The Kansas City Star
Sunday, July 22, 2007
The Art of Museum Critique
By Alice Thorson
In June, just as national and international applause for the Nelson-Atkins' new Bloch Building was peaking, conceptual artist Filip Noterdaeme did the art-world equivalent of an intervention.
The Belgian-born Noterdaeme showed up unannounced and led a group of art students wearing horse-blinder headgear through the museum. The performance art was meant to dramatize their point that -- in the midst of a crescendo of accolades for the new building -- the art collection has serious deficiencies.
Titled "Don't Bloch the View," the production was part of a monthlong summer course devoted to museum critique that Noterdaeme taught at the Kansas City Art Institute.
"I've set up a forum for the students so they can ask questions," he said, "about who's making the decisions and what effect they have on what is shown, what is not shown, what is discussed and what is not discussed."
In New York, where he has lived since 1986, Noterdaeme has worked as a museum educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is a freelance lecturer at the Guggenheim Museum.
But he is gaining renown as director of the Homeless Museum, described in a January New York Times article as "an elaborate and meticulous sendup of the contemporary museum world."
Installed in Noterdaeme's Brooklyn apartment, the Homeless Museum is essentially a staging area for his critique of museums -- the decisions they make and the interests they serve.
Called "HoMu" for short, its PR director is a taxidermied coyote. The development director is Noterdaeme's partner, Daniel Isengart, who dresses in a kimono and goes by the name of Madama Butterfly.
The curatorial department is the bathroom. The collection includes objects like "Liquid Gold," a vial of water that leaked through the museum's ceiling, as well as miniature replicas of artworks in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
"HoMu seeks to subvert the increasingly impersonal, market-driven art world and expose the sellout of cultural institutions to commerce, cronyism, real estate, and star architects," Noterdaeme notes in the museum's mission statement
During his time in Kansas City, the 42-year-old artist stayed at Grand Arts contemporary art space, where his work is part of the gallery's "green" group show, "From the Fat of the Land."
His contributions include minimalist sculptures made of chicken fat displayed in a refrigerated case and other artworks relating to the Homeless Museum.
"Filip is a master of making something out of nothing," says Grand Arts artistic director Stacy Switzer.
The Art Institute gig came about after Switzer introduced Noterdaeme to the school's chairwoman of interdisciplinary studies, Julia Cole, who invited him to be a visiting artist.
Noterdaeme's ideas and strategies are part of an established artworld tradition of institutional critique dating to the early 20th-century dadaist Marcel Duchamp.
Some of the most aggressive acts of institutional critique date to the 1970s, when German-born conceptual artist Hans Haacke produced a series of works that exposed the corporate ties and financial dealings of Guggenheim Museum board members.
In her forthcoming book, Art and Today, New York cultural critic Eleanor Heartney devotes an entire chapter to the art of institutional critique, which she defines as "a strategy by which artists make a clear-eyed assessment of their place in the art world."
The syllabus for Noterdaeme's summer course at the Kansas City Art Institute is a textbook example of this strategy.
"Together," he writes, "we will seek to redefine the role museums play in our society and find out how artists can play an active role in the shaping of culture."
Although the artist and his class visited 10 local museums and visited with four museum curators and directors, the Nelson-Atkins received the most attention by far.
"I tend to target the biggies," Noterdaeme said, "because they set the tone. I'm interested in addressing the people who make the decisions that define the course of culture."
On two occasions, Noterdaeme questioned Nelson curators about the collection's omission of "the diverse and radical" expressions of the 1970s.
He also raised the issue in an open letter to the museum's director/CEO Marc Wilson, asking if "the gap was politically motivated and therefore here to stay."
In the letter, also posted to his Web site, Noterdaeme accused the museum of catering to its patrons' conservative tastes and told Wilson that to "deprive the public from engaging with works and ideas that may illuminate contemporary life and culture is also to relegate culture to pleasantries. ..."
"I find no reason to respond," Wilson said through his secretary.
"For me, the whole point is the dialogue," Noterdaeme explained. "It's not about a personal vendetta. ... It's about establishing a public forum to discuss the role and purpose of spending $200 million on the expansion, while at the same time blocking the view of art that is prescient."
The Nelson is just the latest in a long line of "biggies" to be on the receiving end of Noterdaeme's critique, which frequently takes the form of open letters.
"I have a proposition for your institution's future that you might find worth looking into," Noterdaeme wrote to Museum of Modern Art director Glenn D. Lowry in a letter dated Jan. 7.
He proposed that the museum be reinvented as "the Mall of Modern Art," by storing the art in the basement and leasing the gallery spaces to "luxury brands and restaurant chains."
"This would turn the museum into a spectacular shopping and dining experience," he explained, "a natural development for what has already been in the making in recent years."
Several weeks later Noterdaeme wrote to Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens to complain that its corporate parties, public relations schemes and product placements trivialized and desecrated the art. He suggested removing the art so "the building can devote itself exclusively to these lucrative endeavors."
In his letter to Wilson, Noterdaeme compared documents he discovered in the director's conference room to a Pentagon brief. Prompting the comparison was a page headed "We've Opened! Now What?" that advised museum staff to "scan the cultural horizon to determine likely competitors/events that will draw attention away from the museum."
Noterdaeme also asked Wilson about an upcoming director's presentation titled, "Installation Is Marketing." "Indeed," he asked, "whose interest is the museum serving when the main focus seems to be on deploying marketing strategies?"
Wilson was not alone in not responding to the artist's criticisms. He's not heard from Krens or Lowry, either.
"It's been a monologue," Noterdaeme said. "Not responding is still responding."
"I love museums," he said. "I live in a museum. I sleep in a museum. I make love in a museum. But I'm highly critical toward what has happened to museums.
"When a museum is handled like a business, it means any radical voice must be eliminated. That's what I've been observing in all museum expansions. They grow in bulk; they shrink in content."
To learn more about the Homeless Museum and read Noterdaeme's open letters to museum directors, go to www.homelessmuseum. org and click on Activism.
To reach Alice Thorson, art critic, call (816)234-4763 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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