From motorcycles to 3,5 million pieces of art

A collaborative post from Marja Salaspuro*, Amsterdam and Sergio Davila, Amsterdam.

Can classical conservative museum structure keep its historically layered architecture, rooms, collections and objects – and still attract the interest of the modern visitors, mainstream tourists and experience seeking travelers? A philosophical reconsideration around purpose of the museums at our era and the architect’s role as a curator are linked to architect Rem Koolhaas’ plan for the next expansion of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Politics and economics are essential forces influencing in Museum architecture, also to the extent of shaping what kind of ‘art’ will be displayed. Every redevelopment project adds a layer on top of the history whether it will be rebranding process of a city through Guggenheim franchising (such as in Bilbao) or creating structures enabling mass tourism experiences such as in Louvre or in MoMA.

 Cue at the MOMA

Architecture as curatorial strategy

The field of architecture is not only defining human shelters anymore, architecture is about understanding culture, history, and even understanding future scenarios. The dematerialization of architecture is a fact, besides the virtual tools to experience a space, architecture, as in design is a field that is exploring more its faculty to define strategies, processes, models; and it is defining topology with human relationships instead of steel and concrete. Mr. Koolhaas expressed his interest in explore the architect’s role in designing a curatorial strategy. As it is seen among commissions and competitions, leading international architecture offices have established their own research think thanks’ analyzing historical links behind museum structures. For example Rem Koolhaas presented his own AMO think thank in a lecture as a part of Holland Festival programme for the fully booked Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Honestly, the lecture was very inspiring and gave us a better perspective about the museums of our time.

Motorcycles and copy-pasting classics

From the economic point of view art can be defined as a luxury commodity, ‘an experience’ tied to the ‘judgments’ of the institutional and commercial art establishment. Following that logic, museum is the place where mass audiences ‘experience’ the greatest ‘luxury commodities’, those that patrons or experts of the nations have been collecting to be remembered by next generations.

The museum architecture defines physical structure for the ‘art experience’ whether it will be white walls made for paintings, black rooms for video projectors or for example a huge entrance hall such as in Tate Modern which allows to perceive art as a spatial experience.  

In some leading museums, the experience with the luxury product is separated from the exhibition. Stylish bookshops, unique restaurants and impressive buildings are sometimes enough for satisfying the hunger for an aesthetic experience. Guggenheim for example has built its success by franchising an architectural monuments offering leisure activities linked to the middle class vacation (like in Bilbao or in Las Vegas).

The architectural strategy for combining new and old was, for example in Guggenheim Las Vegas something different than in more classical art institutions. Architect Rem Koolhaas covered 125-by-70-foot ceiling of the Guggenheim Las Vegas with a likeness of Michelangelo’s Sixtine Chapel’s while the exhibition itself showed 130 motorcycles from the late 19th century to the present (originally displayed at the Guggenheim in New York in 1998). The theme of copy-pasting is linked to be apart of the architectural theme recycling, just like similar recycling processes are ongoing in the fields of music, film and design. 

Intellectual approach to Hermitage St. Petersburg

In St Petersburg, the historical plaza of revolution in front of the Hermitage Museum already serves as an ice-skating ring, as the our current era encourages leisure activities. Just to be clear, this blog post is not about the battle of taste and/or quality, but rather introduce the role of an architect as curator of the exhibition spaces, and therefore influential creator of the art experience.

For example the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has 1200 rooms. This spatial fact will influence the visiting experience. The next expansion will add to the complex 800 rooms more. Rem Koolhaas has done a plan for this expansion based on to idea to combine all historical layers without falling to a total Hermi-kitsch.

With the historical layers, architectural plan is representing three drastic societal changes in Russia from tsarism to communism and most recently towards commercialism. Just like the Russian society, one of the worlds’ biggest art collections and its show room, the Hermitage, has been put together by adding new layers on top of each other expressing the values of the ruling power.

The first structure followed aesthetics of Versailles Palace and praised the enlightened monarchs and the taste of majestic Catherine the Great. After revolution the Winter Palace and the surrounding buildings were declared as the state museum. During the Second World War some rooms have even been serving temporarily as hospital for wounded soldiers.

The next contemporary layer which Rem Koolhaas AMO think thanks has been working on includes inspirational, one might say curatorial and philosophical approach: ”The task at hand is to find those changes that will allow the Hermitage in a discreet way, without being too manifest, to function better.” AMO 2008

We like the idea. The architect himself concentrates on customer experience and structures help in assembling huge crowds, keeping the connection to the history of Russia. For the audience the experience can be customized, some rooms can be left for motorcycles. After wondering through endless halls with priceless art from Paleolithic to contemporary, there might also be possibility for ice-skating in front of the Winter Palace. I guess this is our time.

*Marja Salaspuro is MA in Arts Management student from Sibelius Academy Helsinki and she is devoted to follow inspiring approaches evolving in contemporary debates around museum and art as institutions.

 

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9 Responses to “From motorcycles to 3,5 million pieces of art”


  1. 1 Po July 6, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Hi

    An interesting post. I just want to make a small addition, a detour so to speak, from your main subject:

    Yes, art is often treated as a “luxury commodity” from the economic point of view, but it can absolutely not be defined as such. The situation is quite opposite:

    The economy of many societies are run more on information and creativity (than, for example, raw materials) and artists and art is an important part of that economy; A high presence of cultural activities makes an area more attractive and heighten its value; A small size art hall can be run on the same budget as a youth center, and still produce as much activities for youths; Artists and art generate work for other professions; etc etc etc.

    Of course art does not have to be legitimized in economical terms, but art and artistic practice do generate money in many ways, even though it might not allways be its purpose. 

    Getting back to your post: What is your persepctive on Koolhaas and OMA, do you think they through the new Hermitage refines the art experience viewed as a luxury commodity, or opposes it?
    All the best
    Po

  2. 2 sergiodavila July 12, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Dear Po,

    Thank you for your comment! I would say that Mr. Koolhaas expertise is
    to concentrate on museum architecture. Therefore AMO and Rem Koolhaas
    are confronted with museum structure which in the case of the
    Hermitage means reshaping buildings that have become painful to visit,
    because collections has expanded to fill up thousands of rooms.

    To answer your question and commenting your view:
    I do agree with your opinion that arts and artists as part of the
    creative industries are playing important part of economy. Admitting
    this does not go against art as luxury commodity, especially as the
    most famous museums do not operate on budget of a youth center,
    neither they display art with prices affordable to normal customers.
    Just to mention few annual museum budgets from year 2001: MoMA $ 192
    M, Tate $ 137 M, Louvre $ 110 M and Guugenheim NY $ 35 M.

    Art displayed in most famous museums are luxury commodities, a closer
    approach to museum as institution will explain why.

    Museum are cultural authorities established to maintain values, and
    its purpose is the physical containment and selection of objects, and
    therefore it is inevitable that the museum becomes the ultimate
    safeguard of cultural values and also the dictator of taste.

    AMO and Rem Koolhaas has approached the subject in the following way:
    “A Museum is an ambiguous treasure house of collections: part is on
    view and accessible, an often large part is hidden in storage. This
    division inevitable corresponds to editing: in or out? The essential
    museum experience is based on selection (by unseen hands, for
    unarticulated criteria, from unknowable quantities). The museum is the
    only institution that systematically freezes its assets away.”
    (Content 2004, 197)

    In Hermitage, the art collection include for example Leonardo Da
    Vinci’s Madonna with a Flower. The total collection in figures is
    600.000 pieces of western paintings, 300.000 pieces of Russian
    culture, 500.000 pieces of archeology and 180.00 pieces oriental
    collections just to give some idea how enormous collection of luxury
    commodities it is.

    When thinking about what unique the Hermitage has to offer for its
    audience: “Mostly through economic conditions, the Hermitage did not
    participate in the late twentieth century museum boom. Where other
    cultural institutions became economically vulnerable, the Hermitage
    managed to avoid turning itself into a commercial enterprise. Where
    other museums became overstretched and bloated by additional programs
    that do not directly contribute to the core role of the museum – to
    show art –the Hermitage retained its original purpose. Therefore the
    Hermitage can focus on its strengths – its virtually priceless and
    limitless collection, its scale and its non-commercial character. With
    this history it can be the first major museum to proclaim a renewed
    focus on art.” (Content 2004, 406)

    With the next expansion of the Hermitage Rem Koolhaas will be in
    charge of designing a curatorial strategy respecting layers expressing
    Russian historical and social circumstances. For your question my answer is yes, I do think that Rem Koolhaas next expansion of the Hermitage supports art experience as going to see luxury commodities –
    all pieces that lasted, gained value over time and eventually earned
    their places in the collection, selected with the taste of the Russian
    elite and in our era showing also contemporary American art (which has
    gained market success).

    Marja

  3. 3 Martijn van Berkum July 13, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Dear Marja and Sergio,

    Interesting to read this discussion in relation to the article. The latter forms indeed a very interesting case-study, the former a nice way to question and elaborate the issues you bring forward.

    Architects developing curatorial strategies is fascinating and your story about Koolhaas and the Hermitage are super interesting to read. I guess they also give an outlook to the future of such ‘super museums’. However, I got stuck on one or two assumptions/arguments in your comment above. One, the assumption that museums are the ultimate safeguards for culture and value; two, your point that ‘super museums’ subscribe to the notion of art as a luxury commodity.

    I think the combination of these two points is not a cocktail I would particularly fancy, since it implies that our culture and values are measured by luxury commodities. A more interesting way to play out these two arguments could be to argue that museums seize to safeguard culture and values when they commodify art. You could think about the dematerialization of art, a wonderful book by Lucy Lippard that describes how the conceptualizing of art causes the art object to become subordinate to the idea. Or think about relational aesthetics, which is the theory that describes art as a relational space where we discuss over culture and values, rather than an object that contains only one reading: that of the artists intention. The relational trend has inspired many art institutions to become more open for debate and social experiments (Palais de Tokyo being the leader of the pack of course).

    Therefore, I think we should constantly challenge the museum. Not only its attitude towards art and culture (whether to commodify, dematerialize or ‘relationalize’), but also its authority. In particular when these super museums become increasingly commercial attractions, we desperately need the kind of artistic activities that Po is referring to. Indeed because they subscribe to different kinds of economic values and manage to reconcile culture, art and economy in ways that benefits all three.

    So, I don’t mean to criticize your points really, but rather to propose a critical attitude towards the postmodern art museums.

    very best
    martijn

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