Boy, was I wrong about what to expect from “Expanding Museums.” The panel, one of the Frieze Talk series of roundtable discussions and lectures held in conjunction with the Frieze art fair, should have been a rare opportunity to see the heads of New York museums chatting about “the current and future roles of contemporary art institutions.” Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff led the panelists, which included Glenn Lowry, Director of MoMA, Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney, and Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum.
The high-profile speakers, though, failed to offer any insights beyond what could've been delivered by a PR department. Glenn Lowry and Sheena Wagstaff both brought up how a museum's architecture provides “the ethos of the institution” and, in an equally banal gesture, Adam Weinberg stated that he wanted architect Renzo Piano to “respond to the exterior” of the Whitney's new building.
Even if these three didn't want to get down to real talk, museum expansion must take into account how to accommodate the vast number of people who come into their physical and virtual spaces everyday. Expansion isn't just about architecture. Museum audiences, including their full-time staff, exhibiting artists, and unpaid interns, expect something in return from museum expansion projects. And avoiding their needs under the guise of another pretty, Starchitect-designed building is not the answer.
The “Expanding Museums” discussion didn't perk up until the Q and A session. Whitney Kimball, AFC's Associate Editor, stood up to ask the trio of panelists about their response to the Occupy and Sotheby's art handlers protests.
“Protests?” asked Glenn Lowry and Adam D. Weinberg. Sheena Wagstaff remained silent.
Eventually, with a bit of prodding from the audience, Weinberg's memory was restored. Speaking for the Whitney as a whole, he claimed, “We don't have an intent to respond one way or the other.” At least he said something.
Conspicuously absent from “Expanding Museums” were representatives from the Guggenheim. Given the organization's global affiliates project, with new museums under construction in Abu Dhabi and possibly Helsinki, their absence provided a notable gap in discussion.
“Expanding Museums” wasn't the only Frieze Talk to pass over necessary panelists. On Sunday, Frieze Talks will include a roundtable discussion, “On Land Occupation,” which will focus on Occupy Wall Street. No Occupy representatives will be on the panel. This is an issue not just for the panel, but also for the fair. According to Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums, police officers forced protesters to evacuate the fair on Thursday evening.
It's tough for museum directors and fair staff to feign indifference when the protests are happening right in front of them. Sunday's panelists ought to take the opportunity to speak out.