Conversations, Engadin Art Talks and Art Basel: Museum of the Future

Shannon Finnegan, “Do you want us here or not (MMK)”, 2021, photo: Axel Schneider. As part of the exhibition “Crip Time” at the MUSEUM für Moderne Kunst (MMK). Courtesy MMK.
Shannon Finnegan, “Do you want us here or not (MMK)”, 2021, photo: Axel Schneider. As part of the exhibition “Crip Time” at the MUSEUM für Moderne Kunst (MMK). Courtesy MMK.

This conversation, in collaboration between Art Basel and Engadin Art Talks (EAT), featured four museums representatives talking about the future of the museum and it took place in September during Art Basel, in Basel. The participants were Maria Balshaw, Director, Tate, London / Chris Dercon, President, Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris / Susanne Pfeffer, Director, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt / and Storm Janse van Rensburg, Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs, Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town / moderated by Jane Morris, Editor-at-large, The Art Newspaper and Cultureshock, London. 

But the future is now. Although the emphasis of this talk was on the future of museums, the challenges ahead and their ability to tackle them—including sustainability and relevance—it brought forth many thoughts and conclusions about pandemic times and the present. Janse van Rensburg commented that “the future is not right now the most productive place”, adding that the focus should be on the present, where the urgencies reside. At least for them in Cape Town, where 90% of Zeitz MOCAA’s audience hasn’t returned post-pandemic yet (at the time of the talk). Understandably, he shared his shock at facing an empty museum but that it made them think deeper about responsibility and responsiveness, especially towards their local community. Balshaw went a step further back in time saying that “sometimes it’s useful not to be only looking at the future but to really learn from the past because that challenge is as old as the collecting of art itself. When you look back at the five hundreds plus years in Tate Britain’s collection, I can tell you most of the early works were either of slightly horrible people or given by slightly horrible people. Most of the great commissioning of art down the centuries has come from the powerful”. 

Dercon championed public museums, by saying that they are the only ones obliged to think long term due their contractual relationship with the government. For his argument, he drew from the book published by collector, publisher of Ink Tree Editions, and one of the initiators of Engadin Art Talks, Cristina Belcher, about private museums. In that collection of interviews, Dercon found that private museums couldn’t answer the question of the future for their museum. (Interestingly he also mentioned that according to his experience, expansion is something a museum should think about only after answering every other question and exploring every other option).

Public Money / Private Money. Dercon also highlighted the difficulties to find the right sponsor or board member, that they might come with problems, mentioning that they had just rejected a private sponsor. However, Balshaw and Pfeffer were more reserved on museums being entirely dependent on their government. For one, governments change says Pfeffer, but also, it’s healthier for an organisation to find creative ways of generating their own income in order to keep their independence, “it’s naive to think that governments don’t meddle” said Balshaw. But independence doesn’t mean isolation, Balshaw says that she’s ok with being in a state of discussion (say, if between stakeholders) even if it means being more criticised as a result, “because you can’t pretend that the museum is somewhat separate from the world”. 

“Museums don’t really change unless there’s a pandemic or there are people picketing outside of your institution” said Janse van Rensburg, echoing the sentiment that museums have been considering issues of accessibility, environment, and inclusivity for years, but it’s only the pandemic that gave everyone the push to do something concrete. Balshaw also emphasised the difficulties to change the status quo when museums are public and dependent of higher structures, but also highlighted the possibilities museums have to rethink themselves in the present. She used the exemple of First Site museum in the UK, who won best museum of the year UK 2021, notably for hosting a food bank, creating activity packs featuring artists (that were downloaded by over 92,000 households), and organising a nationwide movement encouraging people to exhibit their art in their windows. For Tate, Balshaw mentioned that while during pre-pandemic they had welcomed 8.2 million visitors, they only had 600,000 during 12 months of pandemic, as the various institutions of Tate were opened for 2,5 months only. Unforeseen by her financial committee, the severity of the situation resulted in 59 millions pounds losses for Tate.

But again, seeing the positives, all speakers agreed to a certain degree proportional to the size of their institution—I suspect because the bigger and the older the institution, the more it’s set in its ways yet the more it has to change—that they learned some incredibly valuable things about who museums can be for and how they should do their business. For Dercon—who admits being lucky as the French government has been very supportive with its public museums, “I am an utter believer in the state”—said that the pandemic brought them the space to do better research and to be more selective. Slowing down, allowed them to do things that they couldn’t have done before in terms of exhibitions (he exemplified with the nation-wide Arts of Islam exhibitions currently on-going in a series of French museums on the islamic art heritage of France, an exhibition he says couldn’t have happened prior, essentially because of the heavy research it seems). It also made them think about durational experiences and comfort for visitors, places such as Versailles, Louvre, and Pompidou museums being forced to turn their care towards their local audience since tourists disapeared.

Deceleration. Pfeffer is also appreciative of slowing things down, saying that time should be related to the human body and the living together in society, and not to capitalistic thinking. At the MMK, they implemented longer exhibition times, with only two shows per year, which gives the opportunity for visitors to come back if they want to deepen their relationship with the material. Balshaw also spoke about giving people time to enjoy exhibitions longer, which Morris noted meant fewer people in museums. But Balshaw insisted that perhaps it was time to not focus as much on visitors numbers, that qualitative measures can be measured, for instance in terms of educating young people, engagement, enjoyment, the sense of connection to society, and well-being, such as the emotional impact of a museum Sunday visit for families.

It may be as well not to focus only on the numbers of visitors, since we are responsible for the highest energy consumption in museums. Everyone agreed that the pandemic made environmental issues more pressing, and that museums can’t pretend it doesn’t concern them. “Of course I don’t want to stop visitors to a museum because we are for the public benefit, but the idea that you can define the best museum by the most people coming, yes, I do want to challenge that” said Balshaw. “Exhibitionas are a dirty business” said Dercon, admiting that they are looking for solutions. Janse van Rensburg mentioned that their building already integrated environmental concerns, since Zeitz MOCAA was an upcycled building equiped with a seawater cooling system. The advantages of being a younger museum, clearly.

Most of the speakers seemed to minimise the digital aspect of things, although they mentioned it as a work tool to organise exhibitions without traveling, for instance. Dercon even encouraged a form of “digital sobriety” justifying it by the fact that according to his experience, digital material doesn’t create more physical visitors, (just like more money into their infrastructures doesn’t attract a different audience than the usual museum-goers). Balshaw also stressed that they realised not everyone had access to the Internet. Speakers did mentioned some initiatives, on Tik Tok for instance, but all in all it didn’t seem to be a question they had explored at its fullest potential.

On inclusivity, an issue raised by Morris, Balshaw talked of the importance of acknowledging the failure to have an impact, that change has to happen in the programme, staff, and collections first and then it will change who comes to the museum. She mentioned Tate’s effort to widen their talent pool and attract younger professionals. Having said that, this issue seemed less relevant for the very locals MMK or Zeitz MOCAA, the latter with programmes more niche than the others, showing art from South Africa and its diaspora, which naturally attracts local staff and audiences.

Museum’s place in society. Janse van Rensburg also mentioned that despite the challenges inherent to the South African’s environment, including issues of access, and that although a museum can’t change societal issues at their core, it can be part of a conversation and it has a responsibility to activate debates. What is the task of a museum? Pfeffer mentions that one of the main answers to this is that “the museum is always the place of thinking differently, and this is why I think we all love art”.

Overall it was a candid talk that offered an impression of what these particular institutions are going through, with some facts, limitations, and a few hopes.
For the full talk, go here.

Art critic and writer.

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