PETER HILL'S MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY IDEAS
In 1987 Dr Sunday Anderson was appointed foundation Director of the new Museum of Contemporary Ideas on New York's fashionable Park Avenue. Hailded by some as being the most advanced contribution to contemporary thought this century and ridiculed by others because of the private lives and self aggrandizing postures of its benefactors, the gin soaked Abner "Bucky" Cameron and his golf loving wife Alice, the Museum of Contemporary Ideas exists as a platform for elements of University research combined with challenging ideas about curatorship and contemporary art practice. Peter Hill tracked the Museum's director, Dr Sunday Anderson, to a Toorak wine bar during her recent visit to Australia and, to the background sounds of micro-economic reformers coming to terms with the recession but still be able to afford a cheap lunch, he tackled her about the Museum's policies, its limelight seeking benefactors,and the response of it pioneering space The Changing Room to the Gulf War.
Peter Hill: You have been with the museum since its inception, indeed you had much to do with it's structure and formation of its policies. What is the philosophy behind the museum?
Dr. Sunday Anderson: We exist to explore and present the ridiculously broad area of 'contemporary ideas'. Our budget is in excess of, say, a medium-sized, emerging African nation, thanks in whole to the generosity of Cameron Oil, now seen as being the largest supplier of crude oil globally. If we go back to one of the founders of the American educational system as we know it today, John Dewey, then our aspirations may be found in the writings of his & Pedo i re (1897) where he states: "Education (thus conceived) marks the most perfect and intimate union of science and art conceivable in human experience". In a real sense we are generalist rather than specialists and we feel a greater empathy with the thinkers and movers of the early Renaissance than we do with the 'Techno-Academics' of the first half of the twentieth century who rationalised themselves into ever smaller pigeon holes and who were happy to search for a small but definite space within an orderly universe.
PH: So is the museum moving closer to the interdisciplinary matrix espoused by some followers of the currently fashionable CHAOS.theory?
Dr SA: In so far as it falls within the category of contemporary ideas, then yes we would show an interest here, but I think you are correct in suggesting that the general philosophy of the museum, certainly as I conceive it, leans more to the interdisciplinary than the specialist.
PH: How then do you decide when a discipline or artistic movement is, or is not, contemporary?
Dr SA: We apply various yardsticks. Dr Harold Fraem for example, in our computing section, collates millions of pieces of information from specialist journals and on the strength of that can not only determine what is currently contemporary in any one field but can, with some success look to the future and predict tomorrow's trends. In the area of the visual arts which I know is of special interest to you, it is possible to see that when one trend is dominant the next has already gone through its gestation period and is emerging, while the one beyond that has already been conceived. There is always a lot of talk about hype or the manipulation of the secondary market, but it does appear from our research that in the vast majority of cases any paradigm changes in the visual arts are artist-led. Those artists are then 'discovered' by collectors, dealers critics, and gallerists and a new movement then clicks into the focal range of the perceived art world.
PH: To go back a little, what happens to the academics and researchers within the museum when their own field falls from being contemporary to being merely modern or postmodern or whatever? Are there massive redundancies or mass suicides?
Dr SA: Plenty of the former but none of the latter as far as I am aware. Everyone in the museum is on a one-year contract which has built into it a salary structure at least five times as generous as would be found in the academic or mainstream museum service. When an academic leaves, she is given an ex-gratia payment that allows them to live handsomely for several years, writing up their papers and publishing their research, most of which will have been carried out during their period of tenure here (with us?). A clutch of DNA specialists have recent spiralled off into the wilderness, and I am personally pleased to say most of our French critical theorists have packed their tents and headed their caravans back towards the Left Bank.
PH: In addition to studios and ch laboratories you have over a different exhibiting spaces that are also interdisciplinary in content. I am interested in the space known as The Changing Room, could you tell me about this?
Dr SA: The Changing Room came about as a response to the problems that we perceived as arising from many of the so called blockbuster exhibitions, such as Magiciens de la Terre and Bikimtreit. The former took nearly a decade of planning and many felt that this came through in a negative way in the final exhibition, and I think in the catalogue. Exhibitions such as Rene Block's Sydney Blennale The Ready@ in 20th Centuty Art probably succeeded in part because of the shorter gestation period that it went through. The Changing Room takes this much further and is able to respond in a matter of weeks to the political and cultural events around the world. We have a think-tank of specialists and generalists both in-house and drawn from far afield who go into action very quickly. This think-tank comprises journalists, scientists, artists, curators, and philosophers, and the exhibitions they , have mounted to date include responses to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Peking, the dismantling of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and most recently the Gulf Crisis.
PH: What form did that take?
Dr SA: It used text and image and live satellite broadcasts. There were various performance groups who had recreated both the US and Iraqi command headquarters, and the young photo-artist Ashley Taylor used press photographs and statements by the two leaders blown up to a large scale and facing each other down either side of the exhibiting space. I should stress that while The Changing Room is a large venue it only takes up a small propor- tion of our overall space and in other galleries we continue to mount exhibitions that have been curated over a long period of time.
PH: Do you have any other innovations in exhibition policy or design?
Dr SA: We are working on something along the lines of an Evolving Room which would be mostly aimed at our New York audiences who might visit the museum once a week. You know how there tend to be two types of exhibiting space. There are commercial galleries and large curated shows which run fbr several weeks and then are taken down. Then there are the large permanent collections such as the Metropolitan or the Louvre. Often these can be visited year in, year out, and the hanging remains the same. They do of course run changing exhibitions within these spaces similar to the ones that I mentioned in the first instance. We are aiming at something different. We start off with a large, mixed exhibition on a fairly loose theme as yet to be decided and it will change gradually, week by week. A painting will be removed one week, a sculpture might be installed the next and gradually the changes will occur. Over a one year period with 52 such changes the final exhibition will be completely different from the first and it will be tremendously exciting for the curators involved, most of whom will be practising artists.
PH: I look forward to visiting it. Do the museums patrons Alice and Abner "Bucky" Cameron give you a free hand in all your planning? I remember the problem about the six metre marble sculptures of them that were to be placed in the entrance hall, depicting them, if I remember rightly, on the eighteenth hole at St. Andrews ..............
Dr SA: The bad publicity about their installation and my resignation was equalled only by the relief at their withdrawal and subsequent installation outside the Cameron Cowboy Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. I withdrew my resignation and we have had no problems since then. As you probably know, the Museum of Contemporary Ideas was founded in memory of their twin children, Wilbur and Marjorie, tragically lost in the Bermuda Triangle when an educational ship on a special charter disappeared with all hands. Cutting short a golfing holiday in the Maldives, the Camerons returned to New York and announced the founding of a museum that would cover all the disciplines of the young people lost in the accident. Since my appointment as foundation director I have had a free hand in devising the overall structure of the museum and of making it as contemporary as possible. Apart from the problem with the statues, which is in the public domain, I do not speak at all about the private lives of the Camerons and in turn they do not impinge on my programming and planning. It's working well.
PH: Thank you