The Radical Re-hang: An Unlikely Alternative to the Blockbuster Exhibition

from The Art Newspaper
May 2006
By Adrian Ellis

The number and scale of re-hangs of permanent displays in art museums throughout the world is increasing. Next up are Tate Modern’s comprehensive re-hang (opening 23 May), and the Pompidou’s re-installation of its fourth floor (“Movement of Images, Art and Cinema”, until February 2007), following on the heels of last year’s thematic revamp of the fifth. While the collections from which they are drawn are permanent – excepting the loans from the corporate collection of UBS fleshing out Tate Modern’s re-hang – the displays emphatically are not.

Permanent displays have of course never been permanent. New acquisitions; evolving taste; a desire to acknowledge the inevitable arbitrariness of what was selected and what was left in the archives; and the need for periodic refurbishment, lead to a continuous process of evolution in all but the most sclerotic or broke of institutions.

What is new, however, is the trend for large scale, explicitly “radical” reconfigurations that do not aspire to a definitive status, and that do not therefore carry with them the definitive responsibilities that are traditionally associated with the permanent collection. Indeed museum directors increasingly shy away from using the term “permanent displays”, preferring the more mutable “collections galleries” as a way of underscoring the more fluid and dynamic status of the hang.

This trend is generally attributed to the confluence of three distinct pressures on art museums: first, the decline of the historicist consensus (chronological arrangements, usually by national “schools”) and its replacement by a more overtly interventionist but intellectually tentative curatorial perspective, one that ostensibly questions rather than asserts. This is most obviously in evidence in Tate Modern’s original hang (since 2000) and in the pre-closure MoMA re-hang (2000). These were predictably and possibly deliberately controversial, accompanied by lots of harrumphing from traditionalists in the public and press, and lots of invaluable media coverage.

Second, the logic of expansion. Sometimes re-hangs subtly underscore the incapacity of the existing space to do justice to the permanent collection (the Tate in the 1990s, for example, or the Albright-Knox’s recent “Extreme Abstraction”). More often they are simply the result of the need to rethink existing exhibition spaces in the context of the addition of new space.

Finally, the desire to stimulate visitor numbers in a way that might decrease the reliance on high profile temporary exhibitions, and that coaxes more visitors to the museum’s often under-visited permanent “core”.

The third of these is the one which most excites museum directors. Notwithstanding the complex, multifaceted nature of the art museum, the total aggregate number of visitors remains the primary indicator of institutional success in the eyes of most boards and funders. Directors therefore monitor the ebbs and flows of daily attendance far more vigilantly than they do any of the multiple “performance indicators” against which institutional performance might reasonably be judged.

Temporary exhibitions are, in turn, the primary determinant of visitor numbers for the vast majority of art museums. By virtue of their very “temporariness,” they prioritise themselves. See them now or they’ll be gone forever – hurry now while stocks last. Temporary exhibitions that can employ a strong brand name – either the artist or school that is the subject of the exhibition or of the loaning institution – do best of all.

However, the pool of candidate artists and institutions is finite and the costs of pulling together exhibitions are increasing. Insurance premia have rocketed with the growth of contingent risks such as terrorism and confiscation by the authorities in the context of restitution claims. In parallel, the more genteel barter system of broadly reciprocal loans has been replaced with a straightforward set of arrangements in which the strength and attractiveness to potential borrowers of a museum’s collection is monetised. Finally, commercial exhibition brokers are increasingly entering the temporary exhibition market and they are sufficiently well-capitalised to risk failure – and therefore want to take the lion’s share of income when their packaged exhibition meets with success. 

Meanwhile, an increasingly well-travelled and knowing museum public grows daily more blasé and jaded. The effect of this malign confluence of supply and demand has been likened by some directors to that of “crack cocaine” in which the body craves ever greater dosages of stimulant to achieve the same effect. The radical re-hang of the permanent display might therefore appear a potential means to redress the balance. “Marketing the permanent collection” has become a popular topic at professional conferences and the attention sought and secured by re-hangs is cited as evidence of the potential for such strategies.

However, successful though they may be, they would appear not to be alternatives to aggressive temporary exhibition strategies but complements to them, adding yet another new cost centre to the museum alongside the high profile temporary exhibition rather than offering any sort of alternative to it. None of the institutions that have pursued the strategy would appear to have in parallel reduced the volume or scale of their temporary exhibition programmes.

From this perspective, the radical re-hang is more symptomatic of what Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, has called the “hyperactivity” of museums today, and of the underlying audience attention deficit disorder and executive insecurities that fuel it. The “temporary permanent collection” may offer those institutions with the depth of collections to warrant it both a device for satisfying curatorial curiosity and a further, valuable marketing hook. But for most institutions the phenomenon will surely add to the sense of competitive stress rather than allaying it.

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