Kathy Halbreich: Associate Director, Museum of Modern Art, New York

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Kathy Halbreich: Associate Director, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


HAVING COME OF AGE IN THE 1960S, I've been unable to abandon a belief in a certain Utopian imperative. But it was being at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center--a medium sized museum in the middle of the country, with an incredible historical legacy--that first provided me with a platform for thinking about how to materialize this imperative and, more specifically, for asking questions about what the social backbone of such an institution could be. When I became director in 1991,I began to work on joining the inside and the outside, beginning with efforts among the staff and then within the community.

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First, I wanted to help people grasp the power of a flat organization governed by a shared mission. I wanted to sec whether some of the class divisions within an institution could be erased, so that, for instance, the extraordinary people who worked in the basement--the so-called crew, many of whom were artists-would know that their voices were important in the galleries. Similarly, I wanted to bridge the gap between administrators and programmers. We were all creative partners, and emphasizing this would, I hoped, make everyone feel deeply engaged in the institution. I also sought to erase any sense that I, as the director, was the embodiment of the institution. In the past, museum directors have been portrayed as these great puppet masters--the person who invents the story, writes the script, and manipulates the characters--and even at Walker, the PR people were apt to say yours must be the hand people shake in order for them to feel connected to the institution. I just never believed that. And this isn't to say that established standards were to be sacrificed, but rather that they were to be debated. The heart and soul of an organization is a discussion of what matters; it is to ask what is meaningful and, moreover, to ask, Whose values are on view, anyway?

Then I began to consider whether that openness could be reflected in our engagements with a wider audience. Museums today are increasingly recognized, I think, as site-specific institutions. Yes, we all have the same deliberations about conservation, about how our collections should be organized, and about what to do regarding financial challenges. (I don't know a single cultural organization that is properly capitalized. The business model for great institutions remains a philanthropic one, and I don't believe that will--or should--change.) But institutions really do offer reflections of their individual communities. Ultimately, where the museum is rooted--who its patrons and audiences are--gives shape, if not to its program, then to its ethical and civic posture. When I sought to diversify the audience at Walker, it wasn't a question of bringing a greater number of bodies through the door but rather of amplifying cultural biographies, of bringing more perspectives and stories into the institution and onto the walls, screens, and stage. For example, when I first tried to find out how many people of color visited the museum each year, I discovered the number wasn't even being tallied--which is in itself a very telling detail about who was visible and who was not. By the time I left, our audience was between 13 and 17 percent people of color, which tracked roughly to the demographics of the Twin Cities, and far more teens were choosing to come to Walker on their own. That took a herculean commitment to those audiences, to artists who were interested in them, and to educators, as well as to curators, like Philippe Vergne, who wanted to spend several years thinking alongside artists, like Kara Walker, who were creating a new art history. That's what I mean by joining inside and out.

I was considered naive by some board members when I first talked about this, but before long there were an increasing number of business models steeped in this approach. In fact, when we were designing the program--and then the building with Herzog & de Meuron--we felt we had to look at the corporate world, because we were in the land of the Mall of America.

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