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Can Living Artists Have Works in a Museum?

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Ask most people what comes to mind when they think of a museum. Many people will point to the almost reverent silent atmosphere, the experience of standing in front of great works of art while quietly contemplating their meanings. Museums are seen as almost palatial like containers founded to hold the art that reflects a culture and work no longer living. While many museum goers and art lovers wonder if living artists can have works in a museum, the answer is already here.

The Beginning

The word museum itself has Greek origins. It comes from the nine muses, mythological women that were considered the goddesses of inspiration. Philosophers attribute the earliest museums to 17th or 18th century Europe, despite documented displays of collections of objects in public squares before that. Some of these public displays included the display of war booty of ancient Rome, Medieval church treasuries and the traditional shrines of the Japanese displayed to invoke good favor.

The Great Age of Reason is when specialized collections began to pop up. These collections were specifically devoted to art alone. The most notable of these were The Capitoline in Rome, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and the Louvre in Paris.

In its infancy, the United States looked upon museums as a luxury. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that wealthy patrons of art began to copy the European model of the museum. However, it was in the United States that one of the most influential museum trends emerged, the white cube. The concept behind the white cube trend was to minimalize any visual distractions so that viewers could solely experience the art on display. Today the white walls and bare spaces barely get a nod as art lovers mill about some of the most famous museums in the country that continue to use the white cube.

Hallowed Halls

With the early museums curating and displaying the great artists of periods in history like the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo, it’s no wonder most people feel museums are for the dead. Whether they’ve walked through the Louvre or the Met, no doubt most people have felt like they are among the dead as they view the works of art. While the art world continues to evolve, many people wonder if living artists can have their work displayed in museums.

While it may seem like it’s more about what is displayed in a museum, it’s more about who decides what gets displayed. Like a business, these decisions come down to the board of museums. Simply put, it’s a group of art curators, academicians, and donors.

The museums most people are familiar with are public institutions funded by government. While donors play an important role, it’s the tax dollars of the community that keep museum doors open. In a recent example, stories in the news have shared the struggles many museums have faced since being forced to close their doors due to Covid-19.

As public institutions, museums display artwork to educate the people that go through their doors. Typically, educating visitors entails showing artwork with a history of the artists and their work during a period in art history. This is why museums are often viewed as brimming with the art of dead artists, often becoming a claim to fame for the artist after their passing. The board of museums usually chooses art they deem worthy of a spot in the museum where it can be educate visitors. While it may a significant work of art, many people are interested in seeing the works of living artists.

Enter the Living – Performance Artists

People may be surprised to know that since it opened its doors in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has displayed the work of living artists. That diverse collection has included early American modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, famed painter Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns renowned painting White Flag.Museums of modern art display the art of twentieth century artists, many of which lived in recent times. However, there are museums today that are focusing on new media to include digital art, video, and installations. These contemporary works tend to have a youthful agenda like the art found on display at the New Museum in Manhattan’s lower east side.

The Brooklyn Museum focuses on community-minded programming and as such looks to contemporary artists for its exhibits. In 2018, the museum built an entire exhibition around the color blue. Medieval sculptures stood alongside art created through video and photography. In keeping with their community-minded vision, plans were said to be in the works to host a themed event built around local club scene legend House of Yes.

Just as conceptual art of living artists has found its way into museums, performance art was accepted into the mainstream thirty years ago. While exhibited photographs and archived videos focus on documented events according to art’s history, it often contradicts the purpose of the artist, namely an alternative to object-based art. Today museums are opening up space to performance artists to stage live reenactments of earlier events in history.

During a 2010 retrospective exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, performers staged live reenactments of Marina Abramovic, the pioneer of performance art. Photographs and video documentations were displayed alongside the live performers.

Conceptual Artists – Alive and on Display

While it may sound new those not as familiar with the art world, conceptual art is not new. Dating back to the mid-1960s, conceptual art is a movement that values ideas over the formal or visual factors of art. Conceptual artists shun standard ideas of what art is. These artists assert that an artistic idea alone suffices as a work of art. Aesthetics, skill, and marketability are irrelevant. Conceptual artists are the extremists of the avant-garde movements like cubism and dada. Regardless of anyone’s personal views, conceptual artists have redefined what a work of art is to the point that it is not only accepted in the art world but sought after by collectors and museum curators alike.

Like performance artists, the work of conceptual artists is on display in museums and galleries all over the world.

British visual artist Damien Hirst is reportedly one of Britain’s richest living artists. He is one of a group of British artists that shook the art world in the late eighties and early nineties. Hirst’s career broke out when his exhibit during the 1993 Venice Biennale showcased his piece titled Mother and Child Divided, a display of a mother and her calf cut in sections and displayed in clear cases filled with formaldehyde. The artist is considered to be the ground breaker for the art scene in the United Kingdom.

Alive and well, Hirst’s work has been on display since late 2020 and will remain on display in the Newport Street Gallery until spring of 2021. While his early works of the eighties and nineties, most notably his formaldehyde series, will be on display, art lovers can see over fifty installations as well.  

Recognizing a desire to see the works of living artists, 2020 was the year that spearheaded a movement of museums making room to show up and coming photographers and conceptual artists. Christina Quarles is one such artist. The Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago exhibited Quarales work focusing on race, gender, and identity from early April until late August.

Contemporary artist Tauba Auerbach’s work, focusing on space and time and texture and symmetry, was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from late spring until early September 2020. The show was the artist’s first museum survey that showcased sixteen years of work that explored themes of language and flow.

Emerging artist Cao Fei is considered one of the most significant artists in China’s since the country’s Cultural Revolution. Fei’s work focuses on acute issues related to urban development, technology, and pop culture. Her 2013 work Haze and Fog showcased her skill at blurring reality and fantasy. Her exhibition at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art from September to December 2020 was her first major solo presentation.

While museums the world over will always exhibit the works of the great artists who are no longer alive, the diversity of today’s conceptual and performance art is recognized for the art is represents. That acceptance will continue a movement to shine light on living artists creating today, pointing to a future when the work of both living and dead artists will be displayed side by side. The museum will be a place to not only revisit the past but get a glimpse of the future.

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