Christoph Buchel vs. Mass MoCA Redux

Appellate Court Rules Artist's Claim Bears Merit

By: - Jan 29, 2010


The artist Christoph Buchel  still seeks a day in court. He demands satisfaction for perceived damages in a project gone terribly wrong "Training Ground for Democracy" with Mass MoCA.

After months when the project stalled during contentious negotiations between the Swiss artist and the museum the matter was seemingly settled. Work on the project was halted in December of 2006 which delayed a scheduled winter opening. The museum's largest gallery remained closed during the crucial summer season. On September 21, 2007 Judge Michael A. Posner, in Federal District Court in Springfield, ruled that the museum did not violate the 1990 Visual Artist Rights Act. Link to BFA Coverage .

Prior to that ruling the museum had placed hanging tarps concealing the installation while seeking to allow viewing of the work in progress. When the ruling was handed down by the court the museum opted to clear the gallery and  prepare it for an exhibition by the artist Jenny Holzer .

At the time, the museum suffered a loss of face in the art world. Arts writers in major publications including the The New York Times  and Boston Globe, if not entirely taking the side of the artist, at least argued the case  of reasonable doubt.

The controversy occurred for Mass MoCA at a sensitive time for the museum. Having an artist of the stature of Holzer coming forward set the museum back on track. That turnaround was viewed as complete when the museum enjoyed widely acclaimed success in completing its enormous Sol LeWitt project. It has not looked back since then.

Until yesterday. A federal appellate court ruled that Buchel's claims of copyright infringement bear merit and should be heard by a federal jury. Link to North Adams Transcript coverage by  Jennifer Huberdeau  I Berkshires and  New York Times reports.

Is this a matter of here we go again? Or just a glitch in the road and distraction for a museum that has made mistakes but learned from them and apparently moved on.

In general the installers and support staff of the museum, one of the best in the field, have been known for bending over backwards to accommodate the demands and expectations of artists. We reported on a back stage, workshop tour with chief preparator Richard Criddle.

Recently we visited with Mass MoCA curator, Denise Markonish, and Criddle during an early stage of the current installation in the cavernous Building Five by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. We returned after a couple of weeks for a dialogue with the artist then putting the finishing touches on the work. Nobody found it unusual for a critic to visit and report on a work in progress.

But this was one of the primary points of contention in the conflict between the artist and the museum. A correspondent  reported on one such preview. We also wrote about the installation when it was under wraps. Link to BFA article.

Recently I was asked by John Mitchell of the North Adams Transcript to contribute to a list noting Best of the Decade fine arts exhibitions and projects in the Berkshires. I cited the aborted Buchel exhibition as Number One for its overall impact not just regionally but on the art world in general.

The conflict between Buchel and Mass MoCA was the kind of mud wrestling brawl from which nobody emerges clean. It tarnished the reputation of a great contemporary museum committed to doing outstanding and challenging projects. But it also revealed Buchel as self absorbed and unreasonable. The relentless and sustained pursuit of this matter should give pause to curators and museums considering undertaking projects with him.

While Mass MoCA has moved on, apparently, the artist has not. If a jury finds in favor of the artist, however, the museum may still be on the hook for serious damages. Given the fragile state of the economy that could prove to be devastating. We have yet to see the end of this mess.