museum perspectives


Museum reconstruction has long been equated with expansion. This is partly justified by the necessity of storing growing collections, since the spatial aspect has become essential in many post-war art forms, such as installation and land art, and the very scale of an artwork has changed substantially. Even the dematerialization of art could not reduce the growing demand for exhibition space. Moreover, digital technologies have made it possible to document performances and reproduce ephemeral events in the form of numerous square feet of photographic print and thousands of characters of accompanying text with minimal labor consumption and control. 
Thus, the justification for such a path of development appears to derive from transformation of the nature of art, making it seem inevitable. This trend of development is not specific for a particular geographic region or a phase of development of the cultural industry. It applies to the United States (where a new Whitney Museum building by architect Renzo Piano was opened last year, and the renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is to open soon), Europe (where the long-awaited new wing of Tate Modern has just opened), and Russia (where a new building is being designed for the National Center of Contemporary Art, as well as a museum quarter for the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts). These are only the most illustrative examples; newly established museums strive to achieve an unprecedented capacity from the very beginning. 

But what does that capacity mean? If we are talking about works of art, then, as Hal Foster noted, Richard Serra, for example, undoubtedly produces great work, ‘but that doesn’t mean that its size should be the standard measure of exhibition space’.(1) Additionally, a significant part of it is now used for entertainment zones, food courts, and retail areas.
Let us content ourselves with museums of modern art only and see that even they, despite of offering new exhibition strategies and pondering over the very phenomenon of museumification, also tend to expand their floor area. 

In particular, let us focus on the New York Museum of Modern Art and note that, being one of the first museums of its kind and the most famous amongst them, acting as a sort of flagship, it has moved from its building to a larger one many times and is now preparing to expand once again. However, there comes a limit to any expansion. Hence, we have reason to recall the museum that lent the Museum of Modern Art created in 1929 its name (Anson Conger Goodyear claimed that the repeated naming was not plagiarism but a mere coincidence born of ignorance)(2) and part of its collection, but which, significantly, was based upon an opposite model of existence. 

A museum of modern art vs The Museum of Modern Art 

In 1920, artist and collector Katherine Sophie Dreier, along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, founded Société Anonyme, Inc: The Museum of Modern Art: 1920. The first exhibition of this ‘experimental’ museum took place in May 1920 at 19 East 47th Street in New York City; it immediately showed the heterodoxy of the idea. The organizers sought to make the space more similar to residential properties, contrasting the grandeur of the national museums with intimacy and choosing a scale closer to human size. Katherine Dreier was not satisfied with vast unitary spaces, such as, for example, the one which held the Armory Show exhibition: she believed that it made the visitor unable to feel anything except lost and isolated from the artworks. The Société Anonyme searched for an opportunity to exhibit art in less spacious premises that ‘articulated like small rooms’.(3) This was not because it intended to exhibit art in interiors to potential buyers. The museum, despite its misleading name (‘société anonyme’ in French means ‘joint-stock company’; ‘Société Anonyme, Inc.’ is a deliberate word play in the spirit of Dada),(4) emphasized the non-profit nature of its activities. ‘The Museum does not sell any works exhibited under its direction but gladly brings any prospective buyer directly in touch with the artist,’ stated the flyer to the exhibition of 1921.(5) But Dreier believed that people should not come to art to worship it. To achieve a full understanding, one needs to live with it, neither considering it decoration nor evaluating the existing interior in terms of good or bad taste. ‘Today our greatest danger is our good taste,’ she stated, worried by how fashionable concerns were displacing the challenges and transformative potential of modern art.(6) Thus, according to the Société Anonyme, the image of a museum should be similar to a residence rather than a temple.(7) 

Denying hierarchies became a fundamental principle in the development of the museum’s collection. The Société Anonyme collected and exhibited not only the most challenging art of the time (abstract art not yet known to a wider audience), but also artists who struggled over the ensuing years to arrive at the Olympian heights of other museums. This included not only the Soviet avant-garde, which, for largely political reasons, was out of the sight of Americans in the 1920s, but also the kind of art that, for a long time, was valued only for its exotic nature, such as the art of Latin America. ‘We have to change our attitude towards Latin races and recognise the great contribution which they have made and continue to make to the civilisation,’ Dreier argued.(8) Finally, thanks to Dreier, who was a suffragette, the Société Anonyme presented an unprecedented quantity of works by female artists: Marthe Donas, Suzanne Duchamp, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Liubov Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Milly Steger, and others. 
It is noteworthy that the Museum of Modern Art, whose director became Alfred H. Barr, also began by exploring new and unknown art, addressing itself to the not-yet-established living artists of the current epoch. Yet it was prompt to reject the status of an innovative and experimental institution, returning to the conventional type of a temple-like museum. The radical difference in the identity of the MoMA in comparison to the Société Anonyme is reflected in The New York Times issue of 1932: ‘Novitiate has passed. Still young in years but rich in experience and accomplishment, it [Museum of Modern Art] has demonstrated ability to play the role of modern chronicler and prophet in New York.’(9)

Anti-hierarchy as a conscious position in the compiling of the collection of the Société Anonyme was to a great extent due to Katherine Dreier’s reflections on the relationship between an idea and a patent. It was likely she who articulated the problem of authorship for the first time. A museum had to contain ‘art, not personalities’. ‘The person who gets the recognition isn’t necessarily the only person who conceived the idea,’ Dreier stated. ‘There are all these other people who reinforce the idea and contribute to it who are unknown.’(10)

It is also significant that, while rejecting hierarchies, the Société Anonyme obviously could not forego making judgments, but it did not assume that any judgment was more correct than any other. Thus, Marcel Duchamp, in a conversation with Pierre Cabanne about the Société Anonyme, confessed that he almost never went to museums, including the Louvre: ‘I have these doubts about the value of the judgments which decided that all these pictures should be presented to the Louvre, instead of others which weren’t even considered, and which might have been there.’(11) Thus, the anti-hierarchical stance of the Société is essentially a noteworthy extension of Duchamp’s famous question: what makes an object a work of art? ‘Is the museum the final form of comprehension, of judgment?’ he asked Cabanne. A work of art becomes one in the eyes of a spectator: ‘It is the onlooker who makes the museum, who provides the elements of the museum.’(12)

That is why the unprecedented refusal of the Société Anonyme to have an exhibition space of its own seems so obvious: the museum only had its original premises until 1923, and after that the collection was kept at Katherine Dreier’s home.(13) Although this deterritorialization was forced, it turned out to be in perfect harmony with the ‘horizontal’ program of the museum. Instead of settling on a particular plot of land, the Société used other institutional venues to introduce the maximum number of people to the art it promoted and, therefore, to perform one of its main stated missions, that of education. It is crucial that such a nomadic style of existence was adopted even when the museum still had a permanent location. For example, according to the American Art News article from May 21, 1921, an exhibition of ‘extremist’ art held in the summer of 1921 was scheduled to arrive in Massachusetts in the autumn, and afterwards to make a tour visiting other American cities. Subsequent projects, which sometimes included lectures, discussions, and conferences, were held in various places, from venues in Manhattan, to the Brooklyn Museum, where a significant exhibition opened in 1926, to art galleries in Buffalo and Toronto and schools and universities. Some of these places were revisited by the Société Anonyme, while others were only used by it once.

The Société Anonyme, which, according to Duchamp, was ‘contrasting sharply with the commercial trend of our times’,(14) was ruined by the financial crisis of the 1930s. In 1941 it handed over its collection to the Yale University Art Gallery, and in 1950 it was dissolved.

The New York Museum of Modern Art thus obtained a monopoly on contemporary art. By resting upon the Rockefeller fortune and moving thrice to larger buildings in the first ten years of its existence, it represented the opposite type of museum to that of the Société Anonyme. Its characteristic feature was its desire to grow into the only museum of contemporary art, absorbing any weaker structures in its field. In an extensive memorandum entitled Theory and Content of an Ideal Permanent Collection, which the director of the museum Alfred Barr sent to the Board of Trustees in 1933, he recalled the existence of other collections of modern art, including the Société Anonyme, and recommended maintaining a relationship with their owners in case they could be persuaded to donate their works to the Museum of Modern Art.(15) And it is the Museum of Modern Art, rather than the Société Anonyme, which became a model first for the cultural institutions of the United States and then for those of Europe. 

Track retrieved: Stedelijk Museum 

Nevertheless, the model built by Dreier together with Duchamp and Man Ray was given a chance to survive in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. We will discuss the post-war period of the museum’s existence under the directorship of Willem Sandberg (1945—1963). Significantly, it was Sandberg, a prominent admirer of Alfred Barr, to whom the torch was passed from the Société Anonyme. 

Sandberg began to reconstruct the Stedelijk immediately after World War II, and the only step towards increasing the area of the museum until 2004 was the construction of a small wing added in 1954.(16) 
The reasons why spatial enlargement was not significant (if not undesirable) for the museum, which has a collection comparable to those of the major museums of the world, is explained by a lecture given by Sandberg at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1973. ‘Today we don’t want to live with what we are expected to venerate. We really don’t know if museums, and specially museums of contemporary art, should exist in eternity. <...> Ideally, art should once again be integrated in daily life, should go out on the streets, enter the buildings, become a necessity,’ he said.(17) 
In this statement, Sandberg makes the same propositions as Katherine Dreier. Firstly: not to perceive museums as temples and to do away with the corresponding hierarchical thinking. Secondly, and on a related note: to live with art rather than worship it. While the Société Anonyme made their exhibition spaces similar to residential rooms, Sandberg suggested an even more radical path away from increasing the size of the museum building. He stated the following: ‘This should be the major aim of the museum: to make itself redundant.’(18) 

From this point of view, the strategies shared by the Société Anonyme and Stedelijk seem consistent: those of denigrating the role of their buildings, relying on cooperation with other institutions, and, consequently, presenting a number of their exhibits beyond the limits of their own architecture.(19) The artworks obtained by the museum travelled to meet new viewers instead of settling in a fixed territory. While the Museum of Modern Art had, by the 1960s, intermittently raised the question of whether it should lend artworks from its collection to other museums and galleries,(20) the Stedelijk equalized the number of exhibitions on its own premises and in external venues. Without emphasizing this information and providing it among other statistics on Stedelijk activity in his usual lower case lettering, in 1961 Sandberg noted that 50 exhibitions a year were held in the museum building, while 50 more were hosted by other institutions.(21) 

Some connections that Stedelijk had established did not go beyond a single project, while others grew stronger and developed. For instance, in 1958 Willem Sandberg became friends with Paolo Marinotti, the general secretary of the International Center for Art and Costume located in the Venetian Palazzo Grassi, and together they immediately conceived the idea of the Vitalità nell’arte (Vitality in Art) exhibition. It was to be presented in 1959—1960 at the Palazzo Grassi and the Stedelijk Museum, then moving to the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen and the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen.(22) Another, thematically related, joint exhibition entitled Natuur en Kunst (Nature and Art) pushed boundaries even further, but in terms of what is allowed in a museum rather than in terms of exhibition space. Sandberg, as if in a salute to Duchamp, displayed natural objets trouvés, such as pieces of wood and stone, handcrafted objects made out of shells and wood, as well as amateur paintings.(23) 
Another museum that Sandberg eagerly cooperated with was the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The Bewogen Beweging (Moving Movement) exhibition curated by its director Pontus Hulten in 1961 (notably, the cover of the exhibition catalogue featured Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp) spent six weeks in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk before moving to Stockholm, changing its name to Art in Motion, and then arriving at the already familiar territory of Louisiana Museum.(24)

We can see what a vague and conditional boundary the museum wall was for Sandberg (in Sandberg’s new wing, it was even replaced by glass) through his relationship with the Situationist International.(25) In 1959—1960, they projected a three-day drift (dérive) together to be simultaneously effected in the two Stedelijk rooms transformed into a labyrinth and in the streets of Amsterdam.(26) 

Evolutionary perspectives 

It would have been easy, given the dada background of the Société Anonyme’s activity and Sandberg’s utopian remarks about the superfluity of museums as institutions, to proceed to the nihilist rhetoric and begin discussing anti-museum concepts. However, upon revealing the affinity of the two programs of the Société and Sandberg’s Stedelijk, their similar structure and general methods of operation, we wish to define a particular type of museum, which can be seen, from the perspective proposed by Svetlana Boym, as ‘off modern’. It is something that ‘involves exploration of the side alleys and lateral potentialities of the project of critical modernity’,(27) challenging alternative methods of development. 
It is of great importance to note the common source of the philosophical concepts that Dreier and Sandberg relied upon. Dreier was fascinated by theosophy and spiritualism, and her views were shaped by the landmark influence of Henri Bergson, which also affected the selection of the artists included into the Société Anonyme: Naum Gabo, Jean Arp, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters. Sandberg proved to think within the new turn of the biological metaphorics elaborated by Bergson. His thought was based not only on Bergson himself (a quotation from whom forms the epigraph of a book on pioneers of modern art in the Amsterdam museum, to which Sandberg contributed),(28) but also on the writings of his devotee, the poet, critic, and anarchist Herbert Read. His concept of vitalism, inter alia, was directly related to the concepts of the aforementioned Cycle of Vitality by Sandberg and Marinotti.(29) 

It is high time we mentioned two more admirers of Bergson: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose text A Thousand Plateaus expands ‘the horizon of Bergson’s metaphysics’.(30) If we look at the rhizome structure they describe, it constitutes a familiar type of decentralized, comprehensive, anti-hierarchical organization. As seems familiar their idea of nomadism, which was also, to varying degrees, embodied in the organization of the work of the Société Anonyme and the Stedelijk during the time of Sandberg. 

The type of museum defined here is unlikely to serve as a model at the present moment—and probably should not do so either. But, it can become a resource for cultural exaptation. The term, also borrowed by Svetlana Boym from biology, assumes that a particular trait evolves to serve some new function that was not part of its original purpose.(31)

One of the main problems that needs to be solved today is museum governance. With the vertical, tree-like structure applicable to most institutions today, the larger a museum grows, the more rigid must be its hierarchy in order to manage this structure. This means that current museum directors require, above all, have exceptional managerial skills—causing other aspects of a museum’s work to be sacrificed to managerial efficiency. Rejecting such an authoritarian model, where the core objective is to control the dependent units, in favor of a heterogeneous, anti-hierarchical type of organization implies, as a minimum, an opportunity for a museum to reallocate its resources and focus on its original purpose: dealing with artists, art, and exhibitions. The most that can be achieved is a restitution of the museum to artists and returning to a governance model of an artist-driven space used in the first museum of modern art.

§ Bibliography

1 Barr, Alfred H., Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, 1929—1967 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977)
2 “‘Bewogen Beweging’, Stedelijk Museum, 1961,” Henry Moore Institute, accessed March 25, 2016, https://www.henry-moore.org/hmi/library/
3 Boym, Svetlana, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago; London: University Chicago Press, 2010)
4 Boym, Svetlana, “The Off-Modern Mirror,” E-flux №19 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-off-modern-mirror/
5 Cabanne, Pierre. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971)
6 Clark, William, “Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme,” Variant 2 №14 (2001): 4–7
7 Collicelli Cagol, Stefano, “Exhibition History and the Institution as a Medium,” Stedelijk Studies №2 (2015), http://www.stedelijkstudies.com/
8 Davidts, Wouter, “Nostalgia and Pragmatism: Architecture and the New Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam,” Architectural Theory Review 13 №1 (2008): 96–110
9 Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Ekaterinburg; Moscow: U-Faktoria, Astrel, 2010)
10 “Die Welt als Labyrinth,” Situationist International Online, accessed April 11, 2016, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/diewelt.html
11 “Flyer for Société Anonyme exhibition at 19 East 47th Street, 8th exhibition, 1921 Mar 15—Apr 12,” Yale University Library, accessed February 23, 2016, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3768319 12 Goodyear, Anson Conger. The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943)
13 Foster, Hal, “After the White Cube,” London Review of Books 37 №6 (2015): 25–6
14 Goudinoux, Nathalie, “L’émergence de la Société Anonyme,” Etant Donné №2 (1999): 22–40
15 Gross, Jennifer R. (ed.), The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Yale University Art Gallery, 2006)
16 Jaffe, H. I. C. and Willem Sandberg, Pioneers of Modern Art in the Museum of the City of Amsterdam (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961)
17 “Marcel Duchamp’s biographical notes regarding Katherine Dreier,” Yale University Library, accessed March 3, 2016, http://brbl-dl.library.
18 Meyer, Richard, “Big, Middle-Class Modernism,” October 131 (2010): 69–115
19 Lorente, Jesus Pedro, The Museums of Contemporary Art: Notion and Development (London: Ashgate, 2013)
20 Petersen, Ad, Sandberg, Designer and Director of the Stedelijk (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004)
21 Toorn, Roemer van, “Dirty Details,” Archis №3, March 1, 2001, http://volumeproject.org/dirty-details/ 


This article was published in Russian in the arts magazine “Dialog Iskusstv” [Dialogue of Arts] under the title: Shpilko, Olga, “Iskusstvo, a ne personalii” [Art, Not Personalities], Dialog Iskusstv [Dialogue of Arts] №4 (2016): 70–73

(1) Hal Foster, “After the White Cube,” London Review of Books 37 №6 (2015): 25–6.

(2) Anson Conger Goodyear, The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943), 15.

(3) Nathalie Goudinoux, “L’émergence de la Société Anonyme,” Etant Donné №2 (1999): 36.
(4) William Clark, “Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme,” Variant 2 №14 (2001): 5.
(5) “Flyer for Société Anonyme exhibition at 19 East 47th Street, 8th exhibition, 1921 Mar 15—Apr 12,” Yale University Library, accessed February 23, 2016, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.
(6) Richard Meyer, “Big, Middle-Class Modernism,” October 131 (2010): 105.
(7) The space of another exhibition hall significant for the museum’s history, at the Brooklyn Museum, also consisted of four rooms that were supposed to resemble rooms of a residential apartment.
(8) Goudinoux 1999, 25.

(9) Goodyear 1943, 38.

(10) Jennifer R. Gross (ed.), The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Yale University Art Gallery, 2006), 153.

(11) Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 71.

(12) Cabanne 1971, 70.

(13) Goudinoux 1999, 29.

(14) “Marcel Duchamp’s biographical notes regarding Katherine Dreier,” Yale University Library, accessed March 3, 2016, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3546733.

(15) Jesus Pedro Lorente, The Museums of Contemporary Art: Notion and Development (London: Ashgate, 2013), 149.

(16) Wouter Davidts, “Nostalgia and Pragmatism: Architecture and the New Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam,” Architectural Theory Review 13 №1 (2008): 98–9.

(17) Roemer van Toorn, “Dirty Details,” Archis №3, March 1, 2001, accessed March 27, 2016, http://volumeproject.org/dirty-details/.

(18) Ad Petersen, Sandberg, Designer and Director of the Stedelijk (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004), 26.

(19) This, to a large extent, became possible in the last years of Willem Sandberg’s directorship.
(20) Alfred H. Barr, Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, 1929—1967 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977), 645.
(21) H. I. C. Jaffe and Willem Sandberg, Pioneers of Modern Art in the Museum of the City of Amsterdam (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 402.

(22) Stefano Collicelli Cagol, “Exhibition History and the Institution as a Medium,” Stedelijk Studies №2 (2015), accessed January 25, 2016, http://www.stedelijkstudies.com/journal/exhibition-history-and-the-institution-as-a-medium/#_ednref5.
(23) Ibid.

(24) “‘Bewogen Beweging’, Stedelijk Museum, 1961,” Henry Moore Institute, accessed March 25, 2016, https://www.henry-moore.org/hmi/library/special-collections/bewogen-beweging.
(25) The closest relationship he had was with Asger Jorn.
(26) “Die Welt als Labyrinth,” Situationist International Online, accessed April 11, 2016, http://www.cddc.vt.

(27) Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago; London: University Chicago Press, 2010), 7.

(28) Jaffe & Sandberg 1961, introduction (not paginated). 
(29) Collicelli Cagol 2015. 

(30) Gilles Deleuze and Guattari Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Ekaterinburg; Moscow: U-Faktoria, Astrel, 2010), 402.

(31) Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Mirror,” E-flux №19 (2010), accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-off-modern-mirror/.