"There is no one global artistic debate. Global art is over"
Interview with Malgorzata Ludwisiak, Chief Curator, Department of Modern Art, National Museum in Gdansk, Poland, and CIMAM Board Member, for the yearbook publication of Tendencias del Mercado del Arte magazine, Spain. Originally published on February 2022.
Which were your first memorable experience with Museums?
There are many. Firstly, my parents used to take me and my two sisters to museums a lot, when we were on vacation in the communist Poland. These were mostly historical museums but they always used to make an impression on me as a kid, because of a special role given to objects and their relationship with time. Their status and a kind of “aura” of the objects seemed to me almost sacred, coming from another order – even if they were f.eg. historical furniture of some writer or an old gun. When I was a young teenager, I started going to Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz – one of the oldest avant-garde museums in the world, along with MoMA. I was shocked. Works by Theo van Doesburg, Katarzyna Kobro or Wladyslaw Strzeminski seemed to “explode” in the museum rooms. They undermined my image of reality and extended a special status of a museum object which I already had. Many years later I became a vice-director of this museum.
What role should a museum play in today’s society? What are museums for in the XXI century?
This is a very good question, actually. Art and museum professionals keep discussing on this. Since some years now, every CIMAM annual conference is dedicated to ask these kind of questions and ignite debate on possible answers. For example, the last conference in 2021 tried to find ways in which museums might and should respond to the biggest challenges and pressures of our times: climate catastrophe and populist politics. What could museums really do for the climate, while they themselves are big producers of carbon footprint? Will they survive in a close and distant future? Do they have tools to resist populist rhetoric, which is one of the social and political reactions to the quickly changing world? It seems that XXI century will be marked mainly by the climate catastrophe and its consequences (be that economic, political and social once), including the very question of survival. I guess that there are more questions than answers at the moment. But what I am quite certain about, is that museum will have to adapt and become changeable by nature to remain relevant for a quickly changing society. And it’s a huge challenge, the essence of a museum is to ensure the permanence of the objects in its care. The relationship between permanence and changeability will have to be renegotiated.
What has the art world -and museums in particular- learned about the pandemic?
Well, I think that a lot. There was a bit of the bitter-sweet self-reflection, that art and museums belong to some extent to the neoliberal economic order, although they were so critical about it for decades. The neoliberal acceleration suddenly stopped – as if someone had pulled the plug out of the socket. That was the moment in which the artworld and museums have discovered how much they belonged to it and depended on it. When the “art production” or “public program production” hibernated, art and museum professionals started to look for new formats, new ways to reach out to different publics, gained time for reflection and evaluation on what they had been doing before the pandemic, how and for whom. Many museums have learned a very creative lesson from pandemic, also about how to be flexible. But there are many other struggling for a mere physical survival – especially in the U.S. or South America, where the state support for culture is much weaker than in Europe.
May museums be drivers for economy recovery?
Personally, I’m not a fan of perceiving culture as an economic drive. Firstly, such a perspective narrows the role of culture, art, museums to a tool to achieve something (in this case an economic goal). This might bring a temptation of reducing art and its institutions to mere entertainment and touristic attraction by decision-makers – be that politicians, governments or museum boards. And of course it’s very dangerous for art and for a public mission of museums. So, paradoxically, in the end the program offer for the public lowers its level and the public doesn’t want to attend such a place any more. The result is contrary to the desired one. I know such cases and I know also the opposite examples, when the museum decided to stay true to its programme principles and focus on high quality of its offer. And in the end, it turned out that they were the ones who were successful, gaining international recognition and trust of their local publics.
Secondly, this premise has already proved itself unsuccessful. We know of examples of cities that have relied on creative industries as an economic principle for their development - for example, Berlin or my home town of Lodz in Poland. The economic objectives were not achieved, and only those institutions that simply had an excellent offer, not depending on the city policy, such as the Berlin Biennale or the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, survived.
Art and its institutions are very fragile. They need protection of stable economies or dedication of generous patrons.
What are the most important debates in the contemporary art scene now?
The field of debate has obviously changed after the pandemic (or rather in the middle of it). The question mark over the future of the Earth, humanity, economy, social relationships is hard to ignore and art participates intensely in these debates. Of course, they depend on and arise from the local context. So in Europe, North America or Australia the question of climate catastrophe and possible responses to it (be that emotional, constructive, critical and so on) is a number one issue. For all the post-colonial geographies, especially Africa and South America, questions of identity, equality, indigenous people rights, racial and social justice will be of a huge relevance. In Asian countries, being still in a dynamic of development, it seems that debates circulate around the tension between the past and the future, the individual versus the anonymous and politically controlled crowd.
In the Middle East countries, hard hit by war, migration and political conflict, artistic debate evolves around traumas, painful history, negotiating between local communities, resistance and survival. Sometimes art museums there get involved directly in helping people in need.
I’m aware that I’m oversimplifying the complexity of this image. I just wanted to say that there is no one global artistic debate. Global art is over. But what these local artistic debates have most probably in common, is some kind of concern about the future.
What do you think about the phenomenon of NFT’s? Does this intangible art challenge the way museums collect art?
I’m still observing this phenomenon and trying to imagine possible consequences for both collectors and museums, as well as for the very status of an art work. On one hand, definitions of art and its mediums were changing many times, usually anticipating the popular use of some medium (like photo camera, video camera) or the way we understand the role of image. So I wouldn’t be surprised to find that NFT art turns out to be an avant-garde gesture before the NFT “object” comes into popular use. On the other hand, I agree with the voices of some NFT sceptics, saying that it might be simply another digital bubble in the making or raising doubts around questions of authenticity, singularity etc. I guess that time will tell.
But if one day it turns out that NFT is just another form of art making, it wouldn’t be anything special for museums to collect it. They keep doing it since the 70-ties: starting with conceptual art, through performance to VR. In a broader sense, intangibility lays in the heart of the very idea of art and of an art museum: what the artwork refers to, is immaterial.
A recent conference at CIMAM tried to answer the question: Are modern and contemporary art subject to xenophobia by populist politicians? What are your views about this topic?
Indeed, we dedicated the whole day of the conference to different faces of xenophobia – including workshops and exchange of experiences between museum directors and curators coming from different corners of the world. This shows how wide-spread is the problem and how much art institutions have to struggle with populist pressures. And these pressures – like attempts of censorship, cutting down museum budgets or arbitrary and politicly driven changes of directors – they come from a conviction that modern and contemporary art is an enemy. And it’s perceived like that because it has a high potential of undermining prevailing orders and of bringing change, as a consequence. This is not what populist, authoritarian governments like. Art and its institutions are for them like alien bodies, incomprehensible and uncontrollable, and therefore dangerous, provoking xenophobic reactions. In Poland, for example, this political xenophobia against contemporary art has destroyed dozens of great institutions and museums by removing directors and substituting them with politicly nominated people with low or zero competence. Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw – which I was leading between 2014-2019 – was one of these institutions, so I have also first-hand experience. People ask me sometimes how to resist populist hate against art. I answer that you always loose in confrontation with populist state. But on the social level it’s possible – you can make an effort as a museum to reach out to publics driven by xenophobic fears against art. During last CIMAM conference we were delivered by Hilke Wagner a beautiful example that such strategies might work. Her institution, Albertinum in Dresden, was confronted with extreme hate, which was turned into the opposite by such simple means as individual conversations and public discussions. It’s a very encouraging example!
In line with this, what do you think about the removal of statues in the context of social movements such as Black Lives Matter?
This is an issue which interests me a lot. I published a text on it in Artnet last year – on how museums could and should reimagine themselves in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall movements. From my point of view, massive removal of statues in public spaces, which we were facing during last two years, is of crucial importance not only on social and cultural level, but also for museums. Statues are about image, representation and historical politics – and this is the realm of museums. Therefore, the iconoclastic crisis touches the very heart of museums’ existence! I believe that decolonizing practices on the level of program or organization, that many museums around the world have already taken, are important steps. But I also believe that museums should start rethinking themselves on a much deeper level than that, probably redefining the very core of their definition. And here we come back to one of your initial questions about the present and future role of museums. The BLM movement is a symptom of one of many earthquakes that we are facing nowadays. Museums have to change to stay relevant and important point of reference in a quickly changing world. I think that they are at the beginning of the road to this breakthrough of historic significance.