Monday, April 25, 2011

From Modern to Contemporary: Museums in New York

Madison Square Park, 2011 Douglas Yee

New York, New York. As Frank Sinatra so famously sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But does this city still determine success? Or, more specifically, does it still determine the circulation of cultural production? Okwui Enwezor, the prestigious international curator, art critic and writer, recently said (during drinks in the Bowery) that artists no longer come to New York to make it, they come to New York to get lost. The skeptic in me wants to interpret Mr. Enwezor’s comment to mean that if you have not already made it by the time you arrive in New York: Good Luck. That New York may no longer have the privilege of cultural producer, but is now rather a cultural digester. What I believe he meant though, was that New York is no longer the only metropolis that confirms the legitimacy of international cultural distinction. In an increasingly transnational world, urban centers such as Mexico City, Havana, Shanghai and Johannesburg, to name a few, are innovating and producing artists whose works are having a global influence. But, that long, narrow strip of Manhattan still holds an allure as the pinnacle of success. Many in the arts (artists, curators, gallerists, etc.) feel the draw of New York. So, how are artists, who can’t resist this city’s gravitational pull, managing?

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York

In our recent visit to New York, we made our way from museum to gallery to museum carried along by the rush of humanity and the loud, clatter of the subway. Being met by curators who briefly introduced us to the history of each museum, its collection and its vision was as exciting and exhausting as the crush of humanity flooding the streets of the city. It was at the Guggenheim Museum that we received a breath of inspiration. Alexandra Monroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art, introduced us to Filip Noterdaeme, who would lead us up the winding path of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural Oz. The Guggenheim is one of the world’s most fabulous institutions but museums are not only bricks and mortar in the middle of Manhattan. Museums are ideas. And Mr. Noterdaeme is constructing his own conceptual museum. The Homeless Museum of Art, established in 2002, is “a live-in museum in a rental apartment in Brooklyn, an activist's initiative, an exhibit in a vacant artist studio, a collection of original artworks, and a mock museum booth embedded in a commercial art fair” ( Mr. Noterdaeme performs the role of museum director, board of directors, artist, art and full-time resident (and I imagine it is inevitable that he must also perform the role of visitor at times.)

Homeless Museum of Art at the 2005 Armory Show

Mr. Noterdaeme’s intense passion and knowledge about the history of the Guggenheim’s collection was transfixing. To him, the museum was the portrait of Solomon R. Guggenhiem. The artist Hilla Rebay, who was commissioned to paint the portrait of Mr. Guggenheim, subsequently inspired him to found the museum. Her ultimate influence and contribution was facilitating a profound portrait of the man through an entire collection of art: the Guggenheim Museum. Mr. Noterdaeme, with superb detail and knowledge, shared the history of the institution, its collection and its individual paintings. He transformed the Guggenheim, an iconic monument to a philanthropic donor of immense wealth and a cultural Mecca for the world, into an experience beyond one painting after another. Mr. Noterdaeme paid homage to the Guggenheim as a modern museum, yet he himself is a contemporary museum.

Museum Haulers, 2005 Filip Noterdaeme

The ease and excitement with which he guided us through the Guggenheim belied an aspect beyond basic museum docent. His experience as a university professor at New York University, the New School and CUNY was evident. The question that stayed with me was whether or not Mr. Noterdaeme’s lecture at the Guggenheim was in fact an artistic performance? His response was that:

Every half-decent teacher is a bit of an actor/performer, and vice versa. I think both my students … and museum audiences …appreciate my teaching/performing style – affectations, accent, extravagance, mannerisms – precisely because it betrays, or, rather, celebrates, a perpetual state of inner conflict that has me perform a sort of Fox Trot among a set of alter egos that are never perfectly in step with the music at hand. This foxy dance is a fun "act" to perform because it leaves ample room for improvised, free-style movements never danced before.

Mr. Noterdaeme, an artist who has not found his celebrity in any cultural capital, is dancing to make it in this vibrant city; as long as his feet keep moving, keep touching the ground, he will not get lost. New York may no longer be the epicenter of cultural production but it still dominates cultural economy. Mr. Noterdaeme is an example of how artists must navigate between survival and art in this seductive and ruthless city. It is clear that, for what I imagine the majority, part of surviving as an artist in the city requires alternative endeavors. If you are in New York and have not made it, don’t lose yourself: dance through your alter egos. Be artist, performer, lecturer and teacher. Mr. Noterdaeme seems to be navigating his path with creativity, deftly dancing between his art and his livelihood.


New York is not the only city that currently defines the success of art. But, it is still compelling. If one makes it in New York, it might still be true that one can make it anywhere. However, one can also make it in San Francisco, Havana, Amsterdam or Berlin. I am ready to lose myself in my own making.

-Sheeka Arbuthnot

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