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Monday, February 27, 2006

Museum Ink

Museum, Inc.Paul Werner's new book, Museum, Inc.: Inside the Global Art World, is going to make some people at the Guggenheim very unhappy. Staff there become a little tetchy when the infamous motorcycle and Armani shows are dragged up and used as cheap shots. But occasional blog snark is child's play next to Werner's more sustained critique.

Museum, Inc. takes its share of cheap shots (many of which are spot on and quite funny), but it also makes a serious case for why these two notorious shows stand for something important that shouldn't be forgotten. Of them and former director Thomas Krens, Werner writes:

Krens imagined that circulating new objects (bikes or blouses) through auratic channels (museums) would automatically confer an aura on them and authority on the museum.... His critics were wrong to claim Krens was trying to commodify culture: he was trying to culturificate commodities, and he failed.
The failure wasn't total, though. Werner, a former lecturer at the Guggenheim, writes about engaging with his groups and about those groups engaging with the bikes in unusually intense ways. The Guggenheim's failure was not in hosting these shows. It was in not challenging the current paradigm of how a museum could and should interact with its visitors.

The Guggenheim dramatically expanded its reach during the Krens years, but it never looked beyond the admissions numbers at the quality of its visitors' experiences. The numbers, and the numbers alone, mattered. Of the first (and only) Krens expansion that was an unqualified success, Werner writes:

Bilbao was supposed to demonstrate that the Guggenheim had amassed a certain experience in attracting audiences, and the Guggenheim was saying it could sell that intangible experience.... The Guggenheim's stated mission was no longer making art available to an audience, it was delivering "its" audience to a new sponsor.
"Get them in the door first," management seemed to be saying. "We'll worry about what happens once we've got them." But no one at the Guggenheim ever worried much about what happened when people showed up. That's where Werner becomes most vocal. Working on the front lines--where curatorial outputs meet admissions desk inputs--Werner found the museum's worst failure.

He decided to step into the gap by making institutional critique a standard part of his lectures. If the exhibition is weak and if the institution is condescending to the people coming to see it, why not enlighten them on both points? The people loved it, Werner says, and no one at the museum ever knew that he was lifting the curtain to show visitors the little man pulling the levers. Why? Because museum management never bothered to spend time on the floor during opening hours.

Like other titles in the Prickly Paradigm Press line, this short work (a thin 76 pages that can be digested in a single sitting) is lively and passionate--sometimes so much so that the rigor of argument and exposition gets short changed. But for those interested in the current state of the art in museum management, Werner leads an interesting tour through the museum that has embraced corporate models for growth more openly than any other. And he's got plenty of good stories to tell along the way.

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