How artists are building a decisive role within museums

How artists are building a decisive role within museums

November 24, 2016 by Diane Drubay
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Well, this was a bit of a low-key information, but nonetheless exciting! The United Nations has announced the creation of the UN Live Museum for Humanity. The project is spearheaded by UN veteran of the Office for Project Services Jan Mattson, who will run the museum together with entrepreneur Henrik Skovby and none other than Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. No doubt this is not the first time a renowned artist will serve at the board of a museum, but the UN Live Museum is moving into a new direction.

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UN Live website

Conceived as a ‘global museum’, it will exist as a physical museum, which is currently under construction in Copenhagen, a network of UN Live hubs throughout the world and an open digital platform.

With the main aim to educate and create a better understanding of the UN’s activities across the globe and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the museum will share stories from UN workers and the people affected by crises in real time to create exhibitions based on interaction and learning.

The content and design has been created by Eliasson together with a team of people from UNESCO, the UN Office in Geneva, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the Olympic Museum and prominent universities, including Columbia University and the Alle School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa. Needless to say that this is a considerable amount of input from Eliasson as far as shaping the project goes.

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Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Place du Panthéon, Paris, 2015. Photo: Martin Argyroglo © 2015 Olafur Eliasson.

Eliasson is hardly an odd choice, as he is known for large scale installations such as The Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, The New York City Waterfalls in the East River and, most recently, his intervention in the famous gardens of the Palace of Versailles. His installation work centres on perception and embeds social and environmental issues in the viewing experience. For the very conscious and engaged Ice Watch, he brought 80 tonnes of melted Greenland ice to Copenhagen in 2014 and Paris in 2015 for the COP21 climate conference.

Once collected, kept and exhibited, artists have developed and complexified their relationship to museums in significant ways. Artists have for long run their own spaces where they create, exhibit and sometimes sell their work outside traditional public and private institutions. But recently there has been an increased involvement of artists on the institutional level, as exemplified by Nicholas Serota’s artist-centred strategy for Tate, where artists are actively asked what they would like in a museum. Just a few days ago, the Internet Age Media platform reported on their collaboration with Tate Collectives, (random) co:jams, a series of agile and creative sessions which heavily featured artists, along with technologists and young people to try and repurpose the museum of the future.

For over a decade now, museums have given artists a carte blanche to create site-specific interventions. The Monumenta exhibition series at the Grand Palais in Paris has seen superstar artists such as Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, and Huang Yong Ping present installations in the grand hall, and the likes of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Eliasson have created works for the Versailles Palace’s famous gardens. Turner-prize winner Grayson Perry scoured the collections of the British Museum for his 2010 exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman.

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Takashi Murakami in Versailles

On a more practical level, artists run workshops and educational programmes in museums. SFMOMA presented the Artist Initiative in 2014 with Ellsworth Kelly, Vija Celmins and Julia Scher as a collaborative and interdisciplinary research series, uniting curators, conservators, and art historians to pioneer new practices about the treatment contemporary art.

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SFMOMA website

Many cultural spaces and museums, both private and public, also already have artists involved as board members, but Eliasson’s appointment to a prominent executive role at the UN Live Museum marks a change in the dynamics of artists at these institutions.

With an artistic practice emphasising direct experience and engagement, Eliasson brings his artistic strategies for tackling contemporary social and environmental issues to the museum. What we are seeing is the adoption of creative practices to the sphere of the executive in a non-art museum that emphasises the importance of immediacy to facilitate learning and create a collective understanding.

Eliasson has also become influential outside the sphere of art. He launched his social business Little Sun in 2012 and in 2015 he spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos and participated in the COP21 climate conference. He also has a remarkable social media following with more than 200K followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. With the direct communication between artist and audience offered by these platforms, Eliasson has emerged as an influencer and activist in his own right.

Artists are increasingly seen as creative professionals and influencers, making them an interesting and important recruitment for museums to shape their spaces and reach audiences. The appointment of Eliasson should not go unnoticed as it may well set a new precedent in the so far extremely fruitful relationship between artists and museums.