Art museums in times of coronavirus
For a few days during the beginning of the confinement, Bartomeu Marí (Director of the Museo de Arte de Lima MALI) and Nicolás Gómez (Director of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo MAC Lima) shared reflections on the role of museums today and with a view to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 virus, in addition to those that have taken place on the Peruvian art scene in recent years.
Many ideas come to mind in this exceptional situation. And they all encourage me to reflect on the nature of the mission of our institutions with a public vocation. I have worked most of my life in Europe, and in Peru, in Lima, I find another constitution of “the public”, another way of articulating the common and the private. Habermas and other European thinkers theorized how democratic regimes being based on universal accessibility to public space, which presupposes the equality (of opportunities, of rights and of obligations, before the law, etc.) of individuals. Suddenly, with the COVID-19 crisis, public space and the conditions of access to it have been considerably restricted all over the world and almost at the same time. I can only go outside to look for food or medicine, that is, to consume. I must minimize interaction with others, and even with most common objects. I must remain secluded, confined, isolated. I remain – we remain – without one of the actions that provide humanity. Are we returning, momentarily, to a new Middle Age, as I have heard some thinker say? It seems as if the city’s space has been sucked up by an alien, a superior, strange entity that none of us have ever seen before. In the emptiness of that space, the electronic world, the telephone, and all its digital derivations, the screens and remote consumption have been installed. The museums we run are closed to the public, and therefore their raison d’être is cancelled: without an audience, we are just a storehouse of valuable objects. Space has shrunk and, for many, and time seems to have expanded. It seems that I have time, but I have nowhere to “invest” it: I cannot share it with others as I used to. My sense of community, of “belonging to,” has been deeply altered.
I grew up professionally in the belief, almost in the dogma, that the museum is part of the public space that is accessible to all. We all had the right to education, health, and culture, until I worked in Korea and later came to Peru. You have grown up in America and the range of paradoxes you experience is probably different. How do you think COVID-19 is going to change the way museums are perceived and used by society in our Lima/Peruvian/South American context?
Bartomeu, your reflections, as well as the accurate description of our new way of life, trigger so many suppositions and hypotheses in the face of the condemnation of uncertainty... Our heads flutter in confinement, recalculating, reconfiguring, hallucinating possible scenarios. From my experience, I will navigate through some of the terms and conditions you point out, to conclude with an attempt to answer your question (and now, more than ever, we know that tomorrow there could be another answer).
The essence of the operation of the museums we manage, for their daily life and as a reason for consideration in these times of closure and enclosure, is precisely the paradox of their condition as private entities with a public vocation. The first thing, we know, is determined by the imminent carelessness of the State with those art forms with which our institutions deal, and for which, historically, generous benefactors or patrons have taken responsibility for the main burdens. This has meant that art museums have not been considered in a reflective and political agenda that understands them as fundamental to a democratic system. The scope of the discussion tends to focus on the heritage status of objects, but not on the understanding of the gear that articulates collections, programs, and audiences in terms of contemporary artistic practices.
The public vocation of museums is an insistence that we have proclaimed; a kind of structural theorem of our respective programs. You, as you put it, bring this assumption into your European genetics. Along with Mexico and Brazil, Colombia (where I was born, raised, and where I defined my career in museums) also has a small but significant state structure supporting artists and institutions. Unfortunately, this model tends to politicize the institutions or plunges them into pachydermic bureaucracies. The Peruvian model is particular, even new to me. Precisely as the day-to-day operation of the museums we run depends to a large extent on private capital, the possibilities of sustainability after this point will be conditioned by the availability of resources for investment in culture and the confidence in the social value that such investment represents. This reality forces us to be resourceful, practical, and resilient.
This analysis is only limited to the financial problem, which we know is the most pressing when, precisely, we depend on economic formats and cultural consumption behaviors that are already worrying in Peru, and are also seriously threatened now. But also, I know that your question points not only to the question of public resources, but mainly to the public vocation of the nature of museums, which in our discourse involves openness to various communities, links with our urban environments and coherence with the relevant reflection on our historical moment. As you say, this first week of confinement has highlighted the role of the museum as a place of meeting and contact: of bodies, of voices, of translations, of materialities, of perceptions, of journeys. It is clear that the paradigm of high culture and subservience to the capricious glorification of names is being re-evaluated. Art museums in Latin America have been precedents for public participation; perhaps due to the urgent need to survive with the support of communities, and, of course, thanks to the experience of some relational practices in Latin American art that, from the 1960s to today, have promoted collective action (Oiticica, Grippo, Minujín, Rosenfeld). Our museums – or the dream of a museum that we have had – are conditioned by that impulse, by that tone. The current context determined by COVID-19 has made transparent, on the one hand, the fragility of economic dependence, and on the other, the undeniable physical nature, of encounter and contact. The virus is only a reminder of our vulnerability. When this is over, our alternative is recursion in the face of the radicalization of the challenges and we must strengthen existing communities and consolidate new ones (even among museums).
At this point, I invite you to discuss precisely the digital alternatives. I think that, in a certain way, the digital world has been both a complement and a competition for museums, since it represents a comfortable, instantaneous, and infinite alternative for the consumption of images and information. During these couple of weeks, we have all turned to virtual performance, sending signals so others still remember us in the running of the bulls or to provide doses of reflection, visual enjoyment, or leisure. Maybe I am wrong and I am an optimistic idealist – like the manager of some tape rental could have been– but museums will have to position themselves and be necessarily valued by governments and people as places for the interaction between bodies, things, spaces, and concepts. And, unlike the regular spaces of consumption (which are already beginning to be replaced by the virtual market), the possible encounter in museums will allow us to understand each other here and now, and to imagine a better future. With this, I do not deny the transcendence of the digital, nor what is necessary as a scenario for communication, but art museums have consolidated themselves thanks to the collective agreement of their myths, whether it be their architecture, their collections, or the in-situ experiences that they provoke. The question arises as to whether COVID-19 will generate greater paranoia and forge a scenario of greater confinement and asepsis, and whether museums will have to adapt to this assumption. Will there be another alternative other than the physical or digital?
The digital world is the competition of museums as it powerfully captivates and subtracts the need to strive for reward or meaning. Art still asks you to make an effort to create meaning from forms... The digital can be a very powerful ally if we know how to use it well and today we have a great opportunity to do so, among other reasons because we have no other choice. But, as you said before, we have a serious threat, which weighs heavily. The museum, as a fundamental institution providing a foundation for democratic life, is very fragile. The French thinker Patricia Falguières expressed this very well in her speech at the CIMAM congress in 2015 (https://vimeo.com/149640322), and this fragility is not only economic, it is above all political. In Peru it manifests itself in a particular way and causes us to lose, at times, the core of what should be our main focus: the critical project. Traditionally, museums have written a kind of history that coincided with and was part of “official” history. Today, as we enter the twenty-first century, the most interesting museum projects are not dedicated to confirming official history but to contradicting it, amending it, subverting, or improving on it. Note that we speak increasingly of “histories,” in the plural, because the institution cannot maintain a single vision of the world, the one that suits a particular group: museums become great “parliaments” of the imagination and we must continue to be very rigorous so that, being inclusive and plural, we are not confused with the “anything goes” that already dominates the landscapes of ideological dissent. The fragility of the museum as an institution and the reduction of the spaces where it is constituted and from which the critical spirit is disseminated in our society is also an idea that has been coined very recently. That is to say: the museum we have in our heads is a very recent invention. It is not thirty years old; it is millennial! And here again we see the great divisions that characterize contemporary societies. These divisions are material first, and they dictate access to education, health, knowledge, and well-being in general. The debates on the definition of a museum that took place at the last ICOM congress in Kyoto show that the disagreement is of a global dimension. The inability to agree on a concrete formula and the suspension of voting at that congress also inform a globally divided professional system. Perhaps this is therefore the time to admit that we are heading for divided and unequal societies in which the centripetal forces, which hold us together, and the centrifugal forces, which tend to separate us, are not in balance and do not form a regular system. The politics of inclusion is not an expression of political correctness: it is a condition of our survival.
Precisely the situation you are analyzing raises the conflict between what the museum has been and what it could be. The foundation of the museum lies in its myths: foundational myths that determine what is fundamental. The museum of modernity placed the myth in the collections; over time, architecture stole the limelight and, for some museums – mainly art museums – the myth was defined by the identification of celebrities. In short, museums opened up to the spectacle. But the new paradigm is a complement to these components from the critical curatorial exercise that allows the re-evaluation of narratives in the way you suggest and the articulation with public programs, educational action, and communications, in such a way that their access to possible nearby communities is direct and efficient.
Myths are quickly replaced, so it is a question of rethinking what is fundamental. It’s not a question of denying the collections, or the building, or the relevance of the established artists. But it is not enough to trust in the autonomy of these myths, for they need to be fed with the dynamism of the life of their own time. It is inclusion that will enable our survival, and our strategies for survival in the face of an obviously fragile condition are rooted in possible communities. The immediate one is our team, obviously, and of course the board or benefactors. The desired one is immense, diverse, is in the streets, is local, foreign, is sectorized, stratified, generates opinion, visits you physically and virtually, consumes you, comments you, and shakes your hand. But, since you mention the need to articulate a professional sector, I would like to refer to the community on which we depend and to which our project must be dedicated in the first place, which is the community of creators, artists, and thinkers. Art museums, and the entire disciplinary field that orbits them, exist precisely because of their work. So, of course, we need to broaden our social scope with the articulation of other communities, but, in the first place, we are obliged to be transparent and have their trust. Because with their work we make speeches and communicate with the world. From there we lay our foundation and interconnect it to other communities, thus shaping the “common to the community,” which for Rancière is the political scope of art. For me, it’s just common sense.
The recently deceased Okwui Enwezor, who among many other valuable contributions, curated the Johannesburg Biennial in 1996–97 and Documenta XI in 2002, said that there are two audiences: “them” and “us.” In a way, that could sound not right today. He meant that what we do is judged by at least two standards: that of the specialized, professional world, and that of the other. I am part of the generation that started out believing that there was only one audience for what we did: “we” (curators and artists). Towards the end of the twentieth century, it began to become clear that “we” could no longer sustain the system alone. For me artists have always been the first “ring” of support and confidence in the system. Joseph Kosuth brought me to Fareed Armaly, who took me to Dan Graham and Muntadas. Dan Graham took me to Larry Weiner. Muntadas, Miralda, Cildo Meireles, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Dennis Adams, Joan Rabascall... Larry took me to Michael H. Shamberg, John Baldessari, and Joan Jonas. In my youth, everything was very Central European, American, and male. For Pontus Hulten, who I consider my mentor, South America did not seem to exist artistically and Asia began to count since the 1990s. Do artists today constitute that first “ring” of support and complicity? Of course, they do, but in that ring, there are many more actors now. Working with artists today is no longer a relationship between two poles of conversation: very often you need more actors. You need patrons to help you finance projects; you always end up with one or more gallery owners involved in the conversation; you need spaces, you need partners (and not just in the financial sense of the term). The traditional institutional space has been greatly reduced and the new production and exhibition spaces are not possible without the help of new communities. Many artists have been pioneers in identifying and creating these new spaces for interaction. When artists see in the institution an ally to make the world bigger, so that there is more space to generate experience and worldvies that are different, we all win. When the relationship is an instrument for fame or a pretended momentary glory, we all lose.
And what to do from here? What do the institutions, the museums, want from the artists? Personally, I’m looking for accomplices. Accomplices who are free in spirit and mind and who continue to expand the world materially and intellectually. I’m looking for poets and I’m looking for madmen. Curating exhibitions is not just managing or administering: it is dosing degrees of madness without which the world would become purely uninhabitable, dominated by the coronavirus of single thought.
That is our faith. We do management, Excel tables, and contracts to allow the opening of cracks and the pouring in of madness, absurdity, beauty, weirdness, bewilderment, and shock. And, after having lived through a historical moment like the present one, so decisive for re-evaluating the systems that support all our customs, we must be alert to capture the poetry that emerges.
I now return to the pragmatic terrain. Artists, designers, creators, thinkers, curators, humanists, must be allies. But they are also partners in a project, and by this I mean that the sustainability of our museums makes it possible to structure a decent job market for them. What I mean is that an institutional crisis, a necessary brake on circumstances such as those we are experiencing, also poses a risk to a market structure that depends on it and which in Latin America is particularly precarious. It also affects the relationship with other “rings” of commercial ties: transporters, insurance companies, printers, maintenance, etc..
I think about this and I am comforted by an expression that I have just read and heard more than ever in these last days: take care.
That’s the key. How do we do it? Perhaps this conversation is a beginning, just to calm our anxiety, and should be a beginning of something greater, of forceful action that calls. Caring must embrace knowing how to weave and expand a system (a blanket, perhaps) where all the parts we have already considered are involved (covered, perhaps). Which is, by the way, “a system that feeds back on the myth of its own questioning” – to quote Nekane Aramburu. At the same time, the foundation of the museum will always be to take care of the sensitive and deep dimensions of a society. And so I take the liberty of referring to the origin of the word curatorship, which is precisely the Latin verb curare: to care.
We exchanged these views during the first weeks of confinement, of social distancing. Peru was one of the first countries in the Americas to adopt these actions. If the virus is capable of endangering the health of many people, it also has terrible effects on the economy. It is difficult to find answers to many questions, such as “what will the world be like when we return to our respective occupations, our habits?” It’s more than likely that whatever we find on our return is not the same thing that was there when we left. The world will not be the same, society will not be the same, and neither will the museums. Should we prepare radical and profound “resets”? Or should we rather hold on to the values of tradition? What will change and what will remain of everything we have known?