Richard J. Williams, author of forthcoming 'New Directions in Contemporary Art' volume: 'The Culture Factory: Architecture and the Contemporary Art Museum', reflects on how he came to examine the phenomenon of the contemporary art museum, and how these institutions are changing in the face of a shifting definition of 'museums' and the struggles of the covid-19 pandemic.
798 Art District by Sasaki Architects.
Reproduced in The Culture Factory, photograph courtesy of Sasaki Architects.
The book came about thanks to Marcus Verhagen, the series editor, who invited me to think about it in the first place. His invitation soon had me thinking about how far contemporary art museums had evolved since the 1970s. He also got me thinking about my understanding of museums had changed since I first wrote about them, as well as my attitude to the category of ‘art’. Architecture had become ever more important – that much was clear. Also clear was how industrialised museums had become, and how close to other kinds of leisure experience, causes for regret for some. I decided early on this wasn’t going to be a regretful book, however. Taking a cue from the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their still provocative and funny book on Las Vegas, I wondered if there might be something to learn.
There were all kinds of museum experiences that fed into it: the experience of canonical buildings such as the Centre Pompidou and the Bilbao Guggenheim, of newer museums such as the Dundee V&A, and of the art zones of lower Manhattan and Beijing.
There was also, all the way through the witing of the book, the singularly bizarre experience of the covid-19 pandemic. This was a book about museums written during a time when it was hard to visit museums at all. And when you did, it was under even stricter regulation than usual. For museums like Tate Modern, during the pandemic, the contradictions between freedom and discipline were even more than usually exaggerated.
If there was a defining experience for the book, it was probably that of Beijing’s 798 Art District. A rough and ready, more or less ‘found’ space, it had a surreally sculptural gasworks, and some fine Bauhaus-inspired factory buildings. You have to look hard for the art, and the whole zone is is undeniably commercial. Its history has been fluid, and its future sometimes uncertain. But it is a powerful, thought-provoking place as well as a lot of fun. Much of it you apprehend in a state of distraction, and it’s hopeless for the monastic contemplation that used to be the ideal museum experience. Part shopping mall, part industrial theme park, it was, on the face of it, the opposite of the traditional museum.
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to think of it as a museum. It had a lot of the same characteristics of contemporary museums, and its visitor numbers – 3 million or so – put it in the same league as the Pompidou. The book I ended up writing wasn’t a celebration of the condition of the contemporary museum by any means, but it is an attempt to look in a clear sighted way at what we have created. As we inevitably move on to some other new museum form, perhaps largely online, I wondered if there were things to learn from our recent museum experiments. One thing is certain from them: contemporary art now has audiences unimaginable in their scale 40 years ago.
It’s still a critical book, however. The most arresting art space I saw when researching the book was, by most standards, a failure, the Centro Niemeyer in Avilès, Spain. One the last works of the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, it has scarcely any exhibits, and (if you can find it, to begin with) it is almost completely deserted. Like much of Niemeyer’s work, functionally it is woeful. Yet visiting was intense and spooky, a genuinely otherworldly experience that has stayed with me. Admittedly, I’m happiest around ruins, so it satisfied that need. But it also reminded me that the appeal of museums for many of us is irrational: it’s precisely their lack of worldliness, their sheer oddness that appeals. Most of the museums in the book have an overwhelming industrial logic, which holds culture a product to be consumed. The semi-ruin of the Centro Niemeyer really doesn’t, not in its current condition anyway – but it was bracing and strange to visit, and all the better for it.
You can get your copy of The Culture Factory HERE.