New York, October 26, 2008
For the past two Sundays, I have positioned my collapsible HOMU booth next to the New Museum's entrance on the Bowery and given museum visitors and strangers the opportunity to engage in a one-on-one session with me.
I don't know if you are aware of the fact that only half a block away from the New Museum stands the Bowery Mission, which has provided shelter, food, and spiritual guidance to the needy since 1879. The New Museum was created almost a hundred years later by a young curator who had just lost her job at the Whitney Museum due to unfavorable press reviews that criticized her radical agenda: Marcia Tucker. The New Museum was going to be a place to "show new and radical art in a new and radical way."
Last Sunday, I realized that both the Bowery Mission and the New Museum are currently running short of their promise. A conversation with a homeless man revealed that despite the fact that he had just come from the Mission, he was still at a loss for answers about his destitute life and in need of counseling, which he tried to find at my booth. I also spoke to tourists and art aficionados, many of whom expressed their lack of enthusiasm about the newly reopened New Museum. I did not have a ready answer for the homeless man but have since written a letter to him in which I pointed out that the teachings of his church did not seem to have helped him make a significant change in his life and urged him to take his cue from Marcia Tucker instead: "Act first, think later -- that way you have something to think about." As to the visitors of the New Museum I spoke to, I am sorry to tell you that they by and large agreed with me that the New Museum has lost its radical edge and become just another contemporary art museum.
Here is how Marcia Tucker described her role as the director of the New Museum, a position she held for 22 years, from 1977 to 1999: "My job has been to rattle the institutional cage on a regular basis by asking questions that will make everyone else's eyes roll up into their heads. How does the museum replicate and perpetuate class systems? Why do we do exhibitions, anyhow? What is a work of art?"
Please forgive me if I conclude that the New Museum on the Bowery has failed to uphold Marcia Tucker's legacy of radicalism (the current mid-career retrospective of society portraitist Elizabeth Peyton proves my point). The New Museum is certainly no longer the explosive, challenging institution I remember from the 90's. I would even go as far as saying that the New Museum of 2008 has begun to resemble the Whitney Museum of the mid 1970's, which Marcia Tucker compared to "a cutthroat Fortune 500 company."
Maybe it is time for a young curator such as you to break away from the newly conservative New Museum and give New York City the independent, radical art museum it deserves.
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