Pursuing the Unpredictable: The New Museum, 1977–2017

The New Museum, at 40, continues to champion local artists and introduce new talent. Photo by Dean Kaufman, courtesy New Museum, NY.

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN | It seems staggering that the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the city’s premier institution for less predictable contemporary art installations, is already turning 40. In fact, when the formidable Marcia Tucker (1940-2006) founded it on January 1, 1977, at the age of 37 and after having been dismissed from her position as Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it was the first museum in New York since World War II to be solely devoted to showing contemporary art. Four decades later, it remains in that position and it is (perhaps the only) one of the world’s very, very few art museums founded by a woman, as well as perpetually led by one.

Over the years, the New Museum has relocated numerous times, consistently growing from its humble beginnings in a one-room office on Hudson Street in Tribeca. From there it moved to a larger installment at the New School for Social Research near 14th St., to the first two and a half floors of the Astor Building at 583 Broadway in Soho, a quick stint at the former Chelsea Museum of Art, and finally, to its impressive current home at the Bowery. In fact, it was the inauguration of its freestanding building (designed by SANAA) in 2007 that elevated the New Museum into an undeniable force to be reckoned with. It was during that moment that it transformed itself from a boutique museum into one of the city’s most exciting venues for contemporary art from around the world, as well as into a vibrant hub for new positions and ideas within the field. Not to mention that it has also helped to invigorate a gallery scene in the Lower East Side and Soho.

Although the new building provided the New Museum with increased visibility (and significantly more exhibition space), its programming had already been exemplary for years. While at times refreshingly unpredictable, it also made sure to dedicate ample room to local artists, who had been largely overlooked by the city’s other institutions. It was the New Museum which organized landmark exhibitions of such widely acclaimed artists as Joan Jonas (1984), Martin Puryear (1984), Leon Golub (1984), Ana Mendieta (1988), Nancy Spero (1989), and Carroll Dunham (2003), reminding visitors (and more often than not some of the city’s larger museums) of the rich local talent.

Additionally, the New Museum has continually made a point of lending support to international artists who had not yet received institutional attention in the United States. It was the first local institution to develop comprehensive presentations of what are now household names, including Mona Hatoum (1998), Doris Salcedo (1998), Xu Bing (1998), Cildo Meireles (2000), William Kentridge (2001), Marlene Dumas (2002), and Hélio Oiticica (2002).

Alex Da Corte will create a new work for the inaugural installation in the storefront window of the New Museum’s 231 Bowery building — the first in a new series paying homage to the window installations that the New Museum mounted in the 1980s, which included projects by Jeff Koons and Linda Montano. Seen here, Da Corte’s “Fall 2020” (2017. Digital image, dimensions variable). Courtesy the artist and Maccarone Gallery, NY.

Founded by Tucker and directed by Lisa Phillips since 1999 (who prior to that had worked as the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art), the New Museum might be the only institution in the city that has shown as many important female as male artists. It has not only looked ahead, but also back, making sure to feature artists whose work has proven to be highly influential. By presenting the oeuvres of Carolee Schneemann (1996), Martha Rosler (2000), and more recently, the late Carol Rama (2017), for example, the museum continues this sort of ongoing exploration. Overall, the New Museum’s global focus remains unparalleled among other local institutions. Over the past five years alone, it has exhibited artists from Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, China, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Poland, Spain, South Africa, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, among others.

In the past few years, the New Museum has developed its contextual programming, ranging from panel discussions and symposia to thematic publications. As early as 2003, it had formed an affiliation with Rhizome, a leading online platform for global new media art. In 2015, it established its promising Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture series, the first two publications of which entailed “Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century” (2015) and “Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good (2016).” This November, the third volume will be released. Entitled “Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility” and edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, this collection of essays, conversations, and dossiers will explore the representation of trans identity throughout art and popular culture in recent years.

The upcoming exhibition program will continue to focus on the Zeitgeist. Featuring an intergenerational group of artists, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” aims to investigate gender’s place in contemporary art and culture at a moment of political and social upheaval and reignited ideological conflicts (Sept. 27-Jan. 21, 2018).

While reflecting on its first 40 years this fall, the New Museum will also train an eye toward the future. In addition to launching a redesigned Digital Archive that will be comprised of 10,000 archival materials and objects, it will host a two-day event bringing together in conversation a range of artists from the Museum’s first four decades (Dec. 2 and 3). Undoubtedly, the conversations will be among the most exciting things to have witnessed in the New York art world, period. Among the participants will be Paweł Althamer, Lynda Benglis, George Condo, Carroll Dunham, Mary Heilmann, Joan Jonas, Paul McCarthy, Donald Moffett, Dorothea Rockburne, Martha Rosler, Anri Sala, Doris Salcedo, and Carolee Schneemann.

From the group exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” — Tschabalala Self: “Mista & Mrs” (2016. Linen, fabric, paper, oil, acrylic, and Flashe on canvas, 90 × 96 in.). Courtesy the artist and Thierry Goldberg, NY.

Thankfully, extended hours and free admission will assure that the event can be attended by anyone — and so the New Museum’s mission continues to spread excitement and information about contemporary art as far and wide as possible. Fortunately for New Yorkers, it all unfolds in our own backyard.

The New Museum is located at 235 Bowery (btw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.). Hours: Tues.–Sun., 11am–6pm and Thurs., 11am–9pm. Admission: $18 ($15 seniors, $12 students, free for ages 18 and under; pay as you wish every Thurs. 7–9pm). Visit newmuseum.org or call 212-219-1222.

Kahlil Joseph and Petrit Halilaj exhibitions inaugurate the South Galleries. Seen here, Halilaj’s “Si Okarina e Runikut” (2014, detail of installation view: “Yes but the sea is attached to the Earth and it never floats around in space. The stars would turn off and what about my planet?”). © Petrit Halilaj; photo by Fabrice Seixas & archives kamel mennour.