Fear of Art Museums

Fear of Art Museums: Staging Controversy


Henrik Holm, Ph.D.

Curator, National Gallery of Denmark

Email: [email protected]

Britta Tøndborg, Ph.D.

Post.doc. Institute for Arts and Cultural Studies, Copenhagen University

Email:  [email protected]


Fear of Art Museums: Staging Controversy

Henrik Holm, Ph.D.

Britta Tøndborg, Ph.D.

Fearful art museums are everywhere; daring ones are harder to find.

The undertakings of Immanuel Kant to isolate art (and thereby art history and museums) from any kind of interest is under pressure. Studies of user relations to museums today conclude that museums no longer serve society. Their authoritative attitude makes them increasingly irrelevant. Nina Simon has created “The Participatory Museum” (2010) as a way to address the challenges. Prof. Donald Preziosi urges us to think art history anew (Preziosi 2009, 2012). In their book on “Hot Topics” (2010), Fiona Cameron and Lynda Kelly discuss examples of museums dealing with climate change, homosexuality, terrorism etc. as ways to become more relevant to the outside world. Through our museum experience we recognize the fear. Tradition and museums go hand in hand. Change endangers the integrity of both the professional and the institution. It puts the good relations towards sponsors, politicians, critics, and visitors at risk. But museum visitors and society is changing rapidly, and so is fine art. Museums today have to be committed to participation and collaboration, on-site, online and outside the museums. Museums have the potential to become forums’ for engagement, dialogue and debate in a network based public culture. Museums could potentially become vehicles for change. If art museums are to remain relevant and play an active part in defining society, how do we then redefine the art museum as we know it?

Copies of popular paintings - in textbooks and books, in albums and individual reproductions, on boxes of chocolates and other goods - have been introduced into everyday life in millions of copies. But the originals of the works, from which samples are drawn for reproduction and distribution in society, are kept in art museums.

This is a national treasure and, together with literature, music, theater, and cinema constitutes the cultural capital of society, symbolizes its national identity, and serves as a means of cultural exchange in international relations. Treaties in the cultural sphere usually precede political and economic normalization of relations between different states.

Moreover, museum dates are a great kind of pastime. Just imagine by attending such a place like the National Gallery of Denmark, you come across numerous Dutch women. Who knows, maybe one of them would become your wife.

The artistic values that the museum keeps, on the one hand, are bargaining chips in an international context. On the other, they accumulate the uniqueness of the national culture and are the most important national identification object, contributing to social consolidation and integration of society.

Since the art museum is the custodian of artistic values representing the national heritage, the state controls its activities to one degree or another.

But the art museum does not just manifest the principles of a legitimate art policy in society. Within the framework of this policy it legitimizes new art groups, trends, and individual artists. Thus, it elevates those who have not been to them to the rank of classics.

An art museum as an institution of recognition can be compared to a higher court - the verdict has been passed and is not subject to discussion. It not only stores artistic values, it structures them but builds a hierarchy of these values.

In our presentation we offer you a range of examples of fearful, and daring, practices in museums.


Did Anyone Say Public Art? Reflections on the curatorial staging of conflictual consensus in contemporary urban art practices

Sabine Nielsen, Copenhagen University and KØS Museum of Art in Public Spaces

[email protected]

In my presentation I first of all wish to discuss Chantal Mouffe’s notions of conflictual consensus in relation to the commissioning and subsequent museological presentation of art projects realized in public spaces. Secondly, I want to present and analyse two cases in point – namely Antony Gormley’s One and Other and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument. Thirdly, I will discuss how these controversial art projects reflect upon and contest the urban areas in which they are realized. In other words, I wish to point to the fact the art projects in question succeed in turning public urban spaces into sites of conflict and negotiation and – in continuation hereof – to discuss how these socially produced effects and affects might become more actively incorporated into experimental museum practices when presenting the art works within institutional contexts.

I will suggest that one of the major challenges for contemporary public art projects is to find ways in which to articulate recognition of the economical, social and cultural diversity characterizing the multiple public populating today’s urban spaces. Also, will argue that the task of today’s museums when presenting these projects in institutional contexts is to emphasize the controversial implications hereof and to turn these into catalysts of emotional engagement and critical debate. This kind of strategy would be predicated not on social harmony but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony. Thus, the task will be to develop a starting point where – in accordance with the reflections of Chantal Mouffe – we can start to disagree.


Carelessness or curatorial chutzpah? Controversies surrounding street art in the museum

Peter Bengtsen, PhD Candidate, Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Division of Art History and Visual Studies, Lund University.

Contact: [email protected]

My paper discusses two controversies surrounding the exhibition Art in the Streets, which was shown at the MOCA in Los Angeles April 17th – August 8th 2011. In the exhibition, MOCA brought non-institutional art into the museum, creating a show of the most prolific graffiti writers and street artists from the 1960s onward.

One focal point is the reaction of conservative American commentators to the exhibition in general and a discussion of the role of the museum as a socially responsible institution on the one hand and an active part in pushing the boundaries of our understanding of art and society through the use of controversy on the other.

Another focal point is the reactions of agents within the street art world to the removal of an artwork by the Italian artist BLU from the exhibition, which sparked debate within the street art world. The controversy provided the mural, the artist and Art in the Streets with more attention among a core audience of street art aficionados than might otherwise have been forthcoming. Whether this was a conscious strategy is an open question. However, the fact remains that it did raise the profile of the show within the street art world, and that it here sparked a debate on institutionalisation, gentrification, commercialisation and the very nature of street art, which in itself can be seen as one of the most significant outcomes of the exhibition.


Dak’Art, The Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary African Art in Dakar – an

exhibition charged with political issues.

Margareta Wallin Wictorin

Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Studies at Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden

Email: [email protected].

Dakar is situated at the western edge of Africa. It has been the site for a Lebou settlement, a centre for slave trade, and during colonial time capital of the French Western Africa. Since Senegal’s independence in 1960 Dakar has been its capital. Léopold Sédar Senghor was the first president. (Cooper, 2009:45.) As one of the founders of the Négritude movement, he placed the arts at the centre of his attempt to create a modern nationalist identity based on traditional West African values. Twenty-five percent of the state budget was directed to the Ministry of Culture for art schools, publishing houses, theatres, museums and art exhibition. Similar ideas were implemented in other newly independent African countries (Harney, 2004:49). In 1966 the first World Festival for Black Art and Culture was organised in Dakar, and in 1992 Dakar’s first international biennial art exhibition took place. Since the middle of the 1990’s Dak’Art has focused almost uniquely on African contemporary art. (Bydler 2004:274.)I have visited the Dak’art exhibitions in 2008 and 2010 and will go there again in beginning of May 2012. The exhibited works of art have been similar to Western contemporary art in terms of technique and multimodality. But the meanings of the selected works of art are often politically sharp and questioning historical and contemporary relations on a global level. (Dak’Art 2008, Dak’Art 2010.) At NORDIK2012 I would like to discuss how political issues have been communicated through artworks shown at Dak’Art 2008, 2010 and 2012, with interpretations from a postcolonial perspective.