Two months before its opening, Lisa Phillips tells us her dream: a Tower of Babel for contemporary culture in the “new” New Museum in New York. Text by Francesco Bonami.
In 1977 Lisa Phillips began her career in the art world as a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The same year another curator was fired by the Whitney because of harsh reviews received by a Tuttle show she had organised. This curator was Marcia Tucker (1940-2006), who responded to her dismissal from the Whitney by going to Soho and funding “The New Museum of Contemporary Art”, an alternative institution that reflected the political turmoil of the ’70s. After twentytwo years, three different directors and many exhibitions under her belt, including seminal ones like the Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince surveys, Lisa Phillips left the Whitney to become director of the New Museum in 1999, by then no longer a challenging and alternative institution but a museum gone mainstream yet stuck in the middle of the stream.
Lisa Phillips was appointed with the precise task of pulling the museum out of the wade and transforming it into… well once again a “New” institution facing a morphing art world where galleries have become kinds of kunsthalles and museums all play with the same set of rules, differing from each other around the world only in the size of their exhibition spaces and for the aroma emanating from their cafeterias: bratwurst in Germany, sun-dried tomato pizza in Chicago. Next December the “new” New Museum will open its new building designed by Tokyo-based architects Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA at 235 Bowery, right in front of another symbol of the ’70s’ underground “The Bunker”, a building where William Burroughs and his friends wrote experimental and revolutionary literature and poetry. If “The Bunker” was promoting the dark contents of underground culture, The New Museum is climbing up to the sky like a pile of boxes, as if it were a corner of a storage space for ideas and experimental projects for the “hyperground” of the 21st century.
The first clue as to Lisa Phillips’s approach to the leadership of her new institution is the choice of the architects. Rather than falling into the safety net of fashionable studios like Koolhaas or Herzog & de Meuron, the board of The New Museum pushed for young architecture studios and possibly for someone who was not yet featured in the US. SANAA, whose Kanazawa Museum received world-wide acclaim, was the perfect match for Phillips and her trustees. The building, with its shiny grid facade, has already been nicknamed “The Cheese grater”, which should bring great luck if we think that “The Flat Iron” building, designed by Burnham in 1902, has become a landmark in Manhattan and an icon in architecture history.
But how can a museum be truly new at a time when art institutions are obsessed with fundraising and blockbuster exhibitions and operating budgets dwarf the programming budgets in a shameful way, transforming art shows into ancillary items of special events and fundraising galas? Lisa Phillips agrees that the museum system has got out of hand and she feels compelled to change trend. She wants to avoid becoming a micro MoMA and instead create a new identity capable of addressing the new languages of contemporary art and culture. Her goal is to lead an entrepreneurial institution that will react or act promptly to the changing speed of the art world. The New Museum will not be “just” a museum but a cultural “hub”, a space for discussion and conviviality, also for other institutions. Collaborations have already started with cutting-edge spaces around the world from Cairo to Seoul to Mexico City and Eindhoven.
Lisa Phillips, like her predecessor Marcia Tucker, strongly believes that the future of her museum belongs to the new generations not only of artists but also of curators, designers, writers and architects. After eight years as director, Lisa Phillips’s spirit and enthusiasm are still those of a rookie. For her, failures and mistakes if not chased masochistically are necessary in order to succeed in a transforming culture.
The New Museum’s opening show, “Unmonumental: The Object In the 21st Century”, curated by the museum’s curatorial trio (Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman and Massimiliano Gioni), reflects the institutional aim to begin the new course by going against the grain of celebratory art focusing on those artists who responded better to the end of a century when so many monuments, real and symbolic, fell apart. As head of the first art museum to be built in New York in the 21st century, Lisa Phillips holds the legacy of her institution but is convinced that “alternative” is no longer the right word to confront our culture. Together with her team she stands before the menacing and obsolete institutional army of 20th-century museums with the same courage and spirit of that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. If “The Bunker” was the symbol of a culture under siege, across the street The New Museum claims the role of the new Tower of Babel for a contemporary culture built out of multiple, exciting and unpredictable languages.
Choi Ho-Chul, 2007
The New Museum of Contemporary Art under construction, summer 2007
Rendering of the facade. Designed by Sejima + Nishizawa / SANAA, it will open on December 1, 2007
Preview of the opening exhibit “Unmonumental: the Object in the 21st Century” curated by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, Massimiliano Gioni. Anselm Reyle, Plug, 2002
Marc Andre Robinson, Myth Monolith, 2002-2003
Urs Fischer, Untitled, 2003
Rachel Harrison, Huffy Howler, 2004
Kristen Morgin, Lion, 2006
Isa Genzken, Elefant, 2006