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Art Blanche

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Is giving artists carte blanche really worth it?

One constant thread throughout art history is the tense and often ambiguous relationship between those who make art and those who hold the purse strings. Like many facets of art, this relationship often changes with the times; today, the fiscally cautious museum must contend with the increasingly unorthodox practices of artists whose work is almost indistinguishable from the everyday world. In some cases, artists are given carte blanche to create, restricted by budget alone. Unless museums are careful and more fiscally conservative than they care to appear, this type of “reality show exhibition” can lead to fiascos such as the recent spat between unorthodox artist Christoph Büchel and the equally adventurous MASS MoCA.

Büchel’s “Training Ground for Democracy,” an unprecedented large-scale work slated for exhibition at MASS MoCA this spring, was cancelled due to a clash between the institution and the artist over finances and work ethic.

There is no doubt that artists have benefited from a loosening of the modernist constrictions that separated “sculpture” from “painting” and required the artist’s touch to maintain its sacredness. Sol LeWitt, in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” wrote that “Ideas can be works of art.” Richard Serra and Donald Judd made plans for their minimalist works made of industrial materials by industrial manufacturers, and Robert Smithson made the largest works of art ever constructed, showing that art could exist outside of the gallery and museum’s white cube.

If the 20th century expanded the role of the artist into previously unknown territories (they became not only creators, but administrators, archivists, facilitators, and directors of activities), this century is seeing the advent of the artist who is given carte blanche by the museum to do whatever he or she wants; the only limiting factor being a financial “spending cap.”

Christoph Büchel is a perfect example of this new breed of artist who is encouraged to run amok with the museum’s galleries, as a sort of laboratory experiment, to simply see what happens. Büchel is known for these types of surprise installations – they are his trademark, and have served him well in his young career. “Training Ground for Democracy” was to be an unprecedented, large-scale work by Büchel. Slated for exhibition at MASS MoCA this spring, it was abruptly cancelled, however, just weeks before the opening, due to a severe clash between the institution and the artist over finances and work ethic.

The 20th century has been marked by nasty and devastating battles royale between artists and their patrons/curators/commissioners. As public art and collaboration between museums and artists has become a more popular way of exhibiting art, the grey area separating legal obligations and creative license has become increasingly prominent.

One of the most famous conflicts between artist and commissioner took place in 1989, when Richard Serra’s site-specific work, Tilted Arc, was removed–in the middle of the night)–after a court ruling because its opponents said that it encouraged vagrancy and disturbed the line of sight in New York’s Federal Plaza. A messy lawsuit ensued over breach of contract, with Serra losing out and Tilted Arc sent to the scrap heap.

The difference between Büchel’s method and those of his antecedents is that Bechel did not propose a project for the museum. And unlike older artists who attempted to secure legal requirements about the way their work was exhibited, Büchel seems to have a laissez-faire attitude towards his own efforts. Where the artists of the last generation fought for creative control, Büchel acts as if money were no object. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. One could argue that conceptual art does not allow for a “plan” as such, but even a basic plan could have helped Mass MoCA and Büchel avoid the expensive catastrophe that resulted from the freewheeling nature of “Training Ground.”

As the largest contemporary arts center in the country and a self-described “laboratory” for art-making, MASS MoCA is proud of its unique character; it exhibits some of the most challenging, and often the most monumental installations on view in the United States. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Franz West and Cai Guo-Qiang have benefited from the museum’s spacious galleries and progressive curators. Artists have installed massive murals, cars, and super-sized sculpture since their opening in 1999. Büchel’s work, however, was arguably the most demanding and pricey installation ever undertaken by the museum, with thousands of objects filling the football field sized Building 5.

In a 2002 Artforum article, Büchel was described as “the mischievous Swiss artist” who “was invited to do whatever he wanted.” In one exhibition, for example, nobody involved in the installation was permitted to throw out cigarette butts, as the artist wanted to include them. Such all-encompassing projects demand that the artist take on multiple roles at once; he is an engineer, archivist, and construction worker. Curators are almost completely out of the picture, as the only decisions left to the exhibiting institution are the financial ones.

In correspondence regarding the failed “Training Ground” installation, Büchel wrote that, “The artist will not accept any orders and any more pressure or compromises as to how things have to be done from the museum director or museum’s technicians.” Such defensiveness on behalf of an artist’s creative control is neither shocking nor new. Despite the relatively unorthodox nature of Büchel’s process, collaborative arrangements between artist and institution have a long history; from Richard Serra to Jean-Claude and Christo, whose works of art become larger, messier, and harder to distinguish from reality, it is clear that the relationship between artist and institution will become a more complex arena to navigate. In Büchel’s case, however, he simply disappeared, abandoning the project halfway through.

MASS MoCA made its mistake in failing to form a detailed contract with Büchel. As a result, the project began to take on a life of its’ own. During the course of the installation, the museum was charged with procuring difficult-to-find objects such as an oil tanker (which had to be professionally cleaned for exhibition), “a two-story Cape Cod-style house, a movie theater, cinder block walls, numerous sea containers, a mobile home, multiple vehicles, and thousands of found objects.” Büchel’s desire to “make the gallery disappear” cost the museum more than twice the initial $150,000 budget set aside for Büchel’s work, and with the artist nowhere to be found weeks before the opening, MASS MoCA was forced to either scrap the entire exhibition or to show the results of their failed efforts. The museum claims that the artist did not do his part, leaving the work unfinished and returning to Europe. According to the press release: “While MASS MoCA has provided double the original budget, increased the available time for installation by a factor of three, and made available to the artist significant additional funding to return and complete the work, the artist has so far not returned to North Adams to finish the work.”

Perhaps Büchel could have taken some advice from the late Sol Lewitt, who wrote, “If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result.”

After the opening date of May 22nd had come and gone, MASS MoCA sought a court ruling in which the museum could make the unfinished work available for public view; Büchel would continue to be able to contribute something to the work on view and to “present his perspective.” This type of “very narrow ruling..clearly labeled as unfinished” would not grant the museum to disturb any of the materials gathered for the exhibition, but simply to show the collaborative work-in-progress created by both the museum and the artist.

Following in the footsteps of artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Jessica Stockholder, the less-disciplined Büchel creates large-scale installations that intentionally appear as a work-in progress. Normally, his work transports the viewer to worlds where the gallery context is completely obliterated from the content. Through unorthodox means, Büchel has made a name for himself as an innovative, if at times, tempestuous artist who is unafraid to expose hypocrisy, war tensions, cruelty and greed through architecturally incorporated industrial and military-related objects. The large scale, everyday, and open-ended nature of the work is not dissimilar in tone to the Earthworks of Robert Smithson, who attempted to prove that art could exist outside of the gallery. Büchel, however, is not savvy enough to navigate the obligations of working within an institution that pays the bills. If he wanted to exceed the limits of a gallery, he probably should have chosen a different location.

Although irreconcilable differences between artists and museums rarely reach a standoff of such proportions, the contemporary arts center located in North Adams, Massachusetts, has wisely decided to make a lesson out of the cancelled “Training Ground,” forming a new exhibition, “Made at MASS MoCA” that tells the story of the failed exhibition. Clearly, the museum is thinking on their toes; the documentary project, “Made at MASS MoCA” will address what works and what doesn’t work when museums and artists embark on collaborative projects on the scale of “Training Ground for Democracy.” The new exhibition opened May 26, 2007, and will be on view through Fall 2007. It focuses not only on the Büchel fracas, but also on “other experiences working with artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Ann Hamilton, Tim Hawkinson, Matthew Ritchie, and Robert Wilson to provide our audience with thought-provoking insights into the complexities of the art-making process.”

Since his New York solo debut five years ago, in 2002, Büchel has maintained a steady schedule of exhibitions, including those at the Venice Biennale, Hauser & Wirth, Art Basel, LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions),and the Sculpture Center. After “Training Ground for Democracy” was officially called off, however, some began to wonder whether Büchel’s abandoning his own work will affect his exhibiting opportunities in the future; others (including MASS MoCA’s director, James Thompson) have suggested that perhaps the cancelled exhibition was a work of art in and of itself. Whether this is true or not, this was definitely a missed opportunity for the museum-goers who would have benefited, and for the donors who supported the project.

Within the world of contemporary art museums, MASS MoCA is facing tough questions as to why there was not a contract detailed enough to legally bind Mr. Büchel to the completion of the work. As other museums attempt to avoid similar conundrums. director James Thompson seems to have resigned himself to a disturbingly cavalier “oh well” attitude: “When you are committed to experimenting on a large scale,” he told the New York Times, “the results can be unexpected. Not everything works.” Thompson seems to have taken the easy road here; both the artist and the museum need to ensure that this does not happen again. The at-times blissfully naive art world cannot rely solely on good faith; as a pioneer in contemporary art exhibition practices, MASS MoCA owes it to its audience and its artists to take a more hands-on approach than it has done in the Büchel fiasco. After all, they’re paying for it.

for more on Buchel and Mass MoCA, see the New York Times article.

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