When did museums change their mission to focus on urban planning and civic renewal? There have, of course, been museum-sponsored exhibitions based on urban research before, including Lewis Mumford’s housing analysis at MoMA’s 1932 International Style exhibition and MOCA’s seminal 1989 Case Study Houses exhibit that generated new housing prototypes. But museums have to my knowledge never attempted to claim they are “shaping” a city in quite the way we are witnessing today in New York.
This past week, for example, lower Manhattan witnessed The Festival of Ideas for a New City , a San Gennaro-like street fair billed as a “new collaborative initiative … to harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore ideas that will shape it.” This undertaking was created by The New Museum, although it claimed to have been co-organized by many of the leading downtown cultural institutions. In any case, they all seem to have forgotten that it should not be a matter of “harnessing” the community but speaking to its residents and grassroots community groups. Instead, it felt like a branding event for the museum that lazily restaged already-formed exhibitions (“Cronocaos” by Rem Koolhaas was at the Venice Biennale in 2010) and twice-told lectures by South American mayors. These are all worthy ventures for sure. But how do they really confront the myriad of problems—affordable housing leaps to mind—that these areas must face? Weekend street fairs and authoritative pronouncements about the “future” of the city do little more than promote more of the kind of heat-seeking shops on the Bowery that have already popped up alongside the New Museum.
Later this summer, the Lower East Side will be exposed to yet another arts festival when the Guggenheim-sponsored BMW Lab (Audi co-sponsored the New Museums initiative) brings its mobile lab designed by the Tokyo-based architecture firm, Atelier Bow Wow, to 33 East 1st street. Amidst similar claims to topicality, the meetings are meant to “explore issues confronting contemporary cities and provide a public place and online forum for sharing ideas and practical solutions.” And then turning it all into an exhibition in 2013.
The first week in May also saw the announcement by MoMA of its own upcoming 2012 exhibition, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. Selected architectural practices will investigate different American suburban conditions with an eye to bringing to bear the creative architectural thinking that has largely been absent from these communities. At an introductory symposium, Buell Center trustee Harry Cobb asked (actually demanded) that each of the firms promise to keep “the architect at the center” of the research project. It was not a great way to start, but with MoMA’s architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and Columbia’s Reinhold Martin, director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture leading the project, we can hope participants will not only keep the architect at the center but also collaborate with residents and experts before they design any possible futures.
Finally, at a tiny gallery in Williamsburg, the Institute of Wishful Thinking presented Artists In Residence for the US Government, a project that takes as its starting point the notion that real change must start from the bottom-up organization of people not cultural projects. The Institute brought together artists who have been involved in collaborative art collectives since the 1960s with the hope that they will submit ideas about how to engage with various government agencies and bring their abilities and knowledge into direct contact with urban policy-making.
From museums to art collectives, it’s clear that many players want to have a voice in problem solving. First, all of them must stand back and confront these issues with the people who will be affected most. We need experts who point to global solutions not just make pronouncements, but we also need to talk locally if we are to deal with New York’s considerable problems. If the museums have any other agenda than that they should go back to collecting and displaying objects of aesthetic and historical importance.