Backstage Presence

By Birnbaum, Daniel | Artforum International, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Backstage Presence


Birnbaum, Daniel, Artforum International


Suzanne Page generates a host of contradictory reactions. Some have described the director of the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris as an extraordinarily sensitive curator, one who is always on the artist's side. Others see her as an art-world player whose tactics can verge on ruthlessness when it comes to fulfilling her ambitions. When I finally managed to convince Page that it might be interesting to be interviewed (which wasn't easy), I found myself in the presence of an articulate, energetic woman, elegant in that unmistakably French way, who made a point of - In fact insisted on - her insignificance in the face of the tremendous power of art itself. A curator's power, she suggested, resides mainly in the ability to be vulnerable to artists' visions.

In the contemporary French art world, one finds plenty of believers in elaborate theoretical discourses but just as many disciples of the Eternal Poetic. Page seems to lean toward the latter, but in her case the instinct for poetry is combined with rare administrative gifts. Since 1988, when she took over as director, the museum has staged a number of successful and influential exhibitions, including one-person shows by Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, and Fabrice Hybert as well as ambitious theme shows, of which the most recent are "Passions Privees" (a display of holdings from private French collections) and "Annees 30 en Europe," an attempt to grasp the artistic milieu of the '30s in all its grotesque complexity. The critical consensus was 'that the latter show set new standards for its sophisticated presentation of the relationships between art and politics.

Page is also one of the few directors of large museums in Europe who have been successful in their goal of revitalizing the institution through staging a continuous dialogue between contemporary and historical art. Since 1988, the museum has systematically juxtaposed cutting-edge contemporary art and modern classics, such as the work of Glacometti, Arnold Schonberg, El Lissitzky, and the German Expressionists. This sort of synthesis is clearly the ambition as well of the current three-part exhibition of Nordic art, "Visions du Nord," which consists of a historical section focusing on five major artists from the turn of the century; a group selection of thirty-odd contemporary artists (from Finnish video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila to Swedish composer and installation artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff); and a one-person show of work by Danish painter Per Kirkeby.

Among museum people Suzanne Page is of course a well-known figure, but to the broader audience for art she is virtually invisible. She seldom grants interviews and generally refuses to be photographed. Indeed, during my repeated attempts to track her down, first in Paris and then in a succession of legendary European hotels, I became convinced that we would never meet face to face. Finally, in Berlin's plush Hotel Kempinski, I found proof of her actual existence, and not just "behind the scenes," but through the dim spotlight of the hotel bar.

- DB

DANIEL BIRNBAUM: You have been working in the same institution. the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, for a very long time now. How did it all start?

SUZANNE PAGE: In 1973 I was appointed the director of Animation, Research, and Confrontation [I'ARC], an institution that was founded in 1967 to open the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris to contemporary art and to involve the audience in more active ways. The idea behind I'ARC was very typical of the spirit of '68. The sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu about the thresholds of culture and society were important for our work, and we wanted to invite new audiences, to have people who normally would not even think about crossing that cultural threshold enter the museum. I am a product of those times.

DB: So what did you do before that?

SP: Well, in 1968 I hardly knew anything about contemporary art. …

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