Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The New York MoPP

A recent reader comment expressing concern over the idea of museum curators as taste makers (here) has been bubbling around in my head for the past day or so, along with interconnected snippets of ideas from the Summer issue of Artforum (which takes on the idea of museums more generally, here) and lingering, tangential ideas from a post I wrote several weeks ago called Is Anyone Trying to Lead the Conversation? (here). They have all led me back to thinking about the central idea of how public museum collections are traditionally built and managed.

When we peel back all of the scholarly rhetoric, one way to think about the original, underlying function of a museum is that it is designed to be a safe repository for those items the public considers worth preserving. In the case of an art museum, its first role of the museum is to select, acquire, protect and conserve works of art that are deemed important, and as a downstream activity, to display those same artworks in ways that educate, entertain, and inform us about our cultural heritage.

Whether we like it or not, the public at large has currently ceded the selection of works that are to be preserved in public art museums to two types of people: experts (in the form of curators and scholars) and rich people (in the form of museum trustees, board members, and donors). These two groups collaborate to decide which works will be acquired/accepted (either by purchase or donation) and later, which works will be deaccessioned. With every single small in/out decision, this inner circle defines an individual museum’s collection, and by default, what we as a culture are tacitly saying we value. (And for the most part, even if we carefully track the accessions and deaccessions on an annual basis, the decision making process is generally opaque to all but the participants.) Everyone will agree that from an artist’s perspective, having your work in five important museums is altogether different than having it in five random private collections. Being included in a museum collection is an overt validation that the work is worth saving and studying in the long term. As such, I find it hard to believe that museum curators, who often lead/control the process of accessions and deaccessions, aren’t taste makers; in actual fact, that is exactly what they are (even if they hide behind academic scholarship) – they are making choices on behalf of the public about which art is most worthy in the long run. We put our artistic history in their capable hands.

So let’s say for a minute that this reality is somehow unsettling to us, that we have become worried that we don’t want to give up that much cultural control to a relatively small handful of people, even if they are potentially the most qualified to do so among us. One idea that came up in the earlier discussion was that somehow the “market” in the abstract is the default leader, that the aggregation of thousands of individual decisions (a crowd-sourcing) eventually leads to a consensus on what art is most important or valuable. So let’s play that idea out a bit further, in the form of a thought experiment.

Imagine we have a new public museum in New York, conveniently called the Museum of Popular Photography (MoPP for short). For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that it has roughly 50000 members (big enough to have some scale and resources). In building and managing its diverse collection of photography, it however uses a radically different set of methods and procedures than all other museums. Every single card-carrying member of the museum has voting rights. What this means is that all members have an actual voice in every single accession/deaccession decision that museum makes; it is after all a museum by and for the people.

Here’s how it would work. Any museum member or employee could propose a specific individual work for acquisition. As an example, Member 1 decides that she thinks the museum should acquire Irving Penn’s Cuzco Children, and using the social connection tools we are now so familiar with, posts an image of the work on the museum’s website with a short rationale for why it should be acquired. (The museum’s curators would use the same mechanism for advocating potential acquisitions.) All other members then have the opportunity to vote yes or no on Cuzco Children, with each vote worth 1 point. There would be no anonymous voting – every member would be named (to avoid gaming the system with phantom votes), and comments could be added to the voting stream. Over time, as a proposed artwork reached a minimum of 5000 net points (or roughly 10% of the membership in favor of the acquisition), it would become an active acquisition target for the museum staff. Assuming the funds were available or a donor could be discovered, the work would be added to the collection.

Such a system would create a priority ordered list of what the membership wants to see saved in the museum. Those photographs with the highest scores would be those most coveted by the museum and the most actively pursued by museum representatives. At any one time, there might be hundreds or even thousands of individual works under consideration by the members, all with a score based on their current level of support. In some cases, an image that the membership wants may not be available; perhaps a large number of members would like to have Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent II as part of the collection, but either the work is not available or too expensive for the museum’s limited acquisitions budget (all museum budgets are limited). This work would then stay on top of the acquisitions hit list until such time as it could be acquired or was donated; maybe it would never be possible to acquire a print of this work, so in the meantime, it would also be on top of the list of works to get on loan for temporary exhibition.

So at any one time, the museum’s holdings (both actual and desired) could be rank ordered by popularity with the members (thus the name of the institution itself), and potential donors would have complete transparency in terms of what the museum really wants/needs. On an annual basis, the museum would put on a show drawn from the permanent collection called The MoPP 100, displaying the top 100 works in the collection according to the members’ preferences, shown in priority order. Additionally, it would put on shows of loaned works that rate highly in the members’ minds.

Once a work entered the collection, on an annual basis the entire membership would be asked to participate in revisiting the collection. Members could change their original votes based on the passage of time and the changing of preferences. Works that fell below the 5000 point support threshold would be deaccessioned. Again, curators could make deaccession recommendations to the membership based on duplicates, condition, relative importance, depth of holdings etc., but the final choices would be up to the collective membership.

At face value, this entire scheme is a thoroughly wacky and revolutionary idea. So let’s think about what outcome it might produce. It seems quite likely that the MoPP would end up with a holding of photography’s greatest hits, works that a large percentage of the community could agree were worth preserving. It also seems plausible that depending on the composition and sophistication of the membership, the selections would be relatively risk averse; difficult, challenging, unknown and obscure works would be less likely to attract a wide enough support base to get over the 5000 point threshold. It would also take time for new contemporary work to become exposed to enough of the membership to achieve the required level of consensus.

On one hand, this collection, even over time, might end up being a dumbed down, lowest common denominator reflection of our aggregate tastes: boring, obvious, vanilla choices that are quickly seen to be neither innovative nor thought provoking. But if you give the membership credit for intelligence, perhaps this outcome could be avoided, and the museum’s holdings would be an accurate reflection of the art that really does move us, that is meaningful and relevant to our local community, without all of the chaff that currently fills up museum storage facilities, of interest to only a minuscule number of members. The Berlin, Amsterdam, and Shangahi outposts of the MoPP (we have to keep expanding and building fabulous buildings to stay relevant, don’t you know) would have their own permanent collections, selected and managed by their own members; these collections would almost certainly have different flavors based on local tastes. This would be exciting; imagine comparing what the members in New York and Shanghai think is important – perhaps we can all agree on some things photographic, or perhaps there is wide divergence of cultural tastes. Instead of all international museums converging to one, antiseptic and familiar norm (is this white cube in Oslo, Rome or Tokyo?), the MoPPs would splinter, fragment and diverge.

So I throw it open to you. Is a photography museum for the people, by the people, a viable idea? Can the “market” actually make good choices? Would such a museum reflect who we are, or miss what’s subtle but important? Would the “long tail” of art be overlooked? Or would the crowd be smart enough to single out the deserving winners, even among the lesser known?


J. Wesley Brown said...

Personally, I don't think the crowd would be smart enough and avoid entering competitions that depend upon a public vote with my own work. An interesting idea to ponder, though, as a counterpoint to the status quo, although I'd argue that currently, most curators are taking few risks compared to their predecessors and are almost listening to the crowd - and by crowd, I mean the galleries.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe you can find 10,000 people -- let alone 50,000 -- who are interested enough in photography as a mediun to sign up, make a donation and otherwise be interested enough to vote in the way you describe. And that actually might be okay.

The democratization of art -- like the democratization of encyclopedias and movie criticism and vocal talent and countless other things -- encourages mediocrity or typicality or otherwise drives results to an unexciting mean. Good art requires daring, imagination and sometimes revolution to elbow its way to the fore and slice through the crap, particularly in the sphere of photography and the other contemporary arts.

Most of us like to follow, or be told what is important, in part because we have neither the depth of knowledge nor the time to truly evaluate worthiness in these situations. And frankly, I'm not interested in knowing what a gang of 50,000 people think is worthy art any more than I am interested to know which movies have the biggest box office receipts weekend after weekend and who carries this season's mantle of "American Idol." Enough with what everybody thinks! Connoisseurship counts, depth of knowledge counts and a commitment to the medium counts.

To be sure, elitists in power can abuse that power or make mistakes and errors of judgment. (And whomever thinks John Szarkowski was not a major taste maker, who at times evidenced all these failings, is confused.) And these taste makers -- like some artists themselves -- may be unable to move on or may be motivated to favor the tried and true again and again.

But I am interested in seeing and learning about new and dynamic ways to create and experience photography. I want my breath taken away. And I don't think that has any chance of happening if I rely on a straw poll. Give me Szarkowskj (and other brilliant elitists) every day of the week.