New media is a strength

Daiga Rudzāte

An interview with Stéphane Aquin, the chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum


Stéphane Aquin is the chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. We meet in Riga. Joseph Herman Hirshhorn (1899–1981), the initiator of the museum, was born here in Latvia; at age six, he and his mother emigrated to the United States, where he became a successful businessman and art collector. His collection of 19th- and 20th-century painting and sculpture formed the foundation of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1974.

“It is an honour to have given my art collection to the people of the United States as a small repayment for what this nation has done for me and others like me who arrived here as immigrants. What I accomplished in the United States I could not have accomplished anywhere else in the world.” This quote by Hirshhorn is included in the museum’s description.

“He made a fortune with uranium, and, as a miner of sorts, he had a fascination for new  materials and new techniques. And it’s embedded within our thinking that part of our understanding of modernism is the exploration of media and new forms,” Aquin tells me during our conversation. He has been the museum’s chief curator since 2015. An active art critic in the 1990s, before joining the Hirshhorn museum, he also served as the curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art (MMFA), where he organised a number of significant large-format exhibitions. Some highlights among his more recent work include Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse, which opened at the Hirshhorn in November 2018 and was on show until the end of April of this year. It was the museum’s largest interactive technology exhibition to date.

“New media, of course, is a strength,” says Aquin when speaking of the exhibition. Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican-Canadian artist who sublimates art, architecture, technology and performance. “I think he’s a brilliant artist,” say Aquin. “The way he talks about his’re ready to follow him over a cliff. He works with media and robotics and big light spectacles. The art world is not always cognizant of what he does. (..) The art world is quite conservative in some ways, and if you can’t show it at Art Basel, it sort of doesn’t register as art.”

In reference to the exhibition, I ask Aquin whether new technologies are capable of delivering the same emotional charge as traditional painting and sculpture. “It’s different, it’s not something you look at and contemplate, it’s an experience. You walk out of there a little bit shocked. You’ve seen your life...the source of your life, your heartbeat, just register in the building. It’s at the same time intimidating and empowering. Rafael is sort of a poet in the way he uses technology.”

Stéphane Aquin

You’re the chief curator of the influential Hirshhorn Museum. The art world has changed – no longer are artists always the most high-ranking, principal persons; curators are even more important in today’s art scene.

Yeah… It’s certainly an irony, within our field, is that we did away with the author in the 1960s with understandable and justified theories about the death of the author as a residual construction of humanism, and hardly a few decades later, we see him come back in the form of the curator, who is the all-empowered author of our times, and who uses the work of others to write his own texts. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, that has deeply impacted the sociological and philosophical profile of the profession. And we see universities aligned with that, and you now have curatorial studies programmes, etc.

I meet so many young students who want to be curators, who want to be in the ‘now’ of discussing what it means to curate and be a curator, and don’t mind at all skipping the whole traditional intellectual formation of going through art history, philosophy, literature... It’s a totally different understanding of what the profession is about altogether, and it certainly reflects a change in zeitgeist. But then I’ve also worked with a number of artists – Peter Doig, Ragnar Kjartansson, Nicolas Party come to my mind – who are more passionate and more knowledgeable about art history than most art historians. Rhetorically, for the purpose of the argument, one could say that if curators now think of themselves as artists, artists are the ones curating art history in their works..

What is your main task as chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum? That is, your main conceptual task.

The conceptual task is understanding our mission and our future in a way that is relevant to art as it happens and changes. We’ve set ourselves a number of guidelines, conceptual areas of focus on which we want to work in the years to come, believing that this is what the institution needs to make sure that it responds correctly to the art of our time. And so, we have both collection and programming imperatives, and they sort of align on a number of perspectives.

One of these perspective is, of course, that we’re a museum of global modernism. That’s very important to us. And you have to understand that the Hirshhorn is embedded within the Smithsonian Institution, which has an ecology of its own – it’s very American, driven by an understanding of the country’s demographics. So, there’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of African-American History and Culture, African art, Asian art. And we represent modern and contemporary art, but with an internationalist perspective. We also buy American and national art, but we also integrate examples of modernism from around the world. As opposed to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is also historical, modern and contemporary, but strictly American. So, once you understand the institutional framework in which we’re embedded, it’s easier to understand that we really position ourselves as a museum of global modernism, hence we show and collect works that reflect or embody what being modern meant under various cultural perspectives, and not just Europe and America

And then another element of our DNA is sculpture. After all, we are the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Twenty-five percent of our founding collection is sculpture. We actually have a sculpture garden on the National Mall. And so we think through the changes and development of sculpture from the late 19th to the early 21st century. Internally, we use the expression “expanded 3D”, which is sort of a take on Rosalind Krauss’ famous article “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. So, how sculpture will evolve and how can we integrate it within our collection, within our programming, is also a big part of our thinking.

We just had a curatorial retreat at which we all studied various examples of public art to understand what were the best avenues for us. We’re trying to think beyond the sculptural object and also look into transitory, expanded 3-D experiences. This conceptual effort is all the more so important that we have recently embarked on a major project of revitalization of the garden. So, we’ll need to think about how we want to programme it, how we want to show it, how we want to display art, what we want to do, what programming we want to have for the garden, and so on.

The third key element of our thinking has to do with media. Our collection was founded by a private Latvian-Jewish collector named Joseph Hirshhorn, who made a fortune on the stock market. And then he took all his marbles back right before the crash in 1929 and invested in mining. He subsequently made a fortune with uranium, and, as a miner of sorts, he had a fascination for new materials and new techniques. And it’s embedded within our thinking that part of our understanding of modernism is the exploration of media and new forms. Whether it’s the 1930s with Naum Gabo or the 1960s with Nam June Paik and others. We look at new media in all forms of shapes, and this is leading us to integrate performance as one of these new media of art. So, we have a new media and performance art curator who has been very active. And we have a great collection of video art, film art and digital art, and a great expertise in the presentation and also conservation of these media, which we call ‘variable’.

And then, sort of an open way of thinking about art is just looking at the emerging artists scene around the world and trying to integrate what we believe are the best examples of art moving forward and truly from all around the world. We acquire from Africa, Latin America, Cuba, the Middle East, Asia of course, and also evidently Europe and America too.

Brand New:Art and Commodity in the 1980s. February 14 to May 13, 2018. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver

The Hirshhorn Museum was originally based on a private collection. What is the role of the collector in today’s art world?

I wouldn’t want to venture into defining what their role is. It’s their prerogative and absolute privilege to define their role the way they see it. I meet with all sorts of collectors, and they each have a different understanding of what their role is, what their passion is, what their mission is. It’s actually very fascinating. Many are way more knowledgeable about their field of interest than we will ever be. Because we’re sort of condemned to be generalists, but they have the privilege and the latitude to be extremely focused in their understanding and grasp of art. So, I’m always very impressed by how knowledgeable private collectors can be.

I think one of the greatest benefits that I, as a North American museum professional, take from collectors is simply learning from them... Being exposed to the deep understanding of certain fields.

But this being said, collectors do play a key role in various ways and their work and passion more often than not shape the museums we work for or admire. The Hirshhorn is an obvious proof of that. And closer to us, for instance, Aaron and Barbara Levine in Washington: they’ve spent the last 20 years collecting art by Marcel Duchamp. They know more about Duchamp than I will ever know. And now they are giving us their collection, which is absolutely extraordinary. It’s a game-changing donation for us – nearly forty works by Duchamp, and rare books, when before that we only had one piece, and a minor one. The Levines followed their passion with such depth and such integrity that they amassed a spectacular, extraordinary, comprehensive collection of works by Duchamp. And the Hirsshorn will not hold one of the three largest Duchamp collections in America, with the Philadelphia Museum of art and  the Musem of Modern Art in New York.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors, Dots Obsession- Love Transformed into Dots, 2007Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver.

Duchamp is currently one of the most expensive and coveted trophies among art collectors. The art world has become a market-driven field.

That’s true, and it is a matter of concern for many. But the art market goes one way, and then art history doesn’t necessarily go that same way. When you look at the 19th century, the most expensive artists of that century were Cabanel and Meissonier.  Later in that century, Puvis de Chavannes was the most important, most critically acclaimed artist of his time. Monet and Gauguin alike looked up to him as an inspiration and he had an important market and public art commissions even in America. His market has recently had a revival of sorts but nowhere near that of Monet and Gauguin. So, the market for an artist or a period or a syle comes and goes, but art history doesn’t necessarily follow in its tracks.

Two years ago, the Hirshhorn Museum acquired one of the original Homeless Vehicles by Krzysztof Wodiczko. It’s an extraordinary piece, and a landmark of art history from the late 1980s, one that we will remember for the importance it had in its time, but also in the way it opens up to considerations on performance and activism that have become so relevant I can’t disclose the amount we spent on it, but it was just such a modest amount compared to what a younger painter commands at Gagosian now.

So, these younger painters, you know... they command prices way superior to what we paid for Wodiczko’s historic contribution to art, art theory and sociology at that time, but who knows how important and valuable they will be in thirty or even ten years from now… It’s hard to predict the importance of an artist, and the market value is certainy not a sound indicator of historical meaning – except that of course of having been a highly sought-after and costly commodity...

In the same line of thought, we also acquired one of these extraordinary V.B. Gowns by the General Idea group from its historic 1975 performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It was a ridiculous price by today’s standards, but it’s great art history. So, we don’t look at the market for guidance on how art history will be written. Some are making lots of money, and good for them, I have no issue with that, but we play by a different set of rules, and we understand the importance of art differently. And it doesn’t necessarily align with the market values. But that being said, Americas museums are challenged by being underfunded by the government and needing to find money from private sources, which means that it tends to align itself a little more with the market than the European museums do.

There was an article in The Art Newspaper a few years ago that revealed that 40 percent of the artists who had solo exhibitions in American museums were represented by the five leading galleries: Pace, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian and Marian Goodman Gallery. So, there you have it. Part of this is also because these galleries are very smart and very well-informed, and they follow what’s important…

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s. February 14 to May 13, 2018. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver

Like, for example, Pace founder Arne Glimcher, who’s a living legend.

Yes. He’s a great, great, great gallerist. He has one of these galleries that transform the history of art. Because from very early on he followed important artists before they were important, and he followed them in depth and supported them and allowed them to develop.

At the same time, the list of artists represented by his gallery does not include, for example, eastern Europe or the Baltic states. Why? Does it have anything to do with the art itself, or that these areas don’t live up to certain criteria, or is it something else?

You know, we find very few Canadian artists on the market, too. It certainly has to do with the fact that there are standards, or dominant criteria, compared to which minor narratives don’t seem to align correctly, because they respond to a local conversation and don’t always find their relevance on a broader scale. I’ve always thought there was also a socio-economic aspect to this. Smaller scenes don’t necessarily have a big market nor the leverage that comes with it. There’s not always a gallery to represent them abroad. And now that the whole art world revolves around going from one art fair to another...if you don’t have exposure at Art Basel, you just don’t exist.

You know, to a certain extent it’s very hard for you to exist in a market if you’re not represented there. And Canada has had this issue where it’s got amazing artists, but people are not aware of, not informed of them. Even in America, which is like the immediate neighbour of Canada, they don’t actually know what’s going on there, because they go to Art Basel Miami and they’ll never see Canadian art because there’s no Canadian gallery representing them. And there’s hardly one or two American galleries who’ll take the risk of saying: “Hey, we don’t know him, but this guy’s great!”

That’s one aspect, and the other aspect is that, without either a solid market or significant government funding, it’s hard to sustain a career over a longer period of time. Artists may come up with one great idea and then just...not be able to follow through with the next one, because they don’t have the support, they can’t live, they haven’t sold a work, there’s no government funding. So, when you’re not in a place where you have that structure, it’s hard ensure the sustainability of your production. I don’t think that there’s less genius in the Baltic countries than in America, because it’s a smaller place. It’s a complex question, and it also has to do with local or regional identitites, culture, traditions, history.. art does not exists in a vacuuum.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Woman in E, 2016. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver.

You come from an art-critic background. In the digital age, criticism seems to have become irrelevant; it’s lost ground.

Definitely, when you look at the 19th century, and all the way to the 1960s or 70s, art critics always played a major role in theorising and legitimising art movements. I mean, when you see the number of art critics in the late 19th century, it was incredible. In Paris, of course. And it corresponded to the number of newspapers. But now that we’re seeing these platforms disappear and morph into personal blogs or online communities, some with a high degree of critical relevance such as Hyperallergic, but within the new ‘eco-system’ in which art evolves art criticism has definitely been sidelined as an element of the mechanism of valuation of works of art. The critic as champion or standard-bearer of a movement, like Restany or Pleynet, or the critic as aesthetic judge and arbiter of value, are figures of the past...

Until just quite recently, the task of a critic was to analyse and evaluate a work of art. Today, in the words of curator and theorist Boris Groys, it’s binary criticism, or the values of “1” and “0”, in which the harshest gesture against an artist is to write nothing.

Yes, I’d agree that there was much more... If you take the New York scene of the 1980s, there was a strong theoretical, critical response, for example with October magazine. They were really producing high-octane, high-level critical theory about what was going on. And really, I think the newspapers also played a key role, and there were a greater number of them, too, with funded full-time visual arts critic positions, which is rarely the case anymore except at the New York Times and perhaps a handful of other papers.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse, Pulse Tank, 2008. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver

It’s an age of images; everyone likes to just scroll through their Instagram page. Actually, if you do that, you see everything going on in the world. And the museums are full of people. Blockbuster exhibitions are touring the world, and people even stand in long lines to see them.

I think that the great era of blockbusters was in the 1980s and 90s – if you didn’t have a blockbuster, you wouldn’t have an audience. We then observed a decline in overall general attendance at museums. But now what we see is that, even without major blockbusters, attendance at museums has been rising over the past fifteen years. So, blockbusters still play a certain role, but not as much in drawing in crowds.

We see that there’s a whole new generation that just wants to be in the museum. So, we keep them busy, so to say: we offer them concerts, events, openings, exhibitions and programmes of all sorts, and they just...hang around. Museums have become sort of a social scene for the younger generation. The blockbuster draw still plays a role in attracting an audience but it is not as important as it used to be. Relevance and meaning and oute=reach are really what dra people in.

This being said, museums still need these blockbusters, and aside from branding and positioning, I would say mostly as leverage to boost membership. For instance, if you have a Kusama exhibition... We organised one, we toured it, with great success everywhere it want, and then every other museum wanted a Kusama exhibition. They’d have an audience in any case, but for them it was a fundraising opportunity to get higher membership numbers. Because they said: “Well, if you want to see the Kusama, you have to be a member, because otherwise you’ll never get a ticket.” So, then you have a hundred thousand people buying a membership… But the fact is that we see audiences augment even without blockbusters. The real era of the blockbuster was the 1980s, curiously.

What has changed? In the not so distant past, museums and galleries were elitist institutions. Not for everyone.

It’s a very particular thing. There’s a great article called “The Death of an Audience” by Adam Gopnik from 1992, in The New Yorker. He reflected on the fact that the middle-distance audience – those people who would go to a museum to look at art without being art world professionals – had disappeared, and it was either you’re an insider, or you just don’t go...Museums had become a fixture of the past, reserved only for those relatively few who had made a profession out of their passion for art. That was a brilliant article, and a keen assessment of the situation 25 years ago. But 25 years later Gopnik said: “Well, I was actually wrong. I thought that the audience had died, but now I see that museums are full of people, whether there’s a show or not.” And he was right both then and now: we have seen that middle-distance disappear in the nineties, and reappear in the last decade as museums have become a scene where a new generation comes and gathers in search of a different experience than that which clubs or corporations offer.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5, 1988-1989. Aluminum, fabric, wire cage, and hardware. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo by Cathy Carver

But what is it that attracts them? Have museums replaced church, which has lost its position in society? The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is one of the most-visited museums in America.

Yeah, I think that’s the theory, that they’ve become the churches of the 21st century. But you know, when you enter these enormous empty churches of the 19th century, you wonder: “God, where are the crowds? Where have all the people gone?” So you may eventually ask youself the same questions about museums... Who knows if in 50 or 100 years people will still come to see those masterpieces by Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons or Richard Serra?

Come to think of it, maybe audiences will just think: “Well, we’ve had enough of this cultural mass. We don’t believe in these fetishes anymore; we don’t think that they’re really providing us a greater benefit in living.” It may happen. In the same way that churches have emptied of practitioners. It’s something to...envision. All the more so now, as museums go into expansion after expansion mode, often fuelled by an inner logic of having board members, having acquisition councils, keeping patrons interested and entertaining a whole life around the institution, that sits at the heart of an socio-economic ecosystem. Part of which relies on acquiring more new art, which means that the collection is growing, which means that we need an expansion, we need a new wing for this, etc. And then private collectors have amassed enormous collections and come to the museum and say: “If I give you all of this, will you build a new wing?”

We see that museums are caught in a dynamic of perpetual growth, but that may come to an end at some point. It may be that one day museums will say: “We can’t give you a new wing for your extraordinary collection, because we don’t have the money to sustain the buildings we already have, and the crowds are starting to leave.” We’re now in a sort of upward expansive cycle of museum life, but that may change.

Although for now, the number of museums is still growing. Often they’re built by star architects, which attracts even more attention.

Yes, everywhere, and all this it raises the profile of the institution and the city. Of course, there are benefits for a community that goes into construction mode for any kind of building. It’s a whole dynamic, it’s a whole economy, and it’s quite interesting to see it happen.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, PulsePulse Room, 2006. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photos by Cathy Carver 

Does the Hirshhorn Museum have plans to expand?

What’s interesting about the Hirshhorn is that we cannot grow. Because we’re on the National Mall, and so our real estate is limited. We can’t expand to the side, to the west, to the east. We’re just stuck with our real estate. So, we’re much more cautious about what we do in terms of acquisitions, and we have a project of revitalising the garden. We have to update the garden, which has sort of lacked attention and love in the past 20 years. But that’s as far as we can go in terms of real estate development. And that puts us in the challenging position of having to think out our priorities very, very carefully.