If one of the key goals of a museum is to collect, preserve, and exhibit the cultural achievements of our past, what does this mean for a museum of contemporary art? In practical terms, it has meant that these museums, by capturing the visual culture of the present moment, are effectively predicting what will be historically important for the future. That is to say, contemporary works that receive the museum stamp of approval are marked out as deserving of a place in our future’s past and written into that history. That’s why, for artists, gallerists, and collectors alike, it is crucial to get the artworks they create, represent, and collect exhibited in museums or, even better, into museum collections.
This confidence in the museum’s authority stems from a belief that public museums are custodians of our shared history; that the objects displayed and preserved reflect our stories, struggles, and achievements, and have the public interest at heart. They can also be a national resource and way to build a sense of local pride and shared patrimony. Since these official institutions are often in receipt of public funds, they must be able to demonstrate their fulfilment of this social responsibility and are held accountable to their board members and public authorities.
Museums must therefore be able to justify their collections in principle, and stand for ideals that go beyond the mere personal tastes of their curators or trustees. For each museum, these overarching goals are often set out in a mission statement. Think of a museum’s “mission” as its “unique selling point.” These can range from building a local arts scene and providing a platform for local artists, to something more specific, such as bringing together the disciplines of art and technology as in the case of FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, U.K.
In practice, the museum mission is carried out through its exhibitions and public programs, as well as by building collections and preserving objects. As the primary attraction for visitors and the main focal point for the press, exhibitions are the public face of a museum. They allow a glimpse into the particular artists, art forms, movements, or history that the museum deems significant. For artists, the inclusion of their works in these temporary exhibitions, especially if it’s a solo show, can be life-changing, as it is seen as validating their practice. Still, it is easy to forget that exhibitions are just one manifestation of a museum’s larger mission, with its activities stretching across a wide variety of public and research programming. For instance, SALT
, a not-for-profit institution in Istanbul, was first opened in 2011 to develop a cultural community within Istanbul and foster the writing of a Turkish history of art.
While some museums are exhibition halls only (often referred to using the German term “Kunsthalle
,” which loosely translates as “art gallery”) and bring together a range of temporary exhibitions, many have their own collections on permanent view. It is often only possible for a fraction of these collections to be on show at any time due to a lack of exhibition space—these works are collected to fulfil the driving goal of preserving them for future generations, not to fill floor space. Each collection will have its own “collection strategy” (a specific focus) and “acquisitions policy” (process by which new works are approved) that are aligned with the museum’s overall mission and identity. The strategy of Tate Modern
in London, for example, has been to focus on the “international” to distinguish it from Tate Britain
, also in London, which is dedicated to building a preeminent collection of British art.
Collecting for posterity implies that these works must be held indefinitely, i.e. forever. Naturally, the problem with collecting contemporary art is that, at best, it is an educated guess which artworks will stand the test of time. It is anticipated that works added to the collection will retain their significance and grow in value, but this may not be the case. And don’t be fooled by the phrase “permanent collection”: collections and collection-building are fine-tuned and regularly undergo a review process. As years pass, museum management changes and certain artists may fall out of vogue. Or a museum may find itself in hard times, in which case the idea of raising money through the sale of a work from the collection may gain traction.
In essence, each museum seeks to ensure that the best new work is supported and that nothing of note falls through the cracks. After all, the driving aim of a collection is to preserve a legacy. So if you are tempted to forgo the art museum on a rainy day, remember: Museums of contemporary art are more than fancy buildings with overpriced cafés; they are among the most powerful forces in the art world.