Return to Articles

John O'Brien


Louvre Museum, Paris,
view of interior gallery.

Guggenheim Museum, New York City,
view of interior courtyard.

White Cube Gallery, London.
Installation view of Miroslaw
Balka, "Karma," 2004.
As the role of the observer of contemporary art morphs and changes in time, so too the institutions housing contemporary art displays are changing to accommodate the newest modes of “viewing” art.

Once, a relatively long time ago, conventional art works were organized and housed to be on a more or less permanent display at one location. The triumphal gathering of one nation’s or one family’s aggregate cultural wealth was the scope of a “first generation” museum.  The Louvre in Paris is a very good example.  The visitor was asked to follow along with a historical and chronological unveiling of a sequence of objects and images having both didactic and esthetic dimensions.  Authority was implicitly derived from the power and authority of the patron.  Light within this institution was a mixture of natural and artificial, with the natural lighting predominating in the entrance and foyer areas and the artificial control being exercised in the display areas.

With the advent of modern times, the institutions that collected artworks began to install and house them such that they could be both displayed at their home base and sent out to travel to many different venues.  The modern museum reacted to this change by preparing less determinate and more flexible gallery spaces.  The gallery walls became moveable, able to adapt to different types of artworks, and the gallery space itself was kept as neutral as possible, giving way to the phenomenon known as the “white cube.”  Authority was explicitly derived from the professionals working at the institution.  Light within this cube was almost entirely controlled or artificial, with natural lighting relegated to the outside area where it would not interfere with the calibration of experience being affected in the display areas.

These characteristics of the “second generation” modern art museums envisioned an appreciative viewer, one who would slowly traverse the large halls and galleries looking for thematic similarities between selected works or viewing a traveling exhibition from afar.  The regularly modified re-collection of an institution’s cultural holdings was the scope of a “second generation” museum, of which New York City’s Guggenheim Museum is a good example.  The (informed) viewer, already a connoisseur of sorts, was asked to track the ebb and flow of a revolving sequence of objects and images presumed by all to both possess and embody art historical and most importantly, aesthetic dimensions.

We have entered a time when thought is being turned to the creation of a “third generation” museum.  In contrast to its predecessors, the third generation museum will orient the spectator to art forms that are meant to suddenly erupt into their consciousness.  As such they are to be experienced without necessarily positing themselves as parts of a movement or stable components of history.  The implementation of site specific or site responsive artworks will mean that they will not move from place to place; in fact, they may be structured to disappear in a short period of time or to be absorbed in a social process taking place beyond the confines of the museum.  New media such as the computer and video are often used for such art.  These media will necessitate a fundamental change in the design of exhibit spaces.  Instead of the flexible and neutral space of the white cube, a more defined space, which artists can use as a foil for their work, may become the norm.  A gallery which possesses this sort of “spatial” nature might well be the core of a third generation museum.  Authority will implicitly derive from the measurement of the successful flow of visitors traversing the institution.  Light within this interior space will be a mixture of natural and artificial, with the natural lighting entering the galleries through numerous perforations that make the building’s interior and exterior less separate.  The artificial lighting becomes part of the display, if not at times of the artwork itself.

The Contemporary Arts Centre for Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid for Rome, Italy, is the first national museum for contemporary art in Italy.  It is also a prototype of the idea for a third generation museum.  The large urban site in the historic Flaminia district, located on the northern edge of the center of Rome proper, that has been allocated for the building is a site rife with history, and was once a military training base.  The Centre will be comprised of spaces for permanent, temporary and commercial galleries, an architecture center, a conference center as well as a library.  The concept for the project is based on the idea of 'irrigating' the surrounding urban area with “linear display surfaces, weaving a dense texture of interior and exterior spaces.”  The intention is to make this institution more “porous” for the casual visitor, by either providing a passing visual pleasure or enticing them to enter. It is not surprising that the spectator (already a visual consumer of sorts) is now being offered a multiplicity of entryways into a changing sequence of objects and images having aesthetic and, importantly, entertaining dimensions.

Zaha Hadid Architects, Contemporary
Arts Centre, Rome, Italy, currently
under construction.

Zaha Hadid Architects, proposal for a
new music house in Aalborg, Denmark.

From the first generation idea of a family treasury, to the second generation concept of a revolving historical showcase, to the third generation sense of viewing as an organic destination, the problem of accommodating those who wish to view art in a way that is meaningful to them in their own time is impossible to quantify.  Trace elements from each institutionally imagined participant necessarily haunt the different generation’s thoughts on programming, which is additionally confined by the specifics of the architectural housing as well as its administrators, the stewards of the institution.  It seems to me more fruitful to track how the situation is morphing, not if the transformation is complete or stable.  The first generation model presumed for its audience the passive, awestruck perusal of a broad accumulation of objects.  The second generation model sought to stimulate an active meditation on selected materials.  The third generation suggests a more passing mode of absorption in the experience of art, and will camouflage historical hierarchies in ways that superficially subvert authority, but without actually eliminating it.

Cross-pollination of collected materials among institutions is one area in which the changes in the contemporary audience are already being felt with particular strength.  While exchanges such as those between the Getty, the repository of ancient to early modern art, and MOCA, devoted exclusively to art since the mid-20th century, are interesting for the difference in historical continuum, more such exchanges will surely fall outside of the visual arts realm altogether.

Kim Abeles, "The Importance of Objects
(The Natural History Museum
Collection)," installation, 2005.

Lita Albuquerque, "Ophioderma
teres", installation, 2005.
The recent invitations to a select group of six Los Angeles artists from the Natural History Museum to delve into their collection to “curate” or “re-arrange” a new subset of items was among the most interesting uses of a collection I have seen recently.  In “Conversations” the artists each explored some section of the museum storehouse (its holdings are in excess of 33 million items) with selected curators.  Prompted by their dialogues, the artists created installations.  Kim Abeles was paired with curators W. Warner Wood and Margaret Hardin to work in Anthropology.  Lita Albuquerque conversed with Ángel Valdéz about Malacology (the study of mollusks).  Aside from circumventing the nomenclature of these objects and images entirely (does it matter whether they are art or artifact, for the purpose of aesthetic or scientific inquiry anyway?), it opened visitors to a behind-the-scenes look at the museum holdings from an outsider’s--if a highly creative one--point of view.  Moreover, it brought spectators from different constituencies into contact with one another in the con-fusion (emphasize fusion) of the fields.  As institutions seek to expand their audience, they are testing just such unorthodox ways of stimulating public interest in an attempt to forge new links with the community around them.  In doing so they also change their understanding of themselves.

Likewise, the current practice of “pulling an all nighter,” remaining open from dusk to dawn, at some of the area institutions, is a novel way of accessing the spaces they inhabit.  These events are almost never coupled to a specific exhibition or set of objects and images.  Rather they are centered on the group of people in the building over the course of an evening.  In Europe, the parallel practice of White Nights has kept various municipalities awake all night on some hot summer nights to the same end.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in collaboration with Gensler Associates,
model of Los Angeles County Museum of Art viewed from Wilshire Blvd.

So far, LACMA has pulled off several all nighters, and from my own experience and that of others, these events are a social exchange with the hilarity of a party, and a spectatorship intent more on people watching that art viewing.  In keeping with the new definition of the museum as a destination, in 2004, LACMA’s Board of Trustees approved plans to have the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano transform the museum.  The Piano-designed master plan addresses many issues, but to the ends of this discussion, there are three new and distinctive third generation elements.  The Ahmanson Atrium will be completed by walling off all four sides of the existing courtyard, creating a cube, 60 feet in length, width and height. The architect’s intent is to use natural light and specially engineered acoustic solutions to create a location suitable for day- and night-time events like openings, concerts or special celebrations.  Moreover, the architect’s stated purpose is to create “one of the most beautiful public spaces in all of Los Angeles.”  An indoor-outdoor concourse that will run the entire length of the museum will showcase the Southern California skies, while allowing visitors a fluid and protected transition from buildings throughout the museum campus.  Third is the planned 8,000-square-foot indoor piazza that will be the centerpiece of the Grand Entrance Pavilion with its Founders Room, new restaurant, and bar with outdoor terrace.  The entire design will offer museum patrons a different framework within which to situate their experience of the art.  From the silence of reflection and meditation, to the buzz of absorption and fluctuation, the third generation model works up a scripted experience that resembles a theme park.

A friend in France recently wrote to me of experiments in Bordeaux to create new venues for presenting the arts.  Aside from the general trend towards opening multi-purpose places like restaurants and bars that are also galleries, there is a garage where you can go and learn how to repair your car during the day, and which turns into an art gallery with an opening at night.  She maintains that this enables people who run these places to conduct different commercial activities and attract people with diverse interests.  Bike shop/contemporary art project space in Echo Park, anyone?

Some local galleries (where the sales mechanisms are more likely to remain tied to the rules of modernism, with its signature styles and recognizable repetitiveness) reflect at least some degree of third generation values.  L.A. Louver was among the first to implement a multi-tiered, variegated gallery configuration.  Moving from the formal downstairs galleries reserved for their lead exhibitions, you are drawn into an upstairs gallery with openings onto the gallery’s inner workings.  There you see the artwork (usually a group show) in clear view of the storage area, the photo slide archive and an office.  Finally, weather permitting there is the Sky Room, where an out door sculpture can be experienced in natural light on a small enclosed porch.

Friedrich Seidenstücker (Germany,
1883-1996) "Untitled," c. 1930, gelatin
silver print. Graphic promoting LACMA's
March 30, 2006 "Late Night Bash".

L.A. Louver Gallery, Skyroom
installation by Joel Shapiro, 2004.

Suzanne Vielmetter’s newer Culver City space was carved out of a sort of tract home/bungalow building.  Vielmetter ended up going with very non-gallery-like spaces in an altogether positive way.  The smaller rooms off the main exhibition space each house a subset of the exhibition on view even as they break up the monotony of regularized spaces.

Some will no doubt lament the changing of the viewing paradigm, noting correctly that the art audience is regarded with the commercial intent of a consumer.  They will thunder that this will undermine, if it has not done so already, the high mindedness and integrity of art and the viewing experience.  But I am not convinced that, even if largely true, this shift implies anything like the death of great art.  The modern viewer was clearly expected to have and exercise more acumen, but it seems to me that the third generation spectator knows more about gauging the kind of overall experience they want their outings to provide them.  What is now occurring is analogous to what has happened for music.  With the advent of the iPod and Podcasts, amassing sound and listening is an entirely different enterprise than it was when you had to go out and purchase those vinyl disks or, for that matter CDs.  The digital media may or may not be better than vinyl.  The fact is now in place that it is simply a part of the organic culture of how sounds are distributed, appreciated and shared.  The visual arts haven’t produced the mechanism or language (podspeak) for talking about the most recent trends in regulating the distribution, appreciation and dissemination of contemporary art—at least, not yet.  In the meantime; I find the search for new modes and the hybrid models of third generation spectating to be interesting, refreshing and heartening.