The Changing Roles of Museums

Dan Graham is an American artist and curator best known for his integral role in beginnings of Conceptual Art during the 1960s. Antoine Catala is an artist who creates new and playful relations between language and reality. Together, they recently spoke in the fall issue of Bomb magazine, and this exchange about how museums have changed over the last century felt quite on the nose.

AC: And what would you say museums are now? How have they evolved?

DG: There are three stages. At first museums were historical buildings, surrounded landscape parks often from different historical periods. My work encompasses some these historical overlays. Then in the lat ‘80s, they became engaged with educational programs, because that’s how the money came in. I got interested in putting a children’s daycare center into a museum lobby, and later did a mezzanine area in London called Waterloo Sunset for the Hayward Gallery. It was free for people waling along the Thames, a place where children could watch cartoons as well as Arts Council England videos by contemporary artists, and it was also used by the museum’s educational department for children to make their own artworks–for example, Lichtensteins, if that’s what the Hayward was showing. Finally, it could be used for evening events like banquets.
Now, in the third stage of this evolution, museums become about spectacle. You get a lot of people in there for the corporate funding. And it’s specifically about the high-tech spectacle. There’s this new museum in Rome, the one designed by Zaha Hadid—

AC: MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts.

DG: Yes. It’s totally a manifestation of this, and The Shed in Manhattan is too.

AC: Well, did this all start with the Guggenheim, where the building itself is more important than the art inside?

DG: From my point of view, the turn toward spectacle began with the Tate Modern, which reassembles a corporate atrium.

AC: Indeed, I was there when it was being built. There were throwing parties already.

It felt like the Louvre was in that first phase still which is what made it feel static and uninteresting. Museums like LACMA are actively heading toward the third phase. It’ll be interesting to look at museums through this lens from now on.

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