Stockholm’s Moderna Museet Remains Avant-Garde Innovator

shmomusThe museum of modern art in Stockholm may be half a world away, but its strategy is absolutely relevant to your own hometown.

As director of Stockholm’s modern art museum–the new Moderna Museet–David Elliott seems abundantly blessed. The building, designed by Spanish master architect Rafael Moneo, has been widely praised. The permanent collection, ranging from Picasso to Warhol, is remarkable for its quality. And since opening last February, the museum has been besieged by visitors. Swedes needed no prodding. But thanks to Stockholm’s designation by the European Union as 1998’s Cultural Capital of Europe, a windfall of continent-wide publicity has helped draw hordes of foreign tourists to the Moderna Museet.

Yet Elliott, an outspoken Englishman who formerly headed Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art, sounds dissatisfied, even a tad peevish. The Moderna Museet, he concedes, “has a not bad building.” It would be better, he adds, if it had a concrete floor instead of a wooden one in at least one of its exhibition rooms to accommodate the heavy sculptures of artists such as Richard Serra. The vaunted permanent collection, says Elliott, suffers from “a huge lacuna in European art after 1970–particularly, German painters such as Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke.” And he wonders what portion of the museum’s public is really enthusiastic about contemporary art.

Beneath Elliott’s complaints is a deeper questioning of what role a contemporary- or modern-art museum should play in a society. “Should it be simply a repository of great works, a form of collateral to be moved around the world as temporary exhibitions?” he asks. “Should its success be measured by the size of the audiences it brings in?”

Such probing won’t elicit much sympathy from museum officials elsewhere, who would be happy enough with the attention and assets Elliott has accrued. In the last decade, MOCAs and MOMAs have been rising across the United States and Europe–from San Francisco to Miami, Bilbao to Bonn–in a rush to establish an aesthetic claim on the future as the third millennium dawns.

What makes the new Moderna Museet unique is that it is so haunted by the past. Its much smaller predecessor, the original Moderna Museet, led by legendary director Pontus Hulten, was a path-breaking institution that introduced Sweden and other European countries to the art of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Inevitably, the new Moderna Museet is being asked to recapture the old modern-art museum’s spirit of daring innovation. “Pontus was a great director, and the museum had a very illustrious past,” says Elliott. “But that era is over. Let’s not harp on it.”

If only it were so simple. The original modern-art museum opened exactly forty years ago, in what was once a Swedish navy drill hall on an island in Stockholm’s harbor. By the early 1960s, the fledgling museum had transformed Stockholm into Europe’s window to contemporary art. Hulten staged exhibitions of works by such American artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein. For some of them, it was the first time their paintings and sculptures had been shown in a museum.

Swedes were shocked by works that defied their definition of art. There was, for example, an enormous, hollow sculpture of a woman, whom visitors penetrated to view an art exhibition in her womb. When a sports car was put on display as a sculpture, one visitor became so irate that he kicked its fenders. Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-59), a stuffed Angora goat with a tire around its midsection, became an icon for the ridicule heaped upon contemporary art by many conservative critics.

But artists, who were grateful for the widespread exposure Hulten gave them, ended up donating to his museum many works that had been shown there in temporary exhibitions. These gifts helped establish the Stockholm museum’s reputation for having a permanent collection that emphasizes quality over quantity. “Almost all of the important pieces are really major works, not just from the `production phase’ of these artists’ careers,” says Hulten.

In assembling the museum’s permanent collection, Hulten showed great prescience in acquiring works by young American artists before they achieved great fame. He was also fortunate that the market for older 20th-century artists was at a low ebb during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Museums on both sides of the Atlantic were purchasing little modern art. And so the Moderna Museet, with an acquisitions budget of barely $1 million, was able to buy thirty major works, including Salvador Dali’s The Enigma of William Tell (1933), Giorgio de Chirico’s The Brain of the Child (1914) and Joan Miro’s The Donkey in the Kitchen Garden (1918).

Besides art exhibitions, the Moderna Museet staged avant-garde film festivals, jazz concerts, poetry readings and political debates–activities that were later a part of every major museum’s repertoire, but which were considered unorthodox in Europe back in the 1960s. The museum greatly shaped Sweden’s image as a nation in the forefront of social, artistic and political experimentation. It sometimes functioned as a venue for Vietnam War protests, with appearances by American military deserters. Artworks and films on display were at times sexually explicit. Unknown artists appropriated spaces in the museum to work on and exhibit their pieces–without permission from the staff.

Nowadays, many middle-aged Swedes remember the old Moderna Museet as their rite of passage into adulthood and a brave new world of culture. “It was a place of happenings, and it became my second home,” says Ulla Cristiansson, a furniture and dinnerware designer. “On some days it seemed that I spent so much time there that I went home only to sleep.” Her husband, Lars Pettersson, a book publisher, was awakened to the power of modern art by Picasso’s Guernica, on temporary display during the museum’s early days. “At the time, Sweden was so isolated,” says Pettersson. “There was almost no modern art, and nowhere to exhibit it. Then, the Moderna came along and you could see art that was absolutely new, and all of Europe seemed focused on Stockholm.”

Such passionate feelings for the original museum may well be colored by nostalgia. “Back then, most people hated the museum,” says Elliott. And to some extent, Hulten, now 74 and writing his memoirs in his Paris apartment, agrees. “People don’t remember how much opposition there was to the museum by the end of the Sixties,” he says. Some conservative politicians considered the museum a hotbed of radicalism and resisted the idea of raising its budget. Leftist extremists denounced some of its exhibitions–especially works by American artists–as examples of decadent, elite art and products of U.S. cultural imperialism.

The controversies eventually wore down Hulten and the museum. In the mid Seventies, he accepted an offer to direct the then unopened Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, the Paris modern-art museum usually referred to as the Beaubourg. Hulten worked his magic again and turned the Beaubourg into Europe’s most exciting new showcase of art. Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, the Moderna Museet ceased being considered stimulating or innovative. Attendance dropped, and the museum was hardly mentioned abroad. In fact, the Moderna’s most notable publicity in recent years came in 1993 when a group of young thugs broke through the roof and stole eight works by Braque and Picasso. (All but one of the works–a Braque–have been recovered.)

So, in an attempt to recapture the era of cultural glory, the Swedish government budgeted $90 million for a new Moderna Museet. An international architectural competition drew more than 200 submissions. The winning design was by Rafael Moneo, recipient of the 1996 Pritzker Prize, often called architecture’s Nobel Prize. Among his outstanding works are the National Museum for Roman Art in Merida, Spain; the Pilar & Joan Miro Foundation museum in Mallorca; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

Moneo has a reputation for building museums that neither disrupt the landscape nor overshadow their art collections–in sharp contrast to Frank Gehry, whose stunning design for Bilbao’s new Guggenheim Museum has nonetheless been widely hailed as the architectural event of the Nineties.

“I cannot design a building that is divorced from its surroundings,” says Moneo from his Madrid office. The new Moderna Museet, constructed next to the site of the old museum and several times larger, blends in very well with its neighboring 18th- and 19th-century museums, churches and former naval buildings. Its roof is zinc, the walls are brick painted the color of terra cotta, and the floors are of pale wood and limestone.

The new museum’s most arresting architectural features are the lantern-shaped skylights on the roof. “I was looking for a device that would provide light and at the same time be an extension of the walls,” says Moneo. The skylights create a chapel-like feeling in the exhibition spaces. And those exhibition spaces are huge–allowing far more of the permanent collection to be on display than was ever feasible in the old museum.

The Swedish government avoided an architecture that was jarring. But in selecting a director for the new Moderna Museet, state officials deliberately sought out a personality who was unafraid to be abrasive or controversial. “There was a lack of vision and energy in the old museum,” says Elliott about his appointment. “So I think [the Swedish government] probably thought it best to hire an outsider, someone who was innocent of the local situation, to run the new place.”

Dressed in a black suit and white T-shirt, looking a decade younger than his forty-nine years, and peppering his interviews with the occasional unprintable remark, Elliott seems intent on perpetuating his hinge as a rebel. “It won’t be possible to bring back the Sixties, because people are no longer as naive as they were then about modern art,” he says. Aiming at the sophisticated audience, he is mounting a retrospective this month of Ulrik Samuelson, a Swedish artist whose installations explore the relationship of art to the world around it. Later in 1999, a large show will review art, film, photography and music in post-Communist Europe. Elliott also promises to make workrooms and display space at the museum available to young Swedish artists who, he says, “have created an art scene such as never existed here before.”

Later on, he plans to open the Moderna Museet to works outside the European and American mainstream. “Maybe what people are making to sell in airports in Africa is just as worthy of consideration,” he muses. Would a state museum really condone such a radical show? Elliott asserts he has enough independence to put anything he wants on exhibit. “I’m employed by the Ministry of Culture, but I can’t be told what to do or not do as long as I stay within the budget,” he says. “Of course, I suppose I would be under great pressure to quit if people stopped visiting the museum.”

At this early stage, that appears unlikely. On a recent weekend, the visitors’ line stretched almost 200 yards as the museum prepared to open its doors. On temporary exhibition was a Miro retrospective–not the type of show that Elliott could necessarily defend as groundbreaking or provocative.

But surely the director would have approved of the enthusiasm and irreverence of the visitors. When a small group of government officials tried to squeeze through the entrance ahead of the crowd, they were hooted down. “We have an appointment inside,” insisted one of the officials. “To the back of the line!” chanted the crowd, until the VIPs retreated in embarrassment.

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