What is a contemporary art museum? In conversation with Gail Dexter Lord

Gail Dexter Lord consulted in the design of the recently unveiled Bihar Museum

gail-lord-bihar-museum Gail Dexter Lord, from the cultural planning firm Lord Cultural Resources, associated with the Bihar Museum as a consultant before its unveiling

There are museums and there are art galleries. Then there are art museums—think of the illustrious Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Louvre, Rijksmuseum or closer home, the National Gallery of Modern Art. 

But beyond what we have come to understand as museums and art galleries, there is a new update on how we view art museums, those that go beyond selling artworks and holding a rotating cast of exhibitions, and that harness technology, community support and new forms of storytelling.

The contemporary art museum straddles a grey, in-between space as they fulfil the role of a conventional gallery with sales and temporary exhibitions showcasing new artists, alongside gradually building a permanent collection of artworks that are sporadically thrown open for public viewership. 

Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial and collections management director at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, describes how 21st-century art museums can address new, young, and geographically diverse audiences. 

"We tell a universal story, not through an exhaustive encyclopaedic approach, but a display that puts story and narrative at its heart; driven by the question—how do these works aesthetically and scientifically tell you a story of human history? This story-telling led approach, which is always evolving through our semi-permanent display, allows us to present art in a dynamic and accessible way," she tells THE WEEK over email. 

"Ultimately, history is not frozen in time, and our semi-permanent display and growing collection, enables us to respond thoughtfully to society’s demand for more inclusive and globally diverse narrations of history," says Noujaim. 

The recently unveiled Bihar Museum, built at a cost of more than Rs 500 crore, is also a bold new experiment in art museum-making in India. It just hosted what could be the world's first-ever international Museum Biennale which concluded on 28 March. Gail Dexter Lord, from the cultural planning firm Lord Cultural Resources associated with the Bihar Museum as a consultant, decodes the finer nuances of a modern art museum for THE WEEK. 

What is the difference between an art museum and an art gallery?

"Museum" refers to multi-disciplinary institutions, usually but not always collecting ones. Museums usually include works of art, craft, design, anthropology, archaeology and specimens of nature and science and industry. Within these vast storehouses, there are specialisms: Museums of nature or of industry, for example; museums devoted to a particular geography or period. 

"Gallery" comes from the English idea of “picture gallery”—predominantly places where “fine art” is collected and displayed. The word  "gallery" has especially become attached to national fine art collections, most likely to distinguish these collections from the national museums that are multi-disciplinary. This becomes a reference point for the special status of “fine art” which is a social, economic, political construct that is not relevant to the vast majority of the world’s people.

The US National Gallery of Art in Washington purchased its first work by an indigenous artist only this year—previously art by indigenous Americans was placed in natural history, ethnographic and history museums. This was the case in Canada and elsewhere up until about a decade ago.

In the US, the word "museum" is preferred because of the connotation of a public institution whereas the word ‘gallery’ is preferred for the commercial gallery sector where works are sold.

How are contemporary art museums changing the way collections are exhibited? What are the new forms of display languages? What is the evolving role of the museum where it lies between the boundaries of a contemporary gallery and a traditional museum?

Art galleries and art museums used to be proponents of the curious idea that “art speaks for itself” and as a result, art museums were more like sacred spaces of silent contemplation. Information about the work was limited and mainly on a discrete label or in a hand-held programme. Starting about 40 years ago, when coincidentally we formed Lord Cultural Resources on the principle that “museums are for people”—the research was clear: Art only “spoke” to people with the requisite education or who went on a guided tour. There has since been a flowering of communication methods from wall texts to QR codes, video screens and cell phones as well as guided tours. Today art is exhibited in dynamic ways that encourage critical thinking and personal engagement. The idea of the “permanent installation” that codifies the art cannon (or hierarchy) has now been replaced by changing installations. When Nick Serota instituted the process of rehanging the Tate collection annually on a thematic basis in the early 1990s, it was very exciting as people flocked to see art in changing light. 

I was fortunate to be conducting visitor studies for the Tate at the time...a great moment of change. In my view, traditional museums and contemporary art galleries have a common opportunity to ask new questions of their collections and to be open to a multiplicity of answers. Contemporary art galleries have been quicker to move in that direction—changing technology, as well as social change, create the conditions for asking new questions. Multi-disciplinary museums have been slower to change. One aspect of this change is for traditional museums to invite artists to comment on their collections and to create installations that ask new questions that need to be asked. This has been a very significant way of breaking down hierarchies and colonialism in the last 20 years. I should say that cultural change and listening to the many voices in society should always be stimulating curators to ask new questions; the multiplicity of answers comes from scientific research. The museum should invite the public into the conversations.

Which countries have the best ecosystem of art museums?

This question prompted me to think about what constitutes an art ecosystem. The key elements include having art education in school; art colleges/universities that are accessible to all; affordable studio space for artists including in the metropolis; artist residencies; art incubation organizations that enable artists to work with industry and technology; international linkages—especially through Biennials which have been flourishing in South Asia since the early years of this century; and awards. 

“Publications” that review art are very important in all media including traditional broadcast media. Contemporary Art Museums have a very important role to play—especially the role of curators in making studio visits and visits to see new works in commercial galleries as well as hosting curated exhibitions of local, regional and national artists—group shows and monographic exhibitions. There are an enormous number of variables (I have listed ten and doubtless there are more) and so it is almost impossible to parse out which countries are best at it. One’s judgement would also depend on a point of view particularly on the role of the art market, the opportunity for public art and now the post-pandemic idea of a living wage for artists.

Are there art museums in India that you are personally quite impressed with and admire the work they do?

I am impressed with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art—especially the technology of their website which makes the art accessible, almost like being in the gallery. I am also very impressed by the work that Khoj studios does, providing an alternative forum for art education and display and in creating a national network. The Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) is also impressive in the breadth of artists it displays. 

The Bihar Museum, which Lord Cultural Resources planned, has a regional gallery that focuses on fine art, folk art and design. Breaking down those artificial boundaries is key to encouraging future generations of artists. India is a vast country with a huge population and very brilliant and deep cultural traditions. Artist-run centres that exist outside the private art market and respond to the needs of artists, whether emerging or established, have been an effective strategy in Canada. These artist-run centres provide curated galleries, space for experimentation and public engagement and are mainly supported by the government with some private contributions. Is this a strategy worth exploring in India?


What should be the role and function of a modern art museum?

Today art museums, whether modern or contemporary, perform many roles and functions.  Here are a few—They are often built and supported to symbolize the power and sophistication of a city or region—the museum becomes a focus for political and social events and community pride. Art museums are community resources. The pandemic which shuttered many of the world’s art museums made us realize their importance as places of healing and reflection. The Bihar Museum, for example, has a lovely garden which is ideal for this purpose. 

Art museums have been called “safe places for unsafe ideas” referring to the current divisiveness in many societies facing rapid cultural change—the role of museums is to be platforms for discussion and potentially for greater empathy. Art museums are places of learning not only about the history of art and changing ideas of beauty but also about the human condition—our emotions, expressions and perspectives. Art museum collections are material evidence of the human condition which is open to questioning and changing understanding.  Art museums should be fun—for children and for adults. Art museums today need to play all these roles.

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