NEW YORK — Sitting on a panel discussion at Baruch College with distinguished artists, architects and museum experts, artist Frank Stella dismissed a question by moderator Suzanne Stephens about the tension between museum architecture and the art it exhibits with a wave of his elegant hand.
“This is the last thing on earth I want to talk about,” he responded to a surprised Stephens, a deputy editor at Architectural Record. “Before you worry about the museum or the architect, you have to worry about the artist.”
Brian O’Doherty, also known as the artist Patrick Ireland, was even more blunt: “The architect wants to be the artist and he must be kept out.”
Of course, nothing is as simple as that, and the panelists, who included author Victoria Newhouse, internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry and Alanna Heiss, the director of P.S. 1 and deputy director of the MoMA, hotly debated how museums can both enhance and detract from the art they display. The five, in addition to Stevens, came together on June 1 in celebration of Newhouse’s new book, “Art and the Power of Placement,” published by Monacelli Press in May. The text poses the central argument of the discussion: Do museums make or break art?
Despite some lively, biting remarks directed toward each other — O’Brien called architects “corporate pleasers” and several panelists dubbed curators “lazy,” while an audience member pinned the panelists as “elitist” — the group did share some sentiments: All had venomous remarks for the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, which Gehry described as “all wrong,” and all generally agreed that, while museums as a whole cannot overwhelm the art, certain sculptural architecture, with curves and an identity of its own, can bring new meaning to an installation. The issues of scale, light and circulation remain the critical elements of successful museum architecture, whether it is simple or ornate. In fact, said Newhouse, “puritanical white cube galleries” can do just as much disservice to the art as an overdesigned museum.
Gehry, who designed perhaps one of the most highly sculptural modern museums in the world, the Guggenheim Bilbao, in Spain, was quick to agree. He relayed an ironic conversation from the late Seventies — before he designed the Guggenheim — when he told a group of artists, including Michael Asher, that museum architecture should not stand out and intrude with the art. The artists immediately disagreed, insisting that an artist’s best work should be shown in an architect’s best work.
“It made sense to me that you couldn’t make a building that was not fair to the art,” he laughed. “But people always try to get me to say that I am an artist, and I will not.”