Home Art Modern Art The Museum of Modern Art: Challenging ‘Traditional’ Institutional Precedents

The Museum of Modern Art: Challenging ‘Traditional’ Institutional Precedents


Institutions, and other artistically motivated historical and cultural preservation groups, have historically been criticized by the academic and culturally cognizant populous which fund them. The inclusion of sociopolitical themes into the exhibition space has roused controversy throughout the art world. Exhibition spaces are perceived as “the public face of the museum, being the primary attraction for visitors and the central object of attention in the press and in the academy“ (Altshuler). They are regarded with immense respect and regard, as they chronicle humanities achievements in the arts. Through our exposure to these institutions and the analysis that surround it, we find that the definition of what is considered an institution and what it means to collect modern pieces as an institution varies abstractly with traditional values. The Museum of Modern Art’s replacement and inclusion of Muslim-majority artists brings this argument into prominence, as there is debate over the institutions values in this time of turmoil. In analyzing what it means to be an institution in relation to this situation, we will look at the implications of this on the moral, integrity, and dialogue of the institution to come to reason with the progressive stance as it relates to the museums values.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City stands as both a historian and an exhibition of culture. Holding a majority of modern and contemporary collections, it stands defiantly as one of New York’s best examples of a respected institution of modern art. The museum states it’s mission as to “seek to create a dialogue between the established and the experimental, the past and the present, in an environment that is responsive to the issues of modern and contemporary art, while being accessible to a public that ranges from scholars to young children.” As a class we were exposed to these values, through participating in dialogue and discussion, to come to our own conclusions about the institution and it’s sentiments as it related to its mission statement. Yet before exploring these, one must turn their attention to public perception. The juxtaposition of an institution housing modern and contemporary pieces while still being an institution is a relatively new concept. Bruce Altshuler, in his analysis of institutions, finds that museums of this nature are rarely perceived as traditional. He writes, “the creation of museums devoted to “modern” and “contemporary” art, the focus on the new, was found to conflict with the traditional museum goal of preserving its holdings in perpetuity” (Altshuler). He finds a stark conflict with the collection of modern works coming to the conclusion that MoMa, and other institutions like it, are unique and necessary in that they have the ability to break from traditional expectations. This being said, the radical decision in February of 2017 to protest the President’s imposed travel ban by replacing masterpieces with works composed by artists hailing from majority-Muslim nations, comes with great controversy. Those with a traditional framework challenged it, the latter welcoming it with open arms. In analyzing what it means to be an institution in relation to this situation, one must first develop an understanding of MoMa’s values in the field of morality.

Morally, The Museum of Modern Art stands with confidence as they are one of the premiere modern institutions in the United States. Altshuler characterizes modern institutions as, “contemporary works valorized by entering museum collections—and, to a lesser extent, by being exhibited in museums—are in a sense projected into the future, identified as playing a role in an anticipated history” (Altshuler). In dismantling the ideals of the traditional museum, in turn giving rise to the modern concept of the survey museum, Duncan almost predicts the trends that have taken control of the 5th floor gallery at the Museum of Modern Art. “The conversion of royal and princely art collections into public museums should be seen as part of a larger historical process. The new institution – the public art museum – would inherit some of the basic ceremonial functions of the princely collection from which it arose. But under the pressure of new historical forces, those ceremonial functions would be reshaped and redefined, and eventually the public art museum would develop its own distinctive forms and its own characteristic look (Duncan 452).” Combining Altshuler’s sentiments with Duncan’s, one comes to the conclusion that morally, MoMa is acting as they should. Pressures of new historical forces have reshaped the museum which in a sense project into the future. The addition of these pieces therefore don’t infringe on their morals but promote and exemplify them in the context of contemporary society.

In allowing politically motivated pieces to take precedence over the masters has left the art community questioning whether or not MoMa has infringed on the integrity of its collection by altering its permanent collection. Additionally, questions of integrity have been raised in that the decision to replace has implications in terms of narrowing ones audience. To respond to both of these concerns, one must go back to Altshuler’s interpretation of the modern museum as it relates to MoMa. “The metaphor chosen by Alfred Barr, Jr., in 1933 to describe the MoMA collection in this respect was that of a torpedo moving in time, pass-ing through art history to capture the new and jettison the old within some-thing like a hundred-year time frame” (Altshuler 6). This idea of acquiring, retaining, and then recycling, in a modern institutional space, is one of rationality. The modern institution does not conform to the same expectations of the traditional as it is relatively new. They, therefore, are the progressive rendition of the traditional institution where art is not just preserved but utilized. MoMa wishes to challenge social ideals through the only way they know how – art. The inclusion of new pieces was inevitable, the inclusion of politically influencing pieces was progressive. Their integrity therefore goes largely uninterrupted in that they are achieving their stated goals through a more progressive manner. The political stand it took was not necessarily out of defiance of government but out of education. They wished to educate their populous on the importance and significance of international artists as it relates to our culture. In terms of audience outreach, one can come to reason with the idea that these pieces have the power to limit the audience but in reality they expand it. The pieces create a discussion as well as a dialogue which undermine political imposition and open the door to political influence. The viewer is educated, and at the most exposed, to these ideals through the museum being left to come to their own conclusions. MoMA is attempting to provide a universal perspective, with the end result not being a political takeaway but one of artistic merit.

While the moral and integrity implications have proven to be preserved and in the safe control of the institution, criticism of the decision then turns back to the crux of the mission statement: dialogue. Rika Burnham in her analysis of institutional teaching finds that, “the opportunities museum educators have to teach and learn are granted to us by the collections of objects in the care of the institutions in which we work, and by the students and visitors we invite to consider these objects.” Here encouraging a dialogue is a joint effort between museum educators and museum collections. Through our class’s exposure to these methods at MoMa, The Studio Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, and The Grey Gallery dialogue and discussion are undoubtedly an integral part of understanding the pieces in relation to the museums values. They promote a deeper analysis and understanding of the piece under analysis opening our minds to several interpretations. It is the dialogue and discussion, not the actions of museums, that achieve social and political influence. The museum is simply re-arranging works to facilitate this while allowing the audience to create their own dialogue. Therefore, the actions of the museum can be perceived as creating a deeper dialogue and discussion rather than trying to impose their own.

Personally, walking through the fifth floor gallery invoked feelings of excitement and euphoria. Automated glass doors gave way to towering ceilings, a smell of antiquity radiating from the art which adorns its walls. Among the plethora of modern pieces, seven distinct canvases spoke out. The new pieces hung resolutely with little to no indifference aside from the crowds which it distracted and the placard identifying it. Zaha Hadid’s masterpiece “The Peak Project, Hong Kong, China” (1991) stood parallel to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1889) and adjacent to Henry Rousseau’s “The Dream” (1910), yet Hadid’s piece garnered the most attention out of all. There is clearly admiration for the museum’s effort both morally and integrally. Piercing the silence is a clamor of dialogue. Curious children lead the questions, academic adults leading the answers, the museum stands in resolute silence. The Museum of Modern Art is not held to the same standards as a traditional institution. The notion of tradition as it relates to integrity is one of concern as it applies to the traditional institution, but the acceptance of the modern institution gives this concern away. They have the responsibility to bring these issues to the forefront, the sociopolitical backlash of the act being more of necessity than novelty. As it related to inclusion, the space is open to everyone. As it relates to influence, the decision only affects those participating in dialogue and discussion. Overall, The Museum of Modern Art has achieved what it has set out to do – create a dialogue through art. While its response to political indifference can be viewed as troublesome, it is in reality a natural progression of the modern institution.


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