Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum Part III

This is the final in a three-part series by architect Eddie Jones on the topic we’ve been debating for years: Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?

Eddie Jones:
In Fort Worth, Texas, you will find THE museum. There is a large, tree shaded, grass covered park. Crossing the park—soft steps, birds singing—you approach a gravel court, passing under a tree canopy and find a composition of sixteen large concrete vaults.

image courtesy the blogger

This is the Kimbell Art Museum, designed in 1972 by Louis Kahn. The Kimbell is considered the touchstone of art museums by which all others, new and old, are measured. The architecture is simple, repetitive, functional and most importantly, beautiful. People will go see the Kimbell regardless of the collection. No one can attend an exhibition and ignore the building. Generally everyone of any age, income, or education level will leave knowing they have had an unforgettable experience. The curators are happy, fundraisers never break a sweat, Fort Worth and Texas covet the bragging rights. Believe me, there is not an architect alive who would not honor this building.

Fortunately there are other excellent examples of architecture daring to be great, yet not at the expense of art exhibition. Many of the best museums are from the hand of Renzo Piano--The Menil Collection and Twombly Gallery, Houston (Texas again!); the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; and the Chicago Art Institute expansion.

Typically a new museum is commissioned by a municipality, foundation, institution or private patron. Apparently, there exists a misconception one has to make one of only two choices: between iconic, knock-your-socks-off architecture, or a program which recedes so the art projects. Frankly I am all for diversity! America is defined by diversity and we can never have too many museums, and we are in no danger of too much architecture. So bring it on!

Perhaps the rarity of another Kimbell makes the accomplishment that much more valuable. However, the aspiration remains the worthiest of goals, one to which I am intellectually aligned.

Marilu response:
Eddie raises some really important issues for me. What is the niche, core business of a museum in today's multi-media world? How do museums become as dynamic and interactive as the other entertainment options available to us today? How do new theories in visual literacy help our field understand our changing role within our communities?

When I visit museums I have many experiences, intellectual, physical, emotional, aural. How does the space embrace or reject me; what decisions have they made to foreground free, public access versus an immediate jump into the business end of the place, the galleries? How do all the art forms work together, or are traditional material separations kept in order? The answer depends on the type of museum you have, but often, non-aesthetic concerns swamp the delicate nature of space and art so that both seem compromised.

I was at the Kimbell in the spring for my first visit. After everything I had hear and read about the building I was somewhat disappointed--I've been trained to want bigger and better, shame on me!

While it was clear the space was elegant and well calibrated, I found the spaces overhung and ticky-tackied up with temporary panels holding one work each. I was thrilled to see the "new" Michelangelo panel, and loved the "for adults only" section of the "Love in the Renaissance" show (I had never heard of a birth tray before). Overall, however, the museum building should work on concert with the art works contained therein, and even the Kimbell felt pressed upon to give the appropriate honor to its objects. Even a glorious building can fail if its primary function--to celebrate and frame art--is overwhelmed by other issues.

This, ultimately, is the crux of my point with Eddie--the museum building still must serve its intended purpose, or it might just as well be a hotel or supermarket. While the other museums he mentioned have many great works of art and real iconic presence, they seem beholden to the Kahn.

Which museums, then, DO I like, for their chaos or control, their illumination or their modesty?

The Beyeler Foundation in Basel. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. The Louvre, Paris. The Coptic Museum, Cairo. The Broad Foundation, Santa Monica. A fancy one in Seoul whose name I can't remember, and I imagine the new contemporary space in Beirut is crisp in its elegant simplicity. Each is what it truly is, a product of its place and time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum Part II

image copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Part Two of Eddie Jones's discourse on museums we like / don't like:

Eddie Jones:
Sometimes cities will commission an art museum prioritizing tourism over serious art education.

Consider Milwaukee, Denver and the poster child of civic transformation, Bilbao.

All three of these recent blockbuster museums have been extremely successful. Clearly the goal focused on dynamic urban form, assuring the city an elevated position in the cultural pecking order. In exchange, logical, conventional, flexible, economical and curator-friendly public exhibition space is relinquished.

Even I, who will confess to value architecture over any other art form, finds these new museums to be a curatorial nightmare and programmatically deficient! However, given the goal, these museums deliver.

On the other extreme, one can exalt Dia: Beacon’s old box factory and the Judd Foundation’s converted railroad and munitions buildings in Marfa, Texas. Simple, elegant and originally designed for other purposes, these buildings enclose spaces any curator or artist would happily embrace. Paintings and sculptures soar in their unassuming day-lit rooms.

Although they do not care to represent state of the art architectural possibility, I would say the small towns of Beacon, New York and Marfa occupy a unique place on an elite list of art-oriented cities.

Marilu's response:
I was in Bilbao just after the new Guggenheim opened, and was surprised by how little activity there was around the building. No doubt this one of the most spectacular sites for a museum, which seemed like an alien ship landed from the future. I was in Bilbao again, ten years later, and met the director of the new museum in Vitorio-Gastiz, the provincial capital; he lived in Bilbao.

I asked him if the Guggenheim had any affect on the arts community in Bilbao and he said no, it did not. Yet the waterfront was bustling with activity, new restaurants had opened up around the Guggenheim, small b & b's had popped up, the government had a new underground system. The Bilbao effect continues, but not for the local art scene.

What could the museum have done to embed the museum more effectively into the life of the city the way they got the politicians to pay for the thing? If there is no ripple effect outward for the arts community, what are we, as professionals, demanding of our profession?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Compare and Contrast: Museum vs. Casino

both images copyright: Potawatomi Bingo Casino

The post by Eddie Jones has brought to mind a conversation I've been having with architect Will Bruder, who, in addition to creating glorious, green buildings around the region and the globe, studied sculpture at UW-Milwaukee. Will and I have talked about the impact of buildings on a city's pride of place, and the intriguing comparison between the aesthetics, ethics and economics of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Potawatomi Nation's Bingo Casino.

Briefly: The Milwaukee Art Museum's delicate Santiago Calatrava addition budget started at $35 million and ended up at $120 million (they added the brise soleil, parking lot and formal gardens). It took years to pay off the debt, there's been great turnover in staff, and in the meantime, caused great financial stress on other non-profit organizations in the city, whose own donations dropped as a result.

While everyone might agree that the building has become the spectacular icon as intended, the "Bilbao" effect (iconic building drives economic prosperity in the region) came to life in the U.S.

But some larger questions remain: what is happening inside the building, is the space used effectively enough, has this landed spacecraft had a ripple effect in the arts community, etc...

By contrast, when the Potawatomi Nation was allowed to build a casino in the Menomonee river valley, a former industrial site used by tanneries in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a sense that the tribe was getting bum land. People fought against the Casino in downtown Milwaukee, couched in anti-gambling rhetoric but often with a soupcon of something else. An article in the local weekly paper had an interesting observation: We have taken from the Native Americans what is most important to them--their land--and they are taking away from us what is most important to us--our money. The history of treatment of Native tribes in the state became an issue in this building.

Once the Casino was up--$120 million of their own money--the city realized how in-fill in the valley would connect the disconnected parts of the commercial corridor of the city. All of a sudden, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wanted to up the taxes on the casino, beyond what had been negotiated before and with other Casinos. When in-coming Governor Jim Doyle, however, was willing to renew, and renegotiate, the Tribe's compact on the land, the Potawatomi announced they would double the space of the casino, another cool $120 million from their own coffers. The Tribe handled their own resources and has played a leading role in the revitalization of the entire area.

What struck me in this story was the similar budgets between the high-end, arch modernist building of the Calatrava addition and the for-profit, low-end, also modernist block of the Casino.

Is MAM suffering an "edifice" complex (I used this phrase well before the book came out): gorgeous exterior, empty interior? (In my medieval art history class they called this the butter tax, and affected buildings such as Notre Dame--the wealthy would give for above-ground building, not for substructure construction, which is why the church has had foundation problems). Despite a constant stream of good shows, the program has never been able to get out from under the shadow of the shell. Should architecture dominate what art museums do?

The Potawatomi Bingo Casino, on the other hand, has lots of content--gambling, restaurants, entertainment, and has continued as a hot bed of economic activity and tax dollars for the state.

Ultimately, what is intriguing in this building comparison is the schism that exists in public dialogue about the role buildings play in our image of self and community, and how people with different concerns and goals try to control that image. We, as citizens, typically have little to say in what is built in the environment, but we have a lot to gain or lose if we aren't more vocal in issues concerning our urban environment.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum

As part of my on-going series where I invite friends to write about contemporary art, I have invited architect Eddie Jones to finally put into writing the discussion we’ve had over the years regarding museums we like / don’t like, and why Frank Lloyd Wright made it tough for curators to work with spaces (this, you must understand, is blasphemy here in Phoenix.)

This is the first in a three-part series “Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?” completed by Eddie on a flight between New York and Charlotte on August 5, 2009. To his notes I will append a few thoughts.

Eddie Jones is the founding principle of Jones Studio, Inc., and together with his rakish brother Neal Jones and a staff of smart, funny architects and designers, have created elegant, soaring public and private buildings.

I did a project, one of my favorite ever, with Jones Studio at SMoCA, several years ago. When Jones Studio came to visit SMoCA for a site visit I remember saying to them that we'd love to do a show with them but I disliked architecture shows, they are rather dull, and a museum needs to be about life.

The entire studio moved into the gallery and worked for four months, during which time they engaged with the deliberate, and hapless, audiences who wandered in. I've never seen a museum space so energized and vibrant, and together we tried to understand what this experience meant for museum practice as it intersects with architectural practice.

This series is a result of our talking about what we like about museums, and whose fault is it if they don't work.

image copyright:

Eddie Jones:

“Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.” – Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

Yes, my art buddies, architecture is art. In fact, only when a building achieves the elusive quality of art can it be described as architecture. If I really want to piss you off, I can argue it is the most difficult of art forms because it necessarily involves the responsibility of human habitation and, as it has been said, “Architects have to leave their work out in the rain!”

Therefore, I find the programmatic intersection of art and architecture, i.e. the art museum, to be a fascinating challenge and an opportunity to explore the relationship of museum visitor, curator, artist and architect.

The Guggenheim Museum is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, appropriately with a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition of drawings and models. Much has been written about the extraordinary original drawings and the buildings, which changed the course of American architectural history.

The Guggenheim, like it or not, remains a remarkable and unique way to experience a one-of-a-kind art museum. Study the circulation diagram: few remember Wright’s intention to take people to the top level, allowing a slow, thoughtful decent along the famous spiraling ramp. As of this writing, it was only a few hours ago I spent the morning reveling in the drawings and exhilarating space of Guggenheim.

However, the curating was weak and uninspired. For example, upon entering the rotunda, people were immediately directed “up” the ramp opposite to the architect’s intention.

Hence a dilemma: are curators unable or unwilling to cope with a unique exhibition space OR are architects making the art secondary to a dominant form?

I believe Wright sincerely aspired to connect the act of viewing art with the form of the space to the point that the physical form was a direct result of the exhibition experience. Not only was the circulation augmenting and simplifying movement, it was balanced with a central day-lit point of reference, allowing visitors to see where they had been and where they were going. The display walls were tilted outward and lit from above, not unlike the painter’s easel.

Marilu's counterpoint:
I didn't see the Wright show at the Guggenheim, but like architects, some curators get it, some don't. I am often shocked at curator colleagues who think two-dimensionally about space, where objects are little toys moved around inside a maquette of the space, not taking into account the other elements that come into play between works and between work and audience.

When I moved to New York in the 1980s I visited the Guggenheim and went up to the top and worked my way down, as Wright intended. I felt a little nauseous the whole way, as if I was being sucked into a giant drain. One of my first internships was for Tom Messer, where I did some office work for the reinstallation of the Guggenheim's Justin K. Thannhauser Collection. The space was cramped and dingy, but that is being corrected now.

What we need to consider with the Guggenheim, however, is that Wright was first contacted about the commission in 1943 and the building completed in 1959. The world--and the art world--changed totally in that time, and despite its modern feel, the museum has limitations a Beaux Art classic like the Met does not have. (And no way he could have predicted Museum's extreme fascination with the new).

Still, I always have the feeling while in the museum that Wright preferred small, obedient art works, nothing fussy, nothing dramatic--no scratchy detritus from World War II, no Abstract Expressionism, no Bay Area Funk--just the jewel-like objects in the Guggenheim's vaults.

Frank Lloyd Wright was the first starchitect, the one whose overarching design sensibility freed architects to dominate the discourse about art--a domination many museum curators have to deal with every day.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Face of Grain

two pictures from the drive between Detroit and Milwaukee

This grain elevator in Chelsea, Michigan reminded me of my first apartment in New York, my bad cooking, my first efforts from the "Joy of Cooking" (that brownie recipe was wrong I tell you!) I started using simple boxed foods like this corn muffin package, luckily, I've moved on to making things from scratch, growing fresh vegetables when I have access to a garden, and so forth.

I took this second image at the Oasis on the Illinois tollway north of Chicago. Ritz has really snapped up its graphics!

I feel conflicted: if corn is the source of our fast-food obesity, why haven't we outlawed it, controlled it, regulated it? Nature is just doing what she does; it's up to us to be mindful of it.

Although there is so much high and low-level dissension over farm subsidies and the calories in packaged food, we must remember how important advanced food distribution and preservatives have been to preventing widespread hunger in the US. The bounty that faces us now needs to be recalibrated. Farming has been an honorable and critically important job to every society; how can we encourage organic, local farming practices while feeding the country? I suspect I'll learn more about this living back in the mid-west.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Modern totems

all images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy the author

I was in Washington in mid-July to participate on an NEA panel (doing "the people's work," as Kevin says), and had the chance to see lots of art in different museums. New Orleans artist Ron Bechet and I got our exercise by running to and from the Mall every day at lunch, seeing the National Gallery West, the National Museum of African Arts and the Hirshhorn Museum. It was great to share the pleasure of being in big buildings full of cultural richness from around the world.

On Friday, after the panel, I walked to the National Museum of American Indian that featured an exhibition of the artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). I'm not a fan of Scholder's work--although much of what I read makes me understand how his work broke through the cliches of "native" art--but I was struck by his obelisk from 1987, somewhat hidden in the garden outside the museum.

This work seemed to throw out a real challenge to the culture that has suppressed Native peoples in the US, represented by the thrusting Washington Monument nearby. (Begun in 1848, the Washington Monument was intended to be the largest structure on earth. Construction halted during the Civil War, but was finally completed in 1885.) That Americans would commemorate their new republic with a cultural form borrowed from an ancient, "pagan" culture is interesting--why not borrow the indigenous American form of a totem?

Fritz Scholder Obelisk, 1987, bronze, detail bottom

Unfortunately, however, Scholder's obelisk also looks Egyptian, influenced, no doubt, by the time he spent in Egypt. I never found a didactic panel that explained the work. The Museum missed the opportunity to toss out a social bomb in the form of an art object, but they are right to avoid the kind of controversies caused when Museums look at history through different eyes.

The Native American artist who does artistically bridge the death-defying gap between white and Native cultures is Brad Kahlhamer. His obelisk, Waqui Totem, 2007, below, is sharp edged, sarcastic and penetrating. Kahlhamer embraces and challenges both Western and indigenous artistic forms, creating vibrant, sex-death-and-rock 'n roll odes to finding identity and spirituality in contemporary America.

images courtesy of Brad Kahlhamer

Kahlhamer's totem was built of cardboard then cast in that uber-art material bronze. It's a bird of prey / nightmare head, tree limbs stripped of leaves by rapacious industry and a provisional base suggestive of the persistence of the ancient myths of Native spiritual systems.

Kahlhamer's totem would be a spectacular apparition on the mall in honor of the millions of Native peoples who lived in North America upon first contact. His work reclaims not only the physical shape of Native American art, but some of its psychic space, too. This work would be a testament to the persistence of indigenous peoples and their evolving cultures long lain dormant underneath the self-aggrandizing myths of the American conquest of a wild but empty paradise.

I think the issue of internal diaspora or exile is a compelling and urgent one for Native artists, and deserves much broader discussion in the art world.