I recently came across an article, written last April by the New York Times: MoMA’s Expansion and Director Draw Critics. Founded by the Rockefeller family in 1929, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been the epicenter of new and challenging art for at least 50 years, particularly in the world of photography. Edward Steichen, the director and curator of photography at Moma from 1947 to 1962, helped cement the museum as the world’s top collector of modern photograph work. Steichen is best known for his creation of Family of Man, an exhibition depicting life and society through 500 plus photographs from 68 countries. Steichen’s appointment of John Szarkowski in 1962 only further entrenched the Moma as a powerhouse of photographic art, collecting work by Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston and so on.
Moma has always allowed its curators to guide the future direction of the museum. When Szarkowski purchased Eggleston’s collection in 1976, it was not only a revolutionary move but also a very unpopular one. It’s difficult now to view Eggleston’s Guide as anything but extraordinary, at least in my humble opinion, but many Moma board members thought the work was banal, boring, pointless, not art and they didn’t get it. That didn’t matter. Szarkowski had cart blanche as the director of Moma’s photography department, and if he truly felt work needed to be exhibited than it was.
Fast forward 35 years, and we see that essential art institutions, like Moma, are not ready to take risks the way they did in the past. On the opposite end of the spectrum renowned art fairs, such as Art Basel, have become speculator based. Artists are beginning to create art for the market place, and not in the way Pollock did for Peggy Guggenheim. These are not wealthy patrons seeking out the best and most original work. As Jerry Saltz (modern art critic) put it, “this work is decorator-friendly. It feels ‘cerebral’ and looks hip in ways that flatter collectors.” That’s what sells.
In turn, Moma has insulated itself by recycling the same work for each new exhibition, not a new concept but the tradition of pushing new and profound work has left the hands of the curators and been entrusted to the Moma board members. Moma’s curatorial staff have become bureaucrats, at least according to Peter Gallasi (the former director of Moma’s photography department). So never be sold or “sell out,” seems to be the choices for contemporary artists. Or who knows…maybe I’m just being cynical.