News
11.08.2011
Feature> Cultural Outlets
What does it mean when museums position themselves as engines of social change...powered by luxury car companies? Stephen Zacks considers new claims on the urban environment.
BMW's brand-management division approached the Guggenheim two years ago about collaborating on ideas for cities.
Montage based on photo by Peter Mauss / ESTO

This fall, BMW funded a Guggenheim lab on the Lower East Side that will travel—along with a lot of forward-thinking programs and events—to nine cities around the world for the next six years. Earlier this year, Audi funded the New Museum’s Festival Ideas for the New City on the Bowery which the museum plans on staging every other year. And in May, Volkswagen announced a two-year partnership with MoMA to fund online educational programming, on-site “labs,” and an exhibition of socially conscious international work at PS1.

Major museums and cultural institutions are jumping on the social activism bandwagon as never before, launching urban research projects, participatory art festivals, and engaged urbanist exhibitions that were once the primary engagement of only the most committed nonprofits and independent producers as tools of social action. In organizing these shows, curators are embracing an idea in the vanguard of contemporary art and design, and getting German luxury car companies to foot the bills. What’s going on here, and who’s really the beneficiary?

For cultural producers, being invited to participate in events like these is a publicity opportunity that’s almost impossible to refuse. It’s also an acknowledgement of the value of a kind of work that has growing importance. But for many participants, these increasingly frequent institutionally-culled collections of engaged socio-cultural practices can be a drag on limited resources, rather than a boon to the larger polis.

On a single weekend in New York, I attended five of them, and there were two others that I missed. The tiny honoraria supporting presentations and workshops are insufficient to feed resources back to the communities meant to be served. If there’s only a net gain of energy and value in the capitalization of the cosmopolitan center, is it worth it?

Speculating about ideas for the urban environment has become a new parlor game for the college-educated elite. At a certain point there are only so many of these festivals of ideas you need. Someone needs to go and do the socially valuable work itself.

How do we parse socially engaged art and urban interventions when they are simultaneously museum programming and automobile branding? Business investment and corporate philanthropy have long been important to the American way of life, but the placement of company names in the public realm has also come to embody the powerlessness of ordinary citizens to exercise control over public processes. The capture of these practices by elite cultural institutions threatens to empty them of their socially engaged function and turn them into a sideshow. At the same time, museums have the capacity to provide much-needed access to resources for this type of work and apply it usefully to their own communities. One only needs to look back on MoMA’s legendary postwar exhibitions on housing and modern architecture to see the power of this kind of involvement.

Architecture curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer dreamed up the BMW Guggenheim Lab two years ago when the company invited the Guggenheim to pitch ideas about cities and global issues. “We thought, ‘we’re the youngest curators in the museum, they’re never going to listen to what we have to say, so let’s just go for a crazy proposal,’” explained Nicanor, who has been at the museum since 2005. Nicanor and van der Leer pitched the urban research lab concept; a year later, BMW bought it. “Not only did they buy the idea, but they said, ‘Think bigger, do it global, make it not only one city—the value of real research is you get to compare,’” she said.

 
The "Festival of Ideas" by Audi and New Museum was a PART of the car company's research into the future of moBility in cities.
Montage based on photo by Dean Kaufman
 

To shelter the hybrid architecture workshop, neighborhood community center, and urban elite gathering space, the curators found a disused parks department lot in the East Village and inserted a modern carbon-fiber pavilion designed by clever Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow—a type of transitional building they like to call “pet architecture” or a “micro public space.” Five Lab Team Members—including two Dutch architects and a Nigerian microbiologist—each planned two weeks of the ten-week program, inviting some of the best people in the field to organize conversations, games, workshops, screenings, and performances. At the corner of the site, the lab created an inviting cafe with a wooden kiosk and park benches serving great food from Roberta’s, a hip Bushwick restaurant (where there is a $175 per person tasting menu) that grows vegetables next-door to its home in Brooklyn—precious. Now the carbon-fiber transformer that swooped into the Houston Street lot will decamp to Berlin in the spring with a different set of collaborators, and after that it’s on to Mumbai.

A few blocks away—prejudice disclosed—the performance space I ran back in the 20th century, Collective Unconscious, bowed to rent pressures about seven years ago. Across the street, the heroically disgusting Mars Bar, a favorite dive, is being torn down to build condos. Further north, St. Marks Books is in danger of closing. Maybe for precisely this reason the area needed an investigation of demographic change and economic processes. But wasn’t this flurry of highbrow ideas and activity only propping up inflated real-estate values and concentrating cultural resources and specialized knowledge in a highly capitalized area? It’s been nearly 30 years since the commercial art market absorbed the East Village alternative gallery scene. What was the likelihood a company like BMW would support practical interventions in some invisible corner of Newark, for instance, or in my hometown of Flint, Michigan? To which Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement at the BMW Group said, “Be in touch by all means.” He has 3,000 other proposals on his desk.

“Of course it’s not done for altruistic or philanthropic reasons,” said Girst, “It certainly has to do with how the brand is perceived and how we want to position ourselves.” He mentions the company’s 40-year tradition of supporting culture globally and emphasizes its long-term corporate leadership in the area of sustainability. As for the appearance of plop-urban engagement, he said, “From the get-go, there was such a sensitivity on the side of BMW and the Guggenheim to involve the community and take it from there, slowly branch out.”

The company makes use of its naming rights but doesn’t display logos on materials or cars on site. “I do think that the strength of the brands BMW and Guggenheim really work for the lab,” Girst said. “These function as door openers, multipliers, and names that guarantee visibility, getting as many people at the table as possible, and making it accessible—all the programs are absolutely for free.” The lab’s association with mobility, innovation, and the future of cities appealed to the car company, according to Eva-Maria Boerschlein, manager of the project for BMW and member of its brand steering, brand management, and marketing services division.

Is it a coincidence that the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City was sponsored by another German luxury auto brand? The sponsorship deal with Audi was secured following the company’s Urban Future Initiative at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, according to associate director and director of external affairs Karen Wong. “From what I understand, German car companies are having a boom, and it’s mainly new markets for them in the Far East,” she said. “Smartly, they’re doing a lot of R & D about the future of mobility in cities because they do know that at some point the products they’re producing will become extinct or no longer viable they are looking to try to understand what that future may look like.” Perhaps, they also want to keep bicycles from becoming the dominant transportation symbols in hipsterhoods around the world.

The New Museum’s festival corralled thought-leaders in the field for a conference, collaborated with local partners on more than 100 exhibitions, installations, workshops, and performances around the neighborhood, and closed down the Bowery for a day for more than 100 local organizations to set up booths displaying their social practices and community-based work. For many architecture and urban design professionals, it was a confusing project that lacked clear objectives. Why present this assemblage of work on the booming Bowery rather than in a place where the investment of time and energy would be supporting a socially useful agenda? Why obligate community organizations to raise money and devote staff to museum programming rather than to support their own missions? In its justification for the project, the New Museum sometimes seemed mute to the community’s ambivalence about its relationship to processes of capital accumulation in its backyard.


Volkswagen is in a two-year relationship  with MoMA to fund on-site labs and PS 1 exhibitions dealing with "socially conscious" international work..
Montage based on photo by Timothy Hursley
 
 

There’s a limit to the capacity of art institutions to effectively evaluate social practices. Does urban engagement matter because it fits into an art historical narrative, because of its aesthetic character, because it has meaningful consequences, or because, as the scholar Claire Bishop argues, it produces “affective responses” forcing us to confront difficult facts and producing subtle shifts in consciousness? But having stepped into the field of urban practice, the New Museum has established much closer relationships with its neighbors and has taken on the obligation of making a deeper commitment to the field of social action and following through on the difficult work of community development. “MoMA has the resources and the know-how to contextualize everything, and what I thought was so brilliant about BMW Guggenheim was to bring it under a roof, literally, for a sustained period,” Wong said. “For us we really tried to bring it onto the street and connect the urban fabric of this neighborhood that means a lot to us. It was one of those cases: limited resources, small group of people, but I do think that as a core group we do have substantive intentions—it’s just a matter of getting more time and planning to bring those to fruition.”

Early in the game, Barry Bergdoll’s activist exhibition and urban research streak at the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture department, alongside former curator of contemporary architecture Andres Lepik, were especially successful at making arguments for sustainability and social practice within the field—without the help of any car companies. Its Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement exhibition (that opened in October 2010) surveyed strategies of intervention in a very timely way, while Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfronts (that opened in March 2010) spurred interdisciplinary teams to generate concepts anticipating the effects of rising sea levels on the city in a way that helped advance the discourse. The results of its latest research intervention, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, with its noticeable bias toward more utopian and academic premises rooted in Columbia’s graduate school, is highly anticipated. But a German car company is in the wings. VW’s two-year spin with MoMA has the working title “Interational Discovery” with artists exploring social issues such as scarce resources and population growth.

The critical problem for museums’ efforts to activate socially engaged practice is how to displace the work from its original context without denaturing it. Social art and urban interventions are different from static art forms like painting and sculpture—at least in their materialized, pre-social versions. To be adequately experienced and to realize their intentions, they have to act in the world and be put to good use.

By this standard, the Guggenheim lab’s downtown test run, the most recent effort of this kind by a major museum, succeeded in some respects. The project extended the resources of the Guggenheim beyond its exhibition walls on the Upper East Side—and branches in Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, under construction—and galvanized a previously ignored demand for an underutilized site to be converted into a public space. It installed a nice outhouse in the new park, a pretty valuable public amenity in New York City. Museum director Richard Armstrong, who lived in the East Village in the 1970s, was embarrassed to admit he had imagined Park Avenue as a fitting location for the project; it’s possible that by dragging this project downtown, the curators exposed wealthy patrons and other potential sponsors to new urban practices, leading to better funding in the future for this kind of work in other probably hip locations. Many of the discussions were educational and helpful. On the whole it appeared to attract diverse community groups, residents, schoolchildren, college students, and passersby, as well as the regular college-educated elites. The lab leaves the corner of Houston and 2nd Avenue better for having been there.

Meanwhile, in the park formerly known as Liberty Square—and increasingly everywhere—activists are simply claiming the constitutional right to assemble and occupy public space, creating a self-organized mini-city-within-a-city in Lower Manhattan. On the last day of the lab, members of Occupy Wall Street joined a discussion with East Village residents about the future of the lab site. A BMW representative expressed willingness to offer $20,000 to support one proposal. Occupy Wall Street participants vehemently objected.

Stephen Zacks

Stephen Zacks is a Brooklyn-based writer.