"I think digital is here to stay. But it is not going to replace the physical-personal experience"

4 August 2021

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Interview with Agustin Pérez Rubio, member of the Board of CIMAM, Independent Curator, Madrid, Spain. Originally published by Tendencias del Mercado del Arte.

Do we still need museums? Why are art and culture essential to our individual and collective well-being?

Museums constitute one of the essential axes in creating symbolic capital and in the transmission and creation of common knowledge for our societies. Art and culture are an engine of critical thinking that makes us rethink ourselves as a society at all times. It takes us out of our comfort zone to move forward in a more open, inclusive, and democratic way towards the reformulation of the public sphere. Without art and culture, society is doomed to oblivion. We would not be able to formulate ways of resisting it, nor would we be able to have a self-questioning of our ways of thinking and relating to each other. Therefore, I believe that the role of museums in the 21st century is fundamental. However, we also need to bring them up to date, to give them a facelift, to give a facelift to our colonial institutions and our legislators so that they become more accessible, inclusive, and horizontal forms of government. We must ensure that the museum is always a social laboratory in which burning issues are diagnosed, and strategies for both the arts sector and the rest of society are proposed from the artistic point of view.

In 2020, museums and collections around the world were deeply affected by the pandemic; as a result, many public institutions had to rethink their operations. Should museums remain open and operational in these difficult times?

It is impossible to generalize because Covid has not had the same impact in every country and on every continent. Moreover, this pandemic has unfortunately highlighted the precariousness and vulnerability of an entire society and, therefore, our sector, and the colonial and extractive way the world -including the art world- is constructed. The systems of access to both medicines and vaccines, as well as to support policies for the art and museum sector, have not been the same, for example, in Manaus or Delhi as in Berlin - which granted 90 million euros for support to art and culture professionals in 2019 to cope with confinement. But having said that, museums and art institutions needed to be open following their security protocols, as there was a public eager to see art, share experiences, and be united in the distance under the umbrella of a museum. All this I was able to put into practice, although in 2020 I was not directing any museum, I did curate the 11th Berlin Biennale, in which we had a space open in the city from September to March, reopening at the end of May until its closing in November, with a maximum capacity of 10 people inside. During the pandemic, at some moments, the museum could be that real space of social interaction, where its function mutates and becomes part of another reality. For example, during the first wave, the Queens Museum in New York became a food bank. Others have been reconverted into vaccination and health care centers without giving up their artistic function. And today, more than ever, our interests must move in that direction. The museum as a place of convergence of other forms of artistic action.

How will online projects and social media influence the future of exhibitions? Will digital ever replace physical museums?

I think digital is here to stay. But it is not going to replace the physical-personal experience; it will act in a twofold way. Understanding, on the one hand, that we need a more sustainable, greener ecosystem that takes more care of the environment, so that travel, that constant coming and going, will give way to something more leisurely; a deceleration in our ways of doing things, where the local is where we take care of the local from a cosmopolitan way of thinking, eradicating any essentialist, localist, nationalist or hegemonic vision. On the other hand, I think that the digital will help open new ways of working, being together in the distance, and considering the importance of connectivity without traveling or being present in another way constantly. On the other hand, the aesthetic experience of work without a digital format will not be the same.

How can museums boost the recovery of the economy?

Answering this presupposes agreement with the neoliberal ways of economic management of culture, with which I disagree. The museum's function is not to boost the economy. It is a mistake to tend this way of articulating management and even more so today after the pandemic. Even if it is one of the essential axes of culture, which accounts for almost 3% of the GDP in our country, for example, to put it in economic terms. But I think the question should be: what protocols, strategies, and processes do museums have to apply so that artists and cultural workers are no longer precarious in many cases or can propose more horizontal and transversal structures of management and knowledge?

Will "blockbuster" exhibitions continue to be held in the same way as before the coronavirus?

The model has changed, and if not, it has to change. Normality was not as normal as we were told. The economic and cultural boom propelled accelerated ways of doing things where cultural tourism became the engine of doing things that were not very ecological and sustainable, and that has been seen in these times of pandemics. If we have learned anything, it is to value more our nearby ecosystems and what we have and the ways of doing it. That is why the institutions that were more exposed to the cultural acceleration market are the ones that are suffering the most and have to positively rethink ways of "decreasing" for a more sustainable subsistence. This is why large exhibitions, which were more like events for cultural tourism, will tend to disappear in favor of more sustainable projects in terms of ecology, economics, and critical thinking.