Blog — 8 May 2014 — Michelle Sachtler

On 13, 14 and 15 March, the Stedelijk Museum organized the conference Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art in collaboration with ASCA/ACGS of the University of Amsterdam, the Moderna Museet Stockholm, the Folkwang Museum Essen, and the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam. With over 80 papers, lectures and panel discussions, the conference offered a kaleidoscopic overview of the topical issues and questions that are currently at stake in the relation between museums, art institutions, globalization and post-colonial discourse.

With the virtue of hindsight, we take the opportunity here to look back and share some tentative conclusions with you in a series of reports on a variety of sessions in the conference – also, having seen the extent of the program, it is likely people might have missed some interesting sessions. A small team of spirited writers has documented the highlights, critical insights and challenging discussions of the conference. Last month you could read their impression of the opening event here, followed by a report on the discussion Thinking Globally: Museums, Art and Ethnography after the Global Turn in the Tropenmuseum. In the following text you can read Michelle Sachtler’s account of the session that zoomed in on concrete case studies explicating one of the main questions in the conference: How do museums incorporate a global idea of art in their collection and acquisition practices?

The session Close Reading of Collection Practices presented a group of papers exploring the practices of modern museum’s policies of collecting and their participation in the ongoing process of globalization. Covering the practices of established and up-and-coming museums alike, the topics covered in this session dealt with the communication and establishing of networks between museums throughout the world, how museums modernize, as well the integration of global artworks in their collections. Dr. Thomas J. Berghuis, who also chaired the first part of this session, also presented the first paper.

Thomas Berghuis, who is The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, presented the paper Museums’ Software: Curating, Collecting and Commissioning Contemporary Chinese Art, in which he elaborated on his curatorial work as it is situated in the collaboration between the Guggenheim in New York and various museums in Asia. It is possible for this curatorial exchange to work both directions; while the Guggenheim features the work of, for instance, the Chinese contemporary artist Wang Jianwei, he hopes that institutions like the Guggenheim could also have a positive influence on museums in Asia, including new museums in China. As Berghuis explained how institutions such as the Guggenheim could serve as inspiration for new museums in Asia, a discussion developed around the idea that the western model of modern art museums spreading to the non-west could be seen as a new form of colonialism. Museums can function as nationalist institutions, but how reflective are they of their own culture when they are built to replicate the western example? It is a challenge for any modern museum to find a solution for working on the global scale, while still establishing their local narrative.

Abigail Winograd, a curatorial fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, presented her research on Tate Modern’s collecting practices of non-western art. Responding to political pressure in the 1980’s and 90’s for the United Kingdom to create bonds with South America, The Tate hired its first Latin American curator, Cuauhtemoc Medina, and consequently created a committee for acquiring Latin American art. They took a unique stance on this project by establishing Medina’s position as a facilitator for Latin American art to be bought by the museum, rather than an in-house curator who would host exhibitions. The Tate partially chose Latin America for their first large-scale acquisition project of non-western art because of the lack of colonial ties to the continent. Although this is certainly the first step towards the incorporation of other cultures into their collection, it is obvious that Tate Modern, as with other significant western museums, will face more challenges with acquiring art that comes from regions which it had formerly colonized. It is not the idea to necessarily set aside the political ties that exist, but rather find ways to acknowledge their past relationships while building on the new ones whose basis is modern and contemporary art . Critical questions were raised following her lecture concerning the Tate’s criteria for acquisitions. Are they looking to find artists who are “representational” of the Latin America? And how do you take artists such as Francis Alys or Melanie Smith into account, who have European roots, but generally fall into the category of “non-western art”?

In addition to the post-colonial discourse, Irene Campolmi, assistant researcher at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, brought up the role of sustainability in the development of modern museums. Sustainability is a significant factor in the modernization and globalization of institutions, and applies in many ways to museums. Not only can they include sustainability in economic and environmental aspects, but as Campolmi asserts, in cultural terms as well. She compares museums to ecosystems, in terms of the reallocation of their resources, namely art and culture. She questions how museums can create new, sustainable collections and structures without simply “greenwashing” older models. She sees the Tate Modern in London, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Reina Sofia in Madrid, and Mathaf Arab Museum in Doha (featured left) as leaders in this trend, as they are re-thinking their schemes of display, and choosing alternative ways to narrate their histories of modern art- for example shifting away from linear systems based on time and towards thematic displays. She emphasizes that from a social perspective, museums can improve sustainability through networking and increased communication with one another.

Independent curator and writer Jennifer Burris spoke about her research on the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s acquisition of various artworks made from human hair. The medium of human hair causes viewers to think on the humanity of the artwork, and has associations with life, death, and history of individuals. One of Burris’ main points is that although hair is a universal human trait, its meaning cannot be considered universal. In terms of global programming, museums have to use caution when displaying artworks that require a specific context from which they gain meaning. On a similar note, art historian Dr. Konstantina Drakopoulou from the University of Athens lectured about the changing significance of Ethiopian art, which is being collected in Greece. Ethiopian painters had originally painted works for the state, but as their commissions decreased, they began painting for the tourist market. Drakopoulou insists that as the artistic style conformed to the taste of the visitors and was no longer produced for local purposes, the painting ceased to be folk art. This theory created a rather heated debate about the labeling of artworks- are these Ethiopian paintings products of “art” or “culture”? Who actually makes this decision, and what is the role of museums in the debate? Furthermore, what is the difference between “contemporary” and “folk” art, and what role does the consumer play in making this distinction?

Overall, these lectures push us to scrutinize modern museums’ criteria for the acquisition of and ability to create context for artworks from other cultures than their own. It is clear that museums face many challenges- modernization, expansion, as well as the need to create a balance between national and international narratives- and the discussions brought up during this session of has createt a platform to continue seeking solutions for how to improve and expand modern art collections.

Michelle Sachtler holds a Master’s degree in Arts and Culture from the University of Leiden and currently works as an intern at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.