Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Process of elimination

The new Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle has a fun inaugural show, which works out to be in large parts the greatest hits of what I've seen in galleries for a couple of years. There's a Tara Donovan piece made from buttons, one of Chakaia Booker's shredded tire sculptures, a faux museum display by Fred Wilson, one of Devorah Sperber's amazing pieces where she forms an image out of an array of spools of thread seen through a clear acrylic sphere that inverts the image and by reducing it in size smooths out the forms. There's piece after piece that you can remember, using every kind of material imaginable--plastic utensils, record albums, US Army dog tags, plastic shopping bags, quarters, and so forth.

This museum used to be called the American Craft Museum--I thought it was affiliated with the American Crafts Council, but I think I was wrong about that. The Museum of Arts & Design has put together a good show, but it does raise the question of what this museum is--how does it differ from say the New Museum in the Bowery or any number of Contemporary Art centers? I'm not sure it's a problem, but it has been interesting to think about this.

What I've come up with is that MAD distinguishes itself by what it does not show, if I can use the inaugural show as a guide, which is exactly what I'll do. In the past, it was a museum for work that could be identified as the crafts, largely defined by media, techniques, and aesthetic intent. Its inaugural show seems to say it will not be limited to those media--clay, glass, metal, fabric, wood. But maybe it will be defined by what it does not show--paintings (unless it's on clay or similar material). Prints. Photographs. Sculpture in stone, metal, wood, or cast resins (unless it has reference to a functional items). These of course are the media of the traditional fine arts (as opposed to craft). So the New Museum can do a show of Elizabeth Peyton, that would never happen at MAD (the process of elimination is yielding benefits if it saves the museum from that fate). Also, it is probably the case that MAD will stay away from video, although there was at least one piece with some.

I think it's interesting to think that the museum will become the place for "everything outside" of the most familiar vehicles for art.

To be fair, MAD does retain its ties to the crafts. After you get done with the inaugural show, the selections from the permanent collection go back to the familiar forms (if the choices are somewhat skewed to recent work). In a section for jewelry, in addition to display cases they have a whole bunch of drawers you can go through, each one filled with a few items from the collection. It's similar to a section in the renovated Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has an even bigger section of cabinets filled with small items that they could not otherwise find room to display.

This approach seems to be coming into favor to deal with the sheer volume of material museums have, balancing access to this material with view-ability. In old days, museums displayed cases jammed with everything the museum had--100 stuffed specimens of finches, woven baskets from Western Native American tribes, samples of quartz crystals, whatever. This was overwhelming and bewildering, so museums turned to selecting a few items and displaying them carefullly, often nearly boasting about what a large percentage of the collection was out of public view. This new technique attempts to balance the two--highly edited display cases as the central focus, but much more material available off to the side for anyone who wants to take the time and dig deeper. The Met has done this in a few of its collections, notably in the mezzanine floor of the Greek, Roman and Etruscan department, where they have cases filled with material that you identify by checking on an interactive video screen.

All of this seems like a fine thing. It does mean you need to think about what kind of experience you want to have when you go to a museum, whether you want to go and settle in for something a lot like archival work.

Oh yeah, the new building looks good and seems to work well. It's got kind of a small footprint, but that's not really a problem, a lot of times it's better to have an exhibit broken up into bit-sized pieces. And it will seem like a lot more room when they do exhibits of more traditional "crafts." I don't know whether I miss the Edward Durrell Stone facade--I didn't have any particular objection to it or any particular attachment to it.


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