"The contact with art is a source of physical and mental health"
Victoria Noorthoorn, Director, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, and CIMAM Board Member, for the yearbook publication of Tendencias del Mercado del Arte magazine, Spain. Originally published on February 2022.
What role should museums play in today's society? What are museums for in the 21st century?
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is, or can be, a beacon institution in today's world. Its collections make it possible to safeguard the historical memory of the works and artists that give it its raison d'être, anchoring the museum in a local and community history, indeed with shortcomings and a need for self-criticism regarding how those collections were constituted. Its exhibitions and artistic projects -whether in the halls to be enjoyed in person or in its digital platforms to be explored remotely from home, from school, or from a hospital or airport- have the ability to invite reflection on the burning questions of the present and the future of humanity through the powerful lens of contemporary art, a territory of exploration and research characterized by freedom and by the possibility -I would say unique- of testing hypotheses and outlining proposals for the design of alternative ways of understanding and transiting life and projecting the future. Their educational projects can offer tools to exponentially expand the educational dynamics in every classroom and in every discipline, opening new paths previously unthinkable for children and young people. The great challenge is for all museum directors worldwide to understand this power and position museums as relevant entities respected for their history and their proactive value, which societies and governments want to look at and investigate to choose new directions. Today's contemporary art museum can only be a living museum that never ceases to search for and show everything that moves the deepest part of art, which is the question of life itself and how to live better in society.
What lessons have the art world -and museums in particular- learned from the pandemic?
The pandemic called us all - individuals, communities, and institutions - to self-criticism and an acute awareness of each of our actions' sustainability and survival consequences. The world has changed. It has transformed our place in the world and has firmly pointed out the weaknesses or mistakes of the past. Faced with the mirror of urgency, it is impossible not to act after seeing. And from the responsibility that comes with the management of a relevant public cultural institution, it is impossible not to accompany the paradigm shift that is radically transforming and rendering obsolete the old ways of relating, knowing and researching, living in society, working, and of projecting into the future.
At the Museo Moderno, we consider ourselves capable of responding to and accompanying a society in crisis. We understood that this new future in which we are beginning to move must test new institutional dynamics, new ways of being, and relating to other institutions, artists, and the general public. Since the closing of the Museum in 2020, we activated a monumental program of actions of all kinds, which actively and concretely engaged a new public of 8.3 million people through digital platforms in 2020, which during 2021 exceeded 6 million and all our expectations. From this transformative and vertiginous experience, at the Museum, we managed to understand that the forms and channels of communication and action can be infinite and that it is our responsibility to find them, invent them, transform them, adapt them, both in face-to-face and virtual activities and whether inside or outside the Museum, whether in the city, in every corner of the country or the world. To understand that the only way to approach an uncertain future is by embracing flexibility, trial, and error.
In short, the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of culture, art, and the value of artists' work. It has highlighted the importance of museums as institutions capable of providing containment and support to hundreds of thousands of people in crisis, and to the artists, cultural professionals, and producers who make them possible, providing moments of joy and inner enrichment to all audiences of all ages. In the face of a generalized context of economic vulnerability, general uncertainty, and even deep generalized pain and grief, museums have shown that they are capable of offering virtual or real meeting spaces, where all audiences can find that moment of inner reconnection, discovery of new worlds, enjoyment before the proposals, messages, and works of so many artists in all the possible arc of inclusion and diversity. It is well known that contact with art is a source of physical and mental health. Being able to be health providers in such dramatic contexts as the ones we have lived and are living with is more important than ever. We only need to strengthen this path of recognition so that the populations in all their arc can value culture and cultural communities as virtuous communities capable of improving life in society.
Can museums be engines for economic recovery?
They always have been. With their active and dynamic artistic and educational programs, museums are powerful sources of work and production for artists, curators, filmmakers, producers, educators, builders, writers, editors, translators, printers, and graphic artists, among others. Their products activate circuits that range from direct repercussions in the neighborhoods where they are located - transportation networks, stores, restaurants, hotels - to those in the hundreds of sites where the Museum works. For example, in the cities where guest artists produce projects for local museums, in the schools throughout the country where a teacher activates a museum project, or in every institution with which the Museum collaborates nationally or internationally. Just as an example, from the Museo Moderno, we supported some 400 Argentine artists per year during the pandemic, providing work and commissioning works, projects, programs, and texts, giving them visibility at every step and contributing to keeping the economic circuit active. We have also collaborated and partnered with countless social and educational organizations, expanding the Museum's historical ties in the areas of art and education. We see ourselves getting closer to our neighborhood, inviting artists to intervene and actively participate in stores, bookstores, churches, plazas, social and cultural centers. And of course, the Museum always provides a solid base from which the market is nourished, affecting the entire commercial art circuit, the repositioning of artists, the gallery owners in question, the fairs, in turn, producers and generators of contents, communications, etc. At a more macroeconomic level, it would be desirable that the authorities of so many governments understand that the Museum is a friend, a builder of community and citizenship, and a significant generator of income and work, capable of repositioning entire cities or regions in the local and international circuits. Its power is infinite.
What do you consider the most relevant debates in the contemporary art scene?
The fundamental debates of the present are those that historically, as societies, we have been postponing for too long, in some cases for hundreds, in others thousands of years. The demand for equal rights for people of all races, creeds, and genders. The demand for the right to respect and honor every people. The demand for the right to the repatriation of cultural property forcibly removed from its original sites and cultures. The demand for the recognition of torture or abuse - or in some cases, genocide - suffered by entire populations. Redress for the abuse or torture of people or individuals. The continuing fragility of the position of women in more or less democratic societies. The fragility of the earth and of nature, whose wealth and balances we are decimating at every turn. The urgency of preserving the planet. These are all urgent questions that contemporary artists address and put on the table in response to the significant concerns of the present. So many of these questions were postponed for a long time, and the pandemic has contributed to showing that everything has a limit and that the responsibility of museums as civic building entities is precisely to support, give visibility and feed each and every one of these debates and claims for justice. From our platform #MuseoModernoEnCasa we have addressed these issues while reflecting on the tensions of the new situation, and through more than 25 virtual programs, we have asked ourselves, among other questions: How do we want to live? How is life mediated by the screen? What is the role of silence to be able to project the future? How to contribute from art to value each life project? What is the role of imagination in human development?
What makes Buenos Aires' art scene unique and singular?
Buenos Aires is today a vibrant center that brings together thousands of artists from all over the country in the visual arts, theater, dance, film, literature, etc. It is a highly interdisciplinary scene in which collaboration is common between artists of diverse backgrounds and interests working in all kinds of cultural institutions and within the official and independent circuits, both in commercial and more spontaneous circuits. A beautiful feeling of community, belonging, and solidarity runs through the different groups and undertakings. A long-standing feature is the extensive practice of teachers of artists of all disciplines, who, from their private workshops, provide parallel and often complementary teaching to university education for young artists. Over the years, opportunities for young people have multiplied, and the scene has seen an increase in residency programs, scholarships, awards, and support. But beyond this breadth and camaraderie, the scene is characterized by a wide degree of freedom and constant experimentation, where the conditions are given for artists to develop their projects and ambitions.
As a CIMAM's Museum Watch Committee member, what critical situations are most frequently encountered? To what extent are good practices in place in museums?
The main challenges that museums share with us concern governance and ethical issues. In terms of governance, there is the challenge of the constitution of Boards of Trustees - by what means and procedures are the Boards' authorities that govern museums legitimized over the executive director, with what tools and powers. How to defend the position of a highly qualified director who responds with responsibility to his community but must suffer accusations or complaints that are not well-proven or arbitrary; how to protect his work, trajectory, and dignity. How do museums position themselves in the face of the critical challenge of the culture of cancellation: to what extent a mistake is punishable. We have seen senior museum professionals withdraw from their positions following pacts of silence without the possibility of stating the challenges they have faced. And cases of professionals who have not been able to develop projects because they were considered risky by ultra-conservative public or private governance leaders. The spectrum of cases is vast and ranges from the most particular to major situations, such as the threat of closure of large museums, the possibility of the collapse of huge public ecosystems, or other dramatic situations, such as the lack of access to social security for state museum workers in the midst of a pandemic.