Is it okay to show art against the artist’s will?

I’m late to this party, but it’s such a topic of discussion that I have to chime in.

If you aren’t already familiar with the ongoing saga between Swiss artist Christoph Büchel and MASS MoCA, you should be. It’s a tale of an ambitious art installation gone awry and the museum stepping in to fill the role of the absent artist (or was the museum simply curating?). An artist’s installation on exhibit against his strenuous objections. The artist accused of being difficult. The museum accused of being self-serving.

Now . . . I don’t know every detail in this case (yes, it has become a lawsuit), but if ever a partnership has screamed out for a legal contract that spelled out the minutiae of a project, this was it. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. And would such contracts be too restrictive?

As a former museum professional, I want to be sympathetic to the museum without even knowing the particulars. However, as an artist’s advocate, I simply can’t comprehend showing artists’ work against their will.

Today’s New York Times gives the latest update. Among my favorite quotes from Times esteemed art critic Roberta Smith:

  • If an artist who conceived a work says that it is unfinished and should not be exhibited, it isn’t — and shouldn’t be. End of story.
  • Yes, artists can be formidably difficult. The larger the artwork, the bigger the ego.
  • But by opening this strange quasi display, MassMoCA does even more damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.
  • Never underestimate the amount of resentment and hostility we harbor toward artists. It springs largely from envy. They can behave quite badly, but mainly they operate with a kind of freedom and courage that other people don’t risk or enjoy. And it can lead to wondrous things.
  • In the end it doesn’t matter how many people toil on a work of art, or how much money is spent on it. The artist’s freedom includes the right to say, “This is not a work of art unless I say so.” 

Edward Winkleman says: “I can’t help but feel that no matter how sincerely the institution feels that’s the case, broadcasting it this way will only serve to weaken the trust between itself and other artists, not help it.”

There’s bound to be a book about this in the future. I look forward to reading both sides–in depth–and learning how such an incredible opportunity for both the artist and museum went flop.

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7 comments to Is it okay to show art against the artist’s will?

  • I read about this awhile ago..and I can’t remember where. But my take on the situation was much different. The idea of art being shown against the artist’s will is one of those “hit you in the gut” sentiments. (“Of course not!” we reply) However, from what I read about the situation, it could be argued that the museum was collaborating with the artist on this project. The museum was funding the project on a grand scale, and the artist walked off the job & refused to communicate with the museum, according to what I read. This kind of situation hurts museums, and hurts artists who are trying to get assistance with large projects. Personally, I read it as another attention-getting scenario on the part of the artist. He’s probably best friends with Jeff Koons.

  • Thanks for pointing this out, Alyson. It’s an intersting article, gorgeously and sensitively written by Roberta Smith. Christine – she addresses the “artist-as-pain-in-the-a$$” angle in depth and still comes down on the side of the artist – a brave and energzing stance. I know it’s tempting to view this artist as ungrateful and uncooperative, unwilling to compromise. But what good art has ever come from compromise? It takes uncompromising vision to play with the big dogs and I applaud the artist for sticking to his vision.

  • As an artist living in North Adams, MA , the town where MASS MoCA is located (I am in no way affiliated with the museum), I think it is important to note a crucial component missing from the dialog and that is the responsibility of the museum and the artist to the community in which they are working. MASS MoCA was built as an economic driver in a struggling mill town that had lost its core industry. The idea was always to try to revitalize the local economy through culture. Buchel has demonstrated a penchant for pranks that question the art business (in 2002 he sold his invite to Manifesta for $15,000 on ebay) and apparently has no regard for the working class people of this region who rely on the tourism that MASS MoCA generates for subsistance. I am generally very protective of artists’ rights but I think this is an unfortunate example of the artist not being sensitive to the situation. When do the rights of the artist supersede the responsibility that artists have within a community? I would argue that this stunt would have been more appropriately executed at a larger, more endowed institution instead. As an artist, I count on artists to enrich our society and to question authority, but not at the expense of an already economically depressed community. Either Buchel didn’t do his homework or, if he did, shame on him for ignoring the impact of his actions in order to bolster his own ego.

  • artist makes mistakes. and so do galleries. this seems a story of mistakes without soloutions. it also seems a story of 2 egos. everyone else suffers

  • I think the key is that Buchel was invited to create a piece for the space, yes? The museum was provided him with space, resources and budget. If this was something he did on his own and MoCA were taking it and doing as they pleased, I don’t see that anyone would be on their side. Regardless, the Smith piece is severely flawed. She doesn’t seem to understand the context in which this work was commissioned and created, nor the mission of the venue.

  • I’m even later to this party, but after having looked at all of it, I think this is just a case of breach of contract on the part of Buchel – does he haven any idea how many artists he is hurting with his behavoir? He agreed to a legal contract, he accepted money – an amazing amount of money, nearly twice what was originally offered – and he still can’t find a way to work it out? What about customer service? What about being gracious? Alyson, you talk in today’s post about being careful how to repsond to a vague, fishing email – how much more of a responisiblity does Buchel have to try to work this out? Good grief, how about he give me the $300,000 and I’ll go finish it up? I would be thrilled to be given the offer and so would hundreds of other artists; I truly cannot justifiy any of his actions in this.

  • I know this is an older post now but just got this Art Newspaper update in my in box that people might be interested in. This is how it’s being reported by the international art press anyway: http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article01.asp?id=4565 Tina.