The Future of Museums
A Panel Discussion with Art Agency, Partners
From left to right: Kevin Ching, Allan Schwartzman, Michael Govan and Doryun Chong; moderator Charlotte Burns. Photo credit: Wan Ka Man Photography
“I think there is a little bit of a disease, or started to be, in collecting and collectors and museums that everything started to look the same in contemporary art collections. And I think that’s really outmoded.”
- Michael Govan, CEO and Director, LACMA
“If I share more than 1,000 pieces of artworks worth a lot of money, share to dozens of people, actually it means nothing.”
- Budi Tek, founder, Yuz Museum and Foundation, Shanghai
“What’s exciting about working in this region compared to say, New York, is that you’re not changing or reinventing the rules—because there aren’t really rules established. We’re actually just inventing them.”
- Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator, M+, Hong Kong
“I think particularly with destination museums in new locations which are thinking about new paradigms of experience and how to reach out to a public, we’ve not yet begun to explore what the possibilities are.”
- Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners, chairman of Sotheby’s Global Fine Arts and creative director and chief curator of Instituto Inhotim
Photo credit: Wan Ka Man Photography
Introduction by Charlotte Burns, senior editor, In Other Words
On 29 March in Hong Kong, we staged our first ever live In Other Words event on 29 March on “The Future of The Museum”.
Our panelists included Michael Govan, the director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Doryun Chong, the deputy director and chief curator of M+ in Hong Kong; and Allan Schwartzman who is the co-founder of Art Agency, Partners, a chairman of Sotheby’s and the creative director and chief curator of the Instituto Inhotim in Brazil. The panel was introduced by Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia and moderated by me.
Joining us remotely was Budi Tek, the founder of the Yuz Museum and Foundation in Shanghai. He broke the news of an unprecedented collaboration between the Yuz Museum and Foundation and LACMA, which led onto a discussion about the increasing willingness of museum directors and private patrons to share and collaborate. Our panelists also spoke about where innovation is taking place geographically; about cultural norms and how they manifest differently region to region; and about new technologies, such as augmented reality, and their potential impact on museums and exhibition making.
The Future of The Museum: A Panel Discussion
Kevin Ching: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Thank you for coming to this panel discussion on “The Future of the Museum”. This is the first ever event held in Hong Kong of this kind by In Other Words. In Other Words is a very insightful newsletter with market analysis, weekly produced by AAP, Art Agency, Partners.
AAP is based in New York and Los Angeles and gives advice to top collectors. I think you’ve also started to advise museums. Museums—as people of my generation know it—are very different from the museums of today, in terms of what they show and how they interact with the audience.
It’s good that this is happening in Hong Kong because, I think you’d agree that Hong Kong being part of Asia, Asia is the fastest museum growth area in the world. I was looking at some figures the other day. In China, back in 2006, I think they only had about 1,500 museums. Then in 2016, over 4,000. And, for Hong Kong, of course we have the great West Kowloon Cultural District, I think it’s the biggest art project in the history of Hong Kong.
So, today it is a great honor to have some very distinguished leading cultural thinkers with us. Unfortunately, Budi Tek cannot be with us today but we have the others.
I’ve only been given three minutes to speak, so I’ll finish here and I’ll hand over the floor to the distinguished speakers.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you so much, Kevin.
I want to thank Kevin, and to also thank Sotheby’s for hosting us today in our first ever live event, and thank my guests for joining me, and thank you all for attending.
In Other Words is an editorial project that we launched—the advisory Art Agency, Partners—in January last year, and it consists of weekly newsletters and podcasts. Certain trends have emerged over the year-plus in which we’ve been doing the project, one of which is the willingness of museum directors internationally to really rethink the ways in which they work and collaborate, talking about sharing collections and just innovating new models of working together. And on that note, Budi can’t be with us today, but we do have an important announcement from him. So, I think we’re going to show you a short film.
[Watch the video here]
Budi Tek: For the last two years, not only, I used to say that was always on my mind—the second thing on my mind—is always how my legacy will be preserved for the benefit of the world [and] the glory of my God, because I am a Christian. So, this is the second thing that I need to do in my life, actually.
So, I told my family, I said to them that if I share more than 1,000 pieces of artworks worth a lot of money, share to dozens of people, actually it means nothing. I would like to group it together to preserve the legacy and actually to keep it forever. Then, it means something to the world because the collections of men belong for the world. So, this is what I hope today: I will announce the agreement in principle that both institutions, LACMA and Yuz Foundation, will create a non-profit organization that groups my collection. Thank you very much for this opportunity for me to make this breaking news.
Charlotte Burns: So, perhaps, Michael, you could tell us a little bit more about this new partnership?
Michael Govan: Yes. Well it’s too bad that Budi is not able to be here to speak more deeply about these ideas: his daughter Justine is here, and a lot of the team from Yuz Museum. We’ve been talking for years and just recently working very closely together on this idea that Budi has had. Not only to hold the collection together and make it accessible, but I think to take the idea of a Yuz Museum and grow it. One of the rare things from the moment I spoke with him, I don’t think his idea was ever to control the museum as a private collector as a space for his private collection, but rather, and this is true in the engagement of artistic director Wu Hung in the breadth of exhibitions—from Giacometti to contemporary artists—that he wanted it to be a public museum, and I think there was a certain frustration actually when we first spoke, that he was having trouble navigating how to do that in mainland China where, really, the models have been government museums or very private museums.
And so we talked about how the system works in the US. In fact, LACMA is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—we do have some government funding, but that’s only about 20%, and we’re, like most US museums, supported by many sources: we have a board of trustees; we have corporate sponsors; we have individuals—every work of art in LACMA is a gift from someone, or a gift through someone. So the question was how could we do that.
So, that was the discussion, and then we started realizing that, as we were growing our Chinese collections in Los Angeles—we just announced yesterday a huge gift of Gérard and Dora Cognié of 450 ink paintings, mostly ink paintings, there are also photography and other things that are mostly from China but also other parts of Asia. We’ve been growing our collections and programs—that maybe there was a way to use this opportunity to use this opportunity to create a little bit of a cultural bridge between Shanghai and Los Angeles. Between Budi’s collection, which is so strong, and really does sort of capture the zeitgeist I think of a period of time, as does M+’s collection, but to have more than one, and to connect that with LACMA’s collections, just of international contemporary art, that maybe we could do something new.
I wish he had said that in the video, and it’s clearly because when you hear him say we’re going to make something new, you sense his spirit, with which I think he launched Yuz, and wants it to go into the future.
So, the idea is that we’re partnering now. He likens it when talking to me as a marriage—I guess this is the engagement announcement, party to follow, at some point soon.
And then the idea is to enter into a marriage where our responsibilities together would be to preserve the collection, to bring it forward to future generations, and to do that within a program, an exhibition program, that would be different, hopefully, from others.
I mean one of the different things about it might be, because M+ is so strong now in building really one of the largest museums for contemporary art in all of Asia, Modern and contemporary, is we may also play with our historical collections. We can take themes that artists are working with, and put them into even historical context working with artists.
I think we want it to be a contemporary-oriented program driven by artists and contemporary art, but our historical collections, I mean artists don’t draw distinctions between… they don’t think about contemporary art as a category, they just think about art. They’re artists and they make art.
So, I think there’s a possibility to do something beautiful and new and complimentary to other things going on in Asia. So that’s our intention, to be married soon. And to gather therefore in this family to reach out to others for support, I mean this would be a publicly supported organization by corporations and individuals in China, around the world, and to develop something, as Budi likes to say, that would be really new.
Charlotte Burns: Why do you all think collaborations are a topic that people are thinking about more openly? You’re creating a new model that doesn’t actually exist right now. Why is it in the air? People used to be more territorial in thinking about their collections, their distinctiveness, and that kind of proprietorial attitude seems to be shifting a little bit to a more collaborative way of thinking. Why is that?
Michael Govan: Not enough, even. I mean I think it is hopefully the future. We talk a lot about how institutions, you know, why do we have institutions? Because we have to carry things forward, we all die, we need a vessel to hold things beyond us and to gather many people. But also institutions do become sometimes too proprietary, too boundary-laden, and so we talk a lot: can we make institutions more permeable? For us, it’s something that’s very exciting.
I think Michael Brand is here, at The Getty we—the Mapplethorpe Estate, huge estate— was something we pursued to share equally. There’s no distinction between who owns what. It’s a huge estate of art shared equally between The Getty and LACMA.
We just made an arrangement with the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, that has a huge collection of indigenous American and western art, and our curators, the idea is that we will treat the collections, theirs and ours as one. No special loan forms, and to work together.
I just think that finally we’re getting to this point where we can think about collections as a public resource that we share and we need to drop some of that possessiveness-
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Michael Govan: And now with communications and travel and the change in even geopolitics, there’s so many exciting opportunities now to rethink art history, and I think collaboration is the future of… the best use of these resources.
Charlotte Burns: Doryun, how much does it inform your thinking about M+ which is scheduled to open fully next year. You’ve been creating this huge museum, which has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting institution in Asia. That’s a lot of opportunity and responsibility. How do you factor collaboration into that, and this idea of creating something that you can share and lead by example.
Doryun Chong: We’re certainly thinking about it a lot, and it is the 21st-century, and the museum model as we know it has been around, at least within the Modern art museum, at least close to a century, but of course the museums have been around for several centuries. So, we’re totally aware of that.
But where M+ is particularly, is that we’re setting up the foundation, and I don’t mean foundation as a legal entity but really setting the baseline here. The building will be finished in 2019—that’s when we can actually move into this very large building of 65,000 sq. m—which means that we probably need another year to dry out the concrete and sweep the dust and all of that, and then really get acclimated in all ways, then start installing. So, we’re really looking at 2020 for opening to the public.
But it’s not all about the building, we’ve always said that from the beginning, around 2011 when people started joining the team, that the museum is already existing; it’s already open. We’re operating because we have been organizing public programs around Hong Kong and even beyond, while also building the collection and building the staff that are not only coming from Hong Kong but more than a dozen countries around the world.
So, I’m saying all of this because we really need to become an institution fully—hardware as well as the software—for us to be, if not equal, worthy and appropriate collaborator for many institutions of different natures and scales. So, we have already started conversations with various institutions around the world with the idea of collections sharing. Whenever we bring this up, nobody has responded adversely. Everybody’s understanding. So, it is definitely in the air; it’s the zeitgeist.
Charlotte Burns: So fascinating, because it really wasn’t the case previously.
Allan, you strongly feel that some of the most innovative new museum models are taking place, and we will see them more publicly in the coming years, in the centers beyond the traditional hubs of Europe and America. Where do you see the future, the geographical future, of the museum?
Allan Schwartzman: We’re seeing a lot in Asia and in the Middle East, in all likelihood we’ll see more in Eastern Europe. Latin America will be more limited, because of the nature of the political and economic states, which are always shifting there.
But I think more to the point we have a whole new generation of people collecting art who come from cultural and vantage points that were never engaged in this before. And some enter with very specific ideas and goals as to why they’re pursuing it. And others, as with so many collectors, particularly of contemporary art, they start in whatever arbitrary and individualized ways, and they look for what to do with that.
I think part of it is that we’ve been through like a 30 to 40 year museum building boom around the world as we’ve known it, where museums have been. And in most instances, we’ve created different versions of a very similar model or collection or exhibition program or patronage system. And so it’s quite natural at a certain point when you have that much proliferation worldwide, you’re also expanding the professional system that’s there to fulfill it, and then within that you have people who function within the traditions and you have people who start thinking of new ways of working.
And I think particularly the great number of significant collectors who have emerged from areas of new wealth over the last ten or so years are, first of all, in general of a higher degree of wealth than their comparable counterparts in previous generations, and they more commonly think of collecting either in relation to museum building or it having some kind of public presence.
And so some seek to do it in a way that follows a tradition, and that is in the manner of what is known. Some are more interested, either initially or open to the possibility of, thinking it through in a different way. It’s most natural that those who are oriented toward thinking it through differently come from cultures where there isn’t the same history or lineage.
And so what it means to create a place that serves it’s local population and attracts people from abroad, and how that gets communicated by necessity, if not also by a desire to be innovative, leads in a lot of other directions.
Charlotte Burns: You just mentioned attracting people from international centers, and I know that, Michael and Doryun, you have to serve local communities, and you also want to draw people from other places as well. Allan, obviously in the creation of Inhotim, you created almost the ultimate destination museum in the heart of Brazil where you see art in a very different context than the typical white wall, white cube scenario, where art is situated in an environment that is totally unique. To what extent do you think destination museums, or museums thinking of themselves as destinations, will become more important in terms of the experiences that are created?
Allan Schwartzman: I think it’s central in so much innovative thinking about museums, and we’re just at the beginning of something. I mean, the kind of collaboration you’re talking about, we’re just at the beginning of possibility.
Part of that comes out of necessity, either economic or supply, and part of it comes out of a different generation of leaders who have a different way of looking at art and a different relationship to their peers than maybe in the past.
But similarly, Inhotim, just to give a little background: there was a collector in Brazil who was collecting contemporary art, he was going from being a small-scale collector to a large-scale collector. The development of the collection evolved simultaneously to his acquiring a very large piece of property in order to preserve it, in an area that was threatened with development, and his idea was simply to make a legacy that would be meaningful and would bring people to this area that he finds so beautiful. He didn’t know what that meant or what the possibilities were, and initially, the name of it was Center of Contemporary Art of Inhotim. And so the question then became, why are people going to travel 15 to 20 hours plus to come see what they can see in every major city in the United States and in Western Europe?
And so we began to evolve an idea of a place that would, by necessity, be a destination, not just in terms of a touristic attraction—because at first we had no idea if there would be a public, we thought maybe a few hundred people a week would come. But in terms of opportunity: here was an opportunity to work with artists, to enable them to envision ideal kinds of works that they may not have had the opportunity, or think they would have the opportunity to pursue. Also to acquire very large-scale works that are significant, that belong in museums that are simply not practical due to the cost of real estate and the limitations of space in museums to house permanently. And to make this a destination for those kinds of works and to situate them in a landscape where how you approach them and what your experience with them is, is amplified by the environment and how they’re sited.
So, this was a model that kind of grew through process, really responding more to artists on the one hand, and to a collector/patron’s desire to do something unique, and not quite knowing what the possibilities were for that.
Ultimately, it ends up being a place that cultural visitors from around the world go to; I think virtually every museum group, certainly in Europe and the United States and Latin America that have gone on culture tours, have been there. Many museums have had board meetings there and have come numerous times.
But interestingly, the vast majority of our public is local: they are not people who have a history of going to museums; they have no history or experience with art; they are coming for the botanical garden—and in the process they engage with art, and they engage with art in a way that is far different from a traditional museum, and because of the nature of the landscape it is more inviting. It becomes more experiential. And so it’s created a kind of gateway that would not otherwise have existed before, and that grew naturally out of the given situation within that area.
Charlotte Burns: What you’re saying about local communities reminds me of a conversation that I had with you, Doryun, and you, Michael: two separate questions. Michael, first, you are working towards opening different LACMA campuses in LA, and I remember you saying to me: “You could have a different LACMA just ten miles down the road, because you can think of ways in which you serve your communities.” Can you talk a little bit more about that idea of thinking locally?
Michael Govan: Well yes, I mean I guess the title is “The Future of the Museum”. We live within this definition of museums that is mainly a creation of the 19th-century, and it’s the two spectrums of what goes on in the 19th-century and it’s relevant to modern-day Los Angeles. But you have this idea that travel is now happening and people are writing about travels, so the idea of the world opening up to many cultures. And then, at the same time, you have the impulse to make a place in a city like a library of all the world so you have an encyclopedia. That model of the encyclopedia then is certainly in Europe and the US. Europe transformed toward that a little bit, and [in] the US, since there were no museums, they all became these ideas of a box where you put everything.
Travel has made it now that [the] other aspect of the 19th-century, the travel and the sensing of localities, has emerged as increasingly important. So, when I imagined making a museum for Dia, Dia:Beacon, it was very much about the specifics of a unique place in a locality and in fact the project at LACMA was how could you apply the idea of the growing importance of locality, now that we have the internet and travel, and why would you go anywhere if you can see what you can see, you know, you can travel everywhere. Everything has to be special with all the access to information, the experience has to be special, like the gardens are there [Inhotim].
And so I said, could you make the experience of the giant encyclopedic museum very special? The metaphor has been the park—the indoor/outdoor, the wandering through—and so we’re trying to do that in the main museum. But then what about this idea of a box? Our city is now sprawled so far, it’s not for a village anymore.
So, that’s where we starting thinking, well, yes, you can do branch museums in the world like we did at the Guggenheim, but what about the fact that there’s an entirely different world five miles away, or ten miles away: a new audience, a different audience. And if you had three or four of those in Los Angeles, or five big museums, I joke you could send the show—the same show—to five locations in LA, and it’d be completely different audiences.
And then how could each one of those be distinguished with a sense of place, of locality. I mean if you go to East Los Angeles, it would be perfectly appropriate to have a Chinese-centric program, because it would make sense in those communities as it would make sense to combine the great migration African-American traditions and the Latino immigration in South Los Angeles.
And so it gets to be very exciting to think about differentiating experiences even within so-called one city or one place. And everything’s on the spectrum, right? As a system we create art education as a totality, but then the real experience more and more today with access to information being easy has to be special and unique. I think there is a little bit of a disease, or started to be in collecting and collectors and museums, that everything started to look the same in contemporary art collections. And I think that’s really outmoded. Like why would you travel between San Francisco and Dallas or other cities to see the same contemporary art collection? We really need to differentiate our experiences to make them exciting.
So, you know, there’s no one answer, you’re not going to the local or going to the general, but in the playfulness between them I think is the future.
Charlotte Burns: And with M+, you [Doryun] are creating a whole new way of experiencing art for people in Hong Kong. It’s going to be the first major museum here. To some extent it seems like museums are the missing piece of a puzzle here, that the art market and the gallery scene have developed so dramatically in such a short period of time, and the museum stands to make a great effect. What do you hope that the impact will be locally in Hong Kong, but also in the region?
Doryun Chong: Well, I do always acknowledge and remind people that Hong Kong has had very strong museums. In fact, they are all governmental—they are part of the department called Leisure and Cultural Services Department. So, the Hong Kong Museum of Art that is under renovation that will reopen again in 2019 is dedicated to Hong Kong art from traditional to contemporary. There’s a museum called the Heritage Museum that looks at culture in general. So, I think these museums have been around for decades, and they’ve done great work. They usually don’t get the acknowledgement. So, I say that publicly and privately, because, yes, we are lending a giant mothership on the waterfront, but in fact we are part of a larger landscape in terms of institutions and non-profits.
Speaking of non-profits, there have been really pioneering, smaller institutions in town as well. Asia Art Archive has been very important. They’ve been around for almost 20 years. Para Site has been very important. They also have been around for a couple of decades. So, the scene has been there. It has been modest, in terms of its number, but it has been there. But as you said, certainly the commercial gallery and auction scene has grown tremendously. But I like to also think of them as not purely commercial entities; they also have played important educational roles for the local public who has not had much opportunity to see art.
A lot of it might be the same kind of contemporary art that you can see everywhere, but if you haven’t seen the local public—like you were describing Michael, that in East Los Angeles or in South Los Angeles—they may not have seen any of this art either. So, I really think of the galleries that happen there and that are coming, playing that educational role.
And I will also include Art Basel with that. I think Art Basel [Hong Kong] is the most attended of the three. I think last year they had 75,000 people coming through during the public days. I think they sold out the tickets like two weeks before the show even opened. So, there is a great hunger and curiosity to see what contemporary art is.
So, it’s important to understand all of that, that we’re not just… yes, we are filling the gap, but it overlaps with other entities—
Charlotte Burns: Existing.
Doryun Chong: —that have been doing… yes, existing entities.
Charlotte Burns: Actually, in our current issue of the newsletter, we have a list of the most innovative or interesting institutions in Asia, and there’s a huge amount happening, as you say, and has been a huge amount happening in Hong Kong. But nonetheless, M+ will be really taking things to a new level. How do you think about what your impact will be locally and beyond that?
Doryun Chong: Right, so building on what I was just saying, what has not existed is an institution that tells, first of all, some kind of a baseline story. If you wanted to know about the history of Chinese contemporary art or Hong Kong art—well the Hong Kong Museum [of Art] has been doing it—but these two particular art histories in relation to the regional art history or world art history, there has not been an institution that has been able to do that. So, we can certainly play that role along with many other things.
Charlotte Burns: You mentioned the market, and on the one hand the market—and this is internationally, this isn’t just in Asia—the art market has been a major driver of the museum building boom that we’ve been talking about over the past decade. And on the other hand, the market can be accused of having compromised the museum. What role do you think the market will play in the future of the museum? That’s for any of you guys.
Allan Schwartzman: I’ll take it.
So, there are people who, let’s say, started collecting art in the 1980s. And maybe they put $5m over time into collecting. And let’s say this was someone for whom that was, I’m just making this up, 20% of their wealth. That $5m, if they did it wisely, is probably worth a few hundred million dollars at this point in time. And this becomes 80%, 90% of their net wealth.
At the same time, museums are growing and building and their collections are getting fuller and fuller. So, let’s say you’re a publicly minded person, you’re thinking about your legacy. The likelihood that some of these collectors that are very publicly spirited and believe in giving back to the community start to say, or there are some who say, okay, this now has become something so much different from what I bought, that I have a responsibility to my family, my business to keep this going. So, that shifts some priorities.
Then you have others who say, okay, now I have $1bn collection. If I’m going to give this to the Museum of Modern Art—just to pick one museum—and my collection’s rich in Matisse and Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, what’s the likelihood that my major masterworks, how many of them are going to get onto the walls and with what frequency?
And so, the market has, and how it has, whether positively or negatively reframed how people look at works of art. Certainly when [Van Gogh’s] Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is put on the wall of the museum, there are more people who go to see it because of the price tag that was associated with it than where it fits in with Van Gogh’s work in general.
But I think we’re seeing a lot more rethinking of what long-term patronage means for museums, and what it means for collectors. So, there are some collectors whose interests then become in creating their own facility that has their name on it that keeps their collection together where they can have control over what gets seen and how it gets seen, and what percentage gets seen.
And then there are others who start to think in ways that are maybe more innovative about how they can be working with public institutions to gain greater profile for their collection in ways that the museums could not afford to do on their own, but actually bring out the best in what the collector has achieved and elevates the field of what the museum can do, because it’s now got added facilities. So, I look at SFMOMA, and I think that’s a fascinating story about how the market, in a sense, been central to how a patron has evolved, but his long-term commitment is to the collection, and how that gets formed in relation to the museum. What used to be seen as a rubicon of patron there and curator here, is changing. And some of it’s changing by necessity, and some of it’s changing by invention.
So, I think it’s a huge change. So many of the new museums that we’re seeing, maybe just in their infancy of conception in areas of new wealth, are directly linked to culture as a larger driver of tourism. And that greater increase is, to some extent, connected to the growth of cultures around the world, or the growing awareness of cultures. But a much larger percentage in all likelihood is driven by the fact that art has a lot more value, and so it’s therefore attracted a lot more wealth.
Charlotte Burns: Do either of you have anything to add to that? Any thoughts on the market?
Michael Govan: It’s funny, the bigger the museum, the bigger the public, the less the market matters. So, people come to LACMA—we have 1.5 or 1.6 billion visitors—it’s funny because often a collector will put in a work on loan to be part of a show, and because it’s very, very valuable, they will expect that more people will look at it. It’s usually not the case.
The audience for our museum is mostly market blind; it’s a tiny, tiny fraction of that visitorship that cares at all. And time will be the great leveler of those things because you know, art history, history is ruthless in terms of what it needs to go on. So, the bigger you get, the smaller the impact.
Most big collections—there is this constant in history, this tension between and positive tension between the private collector and the public museum. So, a lot of, in the United States certainly and in Europe, a lot of the public museums are the assembly of private collections. Whether it’s the collections of European monarchs. Or in the United States more the robber barons to the current new wealth, the collector has the impulse buy, they can make a decision in two seconds, they can build this resource, some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but there’s that energy to it. And then over time it gets assembled into something that sifts and sorts. You see a whole new generation of private museums.
What’s really cool about Budi [Tek] I think, for me, is that as early as the museum opened three years ago he was already thinking how it would become a public museum. And I think a lot of private collectors who are doing private museums aren’t really thinking about the true implications, and their will be in the future a kind of reckoning of the fact that there aren’t plans made, the collections aren’t diverse enough to really carry into the future long term. So, this partnership is a sort of: how do you do a little of both? Have the energy of the private collector with that specific focus and then the educational long-term infrastructure of a big museum.
And that’s been a tradition, in the history of museums and there’s going to be that constant play between the two. San Francisco is a case where that family was planning to make their own museum until they weren’t. It turned out good for the public. And so there are some interesting stories there.
The market is not necessarily good for art museums. Collectors will say: “Oh, business is booming in the art market. It must be great for you as a museum.” I was like: “No, it’s terrible!” Insurance is high, people don’t want to lend things, we can’t buy things, more and more families are saying it’s part of their wealth so they’re less willing to give.
So, it’s interesting that there’s an inverse relationship sometimes to the art museum, whereas people would be happy to give you things in the old days, now they’re worth so much that for Budi Tek to do this it’s a giant gesture on a scale that maybe 20 years ago, giving your art collection to the public was less of a big ask, in that sense.
Charlotte Burns: And this is also interesting that the impact that that might have in terms of him setting precedent for collaborating in that way.
Doryun, do you have any thoughts on the market as well, and museums?
Doryun Chong: Yes, you know the challenges that Michael and Allan were describing that sort of tension or distance between public museums and private collectors, I think we’re completely aware of that but, again, we’re still in the very beginning buildup stage, so it’s not something that we’re experiencing that much, yet.
And also we started our whole collecting effort six years ago with a great donation that we received from a private collector—
Michael Govan: Yes, the Sigg Collection, fantastic.
Doryun Chong: —which is in the scale of 1,500 works, an outright gift which really just launched into a totally different space and provided a major stream of the narrative that we’re going to tell as an institution.
Now, so that’s done, but we didn’t stop there, and we’re not a museum of contemporary Chinese art, it’s meant to be a visual cultural museum that is multidisciplinary. It’s a broadly Asian, maybe even global institution. So, this is an important stream that that particular donation helps, but we had a lot more to do. So, again, the developing gallery scene in Hong Kong as well as Art Basel have been very very important source for us to acquire works from.
Now going back to the point that I was making earlier about how they are also playing an educational role for the general public who just walk in to see things, but also that’s for the growing collector base locally and regionally and that they are getting educated as well. So, I think there is also another kind of education that is happening. That they are not only teaching themselves about newest trends as well as art histories, but also what relationships there may be between private collectors and a public institution. Again, none of this has happened. They’re all new, we’re new: so we’re all getting educated together.
So, again I often feel like what’s exciting about working in this region compared to say, New York, is that you’re not changing or reinventing the rules, because there aren’t really rules established, we’re actually just inventing them. And it can be totally frustrating sometimes and it can be unsettling to see certain behaviors that may not be kosher from the perspective of other more established places. But more in general, it’s very interesting to see that. But we are a publicly funded museum at this stage, so we have to be the only straight-laced guy in the room, but not completely.
We also have to be adaptable and flexible because the whole context that we’re working in is different, and the models and the rules that already exist, which we do take seriously, and learn after, but have to be always aware that you can’t just apply them directly here, because it just doesn’t make sense.
Michael Govan: It’s a really worthy thing—we were talking about that while you were in Los Angeles for a little while—but what drew me to Los Angeles was the newness of that sort of Pacific-focused thinking; that there was going to be more change, more invention, between the West Coast of the US. I think Latin America is going to emerge strongly, it’s such a huge cultural influence in the United States and back and forth, and what’s going on in Asia. So the exciting part of being in this sphere of the Pacific is not that we know what the future of museums is, but that there are many futures, and it’s gonna be exciting to find out and we have no idea.
But it is, as Doryun’s saying, it’s all being invented, and even this idea of Budi’s is all new and I think that’s kind of, even being in Hong Kong, it’s exciting to be looking at things from this perspective.
Charlotte Burns: One other question I wanted to ask you is slightly different, really, is with advances in technology such as augmented reality comes great change, and in one of our podcasts I interviewed a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, who has been behind the David Bowie exhibition. And he said that he’s taking a little bit of time off from doing these immersive exhibitions because he wants to really wants to wrap his head around how VR is going to change the way that people experience the museum. And to some extent, institutions may fear losing their monopolies on the objects, like museums maybe did in the 19th century with the invention of print. But museums will also have the ability to grow their audiences in dramatic new ways, whilst individuals can put on a headset and create their own institution.
Is that something you think about? And Michael, I thought you could speak to this first given the success of the [Alejandro G] Iñárritu VR work Carne y Arena (2017), which I know was just at LACMA.
Michael Govan: Well honestly it’s a spectrum of possibilities, and on one hand, we may indeed be re-entering the age of the plaster cast, where you can create a virtual environment and copies that have a verisimilitude of architecture and art, the things sometimes that museums can’t do because they have the artifact separate from context. So, in one sense, we may be inventing new experiences like that that are trying to copy.
The other side of that is the specific. It’s things that are really truly new. So, you’re talking about an artwork at LACMA that’s by the filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu in which it’s an entire experience. It’s not just virtual reality. You actually start by entering into a room that is cold and uncomfortable, taking off your shoes. Finally a buzzer goes on after you’re properly uncomfortable. You walk in bare feet on sand in an arena about the size of this room. You have goggles, but there’s also wind and subwoofers shaking the space, and you’re in the desert somewhere between the United States and Mexico, and you’re in an encounter between migrants and US officials.
There are also surreal elements to it, and it’s an experience for seven minutes unlike anything you’ve seen. I mean it’s very advanced in terms of that, but it’s also… it has sand—it’s very tactile, too. And then at the end of it you actually are engaged in videos, which are portraits of those people that you experienced virtually.
So, what he’s doing, and that may be some of the future immediate, is not go home and put on your VR headset and you have everything. It may be a combination of place. And of course the context is important because you’re in an art museum in Los Angeles in that case and with other artworks around.
Now it’s being placed in other places like Mexico City and now Washington DC, but I think that it’s not a simple question and we may see educational copies, as in the age of print, but we’re also going to see things we can’t imagine that combine physical context, location, materiality and immateriality—and that’s where maybe artists are going to take it.
Charlotte Burns: That sort of leads in a way to my final question before we open up to the floor, which is: one of our guests in one of our pre-discussions said we talk a lot about the future of the museum, maybe even more so than we talk about the future of art. All three of you have built institutions very much incorporating visions of artists. When we talk about the future of the museum, let’s also think about the way that that impacts the future of art.
So, when we think about creating new museums, how are we involving artists in that? How much are you led by artists, how much do you involve them. And with things like virtual reality, where’s the future of art within the future of museums? A small question…
Michael Govan: Want to start? Doryun’s going to talk; they’re going to listen.
Doryun Chong: I was going to follow up on what Michael was saying, and I was just thinking in my head about, you know every time a new form of technology is introduced, we think that it is just going to change things completely irreversibly, but that’s not always—
Michae Govan: It’s additive.
Doryun Chong: Yes, it’s additive but it also sometimes disappears right? For instance, television not only changed people’s lives, but it also became a very important artistic medium from Nam June Paik on, obviously. And it is very much part of the history, part of art history.
I was also just thinking about Internet, I think is a sub-part of it, but what has it actually done in terms of transforming art itself? I don’t think we know what yet. But I remember this specific example of, now more than ten years ago, when Second Life, the online game, was introduced and there were a lot of articles about it, and not only artists are going to create artworks there, but also the museums are going to have virtual museum branches in Second Life. A few great works have come out of that: Cao Fei has done an incredible project, “RMB City“, that was entirely created in Second Life. But Second Life is no more, right? I mean that has completely disappeared even from our general consciousness.
So, I kind of wonder about that, about VR as well. Is this going to actually stay on, and not only change the direction and destiny of art, but also how we perceive and exist in the world? I think there is a big question mark still.
Now having said that, we started out by talking about 21st-century museums and collaboration as a very important model for the future of museums. But, knowing that this may sound very conservative and even very reactionary, I often just say that what we’re doing here is trying to create a 20th-century museum, because there has never been a 20th-century museum here of this scale with all of this content.
So, I don’t think that model has fundamentally changed. And I like to think that much of art making has not fundamentally changed either, even with the introductions of new technologies with more and more speed. So, I would just leave it at that, because I don’t quite have an answer for it.
Allan Schwartzman: Artists inherently think differently and look at opportunities differently from how you may imagine. Certainly, when there were the art and technology experiments at LACMA, where the idea was that you would pair an advanced artist with someone advanced in the technological field, and part of—at least how it’s been described to me—is that for the most part, it was a failure because there really wasn’t communication, even though it was a super interesting project.
The artists do what they do. I remember conducting an interview for a… I was asked to have several artists who were participating in an exhibition about painting, to talk about painting. So, it ranged from Chuck Close to Richard Prince and Christopher Wool. And so the question of the painting came up, for the fifth decade in the row, and Chuck’s viewpoint was that painting will always be valued, culturally, because people look to art for an experience that’s different from daily life, as a refuge from daily life. And there’s a real validity to that.
Yesterday I got together with Doug Aitken. Whenever I start a new project, he’s one of the first people I speak to because he works with technology and he’s always thinking in a way that you don’t imagine he would be thinking. So, a new situation becomes a trigger for how to begin to think about how to innovate. So, we did a piece with him in Brazil [SonicPavilion (2009)], and the premise was at that point… all of his work was in video. And I felt that putting video in the landscape really wouldn’t make sense, so the question to Doug at the time was: “Have you thought about working with technology but not video?” And he said: “Actually I have, I’ve always had this idea of a piece which I didn’t think I’d be able to make, which is actually a very low-tech work but technology permitted a very high-contemporary thought as to what it would be.”
And it’s quite simply geological microphones that are driven a few hundred meters into the ground—it turns out the earth makes noises like our bodies do—and it brings the sounds of the earth into the building. There are many different aspects that make this a remarkable artwork, part of which is that it’s always changing, its a 24-hour live feed, it’s the world’s largest instrument, it brings your mind to the earth—not just as a place but as an organism with an interior to it. But it’s ultimately a very simple technology that made that possible.
So, artists will always be looking at technologies in different ways. Virtual Reality may enable artists to think about, like I think of Ian Cheng and how he’s working with advanced technologies. I think ultimately wherever he goes with that, the thinking about what a subject is and how art need not be fixed, will be the more meaningful result than what the technology technically can permit.
I’ll just say one other thing, which is that most people experience exhibitions indirectly, they experience them through the catalogues. So, how art lives on, or exhibitions or experiences live on beyond the time or the place in which they’re experienced, we’ve only begun—in a very juvenile way—to explore that. Most museums, oddly enough—they’re visual institutions—but they have really bad websites. And it’s really hard to go to a museum website and actually see what the exhibition looks like. You can see images of three works, but you can’t have anywhere near the experience of it.
So, I think particularly with destination museums in new locations which are thinking about new paradigms of experience and how to reach out to a public, we’ve not yet begun to explore what the possibilities are. But ultimately, I think it’s less about the most advanced technology as it is applying the most creative thinking to the technologies that exist.
Charlotte Burns: Well Michael, you re-instigated the art and technology program at LACMA. I was following one project, the Tavares Strachan project where he’s working with SpaceX in a really exciting way, and that would be an example, to my mind, of an artist having very creative thoughts and using the available technology to realize a vision.
Michael Govan: Yes, I mean things are always changing. The art and technology project of old was as important as artists, for example Robert Irwin and James Turrell‘s relationship to a perceptual psychologist scientists and how that influenced their work and the object they made, but it had a huge influence.
I think there are two questions, one was the future of art, which is a very big topic, and the future of artists and museums. We believe a lot in bringing artists into the structure of the museum, whether its John Baldessari designing our logo, or an exhibition—and we’ve done a lot with artists—or even the architecture in the space, the gardens, are artist designed. So, I think the artist, there’s a lot of potential to bring the artist inside the museum.
And the future of art, actually, it is worth saying though, that media as you say, do go in and out of fashion. Painting on canvas is not particularly an old tradition, and only recently has gotten expensive. Furniture used to be more expensive not long ago. And even if we’re here in Asia, painting on paper has a longer tradition that seems to be more lasting. So, tapestries aren’t worth a fraction of what they were worth in Europe when they were made and were the most expensive art.
We commissioned our works for the internet in the ‘90s and they’re hard to even maintain because of changing… so, image making will not go out of style, and sort of experiential, architectonic structure experience, environment, but I think the media do have the potential to change a lot. I mean it is possible that painting on canvas would be sort of obsolete, as tapestries are at some point. So, that’s the open future that’s exciting.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you so much, I’m going to open it up here if anybody has any questions, I believe there are microphones going around. Are there any questions? This gentleman in the middle.
Audience member [Steven Henry, director, Paula Cooper Gallery]: Thank you all. There are profound political and social implications to the changing role of museums, and I’m curious how you’re sort of thinking about those, and your approaches to those?
Michael Govan: The changing environment? Or—
Steven Henry: Well, the role of the museum within a political environment or a social environment and how that impacts your thinking.
Charlotte Burns: Anybody who would like to answer that? I think the question how you think about changing political and social context.
Michael Govan: I mean, by the way, the environment is always affecting how you think, and we do think of the museum of playing an urgent and important role in a changing, ever-changing society, and constantly needs to be listening to it’s potential future responsibility.
Assuming what you’ve been doing in the past is not always what you can do in the future, the drive to consider putting major artworks in elementary schools and in neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise even have a museum or an art center, it’s partly that idea, but wait a minute, who are we serving? And if we really want to reflect the diversity of the points of view that make up a crazy city like Los Angeles, then maybe you can’t even be in one place. And you certainly have to change the entire structure of your collections, what you’re collecting, who works for you.
We’re rethinking everything, and we’re rethinking it in the context of that changing political-social environment, always toward, hopefully, greater awareness of the possibilities.
We even consider ourselves sort of activists, not that we would be with banners about politics, or supporting candidates or points of view, but by the way, we’re in the midst—M+, LACMA—this is in the midst of changing people’s perspectives about a worldview, about the nature of culture, history, about who matters.
I think that it is absolutely relevant and we don’t think of museums as repositories for precious objects, at all. I don’t. And think of it much more as an activist player, not advocating for a particular policy issue necessarily—although we like policies that support giving to museums or public institutions.
But I think it’s really important to think that way, and it is kind of new. Usually it’s the artists that are activists, if they are, and the museums are supposed to be more conservative and preserving, and I think we’ve changed that view. Now we feel, most of us, that we play an active role in actively changing perceptions for the future, rather than cataloging and displaying how those perceptions have changed.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Allan Schwartzman: I think you have a few paradoxes going. The United States, with the exception of a few places, including Michael and what he’s just said, we tend to be rapid to self-edit and to anticipate if there’s some kind of shift in public reaction, it goes down to quite simply the presence of nudity in art. All of a sudden, if somebody makes issue with a sexually provocative work in a museum in one community, then you have a vast number of other communities that start to think, should we be putting a sign of warning in a room where there’s a painting of a naked body that may not be sexually provocative, but could perhaps be an issue? So, I think there’s a certain natural mechanism in the United States to always be looking, to try to be defensive, and sometimes maybe overreacting.
While at the same time, some of the most interesting and innovative museum projects that are currently being developed or conceived are in countries that we might think of as more politically complex or incendiary. So, in a certain way culture is providing internationally a kind of counterbalance, at least in opportunity and promise, to intensifying political situations.
Charlotte Burns: Are there any other questions? This gentleman in the front row.
Audience member: About the idea that some societies succumb to political problems and the collections in these societies start to degrade and artworks are stolen, is there an association or something like that with museums around the world that would be focusing on protecting collections around the world where places are in trouble, or something like that?
Charlotte Burns: So, you’re essentially talking about preserving culture in places that aren’t able to sustain that. Is that something that you think about as part of your roles with your museums?
Michael Govan: Well, there are a number of organizations. There are architectural monuments being destroyed in wars, and there are coalitions, there are specific organizations that are devoted to protecting that. I mean there’s always been a role for that in our society, even the United States during World War II, would circle cultural monuments not to destroy—even if people were destroyed. So, there’s an active, I think always, an active role to protect those things.
Collections have to be protected in a different way. But no, I think it’s a loose confederation. There are a few international organizations devoted to architectural monuments and physically the preservation. I think if you’re asking about collections and how you sustain that; no, I don’t know of anything. I think that’s partly what museums are in business to do, is to protect those collections from dissipating and disintegrating.
Doryun Chong: Well, I don’t either, but there are organizations like CIMAM, which is the International Committee of for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and I don’t think they go in and rescue or salvage collections that are at risk. But certainly in the recent few years there have been many discussions about deaccessioning and I know that that also happens with the Association of American Museum Directors as well, and that’s a form of risk, where a collection can be destroyed or dismantled.
But going back to the earlier discussion about self-editing or self-censoring, or outright censorships, which have been happening all over the world including the western world with more frequency, organization like CIMAM have been actively discussing how it can set some protocols or processes by which they can serve as a lobbying group to help to go in and help the museums that are facing such experience.
We really saw a very explosive example for instance when there was a big Chinese contemporary art survey show at the Guggenheim, and it had to pull out certain works from outside pressure—virtually generated; it was all on the Internet.
So, you know, these kind of discussions have been happening and there are certain organizations that are thinking about that form of threats that are facing museums more and more.
Charlotte Burns: Are there any other questions?
In that case, I think I will thank my panelists, our guests for being here. Thank you so much for taking part; it’s been really interesting. And thank you all for coming.
Michael Govan: Thank you.
Allan Schwartzman: Thank you.
Doryun Chong: Thank you.
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