Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Back to the future?: A refresher course in the basics of exhibit development could save your museum's next project

Photo by Brian Forrest of MOCA, via LA Times
 Culture Monster  blog
Continuing the tradition of putting in my two cents about the latest happenings in the museum world, I offer a few observations on the enormous mural gaffe committed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles late last week. For those of you unfamiliar with MOCA LA's blunder, here is a brief synopsis.

MOCA commissioned an Italian street artist named Blu to paint a mural on the external wall of their Geffen Contemporary building as part of a larger street art exhibition set to open next April. The museum's Director, Jeffrey Deitch (who comes from the art gallery world, but has no real museum experience), signed off on the project and left town for an international art fair in Miami. Blu proceeded to paint giant rows of military-style coffins draped in dollar bills, an obvious commentary on the war and capitalism. Upon Deitch's return, Blu's mural was determined to be "inappropriate" and was completely whitewashed. Now, some are crying censorship since MOCA sits adjacent to a monument honoring Japanese-American soldiers and near a Veterans Affairs building.

One cannot help but wonder at what point things went wrong in planning this project. Was anyone asking good questions? In addition to writing this blog, I teach in the Museum Studies department at Walsh University, and it occurs to me that if MOCA had followed a few basic rules of exhibit development they might have avoided this entire mess. Let us lay out a couple of key issues to discuss before planning and mounting your next exhibition.

1. Be sure you know exactly what you are exhibiting. This is as true with artists as it is with artifacts. Many  are culturally significant, others are worthless imitations. Some objects and subjects are provocative, while others are openly offensive. Some things are worth saying, showing, installing, and risking, while others are just a public relations nightmare not worth the effort. Unfortunately, in MOCA's case it seems no one did enough homework to be sure where on the avant-garde spectrum their new mural would fall. Oops.

2. Know thine audience. Remember, your core constituency may be different from your general audience. For example, your programs may cater to connoisseurs of high art, hipsters, and artists, but if your museum resides in a neighborhood frequented by active military service men and women, veterans, their families, as well as others working closely with them, and you are planning an outdoor mural, these folks are members of your audience as well. Consider carefully the message you will convey, and of course it is not only what you say, but how you say it that matters in the end.

3. Make sure you have a clear contract. If your contract is vague on several points, do not be surprised  when the exhibition you envisioned is not the one you end up mounting. Institutions lending artifacts or traveling exhibits may be free to pull high profile artifacts from the show without warning, and artists may assume they have a blank canvas and a blank check unless your contract clearly states otherwise.

4. Collaboration builds community. Some museums do a great job of reaching out to neighboring organizations and the surrounding community, others seem to think they bring something so special to the neighborhood that they do not need local input. I have no idea how often MOCA LA collaborates with its neighbors, but I know that asking the community for ideas about a mural specifically mounted as part of a project meant to inject street art into the community makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there was a disconnect with the community somewhere in this initiative.
Jessica shows off the exhibit design concept board, which
highlights the ways she plans to engage her audience. 

Each of these four concepts was integral to the Exhibition Development and Design course I taught this past semester. My students learned that serving your mission, audience, and community at-large are keys to a successful exhibition. Whether you are a small historical society, or an eminent art museum, the basic tenets apply. If museums strive for more than just headlines and shock-value, if they want to be valued, respected, and relevant, then projects and programs need to be carefully conceived and even more carefully carried out.

As museum professionals, we are responsible for the future legacy of our organizations. In a political environment where the application of public funding must be justified and measured against a greater economic good, we must balance risk and reward with an eye towards that shared future. Going back to school on some basic program development guidelines seems like a simple way to keep chaos at bay, and ensure that our impact is both memorable and positive.

MOCA's unfortunate mural episode serves as a cautionary tale for all museums. What on the surface looks innovative and engaging, may end up doing more harm than good if best practices and important details are overlooked. Be sure your team has covered all the bases before the paintbrush hits the wall.

Here is a link to the LA TImes' story on MOCA's mural blunder.
Museum of Contemporary Art commissions, then paints over, artwork - latimes.com

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I hadn't heard about this but I can definitely see how poor planning (and the failure to follow the steps you outlined) led to this.

    This is one situation where I agree with both sides of the argument. Did the museum give the artist free reign to create whatever he wanted? Yes. Is it "appropriate" for this subject matter to be on the outside of the building, especially adjacent to the memorial and veterans affairs office? Probably not. Is whitewashing it a form of censorship? Sure.

    As you said, this could have been stopped before it happened - if only MOCA had taken the time to sit down and discuss their options.

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