A museum potentially has the possibility and the means to be a place of critical comparison and discourse, but apparently not in the Netherlands, where museums are in the thrall of an all-consuming market mentality. Take the recent policy statement of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. Instead of stepping back from gratuitous conformity to market forces, the museum is following with narry a whisper, with the top of the international museum hierarchy as their ultimate objective. Fundamental changes in society are meanwhile ignored.
Museums – be it the museum crisis or the future of museums – are still all too often discussed in terms that are as ceremonious and rhetorical as they were in the 19th century, when museums still had to be accorded legitimacy as public institutions. People speak in superlatives, prefer the first person plural, and preferably from the pretense of some universal truth. Sometimes the tone is downright boastful, especially when it concerns new museum architecture or a museum's own particular programme. In contrast to this ceremonial, in fact neoconservative expostulation, there is also a more progressive museum discourse that, albeit in a more intellectual or informal style, is sometimes expressed in such cultural-philosophical or theoretical reflections that its effects and unrealistic claims are ultimately equally 'immodest'. By ‘immodest’, I mean that the museum is being used as a platform, a projection for purposes and explanations that – behind the back of the public and a public function – suppress or fail to appreciate its real potential. The museum is overloaded with claims, functions and meanings that say more about the marketplace, power and myth than about any other contemporary cultural potential that the institution might in fact accommodate.
Ascertaining exactly what this 'realistic potential' might be for today's museums is certainly not a simple matter. It is not about static, supernatural conditions that can be brought to the surface by some clever trick. The modern museum is an ideological construct; new concepts and desires concerning museums are continually being identified. Indeed, the ideological programme that was once the cornerstone of an institution is not going to be easily dissolved or erased by a new order. The museum, like the nation-state, is still strongly marked by ideas from the Enlightenment and by 19th-century notions of nationalism, liberalism and democracy. That precisely these concepts should sound so hollow and be undergoing a certain crisis in the new geopolitical reality that is currently unfolding does not yet imply that there are already ready-made alternatives at hand, alternatives that could fundamentally reprogramme the museum and bring it up to date. Even so, museums have by now long since been infected with the fatalistic ‘post-’ and ‘neo-’ market mentality that dominates today’s political and cultural thinking and behaviour, and which keeps the squandering of the public sphere high on its agenda.
To begin, presuming that a museum’s public aspect is one of its most fundamental and poignant characteristics, one from which the modern museum has even derived its right to exist, the rediscovery and recapture of public culture might well be a realistic and urgent objective. The question is then whether this is possible from the perspective of the arrogant position they take – and are granted – in the current climate, a climate that is not only characterized by unbridled market thinking and consumerism, but also by social uncertainty, the fear of fundamentalism and terror, refugees and foreigners, biopolitics, climate change, globalization and digitalization.
Lean Mean Management
Does the 2006-2008 Policy Statement of the Netherlands’ largest museum for modern art, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, express a vision about such developments or issues, in particular about a public objective or responsibility? On January 1, 2006, the Stedelijk became a private institution, something that makes the reformulation of their public responsibility and role all the more urgent. The expectations are high for this historically important institution, which is expected to move back from the Oosterdok to its renovated and expanded location at Museumplein in 2008.
‘To a New Top’ is the policy statement’s chirpy title. In the summary we read, ‘In 2009, the Stedelijk Museum will be well on its way to a new top. Internal processes will be more stringently organized and financially directed. In the first full year after the opening, the Stedelijk achieves a total of 600,000 visitors per year....’ It says that the road to the top is steep. Around the turn of the century, the museum fell into a crisis, which was only overcome with radical steps taken in all areas, in content, in organization and in financial management. The use, in the Dutch of the original statement, respectively, of the future tense, the perfect tense, the present and the past perfect from an imaginary top evokes amazement and immediately gives the plan something fictional: ‘Once upon a time there was a museum...’. Still, once your curiosity has been aroused about the ‘radical steps’, you want to finish reading the story.
The ‘mission’ of the Stedelijk is as follows: ‘The Stedelijk Museum collects and exhibits contemporary and modern art and design in order to inform and inspire a diverse local, national and international audience. It does this in the double function of museum and museum platform in the cultural and social context of Amsterdam, on the basis of its rich and many-sided collection and by means of a sharp programme of exhibitions and other activities.’ This sounds disappointingly general and obligatory. This mission without a vision has been formulated by nearly every museum for contemporary art since the second half of the 20th century. Does a more specific vision evolve, perhaps, as you look further into the statement for, on the one hand, the public function and social position that the museum ascribes itself and on the other hand, its intrinsic, museum programme? It is remarkable that the public dimension is primarily interpreted in the numbers of visitors. This obsession with ‘viewing statistics’ is understandable from the financial viewpoint, but the Stedelijk lets tickets sales determine an exceedingly large portion of its ‘social relevance’. When we read that the institution views itself as a ‘player in the marketplace’, a ‘modern art business’ and a ‘customer-oriented institute’, this is not so surprising. The ‘Stedelijk product’ is steered by ‘lean & mean management’ and by ‘planning & control’. This way, absolutely everything is in place in order to prevent any new abuses.
But the 'core objectives' do not only concern business management. The Stedelijk wants to be ‘open’, ‘international’, ‘manoeuvrable, alert and with a mind of its own', an ‘attractive alternative’. The Stedelijk considers the inspiring, liberating and enriching experience that gives insight and pleasure as essential to the experience of art. Reflection generated through art moreover has an added value for thinking about social themes. Hallelujah. The statement elucidates which trends and developments in art will set the pace for the museum’s collection and exhibition programmes. In the framework of this argument, it is particularly interesting to know how the Stedelijk identifies these social themes and which conclusions it derives from them for the benefit of its own position as an institution. Several ‘trends’ are noted and briefly described in the statement: Universal values are evaporating; there is cultural diversity, Amsterdam has a multicoloured population; Utopia is finished; a digital visual culture has come into existence; high and low culture are intermixing; there is globalization; art mediation is now taking place everywhere.
These developments are in fact not described from the perspective of the Stedelijk's own standpoint or experience, but seem copied out of a textbook, so that it remains entirely unclear whether the Stedelijk actually has any idea about their possible implications. In any case, it does not look as though the museum is interested in a fundamental rethinking of its function and tasks. The statement does not say much more than that the museum will pay attention to the ‘trends’, take them into account. But then there is this poignant little sentence: ‘The mechanisms of the economics of experience and the events culture are moreover of indisputable importance for the functioning of a museum as a public institution.’ No attempt at all is made to further clarify this, so it remains a hollow statement.
The statement also does not go into detail about such essential subjects as sponsoring and the withdrawal of the city government. What does it mean for a museum to have a bank, the ABN-AMRO, as its partner, and an automobile manufacturer, Audi, as its exhibitions sponsor? Even less does the museum seem to be developing a plan for new models for exhibitions or perceptions in regards to art produced with time-based and digital media, although the practical and theoretical issues they are generating are more urgent than ever. To a New Top most of all expresses the fact that the Stedelijk wants to be counted again, wants to belong. But if you ask yourself to what, you are met with a huge, expressionless void.
The important questions that face us now are either asked very superficially or are not asked at all. No structural standpoints are taken in respect to current social or political reality. The museum is therefore erroneously presented as an apolitical or neutral environment. Nowhere do we see the issue of in whose name or for whom the Stedelijk wants to exhibit and collect precious art objects, wants to be international and open, or what it wants to make visible from the standpoint of what imperative. Those 600,000 visitors consequently remain insignificant nonentities, the art a perfunctory, conventional filling in. The museum refuses to commit itself to openness, and in that sense, To a New Top is insolent and immodest.
Again, the policy plans and ambitions of the Stedelijk Museum can of course not be called particularly unique. The general line of their proposed approach and theoretical foundations are characteristic of most museums for modern art, national or international, all of which imagine themselves at or on their way to the top. The impertinence sketched here is, as far as I am concerned, characteristic of contemporary Western museum culture in general.
New Public Effect
A museum that today realistically wants to (be able to) draw on its own potential would have to be a modest museum, one with reserve and yes, humility, one that radically alters its priorities on the behalf of public openness.1 This humble museum would attach no disproportionately high importance to new architectural expansion or a new building, so that the billions saved could be spent somewhere else – somewhere where the need is truly great. It is imaginable: a humble museum that refuses to pay obscene amounts for works of art, one that questions the conditions of its own visibility and presence. With its own uncooperative recalcitrance, such a museum could potentially break through the economic utilitarianism, the primacy of the market and engage in a new, public function. The modest museum takes macro-politics into account, but primarily takes the form of a site for micro-politics, where meaningful things come about, where things are not solely and exclusively consumerism.2 It moreover certainly does not need to transform itself into a debating centre or activist stronghold. In museums, micro-politics do not in the last place play out at the level of aesthetics, perception and the relationships with artists and the viewers.
The museum would then perhaps no longer be a self-evident environment, but it does have to be there. Boris Groys is correct in saying that museums, in contrast to mass media, potentially have the possibilities and the means to be a place of critical discourse and critical comparison. In today’s cultural climate, which is dominated the tautological rhetoric of the media, it is in fact the museum that can provide a guarantee for that ‘difference’.3
In recent years, notably in international social and artistic activist circles, a debate has evolved around the concept of precariousness, taken from the French ‘precarité’.4 The term refers to the painful, uncertain and dangerous situation of a growing underclass that has just enough to survive, but not really enough to live. It is about the combination of temporary, flexible labour and a precarious existence – an existence without predictability, security or certainty. Illegal immigrants, refugees, unschooled immigrants, illegal labour and welfare recipients are of course included in this ‘precariat’, but so too are flexible-time labourers, part-timers, and indeed, artists. Precariousness consequently comprises a perverse point at which the politically and socially excluded meet the so-called ‘creative class’ in a degree of uncertain existence. They have in common that they do not automatically have a right to, for example, pensions and other social services or provisions, so that a valuable participation in public life is either problematic or even impossible. One thing that the debate about precariousness is about is that in the post-industrial society, this precarious condition looms on the horizon for more and more people, and in this sense is an omen for everyone. It is moreover a critical, but not a negative debate. The emphasis is on the alternative organizational and exchange structures of those in such precarious circumstances, on the new spaces and the social and experimental forums that they open up, and on the public shadow domains that they bring to life.
If we are to speak of the increasing hollowness of the public domain and, as an extension thereof, about a rethinking of the public function and responsibility of such institutions as museums, it seems a minimal prerequisite to at least express an awareness of precariousness as a contemporary condition, as something that does not simply concern the 'other'. Precariousness demonstrates the failure of conventional public structures as well as the arrival and the contours of a new public domain. The acknowledgement of precariousness legitimizes a modest attitude on the part of the contemporary museum, makes it essential. The museum is in general something of a bastion of the 'creative class', in a certain sense even itself a precarious institute: its continued existence is not guaranteed and it must continue to fight for resources. The question is whether the museum, against its own better judgment, wants to remain a representative of the old, eroded public domain or prefers to seek connections to new structures. These are admittedly less visible, but they do increasingly give expression to what is contemporary, in political, social and cultural terms.
To return to the specific case of the Stedelijk Museum, the question now of course is whether the ‘modest museum’ model is in fact a realistic option. Does a museum have to be housed in cardboard boxes in order to offer its renovated building up as a space for out-processed asylum-seekers? Should the museum dole out of its €12 million budget to those on the most precarious footing? Should it stop continuing to collect and instead take a study trip to Baghdad? For such radical gestures as these, there would have to be a complete shift of paradigm. In the current situation, they are immodest and imaginary propositions – just to stimulate our thinking. But the model of the modest museum is not utopian or primarily theoretical. What it is about is a conceivable change in mentality, about making choices with solid underpinnings, about taking a stand and about an engaged provocation for the socio-political and artistic status quo, as a beginning. It is also to a large degree about generosity. Admittedly, a policy statement seldom guarantees exciting reading, but today, more must be expected of an institution on the scale of the Stedelijk Museum. Otherwise, the museum runs the risk that in the future, large groups of people will pass it by. It is lonely at the top.
Naar een nieuwe top. Policy Statement, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Foundation 2006-2008, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 20 August 2006. The Dutch version of the statement can be downloaded from the home page of the Stedelijk Museum: www.stedelijkmuseum.nl
- Saskia Sassen introduced the concept of ‘modesty’ in the context of contemporary urban space in her essay, ‘Publieke interventies. De verschuivende betekenis van de stedelijke conditie’, in Hybride Ruimte, Open nr. 11, NAi publishers /SKOR, 2006, pp. 18-28.
- Small locations such as BAK in Utrecht currently fill this function in inspiring fashion and have long since bypassed the museums as up-to-date platforms and pioneers in the debate. The pedantic ‘mini-convent’ of the seven major Dutch museums could take this into consideration.
- Boris Groys, ‘The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror’, in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel (ed.), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, MIT Press Cambridge (MA) 2005, pp. 970-975.
- See, among others, ‘Creative Precarity’ on the website of De Balie, www.debalie.nl, and the Precarious Reader published online in 2005 by Mute Magazine, vol. 2, nr. 0: www.metamute.org.