by Lisa Schiff

While Terrence Riley, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, declared that the MoMA plans to “reinvent the museum for the next century,” a 240,000 pound, 55 by 13 foot, recently acquired Richard Serra sculpture sat in a dark MoMA warehouse. The question is who or what is really “reinventing the museum?” MoMA director Glenn Lowry all but spelled it out when he stated that “As the emphasis on the activity shifts, the character of the organization changes....Museums that wish to engage with contemporary artists must therefore constantly seek to create spaces that can support rapidly changing notions of art.” It appears then that Serra is the “reinventor,” that large-scale works such as his mammoth Intersection II are dictating architectural expansion. But according to what logic do art and architecture begin formally responding to one another? Is there not some invisible force that prompts this material tug-of-war?

Space seems to be at the root of all this, for both the museum's art and architecture occupy the same institutional space: the former being placed within that space, the latter structurally and ideologically defining it. By using space as a medium, though, art since Minimalism is often created to contaminate this space, to resist ontological reconfiguration by breaking out of the self-enclosed frame of much modern art into the room, the hall, the space that is the museum. By sometimes overwhelming this space and forcing viewers to bodily experience the work-environment, many works enjoy a sense of liberation, albeit a false one. For the shattering of the modernist frame is immediately greeted by the imposition of another frame, the ever-pliant frame of institutional architecture -- one that, as Lowry said, must respond to changes in artistic practice. And this logic, whereby liberation is met by domination, is the logic of late capitalism, what Ernst Mandel has named our current, all- pervasive economic phase.

Late capitalism colonizes every last vestige of traditional, non-commodified space. And the Western corporate museum is first and foremost an agent of late capitalism, functioning according to its logic. What is reinventing the museum, then, is not Terrence Riley or the MoMA trustees, nor is it Serra and his gargantuan works, but rather the logic of late capitalism just as it does every other Western institution, moving them according to its ever-changing needs. Economic forces, then, prompt art and architecture to vie for power. Within the museum this logic motivates architecture to adjust itself to artistic subversion, colonizing, containing, and disciplining it to conform to its first-world outlook.

But what does all this mean? And where will it end? Will the Museum of Modern Art continue to eat Manhattan as the artworks get bigger? Or will it just create international branches á la Krens? If the colonization of space as dictated by late capitalism is recognized as a historical inevitability, and if it is historicized, then maybe museum expansion might be seen not as an opportunity to show more works simultaneously and more appropriately, but as endangering artistic freedom of speech. Peter Bürger notes:

Art in bourgeois society lives off the tension between the institutional framework (releasing art from the demand that it fulfill a social function) and the possible political content of individual works. This tension, however, is not stable but subject to a historical dynamics that tends toward its abolition.

So what is being advocated here is not the preclusion of museum expansion, but simply the understanding of its logic in order to prevent the effacement of an art work's political consciousness.