In March 2018, Art Basel Hong Kong presented a panel discussion that brought together celebrated museum directors from around the world to discuss the topic of “the collecting institution”.

As museums have undergone enormous shifts in both mission and mandate over the last fifty years, the speakers engaged with questions around the relevance of their collections and the shared responsibility for acquisitions policies. Art Radar presents a report on the topics raised by the discussion.

Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations, 'The Collecting Institution: Acquisitions and Representation.' Left to right: Juan Andrés Gaitán, Agustín Pérez Rubio, Eve Tam, Michael Govan and Frances Morris. Screenshot by Art Radar.

Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations, ‘The Collecting Institution: Acquisitions and Representation.’ Left to right: Juan Andrés Gaitán, Agustín Pérez Rubio, Eve Tam, Michael Govan and Frances Morris. Screenshot by Art Radar.

“The Collecting Institution: Acquisitions and Representations” discussed how an institution should maintain, build and edit its collection, asking what guidelines exist and how these respond to the demands that arise from specific contexts and needs. It also considered how both past and present factor into the way institutions respond to their roles as curators, cultivators and collectors of cultural knowledge.

The panel at Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 consisted of Agustín Pérez Rubio, Artistic Director, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires; Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern, London; Michael Govan, CEO and Wallis Annenberg, Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Juan Andrés Gaitán, Director, Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; and Eve Tam, Museum Director, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong. It was moderated by András Szántó, an author and cultural strategy consultant based in New York who, as ever, guided a fascinating discussion.

In his opening comments, Szántó remarked on the calibre of the panel, “With so many distinguished museum directors on the panel, I feel like a lion tamer in the circus.” His introduction continued to set the scene for a discussion of the collecting institution, and the relevance of speaking about this topic in Hong Kong at such an auspicious moment, for which he gave two main reasons:

  1. The recent museum building boom in Asia has created an opportunity to reinvent and rethink the institution, something which the museum world around the globe is closely watching. With institutions such as the soon-to-open M+ radically redefining Asia’s institutional territory, this has created a ‘tabula rasa’ for fresh thinking.
  2. At the same time worldwide, every museum – for various reasons, economic, political, social, cultural – is going through a period of reassessment, readjustment, and even reckoning with what have been our customs, our traditions and reflexes when it comes to operating museums and building collections.
Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

At this moment, then, there are a lot of big questions facing museums:

  1. How do you create clear and transparent guidelines for what an institution should collect?
  1. How do you tell inclusive, decentered, decolonised and timely stories with and around the collections we are putting together?
  1. What does it mean to collect a lot of the work you see in art fair booths – particularly at Art Basel – which is not object-based and often performative and ephemeral, and that is, not collectable in the traditional sense?
  1. How can institutions collaborate more?
  1. And particularly relevant given the talk’s commercial context, how should these institutions continue with their collecting mandates at a time of (hyper)-inflation in the art market and with a very large commercial apparatus bearing down upon institutional purchasing power. What are the terms of debate and interaction between these fields?

Click here to watch Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 | Museum Talk | The Collecting Institution: Acquisitions and Representations on YouTube

Each director then spoke in turn to address some of these issues.

Frances Morris has been the director of Tate Modern since 2016 and has had a long career in that institution, working there since 1987, including on numerous landmark exhibitions. Tate Modern is seen by many museum colleagues worldwide as a type of bell-weather for institutional thinking that is self-aware. As Szántó asks, “In terms of the collection, what do you and your colleagues think about the most?”

Morris frames her response around the idea of value, noting the different registers of value that operate in the art world. Visiting Art Basel with members of Tate’s Asia-Pacific acquisitions committee, the most obvious value at an art fair is financial. She draws a distinction with institutional collecting, which is not for financial value or gain but for art’s intrinsic value – the value that resides in the work and that can be taken of out the work to tell a story about the development of art history. “And of course,” she comments, “art history is only a temporary stabilisation of our view of the past in relation to the present.” As a collector, Morris is thinking about what makes sense in terms of the past or present – for now. In her view, an institution is all about storytelling and audiences – and the value of art’s stories for people’s lives.

Over the last 30 years, Tate has changed dramatically from an institution in the model of the eighteenth or nineteenth century that very much believed in pre-existing canon. New thinking influenced by postmodernism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and the humanities led to a moment that Morris describes as when “the edifice crumbled.” As she continued,

By the end of the 1980s, anyone close to history knew you couldn’t tell only one story. But museums have taken an incredibly long time to respond to that, to think it through. We are juggernauts – we take a long time to move. As early as 1992, at Tate Modern we realised that there was no single history, no centre, and that we need to be much more responsive, syncretic, decolonized. It has been a 20-year journey to get to a point where we are excited to tell a much more open, broader and diverse story of art history.

Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Eve Tam is the director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which has been under renovation since 2015 and will reopen 2019. It was established in 1962 as a public institution and is a strictly governmental entity that has grown with the city and its identity. Tam discusses how government and public collecting is very different from private collections now and in the past, for example the development of royal collections. As they are funded directly by taxpayers’ money, it is very important to illustrate art historical development and the relationship of the collection to its place, in this case the city of Hong Kong. Its diverse collection spans modern and contemporary art, traditional Chinese art and objects, antiquities, as well as a series of China Tree paintings from the late eighteenth century that depict the influence of the opening of the region to western trade.  As such, it reflects both cultural lineage of Hong Kong and its modern and contemporary developments

This allows the museum to create interesting dialogues between categories and cultures, engaging with the relationship and interactions between Hong Kong, mainland China and the west. The 21st century is globalised, Tam suggests, and values a local collection with special stories of interaction and exchange. Like Morris, Tam highlights the importance of storytelling – asking what kind of comparative stories can we tell with our diverse collection that talk to each other, and play with spheres of influence and different perspectives in dialogue with place.

Agustin Pérez Rubio is the director MALBA, the museum of Latin American art in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a curator, he is profoundly interested in marginality, in the different perspectives and viewpoints that are found within a society, not just across cultures. He begins by noting similarities between the cultural situations of Hong Kong and Latin American – both with their own historical traditions as well as the legacy of colonialism.

For Rubio, it is very important to create a diverse collection that represents different people, different viewpoints, different histories and contexts. He creates a metaphor of the collection as the ‘hardware’ of the institution – as the source from which all knowledge and temporary shows come from. He believes that the distinction between the centre and periphery is very dated, and that we are all centres and peripheries now. However, this does not mean that there are no new stories to tell through building a collection that understands contemporaneity through the lens of past.

When Rubio arrived at MALBA, the permanent collection was 17% female; his direction, it is now 48%. He has also made a concerted effort to collect work by indigenous and primary nations peoples, as well as from minority countries within that region, such as Haiti, that were once excluded from the borders of ‘Latin America’ as a homogenous area. His aim has been to amplify the collection through the concept of a plural collection for a plural institution, and to build a multilayered and multifaceted – rather than flat – view of its context

Michael Govan is the director of LACMA, the encyclopaedic museum of art famous the world over. Govan begins by noting that having an encyclopedic collection – works from every time and place – magnifies all the challenges of the 21st century institution. As he states,

My reading of that possibility is to have this crazy breadth – many times, many nations, many points of view – at a moment of the revitalisation of the encyclopedic museum after being killed off by discussions of post-colonialism and its challenges – is to turn it inside out, to flip the timeline in a way that allows the contemporary to reframe the past.

As an institution ‘stuck’, in Govan’s terms, with a big, massive, material collection, how do you reframe it? One way is through programming, and the other is to keep collecting from an activist point of view, such that each object reframes the rest. The enlightenment idea of a contained encyclopedia is impossible – no collection can be inclusively exhaustive – so rather than collecting to fill the gaps, the idea of the encyclopedia becomes the concept of ‘anything goes’ – from performances to artifacts. “Our age privileges programme over collection,” Govan continues, “so no one is discussing a museum’s central function – as to preserve things for future generation.”

Juan Andrés Gaitán is the director of the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. The museum was founded from the personal collection of artist Rufino Tamayo in the mid-twentieth century. Tamayo collected the work of modern masters such as Mark Rothko, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon, often by directly exchanging his work. From this point of view, its collection is frozen. Gaitán sees the collection and its history as an object in and of itself and believes that it represents a certain idea and mentality of what a museum should have that dates from the 1970s and 1980s. In Gaitán’s view, it is essential to preserve the original museology as its own artifact – as an archive of that particular moment in museography. As he states,

When I see the dismantling of museum collections for the sake of the 21st century, I think we are losing an archive of aesthetic consciousness that is as much an important resource for us to understand the history of the developments of the institutions we run as the filing systems.

Eslite Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Eslite Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

The Museo Tamayo also has an active contemporary collection, in Gaitán’s terms “the one thing an institution does to project itself into the future.” Contemporary collecting is easier, in a sense, as there is no settled narrative or canon and the only parameters are the place and possibility of an institution. It must be responsible collecting, however, and meaningful from institutional point of view.

Szántó quickly picks up on this, asking: “Do you feel too many contemporary museums look alike?”

To which Gaitán responds: “Yes, unnecessarily so. We don’t need to travel the world to see the same collection.”

The discussion then turned to deaccession (primarily a US practice by which museums sell to the market to fund new acquisitions and programmes), and the pressures both internal and external which demand this unpopular practice. Whilst the financial rational might be obvious, the directors are united in their disapproval of deaccessioning, as Rubio notes, “even the mistakes are important.”

On calls from the public to remove contentious works, such as the recent Balthus controversy at the Met, Morris argues,

I would strongly resist external pressures to censor the contents of the collection – as a historical record, it represents the tastes, judgements, mistakes and passions of curators, directors, donors, givers – it is a history of philanthropy – it is incredibly rich.

Arario Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Arario Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Szántó closes the panel by asking, “Where is the biggest challenge over next 10 to 20 years for institutions to adapt?”

Juan Andrés Gaitán said:

There is no need for more private museums. Instead, we need to concentrate our efforts on existing institutions. As public collections, the main stakeholder is the public, and the institution and its staff hold a collective responsibility to the public – for society rather than individual interests.

Eve Tam commented:

Art is about intensive looking, is it not spectacular, and a museum is not an art fair. We need to think about what is the different visual experience that a museum can give. If only 1-5% of the collection can be on show at any one time, it is important to consider how to make use of it in other ways.

Michael Govan added:

One of the biggest issues is how to maintain the relevance and value of public collections. Globally, the value of art is seen as financial, as a commodity. Its intrinsic value is harder to see. The commodification is such a recent phenomenon, and is of such magnitude, how do we get people back to thinking about that visual experience of art rather than what a work cost?

Frances Morris concluded:

The challenge is twofold. One, as we move away from the canon, we move away from the stability and authority of the museum – this is under threat. Now that our museum is more shared, how do we reflect the demographics of the people we serve?

Two, there is a historic divide between the museum as a place for seeing art, but not for making it – that happens elsewhere, for example in schools. In the 1960s, artists introduced concerns with the body and the participation of the audience. This has now continued apace, and that historic boundary is beginning to fall. Audiences now want involvement. The 21st century is not content with just looking – interaction with art is now about making, participating and having a voice.

Jessica Clifford


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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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