On Friday 25 June MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry visited the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney to present the inaugural Ann Lewis AO Contemporary Visual Arts International Address. He used his time to speak on ‘The Museum of Modern Art and the Future: thoughts about art museums in the 21st century’.
Lowry opened by quoting MoMA’s first director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., saying MoMA “is a torpedo moving through time, its head the ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of 50 to 100 years ago.” Lowry elaborated on this concept noting MoMA’s “commitment to change”, to “adjust to the shifting nature of art”, to be a “50 year window constantly moving through time” “shedding its past”. Lowry spoke about how the design of, and space within, the museum itself is being constantly rebuilt and modified in order to create “not more space but different space”.
Lowry went on to talk about how MoMA has a “commitment to the energy of New York”, how glass walls and a design which opens directly onto the street connect the museum to the hustle and bustle of the city. This is in stark contrast to some other museums which he says operate as a series of white boxes with the “intention to disengage” from their surroundings. If you look at the fly through of the upcoming MCA extension you can see a limited degree of this MoMA influence in its design.
The next interesting point was about MoMA’s internal layout. Lowry and his team realised that the history of modern art is not yet fixed, and thus that it is not possible to say “here is the history of modern art”, but that “the best we can do is to present an argument”, to say “here is a history of modern art”. They have disposed of the “art as beads on a chain” mentality, and have redesigned their exhibition spaces to have multiple entrances and exits so that visitors can make their own choices about how to navigate through the world of modern art.
Lowry continued, outlining the financial structure of MoMA. It was starling to discover that MoMA’s 2008 net assets were $USD 1 232 573 000. Compare this to the MCA’s $AUD 15 998 337 and you start to see just how small a fish Australia is financially in the contemporary/modern art world. Interesting to note is that according to one of Lowry’s presentation slides roughly 31% of MoMA’s income during a one year period came from its endowment, with 21% fundraising, and 20% admission costs following closely afterward. A quick comparison between the MoMA financial statements from 2007-2008 and the MCA’s 2008 annual report shows that, at least on the surface, MoMA is making considerably more money from the private sector than from the American government, whereas the MCA is quite heavily reliant on Australian federal and state government grants as a primary source of income. This seems to be echoed through the majority of Australian arts organisations. It would be a welcome change see this level of individual and private sector involvement in the Australian arts industry.
Lowry then introduced the future direction he believes museums need to take. He said that in the future no museum will be able to go it alone, that “museums will have to create networks for themselves in order to survive”. He gave examples of this in MoMA’s merging with PS1 Contemporary Arts Centre in Queens as well as its relationship with Japan’s MORI Art Museum. He also explained that it is just as important for MoMA to know what is going on artistically in Australia as it is New York and America. It would be great to see this view lead to further opportunities for Australian contemporary artists to exhibit at MoMA and other museums and galleries around the world.
Lowry’s final point, a prediction about the future of art, sounds like good news for installation artists. He says “participatory work is where modern art is going”, namely that which inscribes the visitor into the work of art, which makes the visitor “not passive but active in the work of art”, which can be “both singular and multiple”, “work which challenges but invites”.