Since reopening in 2007, the New Museum has raised a lot of hackles. At every level of the art world, people express chagrin and frustration with the place. Complaints always start with the terrible exhibition spaces in the new building and usually proceed from there to the idea that the museum is playing a zero-sum game of Art World Survivor: trying to outthink, outplay, and outdo other local museums. The common conception is that the institution is more about strategy than vision. I love the place, but there are problems. Here, then, is a list of things the New Museum might do to get people off their case, and back on their side.
1. Architecture is destiny. The exhibition spaces in the new Bowery building are claustrophobic, eye-numbing, and simply not good for art. Essentially, they’re three Chelsea galleries stacked on top of one another. Why anyone would want to build spaces like these outside Chelsea is beyond me. The good news is that the New Museum had the foresight to buy the six-story, 47,000-square-foot loft building next door. Things could improve if this building were opened for shows as soon as possible.
2. Let the curators go. I don’t mean fire them. Laura Hoptman and Massimiliano Gioni, both at New Museum, are two of the best around. But there is a big problem: Most institutions allow curators to oversee their own group shows, but director Lisa Phillips has sometimes wrongheadedly asked her otherwise excellent staff to curate group shows together. As a result, “Unmonumental” and “Younger Than Jesus,” while containing good work, ended up as confused, watered-down hodgepodges that reflected compromise and consensus rather than vision. Phillips should scrap this terrible idea and give each of her capable curators a floor of their own and let them rip.
3. Enough with the hipness. The New Museum, to its credit, has shown deserving but underknown artists over the last two years. Jeremy Deller’s one-floor Iraq War project from last year was remarkable. However, coming on the heels of the building-filling Urs Fischer exhibition, the current A-list show “Skin Fruit” throws fuels onto the public conception that the New Museum is too interested in success as an end in itself. Many cite the constellation of shows by the art stars Tomma Abts, Elizabeth Peyton, and Fischer as proof that the New Museum is too enamored of money and success. It doesn’t help that last two artists (as well as Deller) show with one first-tier New York gallery, and the other with a mega-gallery as well.
There are extenuating circumstances that people never factor in when attacking the New Museum. Abts was not represented by any New York gallery when her New Museum show was announced. Moreover, the New Museum is not alone in the terrible habit of fixating on certain galleries. MoMA has had two shows in a row of Marian Goodman artists, and no one said a word. The Whitney museum has had a spell of three Marian Goodman artists! Again, no one complained. The Guggenheim’s last show was of a Marian Goodman artist! Before that they showed three artists from the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. DIA showed over a half-dozen Goodman artists before shutting down its 22nd Street space. I love the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. But what is it with these curators?
4. Don’t hate the Internet. To my old friend of more than 30 years, whom I met when I was a long-distance truck driver and he was curating a show at P.S. 1, and who served as the longtime director of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and now works the chief curator of the New Museum: Richard Flood, in a lecture in Portland Oregon, you reportedly said, “I just found out about blogs three months ago.” You then lumped all blogs together, saying, “They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them.” You then went on to tear my Facebook page a new one, calling it “terrifying” and asking, “How did we get to Benito Mussolini’s website?” Richard, two things: You need to learn about the Internet. Also, Facebook is not a blog. The people who post on Facebook do so under their own name; they put themselves at risk when they say anything negative about the New Museum or about me.