in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Northern Exposure

Considering recent museum developments in the light of Stockholm's reopened Moderna Museet

in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

The Moderna Museet chose to do without any razzmatazz for its reopening, even though razzmatazz has been de rigueur at museums lately. For the opening of MoMA Queens in New York a saint's day-like procession was staged in which Kiki Smith was carted on a palanquin, along with a copy of Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1951), across the Queensboro Bridge. At the Moderna's opening, the Bicycle Wheel sat in the corner of a gallery, patiently awaiting your arrival.

Walking the Moderna's galleries, there is no glib showiness, but the museum's fêted collection is persuasively reorganized, lined up in three breezy chronological slices. You move back through time, from 'Now' (since 1970), via 'The Future' (1940-69) to 'Modern Times' (1900-39). Where there are sub-themes within historical periods, upheld by wall texts, they function like a perfect concierge: never interfering, but sure to be there with essential details if needed. Able to touch base again with Robert Rauschenberg's goat in a tyre (Monogram, 1955-9), Vladimir Tatlin's Model for the 3rd International Tower (1919-20), Henri Matisse's Moroccan Landscape (1912) and Pablo Picasso's La demoiselle (1929) was gratifying, and the experience was appropriately tempered by a wistful sense of how art is truly missed when it's not around to be visited. If there was a lack of panache when the Moderna opened on Valentine's Day, in its place was an impression of modest independence that comes with confident poise.

While museum openings are supposed to be about beginnings, this one marked the end of a story. In 1994 the legendary Moderna Museet was relocated to the temporary quarters of a tram shed while its new home was being built by Rafael Moneo. Before the new building's inauguration the museum's Director, Björn Springfeldt, resigned in 1996 and David Elliott was appointed in his place. Elliott was followed by Lars Nittve in 2001, and shortly after Nittve's arrival mould was suddenly found crawling inside Moneo's building, causing the museum to be relocated once more. That's three directors, three locations and one débâcle in ten years. If there is a museum heaven, the Moderna's place is assured - it has served its time in hell. Yet this is not to say that the Moderna spent ten years giving ground; before micro-organisms closed the premises in 2002, Elliott opened 'After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe', and during the exodus from the Moneo building Nittve devised 'Moderna Museet c/o', a winning manoeuvre designed to keep the celebrated collection visible by camping it in other art institutions throughout Sweden.

The Moderna Museet's anomalous relationship to the past decade in the museum world - a period to rival any other in terms of producing both pioneering concepts and stupendous disappointments - is another classical case in point. Its fate of restlessness and truncated visions kept it sidelined in the museum à gogo era, when the economic boom of the 1990s allowed cultural institutions to indulge in branding makeovers that transformed them into part civic centre, part entertainment complex, part commercial venue and part art institute.

Of course, it was Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens who foresaw the opportunity to leverage an ascendant global culture against a burgeoning global economy. On 19 April 2001, in the pages of The Economist, one read that: 'The Guggenheim is changing the rules about how to market a museum. Traditional museums in America and Europe don't like the change, but many will have to go along with it if they want to thrive.' But it has now been three years since 11 September, two years since Jerry Saltz called for Krens to resign and a year since Peter B. Lewis, the chairman of the Guggenheim Board, candidly telegra-phed his view that the museum had been over-ambitious and expansive. The à gogo era is over.

To appreciate how the Moderna's turmoil during this influential decade has worked to its advantage, it is useful to remember how infectious Krens' verve once was. From museum directors to art and design school presidents, they all took turns copycatting the Krens philosophy, which he once curtly summed up for the New York Times: 'It's easier to raise money for a building than a show. A building is permanent.' In his article for the Harvard Design Magazine, 'The Art of Being Too Clever by Half' (2003), Mark Kingwell notices that both the Bilbao Guggenheim and Peter Eisenman's coming Galician Centre - together representing a million-plus square feet, and a cost of $225 million - have no collection either to house or to exhibit. The increasingly obvious shortfall of banking on that sort of permanence is that, with a weak economy, you end up with the wrapper and no content.

In view of this gloomy prospect some museums favour a return to convention and an approach driven by the core mission of their institutions rather than by the market-place. James Cuno, who now presides over The Art Institute of Chicago, cuts across the experience of the 1990s, taking a strict revisionist course in his book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (2004). He proposes: 'We could begin by clearing away some of the clutter in our museums, the many distractions we have introduced into them - the commercial, the alimentary, the promotional, the entertaining, even, to the extent that it comes between the viewer and the work of art, the educational.' Echoing Cuno's sentiments is Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: 'Our purpose is not to pull the crowds', he says; museums 'do not do Disney that well'.

The Moderna Museet, with the advantages of its venerable 45-year history and its collection, may be envied for having escaped the razzmatazz hangover, yet it shows no signs of indulging in nostalgia either. Rather, subtle signs of risk-taking and trust in the work on display seem in its blood: the museum claims as much, having staged, for its reopening, a tribute to Pontus Hultén's colourful tenure there. Greater and lesser signs of this legacy flourish throughout Moderna. There is the permanent collection, which invites you into a time machine, as all permanent collections do, but then throws the switch into reverse. Freed from the kind of curatorial haranguing that permeates most museums, there are enlightening juxtapositions of work, as well as individual pieces given the chance to speak for themselves. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), Giacomo Ballà's The Speed of a Car + Light (1913) and Shukov RadioMast, Moscow (1929) by Aleksandr Rodchenko, ricochet off one another, creating an overture to Modernism's monumental obsession with speed, production and communication, all without the help of patronizing guidance. Independence of both the work and its viewer is encouraged everywhere.

Perhaps most emblematic is a draft of Nittve's exhibition programme in the foyer, arrayed war-room style so that all the forces at play can be seen at a glance. Reproductions, ranging from postcard to poster size and tacked to the wall in a sprinkled arrangement, lend an air of the provisional and create a mental picture of the collection along the way. The preordained conclusions that usually precede and define the museum experience you are about to have are conspicuously absent. It is an open invitation to visitors to connect the dots for themselves, using this working model to map, cross-reference and discover. A draft of history allowing pictures to speak for themselves is everything a museum should be.