Institution2: Art Institutions: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Working with Contemporary Art, NIFCA & Kiasma, Helsinki, 2004.
photo : Finnish National Gallery, Central Art Archives, Pirje Mykkänen.
The demands of the entrepreneurial shift that took place in museums and artist-run centres in the 1990s and the need for greater visibility gave rise to new institutional constraints on exhibitions. Some curators — even the most “independent” — were submitted to unprecedented economic, financial and administrative imperatives and began thinking of institutions as critical entities, potentially creative, and deserving of more recognition. Similarly, at the start of the 2000s, curatorial approaches with a particular taste for ephemeral or process-driven artistic forms emerged, inspired by the conceptual practices of the 1970s and put forward by artists like Michael Asher, Daniel Buren or Hans Haacke. In using the strategies of institutional critique espoused by artists, such curatorial approaches literally entered into competition with the work exhibited, and sometimes gave the impression that a veritable effort to erase artists’ work might be in play. 

Following Charles Esche and Lene Crone Jensen’s experiments at the Rooseum in Malmo in 2003,1 1 - Nina Möntmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future,” Transversal/EIPCP (April 2007). []. Consulted January 2008. Jonas Ekeberg elucidated what had begun to be described as a new institutionalism in curatorial practices. It was a question of redefining contemporary art institutions by taking as an example those organizations2 2 - The term “institution” in this text will often revolve around the notion of the organization as a structured and functional body with precise objectives. concerned with the artworks’ “flexible, temporal and process-driven” modalities,3 3 - Jonas Ekeberg, “Introduction,” in “New Institutionalism,” Verksted No. 1 (2003): 10.  notably founded on participation in a dialogue, an event, rather than on the passive consumption associated with objects.4 4 - Claire Doherty, New Institutionalism and the Exhibition as Situation, “Protections Reader,” (Graz: Kunsthaus Graz, 2006). [, 12] The economy of this institutionalism attempts to foreground a type of production that grows out of a “deproduction,” but its main objective is programmatic. The issue for curators no longer lies in limiting themselves to the development of exhibitions by bringing together artists, but in modifying institutional structures and functions in order to help put forward the creative, which is to say the aesthetic, dimension of institutions in a critical context.5 5 - Claire Doherty, ibi., 2; “New Institutionalism,” Verksted No. 1 (2003) : 12; Art and its Institutions (London: Black Dog Publishing: 2006); Claire Doherty, “The Institution is Dead! Long Live the Institution! Contemporary Art and New Institutionalism,” Engage No. 15 (Summer 2004); Alex Farquharson, “Bureaux de change,” Frieze No. 101 (September2006). The beginning of the Palais de Tokyo with Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational” projects is a good example. 

Institution2: Art Institutions: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Working with Contemporary Art,
NIFCA & Kiasma, Helsinki, 2004.
photo : Finnish National Gallery, Central Art Archives, Pirje Mykkänen

The exhibition Institution 2: Art Institutions: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Working with Contemporary Art organized by curator Jens Hoffmann is probably one of the most emblematic cases. Presented by the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art with KIASMA in Helsinki (2004), it included a seminar and brought together artists and institutions. Its intent was to identify various institutional models in order to build up an overview of artistic institutions and their strategies signifying critical engagement. The artists produced presentations of these institutional models (for example, Superflex, Mathieu Laurette or Boris Ondreicka) that were the object of the exhibition. Hoffman is no doubt the curator most representative of new so-called “critical” practices. After having been an independent curator, he was responsible for exhibitions at the ICA in London from 2004 to 2006, and named director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. On several occasions he has evoked the fact that the exhibition models with which he was familiar didn’t suit him as they always followed the same formats (thematic, retrospective, monographic). Rather, he focused on what might be the “potential of an exhibition.”6 6 - Polly Staple, “Show and Tell: An Interview with Jens Hoffmann,” Frieze No. 83 (May 2004). His exhibition titles reveal the self-reflexivity of his practice: The Exhibition As A Work of Art (Rio de Janeiro, 2003), A Show That Will Show That A Show Is Not Only A Show (Los Angeles, 2002), When the Periphery Becomes Centre or, as well, Exhibitions of an Exhibition7 7 - He reprises Daniel Buren’s title “L’exposition d’une exposition” with a very different message since he wishes to highlight the curator (Exhibitions of an Exhibition, Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York).

Martin Creed, Work No. 227, 
The Lights Going On and Off (2000),
Ed. 3 + 1 EA, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007.
photos : permission de l’artiste | 
courtesy of the artist & Hauser & Wirth, London, UK

The interest shown in this sort of programming by major institutions is noteworthy. For example, in 2006 the Tate Research Centre issued this call for researchers: Tate Modern and the Expansion of “New Institutionalism”: New Developments in Art & Public Programming Practices. The call suggested candidates might explore the “key role” of the Tate Modern in the “impact of new institutional practices on the creation of art, the development of audiences and the structure of the art museum as an institutional and discursive space.” The project intended to explore “the extent to which  the Tate Modern, with its high national and international profile, has influenced the wider development of ‘new institutional’ values’.”8 8 - Analyzing the social, political, economic and aesthetic implications of these “new programming strategies” was the central focus.

In a renewed institutionalism that seeks to bring together modalities of perceiving artworks and institutional values, the participating institution takes part in curatorial practice more than ever. This tacitly gives curators another agenda — that of highlighting it. In light of this it is interesting to note that the Tate was the first large museum institution to mount a show in which one saw nothing but its walls – Work No. 227 The Lights Going On and Off (2000), by Martin Creed, displays a large empty room in which the lights simply go on and off. 

One might ask, from a formal point of view, if the exhibitions that best serve this institutionalism are not those exhibiting the least work, even those displaying none at all.9 9 - This is how Jens Hoffmann develops some artistic works. On his advice, his friend Tino Sehgal began to engage with museums and galleries.

VIDES, Une Rétrospective,
Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris, 2009.
photo : Mathias Dubos, permission | courtesy 
Musée National d’Art Moderne / 
Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris
L’exposition Continue,
cneai, Chatou, 2010.
photos : Mathieu Copeland

The question becomes pointed with the 2009 exhibition Vides. Une rétrospective held at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Berne Kunsthalle, which diverted official readings by the artists — sometimes with their involvement — by re-exhibiting works developed for specific spaces like empty rooms. For one of the “independent” curators of this exhibition, Mathieu Copeland, this play is transmitted by an invisibility of the work that may occasionally border on an occultation of the artists’ efforts. While he does not claim to adhere to the new institutionalism, Copeland is presented as a curator seeking to “subvert the traditional role of exhibitions” and “renew our perceptions,”10 10 - Presentation at Frac Lorraine, France. or as a creator of exhibitions that “renegotiate the relationship between viewers and works, and that of works to the spaces meant to make them visible.”11 11 - Marie Cozette, Une exposition (Du) sensible, June 11 – September 19, 2010. Press release, Synagogue de Delme. Thus he adopts practices in which the work is scarcely perceptible. In A Spoken Word Exhibition, Une Exposition Parlée (2009) the works had to be read by the staff of the Baltic Art Centre in Newcastle Upon Tyne.12 12 - January 16 through March 15, 2009 with Vito Acconci, Fia Backström, Robert Barry, James Lee Byars, Nick Currie (aka Momus), Douglas Coupland, Karl Holmqvist, Maurizio Nannucci, Yoko Ono, Mai-Thu Perret, Emilio Prini, Tomas Vanek, Tris Vonna-Michell, Lawrence Weiner, and Ian Wilson. They were only available on demand and would “initiate an exchange between visitors and BALTIC staff.”13 13 -  The exhibition was meant to be similar in nature to the works of which it was made up, i.e. made of words. It was in his collaboration with Claude Rutault that the issue became even more explicit, notably with the exhibition The Title As The Curator’s Art Piece14 14 - This is one of artist Stefan Brüggemann’s Show Titles, which he suggests to curators.  presented at the Blow de la Barra Gallery in London, and again at the CNEAI in Chatou with L’exposition continue (écho), in 2010. In this last case, Rutault repainted works by some fifteen artists in the same colour as the wall (white or black). Here, thanks to a reinterpretation of protocol, the definitions/methods chosen by the curator allowed for the works to be literally erased for the exhibition. If these practices have the merit of causing one to think about the nature and limits of the exhibition, they also institutionalize a new kind of negotiation with artists. 

A Spoken Word Exhibition,
Tranzit/Display, Prague, 2008.
photo : Mathieu Copeland

With this new institutionalism, curators must reveal the institution, making it visible, sometimes at the expense of artists, of whom only the names remain apparent. Absorbing the institutional critique developed from 1970 to 1990 in order to articulate an institutional self-critique seems the curatorial order of the day from now on.15 15 - Alex Farquharson “Bureau de change,” Frieze No. 101 (September 2006), and Sandy Tallant, “Experiments in Integrated Programming,” Tate Papers No. 11 (Spring 2009). [] If institutions wish to become critical enterprises, curators are their natural emissaries. Hoffman, while admitting he learned a lot about conceptual art in order to put together exhibitions, recognizes: “On the one hand, we encounter curators who deploy models derived from both the founding and subsequent interventions of Institutional Critique; and on the other, we find curators attempting to question and dismantle the structure and assumptions of both ­exhibitions and institutions themselves using strategies derived from 1960s and 1970s Conceptual Art.”16 16 - Jens Hoffmann, “The Curatorialization of Institutional Critique,” in John C. Welchman ed., Institutional Critique and After (Zurich: Jpr|Ringier, 2006), 324. Art and Language artists Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden today note with bitterness that institutions have found media and discursive qualities in conceptual art that are favourable to presenting another image of themselves.17 17 - Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison, and Mel Ramsden, “Un lieu de travail,” Museum International No. 235 (September 2007): 35 Jonas Ekeberg admits that the new institutionalism of these “creative” ­institutions is presently giving form to today’s art, that they even “contest the role of the artist as the ‘driving force’ of the art scene.”18 18 - Jonas Ekeberg, “Introduction,” op. cit. But if one may seriously doubt such vague desires to critique the institution — are these words not antagonistic? — this yen to find the critical capacity for judging itself surely masks a need to develop some kind of branding. The best strategy thus seems to reduce the visibility of artists and artwork in order to better display the qualities of the organization and the structure housing them. 

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

Martin Creed, Nathalie Desmet
This article also appears in the issue 72 - Curators

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