“A great work of art and a great museum do the same – they raise awareness”
Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) celebrated its 50th anniversary this year with a $ 16 million building overhaul and a successful $ 80 million fundraising campaign, as well as a “first”: sharing the Sotheby’s inaugural award with the Nasher Museum in North Caroline. MCA Director Madeleine Grynsztejn spoke to The Art Newspaper about the importance of the prize, which will underpin the upcoming exhibition Many Tongues: Art, Language and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia, which will open is scheduled for October 2019, and how that ties into the role of museums in a turbulent 21st century.
Can you tell me about the Sotheby’s Prize?
Sotheby’s, in its wisdom, identified a gap in the funding world in that it was particularly difficult for museums to subscribe to truly groundbreaking scholarly research, as it is a paradox that funding agencies tend to fund. which is already at least a little familiarâ¦ We are the only ones who have committed to present an investigation in the United States into post-war art in the Middle East and South East Asia. It’s part of a larger ambition and action we’re taking to pioneer a more cosmopolitan point of view that of course corrects what tends to be a Euro-American focus in museums in the United States. , and hopes to introduce less [emphasised] art history to a wide audience – which hopefully, in turn, becomes more curious and empathetic towards regions than it might otherwise be – which is ultimately the point.
What role do you think museums can play in an environment of âMuslim bansâ?
Today, tomorrow and in 50 years, we have two professions: visual literacy and civic construction. What other entity can you think of besides a museum with a capital ‘M’ that has the ability to really educate us all in visual literacy – which is the number one skill of ‘soft power’, of the ‘new economy’? Of the 21st century? And the paradox, and the irony, is happening at the same time that the arts are practically taken out of the public school system altogether.
Number two, citizen buildingâ¦ The way we do it at MCA is to focus on our young people, building a global vision and building civic space. You cannot tell me that people are not hungry for civic dialogue.
To get to a more cosmopolitan point of view, start with your staff, your intellectual generators. I have very deliberately hired towards a more diverse and inclusive staffâ¦ which in turn will naturally lead to an internationalized program. We are also globalizing our board of directors [and] globalize our acquisitions because the permanent collection is the soul of the museum.
What I’ve done since day one is commit to show you what you don’t yet know that you love
You want people to visit museums, but at the same time, there are exhibits that may not be as appealing to the public, but generate a lot of scholarship. How important are these kinds of shows?
We are a museum. We are dedicated to the evolution of art history, so we are dedicated to creating what I call âposition paperâ exhibitions, which are probably not popular, which is why Many Tongues by the Sotheby’s price is so critical.
The MCA’s sweet spot is a rigorous and scholarly exhibition, beautiful and accessible. You can do both. We did both with David Bowie. We did both with Doris Salcedo. We did both with Kerry James Marshall. There are exhibitions where we have to offer more or less points of contact and interpretation with our audiencesâ¦ But I will never do an exhibition for the sole purpose of being popular. What I’ve done since day one is commit to showing you what you don’t yet know how to love.
What about your relationship with artists, like Chris Ofili, who [designed] the MCA‘new restaurant?
Frankly, if I got here, it’s because of my relationship with artists like Luc Tuymans. If you look at his work, you will better understand the world around you, as his work sheds light on the most pressing issues of our time. Kerry James Marshall focuses on the most pressing issues of our time, racial injustice and inequality, and he does so through his paintings. And they’re like love letters to the audience to be careful where they might not have been paying attention otherwise. A great work of art and a great museum do the same thing: they awaken consciousness.
The museum is a tool for citizenship and visual literacy … But at the same time, the museum is also a joy machine. He is a wonder maker. And it’s never, ever based on art.