A SWEDISH COURT will soon decide whether local authorities, sports clubs, and companies were justified in charging skiers a fee this past winter for skiing in the tracks these institutions had laid through the countryside. This issue is not just a legal one. It also cuts deep into the passionately held, age-old right of public access, or allemansratten, "everyman's right," a right that everyone living in Sweden takes for granted. The right of public access is the same for everyone and entitles people to roam freely in the countryside, regardless of private property or zoning. The right of public access itself is not regulated in detail, but it is guaranteed in the Swedish constitution. It strikes me that this is an excellent and concrete example of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call commonwealth--a kind of "third place," neither public nor private but having dimensions of both. Those who want skiers' fees will probably lose the battle against this medieval custom, which has survived the advent of property rights well into the twenty-first century. But the issue, arising as it has today, obviously holds implications for other areas, too.
The road from the ski track to the art museum is shorter than one might think. Museums of modern art could, in fact, be defined as attempts to establish various forms of intermediary "third spaces." These institutions offer different kinds of freedoms, yet they are always more or less conscious of a context that is actually entirely closed. I could make another sporting comparison here: Like Alain Robert, the "human Spider-Man" who scales the empty space between two buildings, there is an impression of considerable freedom. Only the toes and the fingertips need a structure for resistance. But dependence on this support is, of course, absolute. For museums, support from the public sector, the private sector, and the market, as well as from history, expectations, and formal and informal power and influence, is omnipresent. The intermediary spaces of the museum exist in a world that cannot be transcended, that has no "outside."
From the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Stedelijk Museum, Reina Sofia, the Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and Moderna Museet, we know them well: classic museums of modern art, defined by years of practice. Indeed, they are fundamentally paradoxical creations that have become the dominant model for art museums. Some of these spaces have successfully cultivated the tension between the modern and the museal, between serving as contemporary arenas and as collecting, historicizing institutions. The same tension arises in the symbolic--and often physical--space of these museums, which is the core (in the broad sense of the word) of all art institutions: a meeting place for artists and works of art on one hand, and for the audience on the other; a place where everything is done to optimize that decisive encounter in which art is activated by contact with viewers, where two entities with diametrically opposite needs meet each other, creating a space where art, people, and ideas can indeed roam freely, as if granted their own right of public access.
The art museum is, quite simply, exposed to pressures coming from many directions today--and I am not referring to the financial pressures experienced by museums, particularly in the US, over the past two years. On the contrary, I am thinking of the pressure from art itself: of the expectations placed on the museum to reshape itself and follow art wherever it may lead--to offer white cubes and black boxes when needed. At the same time, we are coming to realize that the museum is no longer synonymous with a building but depends on an institutional relationship between art and audience. (And this, incidentally, is where the symbolic implications of the institution have grown increasingly and surprisingly important for art. …