The Collection Is the Museum

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Installation View – Modern and Contemporary Collection Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art

 

 

In 1896, the American steel industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie launched the Carnegie International, a regularly occurring survey exhibition of global contemporary art. He had three goals: to educate and inspire the citizens of Pittsburgh and the country at large by exposing them to the best examples of international contemporary art; to enrich the permanent collection of the Carnegie Museums; and to promote international goodwill. Today, the International is the longest-running survey of global contemporary art after the Venice Biennale, which was established only one year earlier, in 1895.

 

Unlike Venice and most of the 200 or so more conspicuous biennials and international exhibitions that have emerged since, the Carnegie International has always been connected to and presented at the museum itself. It is, in effect, also a long-running acquisitions program, as the museum regularly purchases works from the show for its permanent collection.

 

The 2013 Carnegie International, on view through March 16, 2014, brings works by 35 artists from 19 countries to the city of Pittsburgh. It also offers a unique reminder of the critical role collections play in defining an institution, since this year, a strategic and comprehensive reinstallation of the Carnegie’s modern and contemporary collection galleries is a major part of the presentation. Rather than pack away its iconic works by Claude Monet, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois, and others into storage to make room for the International, the museum explicitly calls attention to them as an indispensable part of its history and legacy. And, given that many of the collection works were acquired from past Internationals, it makes a powerful declaration that the 2013 International artists are the Monets and de Koonings of today.

 

Interspersed with the contemporary works, the collection reconfiguration offers an anachronistic yet curiosity-inciting arrangement, putting 120 years of art history into active conversation. Films by Rodney Graham are shown on a customized projector adjacent to the museum’s own film collection. The monumental Hall of Architecture (a gallery of 150 individual plaster casts of ancient architectural masterpieces) has been painted purple as an intervention by Gabriel Sierra. And Pierre Leguillon’s installation in a vitrine in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Botany invites viewers to traverse what is usually a non-art-related wing of the museum.

 

Andrew Carnegie declared in the early years of the Carnegie International: “Let us hope pictures exhibited here will be of all schools and reach both extremes—the highest of artist and the humblest of citizen.” In the 2013 catalogue, curators Daniel Baumann, Daniel Byers, and Tina Kukielski write:

 

“Despite social media, the Internet, and our global information economy, it still makes a difference if you live in Tehran, a village near Kraków, Johannesburg, or Los Angeles. Yet all of the artists in the exhibition, while working from and within a local context, translate their views into pictures, sculptures, concepts, or installations that can be understood by a broad audience.”

 

In the spirit of Andrew Carnegie’s original mandate, the museum and its staff did everything right in helping contemporary art reach the broadest possible audience: writing approachable texts for the catalogue and gallery didactics, creating a user-friendly exhibition website, and making a substance-rich mobile app that offers an incredible wealth of information about all 35 artists.

 

On the social web, an active blog presence, videos, and full suite of social media sites feature frequent contributions from the curators, making their role as transparent as possible. The Carnegie International Digital Archive—perhaps too easily overlooked in the gallery as well as online—is literally a virtual treasure trove of installation photos, press clippings, and printed ephemera from past Internationals. Last but not least, a standing ovation is due for photography-related signage in the galleries that makes sense and is easy to understand.

 

It remains to be seen which works from the 2013 International will be acquired for the Carnegie collection (the decisions will be made later this year), but it is a thrill to know that a selection of them will become permanent parts of the museum and its history. It’s an even bigger thrill to know that presentations of collections can be celebrated like exhibitions, and at the scale of a more-than-century-long exhibition that built an entire museum collection. After all, biennials and triennials may come and go, but it’s the collection that remains and stands the test of time for future generations to appreciate, learn from, and consider.

 

The collection is the museum.

 

– JiaJia Fei