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Friday, August 31, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: The Future of Museums

Posted By on Fri, Aug 31, 2012 at 6:30 AM

An image from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' show David Shrigley: Brain Activity, open until September.
  • An image from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' show David Shrigley: Brain Activity, open until September.
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

This weekly series celebrates a fundamental and exciting part of museums: they buy, sell, and trade works. One week may feature a Richard Serra painting from SFMOMA, and another a gas-powered instrument of pleasure at the Antique Vibrator Museum. All are very different institutions indeed, but they share the common thread of collecting.

It would be easy to assume that all cultural institutions in the Bay Area are in a constant state of collections management, and yet there's a whole slew of museums without archives or archivists. In fact, there are no materials behind the scenes at all.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts defy the traditional definition of a museum, one that many think will dominate the future: They focus exclusively on exhibitions. They never acquire anything, and they do not maintain collections. Their success is completely tied to exhibitions and the related public programs, which they hope will be embraced by the public.

Work by Randy Colosky commissioned by the Museum of Craft and Folk Art.

According to Jennifer McCabe, the executive director of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, this is a real advantage. "It opens us up to exploring ideas that are current, because you're always looking outside of yourself instead of drawing from an in-house collection," she explained. Most museums must curate exhibitions based on their own collections, which can sometimes be at odds with the contemporary museum-goer. McCabe regularly seeks out artists and commissions new works, and nonprofits like the Warhol Foundation are eager to help. From there, the potential is limitless. The exhibition hall contains moveable walls, so that the objects inside are constantly changing, as is the space itself.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum will soon host Kehinde Wiley's first major exhibition in San Francisco, The World Stage: Israel
  • The Contemporary Jewish Museum will soon host Kehinde Wiley's first major exhibition in San Francisco, The World Stage: Israel

The Contemporary Jewish Museum commissions new works from local artists as well, but these pieces often compliment exhibitions that originated elsewhere. While they maintain a strong relationship with their counterpart in New York, Curator Karen Tsujimoto and her team are constantly scanning the globe for new shows. "We're out there reading magazines and catalogs and visiting exhibitions," Tsujimoto said. While some might wrongfully assume that the museum is limited in scope, their mission is quite inclusive: to be an engaging forum for diverse audiences where new perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas thrive. "We maintain great relationships with artists who aren't religious, or even Jewish," Tsujimoto added.

Betti-Sue Hertz, the director of visual arts at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, also attends art fairs, exhibits, and biennials, but usually avoids loans or traveling exhibitions, which take too long. They fill their exhibition space with help from three sources: the artist, commercial galleries, or museums and collectors. The latter is the most coveted of all. "We like to borrow from private collectors because these works don't have a public life," Hertz points out. After the exhibition goes down, those works are returned to the private enclaves of their owners, while other pieces have the potential to find new homes. Hertz recently donated two posters from "Occupy the Bay" to the Oakland Museum of California.

McCabe, Tsujimoto, and Hertz rightfully wax rhapsodic about the many advantages to the non-collecting museum, including flexibility and forward thinking. While exhibitions might change with regularity, they remain consistent in education and public programs. Are there disadvantages? I asked each in turn. Sure, it would be nice to simply bring something up from the vault when a traveling exhibition cancels at the last minute, or an artist is late turning in work, but for the most part, these museums are so adaptive it rarely matters.

"We don't spend a lot of time managing the past, or presenting it in a new context," Hertz mused. "It frees us up to think about the present and future."

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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