Panels at the New Museum and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council | Review by Jill Conner

by Jill Conner

Over the last two weeks, the New Museum and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council each hosted an event that directly took on the issues which New York City and the larger, globalized art community find themselves now facing. Budgets have fallen as companies throughout many sectors have laid off overwhelming numbers of staff, leaving many in the art community to wonder what will happen next? Are we headed for the 1970s all over again? "Museums and Civil Society - The Role of Artists, Institutions and Politics Now!" took place at the New Museum on February 12, 2009 and was divided into three panels that were hosted by the Austrian Cultural Forum. The LMCC, on the other hand, presented "The Shifting Skyline: Branding New York in Times of Financial Crisis," on February 18, 2009 which was a presentation by urban sociologist Miriam Greenberg. Although it is clear that all arts institutions will need to reconsider exactly how they can reach out to an ever-evolving community, New York City has made significant advances in preserving its cultural legacy during times of crisis.

Peter Prakesch, Artistic Director of the Joanneum and the Kunsthaus Graz, moderated the three panels at the New Museum that were initially intended as a compliment to the AFC's current group exhibition, "The Artist as Troublemaker: Do We Still Need Them Today?" However given the current global economic catastrophe, each panel confronted questions relating to museums' survival. Laura Hoptman, Senior Curator at the New Museum, did not refrain at all from conveying that the contemporary art market over the last 5 years has been strongly entwined with the entertainment industry. However she made a very good point when highlighting the fact that Americans tend to view contemporary art through the lens of entertainment far more than their European counterparts.

On the other hand Connie Butler, Curator of Drawings at MoMA, expanded on the shifting relationships that artists have had with museums especially with respect to those who worked in opposition to museums, known for their historic, conservative approach. However due to the fact that a generation of curators advanced to significant museum posts after working in alternative arts organizations, the artist-museum dichotomy was bound to change. As an example, Butler announced the Museum of Modern Art's new acquisition of Fluxus art from collector Gilbert Silverman. Fluxus was a group of artist who defied concrete definitions along with the kind of art that was supported by mainstream galleries and museums during the 1960s. Due to that historic disjunct and the fact that most Fluxus art was made in a non-art manner, MoMA is figuring out how to go about preserving and exhibiting these particular works of art.

While curators Maria Lind and Eungie Joo covered a number of methods that have been used to integrate contemporary art and artists within the scope of museum education, museum consultant, Dieter Bogner, effectively identified the museum as a mass media institution that is very political and yet is a historically young concept which involves a very small portion of society. As a designer of museum collections, Bogner also stated that museums need to change their installation displays every 10 years in order to remain a relevant presence within the community that each one serves. With respect to the New Museum and its lack of a significant permanent collection, the avenue for its viability is clearly the relationships that it will be able to engage with contemporary artists at any given time.

Marco de Michelis, Visiting Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, declared that contemporary art will be historical within 5 years; however, the challenge facing arts institutions will be the way in which they decide to make use of space. MoMA's new structure attempted to answer this question, but the white-box nature of its contemporary art gallery does not belong to the museum since it lacks any kind of sequence. De Michelis postulated that museums need to create a new identity through the production of a hybrid that combines the objectivity of work with the subjectivity of society.

The third, and final, panel at the New Museum came to the conclusion that the key for museums to continue to remain viable in the future is to focus on the local, suggesting a shift away from the global. Lisa Phillips, Director of the New Museum, painted a somewhat dire picture in announcing that many non-profits will disappear within the coming months, although most are operating in a survival mode at the moment. She did not hesitate to say that blogs are changing things dramatically and could stand to become the new venue for significant coverage of the arts.

A week later at the top of Chase Manhattan Plaza, Miriam Greenberg expounded upon her new book titled, "Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World," and for a moment everything stopped feeling so bad. Greenberg made a convincing link between the representation of the city's skyline and its economy. An early 1970s advertisement from Al Italia, for instance, claimed New York was bound to disappear and was a setback for city officials who had made significant investments in the city during the 1960s. As a result, the New York realized that it had to become more robust financially and also aggressive with how its image was set to appear in media throughout the world.

Filmmakers, for example, were encouraged to bring production to the hard streets of New York during the 1970s around the time when the "I (heart) NY,"-campaign was developed and reproduced indefinitely. While the Bronx was left burning by greedy landlords and the development of "White flight" from the city, New York embraced the new buildings in its skyline with antique boats sailing in the harbor during the Bi-Centennial year of 1976. To this day, marketers are faced with the challenge of how to represent New York City so that tourists, as well as locals, will continue to be attracted to its ever-changing cultural heritage.