"To stay relevant is a matter of being a part of society"

3 March 2020

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Interview with Ann-Sofi Noring, Co-Director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm for Tendencias del Mercado del Arte, No VIII, Spain.

What are art museums for? How can they remain relevant in the twenty-first century? How can institutional collections keep up with their time?

I have worked in the field of modern and contemporary art for four decades now, with exhibitions, collections, and for a period with art in public spaces. Since 2001, I have been a part of Moderna Museet, Sweden, most of the time as Co-Director and Chief Curator.

Moderna Museet is a medium-sized museum of modern and contemporary art, founded in 1958 and well-known for its collection of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, and many others. From the very beginning, the museum has been strong in Surrealism and Pop art, with a focus on art from the Western world. Since the turn of the century, the museum has opened up towards a larger world with a program inviting artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Doris Salcedo, and Walid Raad, to mention just a few, who have all contributed to a more complex view of what art means today. Moderna Museet has for two decades focused on female artists, which has shifted the story of modernism and rewritten art history. You can actually show a painting by Hilma af Klint, side by side with a painting by Wassily Kandinsky.

To stay relevant in the twenty-first century is not a question of simply keeping up, you have to develop the museum together with the artists and with your visitors. A public art museum is never better than in the eyes of its contributing artists and its visitors, but to explore new ideas and to sometimes also become “ahead of time” you need a professional discussion among collegues as well.

I have been a member of CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern) since way back and I am now a board member of the organization. Through CIMAM I get to meet directors and curators working in art institutions all over the world to discuss issues like “How can institutional collections keep up with their time?” and to develop ideas. There are many, many art museums all over the world: in Asia, there is a faster growth than we actually can count. Not all reach the standards of CIMAM (the members have to be not-for-profit), but the old and young ones learn from each other. The basic idea of a public museum with a collection was developed centuries ago and it is an idea that is more spread and more diversified than ever. So, to stay relevant is a matter of being a part of society, to continue a professional dialogue among museums, and at the same time stay open, initiate discussions, and always keep an eye on what the artists are up to.

Does the popularity of ephemeral and performative practices force museum professionals to redefine what a collectible artwork is?

Performative practices have been around for quite some time. In the 1920s and in the 1960s there were quite a few artists mixing disciplines, for example working with painting and dance at the same time and including film into shared projects. To define a piece of art is to define what there is, on its own merits. If there are difficulties for the museum professionals it is just right – art cannot follow set standards, I would rather suggest that we should modify the standards.

CIMAM 2018 Annual Conference, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Therefore, it is very helpful to be part of a larger museum collective through CIMAM. During our annual conferences, we deal with certain topics and through lectures and discussion groups: the issue of defining performance, for example, can be discussed at depth. Definitions are better found through good examples so that not everyone has to find his or her own way.

How could museums approach the consequences of their expanding collections? And what opportunities exist in digital strategies for collections?

There is sometimes an assumption that collections just grow and grow, without planning and without limits. In the field of professional museums, there is planning and there are limits. The limits are obvious: resources, both human and financial. And the planning is part of being a professional. To digitalize the collections has become a must and a fantastic way of communicating the treasures of the world.

These are issues I can discuss with the members of CIMAM who all share the responsibilities of being caretakers of different kinds of collections. We are all a part of a larger system though, with politicians and founders who in the end set the limits to what we can pay for storing and digitalizing the works. The question of eternity is, of course, very philosophical, but when it comes to a collection, we just know that we have to do our best to take care of it as long as it is possible. Through acquiring a piece of art you actually take on responsibility.

Museums have the power to support artists by giving them exhibitions. How can an exhibition influence an artist’s career?

Well, I would not exactly say that museums support artists by giving them the opportunity to exhibit. Who is supporting whom? I would say that artists give their all to make the best exhibition possible and the museum is their partner. For the arts and for the public good.

There has been a lot of talk about blockbusters over the years. A blockbuster is an investment for a museum that, for whatever reason, needs to (or wants to) raise its public attendance. It is not always safe if the project is launched mostly for commercial reasons. There can be a backlash in the media and with audiences if the investment is too obvious. But, if there is an artist or a theme of certain interest, a blockbuster does not need to be seen as “bad” just because of its popularity. Just think of Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre quite recently – it did it both. And who was supporting whom?

CIMAM 2018 Annual Conference, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Moderna Museet was showing Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol very early on. Was the Museum gaining from this fact more than the artists (Warhol did his first European show in Stockholm)? Or did the artists become more grounded in Europe through the live performances at the Museum? Today, I would absolutely claim that Moderna Museet gained more because these artists are now and forever a part of our living history. But then, when they actually exhibited, nobody was aware.

A museum show (if it is a museum with good standards and a good reputation) is something special for a young artist – or an old artist, not shown before – as they then are part of a larger context, with artists represented in the collection. It will be written in the CV of the artist and it will be written in the history of the museum, at the same time. It is sort of a mutual understanding. Since the 1980s, for example, Moderna Museet has done smaller shows and installations in the collection with Hilma af Klint, the Swedish abstract painter who did her most amazing works at the beginning of the last century. In 2013, we made a large exhibition that went on tour in Europe for a long time. Rumors and interest grew, her works were, later on, show at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and the Guggenheim, New York showed another version in 2018–19. London and New York matter in another way, as Stockholm is far off. Which can also be good for artistic works, growing over time.

The increase in the construction and development of museums – how do you see the phenomena? Might the booming contemporary art field be bad for museums?

The building costs are large, that we know. But to run a museum and to carry on into the future is a fantastic undertaking that costs a lot more. Some of the museum building we see today will not last forever – not for museum purpose anyhow. It is a very, very impressive and complex task to found and to maintain a museum, not all are up to that and time will tell which are here to stay.

A question of money, a controversial topic when speaking about public museums. American museums receive most of their funding privately. What do you think of the fact that wealthy individuals are making decisions that drive museum staffing and programming?

I do not think the question of money is controversial, on the contrary. Money is one of the basic resources to run and program a museum, and it is a fact that has to be addressed. Some museums, especially in Europe, are funded through tax money. They are so called public museums and one could claim that the citizens are the shareholders. There are also private museums, more and more so in Europe, and as long as they are not-for-profit the international organization CIMAM makes no difference between the two categories.

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CIMAM 2019 Annual Conference, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

In certain countries of Europe, there is today a growing tendency for politicians to interfere with the content and even to replace museum directors with persons who can be guided by these new leaders. This is totally frightening and we have to act when there is an obvious power takeover. CIMAM has a special committee, named CIMAM Museum Watch Program, that deals with matters like these. The cases are analyzed and often made public, which is a way to protect democratic museum standards.

The private funding in the US is a part of their tax system. Most of the inhabitants pay less tax than in many European countries, while a few very rich contribute to the art institutions in a more or less philanthropic way. It is a matter of two quite different tax systems, but I would claim that the Metropolitan Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and SFMoMA are far more public, progressive, and democratic than some of our public museums in Europe today.

Is there any art museum that is rich enough? I would say no, a museum with an interesting and progressive program always has a lack of financing. Moderna Museet’s collection would not be what it is without donations of all kinds. Tax money is fundamental but when it comes to acquiring art, private individuals have always helped out, since 1958.

Are museums more important than ever, since visual language is becoming the lingua franca of the younger generation?

I do think art museums are very important and that their importance is growing at the same time as our public sphere is diminishing. Museums are places where you have the right to be, spend some time, and hopefully get something out of your visit that you did not know before entering the door. You do not need to shop. You can be alone and you can be among friends or unknown people – and you always get to experience something if you just open up a bit.

I do not know if the visual language is the lingua franca. That holds true more for the digital world where museums also are present, in another way. But in our secularized world, where so many of our town centers are totally commercialized, art museums are good places to visit.