Yes. There can be. Can there be one that is accurate and adventuresome at the same time? That causes a lot of trouble.
We have approached it by using two different strategies. One strategy was to build physical outposts in different spots. We were given Venice by Peggy when she died because she wasn’t able to give it to her children. She had been in negotiations with Tate and in the end she gave it to her Uncle’s foundation – so that was more than 30 years ago. In fact at the incorporation of the Foundation you will see in the papers that in 1937 they were talking about the Museum as being in more than one site. So there is a strategy that says “yes I can be global and I will manifest that by being at various places around the world”. However, our definition of “world” has so far been largely Europe and America. That is changing even today as we go to the Middle East. So there is one strategy.
What’s another strategy? And this is the one we sort of collectively cooked up – why don’t we have intelligence from the outer world come to us in the form of curators and ongoing dialogue where together we look at what’s worth collecting and what’s worth talking about. We can then consider how we respond to the questions posed by the people involved; and then what are the auxiliary activities that can make that dialogue intriguing. So we made the BMW Guggenheim Lab go away from New York and be on the street in India and be on the street in Germany. The Initiative was conceived right from the beginning as being a means of adding works to the New York collection, but also of sending those works back to the region they came from so that they can be looked at in a critical way by a different audience in the hope that the cross dialogue will be fruitful for both sides. And maybe for the first time ever rather than always privileging the curators we also asked the educators to be central to the exchange because they are the ones who really interpret everything and more frequently are engaged with the public.
So it can be done. It is vexing and it looks from the outside to be occasionally egomaniacal, but on the other hand if you have confidence in what we are collectively thinking about, why shouldn’t we, as intellectuals, be willing to stand up and be able to say what we are doing is worthy of being considered inside the activity of humankind.
We often think about ourselves today as a convenor. So we say yes we will bring together interesting parties and yes we will foster their talking in depth while they are together; and through other media we will also allow them to have a conversation that goes on over time - sometimes catalytic and sometimes nothing happens, but we are always willing to be the convenor.
I see friendships and alliances being made where people say: “Oh by the way – he, she or they are people whose opinion I particularly value. I am not going to make a decision about this subject without incorporating information from he, she, it, they”.
And therefore as we invest our relatively limited money in exhibitions and acquisitions, I am not going to pick from the variety of what is available without having better knowledge of what is coming from that part of Asia. So I see it as a way of expanding horizons and also connecting people, and then asking them in a very point blank way: “Are you really thinking of this globally?”
Well you discover how big the world is physically and that is a simple, but very meaningful discovery. The other thing that I always have great hope in - because we live in a pampered and relatively overly refined environment in Manhattan - is to get reignited by recognising that the audience are inquisitive people and they are made from many ages and frequently from many economic classes predominantly what we might think of as “lower classes” – so I find that particularly re-invigorating.
We got a very wide variety of people. Let’s say that 60% of them would have been people from outside Manhattan and a lot of them would have been Europeans and Asians. Also in that particular exhibition we saw a lot of teenagers.
No, word-of-mouth. They were kids. Our demographic skews to the youngest of all the museums. Partly because the Museum is kind of interesting looking and it is activated so that the boys don’t feel they are going to be trapped in there – ‘I can do something kinaesthetic. I can run. I can move quickly.’
I mean one way you can look at the Guggenheim – and this might answer your question – you might see it as the first museum that is not based on a palace. It is actually based on a parking garage. It is based on Bauhaus parking garages from the 1920s which Frank Lloyd Wright had studied, without having seen, in an effort to make a museum outside Baltimore Washington that was for a car collection. He would never feature that aspect of what he was thinking about, but it had a very utilitarian origin and I think it took a long time for the Museum to be seen as utilitarian. Today it has the big advantage of being somewhat friendly (depending on how mobile you are), but utterly memorable; and that is a new attribute. You and I live in these white boxes that can be in Mozambique, in Brazil or in Halifax, we don’t really know where we are. So it is very, very helpful that at the Museum, and even in Venice, and certainly in Bilbao, and I hope in Abu Dhabi, people are inside a very particular space that they recall and therefore they also remember what they saw there.
Yes it is good, but it can be irritating, and expensive. The thing I sometimes don’t like is that when I see a picture sometimes I would literally like to go behind it and I can’t do that. And I can do that elsewhere. I like sometimes to see the picture, the story enfilade – moving back. Instead I am forced to see it en passant. I am always forced to see it sideways. I have to be careful and make sure that I turn around and actually look at the painting – at the sculpture, or whatever it is.
I don’t want to criticise New York, but I think in some ways, this is a richer and more difficult exhibition here. Things are said editorially in the galleries, that we would never have had the courage to say in New York. It allows me to see what I am looking at in a different way that is better and more synthetic.
If you read what is put on the walls in the Hong Kong exhibition – it is tough. They have made some very strong assertions. They are quite interesting.
It allowed me to look at what I am seeing through a certain lens and therefore I felt I got something from it.
My cynical experience is that a great number of curators are going to be a problem. But it may be that in the newly democratised world that is going to be more typical. We thought, and I still believe, that it is useful when we are starting from a very elementary point to have a single point of view uniting what it is that comes into the Collection.
I find that sometimes we are not serving our public well by making it too open-ended. I think sometimes it is better, even though you may not come up with the ultimate and best solution, frequently in our world to say: “this is the best we can do, it’s finite. It is one person’s point of view and we endorse that view while recognising that it may be faulty”. — [O]
No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 30 October - 16 February 2014