Moderna Museet Director Daniel Birnbaum

Speaking about the future, there are several plans, but the most important thing is the notion that the museum can be figured out anew again and again; this must be done every season, because a museum shouldn’t get stuck in place. Right now we are actively working on the collection. In order to introduce it this fall as the home of modern art, we have posed the question: What really is modernity? The exhibit Turner, Monet, Twombly is perhaps one of the most ambitious ways to do this. Yet at the same time you cannot deny that, in a sense, the show is about the birth of modernity. Turner is often mentioned as the starting point of pure painting—the atmospheric as the source of the abstract. Claude Monet’s works, in turn, are about pure vision, perception; his paintings aren’t planned as abstract, yet something they look pretty abstract. They somehow foresee what will follow in art…

Step by step, we are also setting up a new exhibition, encompassing all the photographs in the museum’s collection. At the end of the fall—in November, December, and January—the museum will be split in two: a huge exhibit of paintings, and the history of photography. Sweden has never had such a wide-ranging photo exhibit with works of historical significance. Actually, I can’t even remember if I have ever seen an exhibit like this. Maybe in France, or in Germany, there has been something like this. Possibly.

In any event, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet has a very strong photography collection, with such renowned names as Man Ray, Diane Arbus, and others. Yes, people have been actively interested in photography for some time now, but nothing like this has ever been done so systematically before.

At the same time, we have a small exhibit by Marcel Duchamp at the Malmö branch of the Moderna Museet. So right now at the museum, touching on the question of modernity, we have exhibits of paintings, mechanical reproductions and their jostling with painting, and the origins of conceptual art in the form of Duchamp. In other words, now we are in a very lucky position, but even when it ends, we will continue with something new!

Speaking about the status of museums today, do you think that people are gradually losing faith in state museums as authorities in relations to what is good art and what is not so good art? 

I think that art criticism has lost its strength. It seems as if the critic as authority no longer exists. I, too, was once an art critic, and I still write, but more on the other front—art projects—therefore from a different point of view.

But I think that museums should strive to be this authority. Not in the old fashioned, insistent way with hierarchies; rather, they should discuss their own state and circumstances in a lively way, show their collection in a new, different way, etc. Which is what we do, for example, looking back at the twentieth century through the photography genre and not, as usual, only through painting. To write a different story, a different history.

Yet I’d like to ask you a question in return: What, to your mind, is beginning to replace the museum as an authority?

More and more often in Europe you hear doubts that, as state financing decreases, museums are searching for sponsors. And it so happens that sponsors impose their own rules and show just specific private collections, which makes visitors doubtful about the museum’s ability to preserve an independent position. I ask this because maybe that’s not the case at all, and these doubts have no basis.

I understand what you are thinking, and I even agree to the outline of the situation. But I must add that in the entire Western world we are seeing how the power of financial and commercial interests is growing. More and more private investors are also appearing, for instance, in Berlin and Stockholm there is a whole string of private art spaces and museums. That’s why, returning to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, I can say that we are in a rather privileged status, because such a small country has an art collection of this scale.  >>