Artistic Value Is Not Absolute

MS. TUCKER: No, I think it changed far more – my idea of what a museum is has changed since the New Museum more than it changed in the Whitney. But when I was there, I told Jack Fowler that I did not believe in the museum as an archive, which meant that I had obviously seen museums as archives, repositories, places of scholarship and evaluation, exhibitions as the visual residue of the scholarship and evaluation. And I thought that that was putting the cart before the horse, that it was more important to put the art out, and then to evaluate it, rather than to use the art as proof of certain kinds of theories or events.
MS. TUCKER: Well, so what happened was that the museum started that way with no – I mean none of us having any experience, and very idealistic, very, you know, non-hierarchic. It’s going to be a wonderful place to work. We’ll borrow spaces. And in fact, we did do three exhibitions, and we promised to do catalogs with all the exhibitions. And we did. We offset them. And it was hot and tiny in that place. But we still managed. It became clear that the building was going to be sold. And the day that – I was sitting here in my house with the trustee, with Allen Goldring, and with the, at that time, development officer, who I subsequently fired, trying to figure out how, where, when, and what. And I got a call saying the building had been sold and we had to vacate in two months. And I said okay. And I got a call 10 minutes later saying that the New School was giving us that space that we have now on [inaudible]. I had been with Zira to see the president because Zira had thought it would be a good thing. Macani [phonetic] was retiring. I told him if they gave me 12.5 a year I could make it. Totally unrealistic…
Well, I didn’t know anything, you know? Well, I’d spend the 12.5 a year – I mean, that’s crazy. But what it meant, you see, is they give me 12.5 a year now. And it just offsets my telephone expenses and so forth, and I don’t – still don’t have any obligation to them; whereas if they funded the whole thing, look what would happen.[Marcia Tucker in conversation with Paul Cummings]

When I started the museum, I wasn’t interested in starting an alternative space. Rather, I was interested in trying to redefine what a museum could be in terms of contemporary art. When I worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art as a curator, it was clear that the contemporary area had become very complicated. In the mid-1970s there was an economic recession, and suddenly corporate sponsorship of exhibitions became a crucial factor for art institutions. This meant that contemporary art was the runt of the litter, so to speak, because, being the most controversial, it was the most difficult to fund. Moreover, as an art historian who had always worked in museums, I felt that if I were going to challenge a paradigm it needed to be the paradigm I knew best.

What defined museums as opposed to galleries or alternative exhibition spaces in that period was the collection, which struck me as highly problematic because it created a strict value system of hierarchies and judgements that I thought was inappropriate for works that had been made very recently. The second thing I saw was that as museums focused increasingly on their collections, on acquiring works and showing them, and on looking for collectors to donate or to will their coil ections to the museum, they became increasingly out of touch with what was actually happening “today.” The resources taken up by the collection expanded at the expense of contemporary, experimental kinds of programs and exhibitions. Contemporary art is always fluid and changing, and its value is contingent; it calls for a very different kind of research and scholarship than a historical approach does. I thought that the only way to build a collection of contemporary art is to change it constantly and make it potentially transient in the way that cultural critic James Clifford talks about. The premise for putting together such an unusual kind of collection was to acknowledge that artistic value is not absolute, and to make transparent the critical and historical judgements that create the collection. I assumed that if the New Museum could collect, hold something for a certain period of time, and then either sell it or trade it for another work, it would help to create a more appropriate and more challenging kind of collection. [Marcia Tucker in conversation with Martina Pachmanová]

At the New Museum she emphasized inclusive group shows with provocative titles like “ ‘Bad’ Painting” and “Bad Girls,” insisted that the museum guards be knowledgeable about the art on view and planned to de-accession the collection every decade to keep the museum young. She served as series editor of “Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art,” five anthologies of theory and criticism.
Her most notorious show, “Have You Attacked America Today?,” caused garbage cans to be thrown through the plate-glass window of the museum, which had by then moved to Broadway in SoHo. (The museum is constructing a new $35 million building on the Lower East Side, which is expected to open late next year. Until then it is sharing gallery space with the Chelsea Art Museum.)John Walsh, then director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., described Ms. Tucker in especially apt terms in a 1993 article in The New York Times: “There’s always been a social conscience in Marcia that’s impatient and results in a kind of alertness you can just read across her forehead like a Jenny Holzer sign.” [Robert Smith on Marcia Tucker

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