The more incendiary the conversation around cultural topics becomes, the more museum directors take on the role of mouthpieces for how society should deal with thorny issues. Four art bosses tell us how they’re making an exhibit of climate change, colonial history, challenging norms and much more besides.
The €600m Humboldt Forum will open next year to show objects from the Humboldt University, Berlin-themed memorabilia including the steel door of legendary techno club Tresor and non-western art and artefacts. But should museums show colonial collections despite their contested history? General director Hartmut Dorgerloh weighs in.
MONOCLE: Were you surprised that there were protests about the colonial-era collections?
Hartmut Dorgerloh: When discussions started about this project, climate change, globalisation, the digital revolution, migration and the [western European] colonial past were not as important as they are today. We are now involving source communities from India, the US, Tanzania, Namibia, Nigeria and Polynesia in preparing our exhibitions. There will be changes in the collection, there may be restitutions and we might have to replace objects with casts or other things.
M: For the venue it was decided to raze the 1970s Palast der Republik and recreate Berliner Schloss, the former royal palace. Why the apparently revisionist choice?
HD: The royal palace was blown up by the socialists in the 1950s and the Palast was torn down after German reunification. The memories of the Palast have become idealised by people in both east and west Berlin. But the building was an illusion of a perfect GDR. The forum is part of the current debate about “memorial architecture”: what to keep and what to wipe away.
M: Why are you calling it a forum and not a museum?
HD: It’s a model for the 21st century, linking natural and cultural history and exploring political issues, such as slavery and colonialism. There will be exhibition and event spaces and it will draw on the state’s collections of Asian art and non-European ethnology. It’s a forum rather than a museum.
Taipei’s contemporary-art scene has been growing rapidly since the 1990s, helped no doubt by the Taipei Biennial (one of Asia’s best) and fairs including Art Taipei. In its cultural domain and its politics, the island nation remains one of the most liberal in this part of Asia. Even so, Yuki Pan – an artist and director of Taiwan’s first museum devoted to contemporary art – is carving out an unusually challenging programme. In November she will launch a major exhibition fearlessly tackling climate change, the financial crash and issues of race and politics. Pan tells us why being provocative is important – and why it definitely pays off for her museum.
MONOCLE: In 2017 you put on the first big exhibition in Asia of LGBTQ artists. What was the reaction?
Yuki Pan: Before the show opened we were worried about the public. We thought the response would be overwhelmingly negative, even though people here are much more open-minded than on the mainland. I believe in standing for a common human experience, showing that much in life is not binary. That’s why art is so important: it can deal with sensitive issues and help people to see inner significance, the truth in things, not their surface appearance. In the end a lot of people really liked the show. Someone sent us a Bible but apart from that, most of the feedback was positive.
M: You showed photographs by Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate and activist Liu Xiaobo, who died in Chinese custody. You don’t skirt around sensitive subjects.
YP: I’m very concerned with human rights, especially in mainland China. I am friends with many artists in exile and we talk a lot about improving the situation there. I admired Liu Xiaobo greatly, and Liu Xia is very talented, a good photographer and poet. She’s now free [after eight years under house arrest] in Germany but she’s lonely, she’s not with her friends or culture and that comes through in the exhibition.
M: You show pieces that are a long way from the ‘art market’ works we see at fairs. Why?
YP: I don’t really think about the art market. I’m not happy about the inequities in society; I’m working towards a world in balance. The role of art isn’t just to please people and to make beautiful things. Artists and curators can do a lot, whether it’s helping indigenous peoples, standing up for human rights or allowing people to express themselves and their sexual identities. We work very hard to fundraise from the government, sponsors and collectors; the more money we can raise, the more we can support artists and the more we can change.
M: You also actively help artists make work.
YP: The art scene in Taiwan is very active but younger artists still have problems with money. As well as creating a platform, we’re helping Taiwanese artists to create bigger and more ambitious art projects and put them on an international stage.
Ninety years after its foundation, Moma remains the most important modern and contemporary art museum in the world. Its first director Albert Barr’s 1941 “torpedo” diagram of the story of art – essentially focusing on Paris before the Second World War and moving across to New York after – has influenced decades of art historians. In October, Moma will open a $400m (€357m) extension designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro, increasing the museum’s exhibition space by 4,000 sq m. It’s the opportunity the museum has needed, Lowry says, to rethink that received narrative and its approach to displaying its vast collections.
MONOCLE: Moma got an extension in 2004 courtesy of architect Yoshio Taniguchi. Why another?
Glenn Lowry: Why another act of madness? We never learn! But seriously, between 2004 and 2015 our audience grew dramatically. When we started the Taniguchi project, the collection had about 85,000 objects; now it’s 100,000. We started to collect performance and new media and all sorts of things that were hard to display before.
M: Is this the end of galleries devoted solely to painting or sculpture?
GL: We decided it was time to break down departmental boundaries – painting, sculpture, design, photography, film – and create a much more synthetic presentation. Traditionally visitors start on the fifth floor and one of the first things they see is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, surrounded by other paintings of the period. Now you will see, immediately adjacent, a room of lens-based work: photography and film. So it’s a chance to bring related moments together in dialogue.
M: Many of the discussions in the art world are about who got left out of art history. How does the rehang tackle this?
GL: Over the decades we have tended to present our collection as if the selection was permanent. That gave a false impression of the breadth of our collection and the nature of modern art, as if everything was fixed. Every gallery will now change with greater frequency, reflecting the fact that our understanding of modern and contemporary art is a work in progress. We currently have a beautiful gallery of collage from the 1950s. In future [African-American artist] Romare Bearden will be included in there, along with a group of Japanese artists. The collection has become much richer in terms of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Latin America and, increasingly, Africa.
M: What will visitors make of it?
GL: I hope they will say, “I had no idea the museum was anything like this.” It’s been one of our big challenges: thinking what it’s like coming to a museum when you don’t know the codes and the cues that are required. We’ve thought through how to create an environment that someone who feels they don’t belong can see themselves belonging to.
The Venice Biennale is the highest-profile event on the international contemporary-art calendar. The current iteration is the first time in the biennale’s 124-year history that its artistic director has come from the UK, albeit by way of New York and San Francisco. Ralph Rugoff is the US-born director of London’s Hayward Gallery. He is steering this influential art centre at a time when Brexit threatens to curtail one of the most dynamic art cities. Yet as detrimental as Brexit may be to the logistics of running a gallery – or staging an exhibition – it also provides fertile ground for art to comment on. Here Rugoff explains how political developments have affected his decisions as curator and director.
MONOCLE: How might your experience in Venice affect what you do in London?
Ralph Rugoff: Venice is very intense and very rewarding. You get nine or 10 months when you are doing deep research, meeting artists and seeing a lot of work. I met many artists whose work I really liked, who weren’t right for this biennale but I’ll definitely work with at the Hayward at some point. Some of the people I met are in the summer show, Kiss My Genders, so there’s already a feedback loop.
M: Did Brexit have an impact on the show you put on in Venice?
RR: It was one of my starting points. I wanted to put on an exhibition that highlighted the fact that art is the opposite of that polarising, narrow-casting discourse. Art is about asking questions and embracing uncertainty. Both Brexit and Donald Trump have revealed a corrosion of the public discourse: the idea of putting truth into doubt. So a lot of the work is around the idea of truth and fiction. The artifice of art gives us a perspective that allows us to see more clearly.
M: You grew up in New York and were later based in San Francisco. What made you come to London?
RR: I lived in London for a while in the late 1990s. London’s got great artists and great institutions for contemporary art. The commercial galleries are maybe a little richer in New York, and the cost of studio space – and living – here means that Berlin has become a haven for a lot of artists. But the rise of London since the 1990s has been amazing; it’s become one of the world’s two capitals of contemporary art [with New York]. That doesn’t mean it will always hold that position.
M: Are you worried about London becoming less international?
RR: We can’t say yet because we don’t know what kind of Brexit we are going to get. What I can say is that, although culture isn’t a panacea for everything, it’s an issue that so much of culture is centred in London and there are so many places around the country where there is very little. Culture is a great way to learn about the experience of people in other places and to realise that they’re not frightening; that you don’t have to be afraid of losing a sense of identity as a nation by also engaging with other voices.