attention to the potential visibility of other spaces, to learn the ways in which the partner museums work in their given circumstances, and find out which methods that we have in common can transcend the differences in our conditions of work. This project hopes to introduce an alternative form of inter-museum collaboration, which does not set its sights on blockbuster shows, but focuses on possible redefinitions of the institutions’ work and a better-quality international exchange.
In closing I would like to mention another thing that I find important when thinking about the next step that our museums must eventually take. Eighty years have gone by since the first museum of modern art was founded. In terms of the original idea of the museum these eighty years are negligible, a mere moment. In terms of the purpose for which the first museum of modern art was founded, these eighty years are a very long period. At the time of its founding, the museum was intended for the art of its era, for which it is now running out of space. A shortage of space usually leads to the birth of new ideas. When we ran out of space at Moderna galerija, we acquired another museum building, this one in the former army barracks complex in Metelkova Street. Due to the new circumstances we have divided the work of our institution in two: a museum of modern art and a museum of contemporary art. The museum of modern art will open this October, in the soon-to-be renovated Moderna galerija building. The museum of contemporary art will open a year or so after the renovation works in Metelkova Street start.
The museum of contemporary art still remains to be defined in accordance with the needs and challenges of the 21st century. And the criteria for defining it must be the potential of past contemporaneities, the potential that was present all the time, and most conspicuously visible in times of crises. The museum of the 20th century projected in its exhibition rooms a conflict-free society; there, the ideal had ousted reality, to which conflict is inherent. Perhaps this is the reason why reality has returned in the form of spectacle, making museums more and more commercial. It seems therefore sensible to give some thought to the original Alexandrian Ptolemaic museum, in reality a philosophical school within whose walls its members could find a contemplative retreat “far from the noise of the world.” The time has come for some profound contemplation, perhaps even a temporary retreat. A good part of contemporary artistic practice is more devoted to ideas than to spectacular objects. The museum of the 20th century art stimulated sight as an optical category. The museum of the 21st century art, on the other hand, is becoming an operator of potential visibility of ideas and their greater mobility.