Flash Points

The best is not quite over…

"Economic Times Hit The Nat Hist Museum" by uncleboatshoes on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/uncleboatshoes)

"Economic Times Hit The Nat Hist Museum" by uncleboatshoes on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/uncleboatshoes)

One of the first rules for the nouveau riche is to save a little for a rainy day. Unfortunately, in the doom and gloom that has come with daily announcements of museum staff layoffs, slashed exhibition budgets, and shrinking endowments, a common thread between the High Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, amongst many, many others, is an attempt to live beyond their means. Each institution emptied the piggy bank to take on an expansion, a downtown satellite space, or a $275 million Frank Gehry “Transformation,” respectively. And what exactly do we expect these new editions to become—international tourist destinations on the scale of the Guggenheim Bilbao? Above all, the greatest disservice trickles down to the artists, who are overshadowed in wake of the starchitect. Now without a staff to enliven them, these spaces will morph into nothing more than mausoleums of past ambitions and egos.

Most astonishing are the museums that are witnessing the current upheaval, yet seem determined to stay the course. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recently laid off 12 employees while fundraising for a $140 million expansion; the Miami Art Museum has announced reduced operating costs, staff cuts, hiring freezes, and a mandate to host less temporary exhibitions, but will not let fear affect their upcoming $220 million (gorgeous) Herzog & de Meuron designed expansion; and, incredibly, the Art Institute of Chicago has taken creative solutions towards paying off their new $300 million “Modern Wing—similar to a bunch of college roommates in the winter, they’ve lowered the temperatures in the galleries to reduce their Exelon bill. Thankfully, not all institutions are living in the moment, as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Austin Museum of Art have postponed groundbreaking ceremonies until the economy hits an upswing. The Parrish Art Museum, situated in the wealth of the Hamptons, set its eyes on its own Herzog & de Meuron, but director Terrie Sultan vows not to have a groundbreaking until 80% of the target has been achieved.

Is it really that catastrophic to downsize, consolidate, or collaborate with other nonprofits? How much programming must be sacrificed in the name of projecting an affluent appearance? Is it a sign of weakness for board members, trustees, and managing CEOs (the professional title that replaced Executive Director) not to have a sleek new Zaha Hadid or Renzo Piano? Sure, it’s not glamorous to endow operating costs, but without healthy nuts and bolts, the sensation of opening night will be unsustainable. We mustn’t forget that many of these generous donors who have been whispering dreams of expansion in the ears of directors are often the same hedge-fund Wall Streeters that helped propel us into this nationwide hangover. And this disingenuous promise that the new square footage be filled with revenue-generating cafes, bookstores, and rentable black box theatres—we cannot base the future of our cultural landscape on the nature of speculative retail. The greatest mistake a small-to-midsized organization can make is to grow beyond original institutional model. Perhaps this unbridled growth is just another example of the American Dream, but the ‘mom and pop’ museums seem to be weathering the storm with fewer casualties. Or, in the case of the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art and Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft, these two smaller institutions have realigned themselves with universities to emerge from the recession on more solid footing. Eli Broad has neither the money or, I’m sure, the interest in bailing out museums across the country, and passing on costs through higher admissions in the midst of rampant unemployment is just unethical and contrary to most nonprofit missions. We all want the biggest and the best, but at what cost?

Marlo Pascual, installation view at the Swiss Institute, New York, 2009.

Marlo Pascual, installation view at the Swiss Institute, New York, 2009.

I truly long for the offbeat pop-up mini-space, the very antithesis of the impersonal cavernous art warehouses. Two of my favorites had short but poignant life spans: 127 Henry, which brought 5 shows to what appeared to be half of half of artist Bozidar’s Brazada’s Chinatown, NY, living room; and TRUDI Gallery, which was little more then a walk-in closet with a glass door in Chinatown, Los Angeles. These types of artist-driven spaces are so often in outer boroughs or 2nd floor walk-ups that it often feels like an accomplishment just getting through the door. That said, I have been practically giddy since one of my favorite nonprofits allocated a space for experimentation right down Broadway. Last year, the Swiss Institute remodeled their layout and opened a small project space, Studio 495. So often we often hear of the curator’s or gallerist’s desire to challenge artists to take on massive spaces in overbearing white boxes, but what about the opposite? Asking a young artist to edit, to be succinct, and to articulate his or her voice on an intimate, less-is-more scale seems to be the greater challenge. According to the press release from the space’s first show, it was an attempt for the Swiss Institute’s staff to  challenge themselves as curators, an “opportunity of a more spontaneous approach to curating.”

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been able to catch Marlo Pascual’s MFA show at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, her first NY solo show at White Columns, and her eerie women with candle eyes installation contribution to the White Columns booth at the Dark Fair. When I stopped by Studio 495 earlier this year she had assembled a meticulous, sparse, dimly lit memorial to an unknown big-haired, fresh-faced aspiring starlet. Her found black-and-white headshot is not the timeless grace or glamour of Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner, her gaze is slightly unsettling, and our actress is in over her head. It feels as though Pascual has thoughtfully woven together these simple materials—the headshot, various potted cacti, a mid-century lamp—as an alluring puzzle for her audience, who are transformed into crime scene investigators 40 later. It’s a Carol Bove bookshelf scattered around a small room. The limitation, of course, is that there is no true answer, but that does not negate the great fun in piecing together a story otherwise unrelated. I kept returning to old Hollywood-era Palm Springs, the bygone decadence and the naiveté of b-movie blondes who let things go too far in a rat packer’s compound. Remember in the movie Casino when Nicky Santoro, aptly played by Joe Pesci, delivered his soliloquy on the desert oasis? He says there are “a lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.” The desert is steeped in myth, an intriguing neverland, and Pascual’s show proved the perfect setting for a portrait of a woman whose story we do not know.

This exhibition was wonderfully mounted and adequately utilized in such a small space; it is a perfect reminder to larger nonprofit cousins to allow themselves to be efficient with the spaces they already inhabit. By recognizing their strengths—including smart, flexible curators that are relatively unencumbered by a relentless need for fundraising—more energy can be expended rethinking and revitalizing the missions of the space.

Are these alternative spaces feeling the financial crunch? Certainly. But there is no need of a $275 million transformation when the Swiss Institute and others are already doing shows that larger, more privileged enterprises are not.

Daniel Fuller is the Senior Program Specialist at the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.