Judge Allows Mass MoCA's Unfinished Buchel Show

Costly Victory for North Adams Museum

By: - Sep 22, 2007

Judge Allows Mass MoCA’s Unfinished Buchel Show - Image 1 Judge Allows Mass MoCA’s Unfinished Buchel Show

    The exhibition "Training Ground for Democracy" by a controversial and contentious Swiss installation artist, Christoph Buchel, whom some view as brilliant, defiant and original but others consider as a petulant, arrogant, publicity generating diva, was originally scheduled to open in the vast Building Five of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams last December. Now the frost is on the pumpkin as the key tourism season has come and gone for the hard scrabble Northern Berkshire County community. Local shops, galleries, restaurants and entrepreneurs may not be experts on cutting edge international art but they do understand the bottom line.

    From P'Town to Tanglewood all indicators are that this was a tough year for those who rely on seasonal tourism for their income. But with the main gallery of Mass MoCA, roughly a third of its enormous space dead in the water all summer, and at best sidebar attractions in its other galleries, coupled with less than spectacular programming (with the exception of the annual Bang on the Can events), it was an especially tough summer for North Adams. There was some relief in the spillover from neighboring Williamstown with a strong season for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, improved from a critically dismal program last year, a popular ersatz Monet show at the Clark "The Unknown Monet," and a hit show "Making It New: The Art and Style of  Sara and Gerald Murphy" at the Williams College Museum of Art, there was enough synergy to bolster the museum through its contentious and costly legal battle with the artist.

    In a decision yesterday that surprised many, and will have long term ramifications for museums presenting the mega works that have become a bench mark for the art world, the judge, Michael A. Posner, in Federal District Court in Springfield, Massachusetts ruled that the display of the unfinished project by Buchel would not violate the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 which provides that an artist has the right to "prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work."

    When it became apparent to the museum last winter that it could never fulfill all of the expectations and demands of the artist and stay within the constraints of scheduling and budget (doubled to some $300,000) negotiations broke down. The artist through his attorneys demanded that the work in progress not be shown in an unfinished state. As is the apparent practice of the museum a number of VIPs had been escorted through the installation in progress and subsequently reports appeared in the media. Eventually, during the summer Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, made the controversial decision to put up tarps to partly block viewing the unfinished installation and allow passage through the space to hastily assembled, critically castigated, displays of its past collaborations with artists.

    In addition to consuming time and money, there was considerable collateral damage to both the reputation of the artist, as difficult if not impossible to deal with, and to the museum for not respecting the wishes of an artist in creating a complex, multi layered new work. While the local media took a primarily supportive and sympathetic position with the plight of the museum the national media played hard ball. There were devastatingly tough reports by Ken Johnson, the widely respected art critic for the Boston Globe, who recently announced a decision to return to the New York Times after a year in Boston, and Roberta Smith in last Sunday's New York Times.

    Not mincing words in the lead to her Times article Smith wrote "When a museum behaves badly, it's never pretty. But few examples top the depressing spectacle at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary ArtÂ…By opening this show without his assent, the museum has broken faith with the artist, the public and art itselfÂ…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."

     Well, not exactly according to the decision of Judge Ponsor. At least from the point of view of a legal interpretation the museum has won a hard fought victory. Or has it? Evoking the example of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. whose new director, Christina Orr-Cahall, lives in art world infamy for canceling, in 1989, on the grounds of alleged obscenity, a retrospective of the then deceased photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith stated that "It's hard for a museum to recover when it forfeits the high ground."

     After nearly a year of being brought to a standstill regarding programming its largest gallery and biggest draw the museum is finally free to move on. It is also off the hook from the potential cost, possibly in the millions of dollars, had the artist won and initiated a civil suit for damages. Many insiders wondered why Thompson was willing to put the fragile assets of the relatively new and slimly endowed museum at such risk by aggressively opening the galleries under tarps which forced the hand of legal actions with the artist. Fortunately for Thompson and the museum they prevailed as the result of their day in court. But talk about cutting it close. Wow.

    In a statement released by the museum it will make a decision on whether to open or dismantle the exhibition this coming week. "On September 21, the court ruled that MASS MoCA could make the assembled materials available for viewing. "We appreciate the thoughtful consideration that went into this complex case and we are pleased with the court's decision," said Joseph C. Thompson, MASS MoCA's director. "We've exercised great care in dealing with these materials and we are happy that the judge has granted us the right to continue to do so."

         Thompson continued, "We are eager to resume our normal programming and fulfill our mission to serve as a laboratory for art-making. In making our decision as to how to best proceed we will take into account our many constituencies and other factors both practical and philosophical. We expect to make an announcement about Training Ground by Tuesday and in the meantime we hope to work with the artist on a suitable disclaimer in the event we chose to allow the public to view the materials."

        "Among the factors we'll be weighing the most important of which is our mission to support and present new work. In that regard I'm pleased to announce a new installation for Building 5 by Jenny Holzer to be opened later this fall." For thirty years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Reichstag, and the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, an electronic sign or a light projection, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. In Projections, Holzer will use MASS MOCA's massive Building 5 as the site of her first interior light projections in the United States. She will also exhibit a new series of paintings shown, in part, at the 2007 Venice Biennale."

            So, starting this week, Thompson and Mass MoCA will be moving on and putting the Buchel fiasco behind them. There is a mess to be cleaned up. Not just clearing the space of such content as a house, former movie theatre, cinder block walls, truck and vehicles, but also a mess representing psychological stress, loss of prestige and damaged relationships with artists, audience, donors, the local arts and business community, critics and the media. In that sense this is at best a Pyrrhic Victory.

                Taking a longer view, however, this may prove to be little more than a bump in the road. On many levels, the museum under Thompson's leadership has never been more focused or successful. Ultimately, museum directors answer to their boards and not to artists, critics or the general public. In the past year, while the Buchel struggle has evoked negative headlines, the museum has moved forward solidly and confidently with their game plan. In addition to a strong and successful capital campaign it is moving ahead with two major development projects. In collaboration with Yale University it is in the process of renovating and installing an all but permanent installation of conceptual wall pieces by the late Sol LeWitt. Recently, there was a joint announcement with the Clark Art Institute to lease and develop space on the Mass MoCA campus in one of its prime, most visible locations. There have been no firm disclosures of just how the neighboring Clark, which is known to be moving cautiously into the area of Modern Art, will use the space. It has been suggested that it would combine dead storage as well as exhibition galleries. But it is a move that connects the dots between Mass MoCA and the Clark or more exactly between blue collar North Adams and blue blood Williamstown.

            So while Judge Posner has ruled on the legal issues in the more sensitive court of public opinion the jury is still out.