When the American economy bottomed out in the early 1990s, the contemporary-art market fell apart, and some gate-crashing occurred. Artists who were once denied entry, many of them nonwhite, came in. So did new kinds of art, much of it with roots outside Western traditions. An expansive new age of globalist art had begun, and it felt excitingly utopian. By forging links among far-flung people and cultures, art could do what politics could not: bring everyone to a communal table for share-the-wealth feasts, with museums serving as hosts.
In the years since — with all the museum news about architectural expansion, technological enhancement and audience attraction — globalism as an ideal, in the 1990s sense, faded somewhat from view. The proliferation of international biennials and triennials dulled its edge. The concept had become shopworn from use as a marketing tool. And when globalism became confused with economic globalization, political questions arose: To what extent does sharing dilute difference? Who’s in charge of building that communal table? Who decides the seating?
Recently, globalism, as global consciousness, has come back into focus, at least for me, thanks to American politics: to the spreading plague of racially based violence, and to a presidential candidate who preaches — promises — a future of barrier-building and ethnic expulsion. It feels like the right time to reassert global consciousness in art, not just as a practical reality, but as a positive idea. And, as it turns out, even some of our large and conservative New York museums, in not always obvious ways, have been thinking this, too.
If, in the early 1990s, your knowledge of art in the city was confined to what you regularly found in Manhattan’s flagship institutions, you might never have known that something called global contemporary art existed. It was readily apparent if you looked elsewhere, to small, ethnically specific institutions like the Americas Society, Asia Society, El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Queens Museum, institutions notably responsive to their culturally diverse communities. But the big museums were slow to respond to the era’s globalist impulse. And the bigger they were, the slower they were.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its encyclopedic holdings, is the most intrinsically globalist of all. Yet nowhere has contemporary art been given less notice or looked less at home. Recently, this has begun to change, as the Met adjusts itself to the reality that in museums everywhere, contemporary art is an overwhelmingly popular audience draw, not to mention an area of interest to a high percentage of collector-trustees and other benefactors.
For a while now, the Met has been integrating contemporary purchases into its collection displays. And, given the cultural span that collection covers, it’s no surprise to find non-Western work among the arrivals. A splendid 2014 fabric piece by the Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté now hangs in the African galleries. A surreal 2011 sculpture by Kohei Nawa, made from the crystal-encrusted body of a deer, has become a popular fixture of the Japanese wing.
But by far the most significant sign of a big push in a contemporary global direction came last spring in one of the two exhibitions chosen to inaugurate the Met’s tenancy in the Breuer building, once home to the Whitney Museum of American Art and now generally assumed to be the platform on which the Met will stake a claim to contemporary relevance.
The larger of the two shows, the blockbusterish “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” was classic Met fare, a lineup of work from van Eyck to Warhol, geared to highlighting the museum’s masterpiece muscle and scholarly skills. The smaller show, a retrospective of the artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-90), was something quite different, a bright globalist shot in the dark.
Mohamedi was born into a Muslim family in Lahore, Pakistan; traveled internationally; and created a highly personal body of linear abstract work, mostly drawing. Some writers have compared it to the art of Agnes Martin or various American Minimalists; others have viewed it through the lens of Sufism and Zen Buddhism. Although Mohamedi’s profile in Asia is high, she has scant recognition value in New York. And unfamiliarity, coupled with low-key, concentration-demanding work, led to the exhibition’s being largely passed over by the news media and, you suspect, by the public.
Visually, it was a gorgeous show, tenderly installed by its curator, Sheena Wagstaff, chairwoman of the Met’s Modern and contemporary department. Historically, it was a crucial addition to the ever-expanding study of Modernism as an international phenomenon. And it may prove to be an indicator of a wide-reaching approach that the Met will take to contemporary collecting. It was, if nothing else, a daring gesture on the Met’s part to put its weight behind the art of a little-known, non-Western Muslim female artist at a spotlighted moment in its history.
I had no reason to expect, 25 years ago, that the Met would someday show contemporary non-Western work in a big way. I did expect that the Museum of Modern Art would, and should, though there has been a long wait. Now and again in the past, MoMA turned its attention in a non-Euro-American direction, with a dutiful Latin American survey in 1993, and with the notorious “‘Primitivism’ in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” in 1984. Mostly, though, it stuck with re-tweaking the narrow version of Modernism it fabricated in the 1930s.
Within the past few years, changes have arrived in a scattering of substantial marquee retrospectives (of Armando Reverón, Lygia Clark, Walid Raad, Cao Fei) on West 53rd Street and at MoMA P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens. But the most institution-altering globalist action has taken place largely backstage, through the Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives program, or C-MAP.
Founded in 2009 as an offshoot of the museum’s venerable and still vital International Program, the Perspectives program enlists staff curators in 11 MoMA departments in research projects focused on art historical subjects outside North America and Western Europe. A lot of the activity is in the form of talks, seminars and so on, but the program has also resulted in two important exhibitions, “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,” in 2012, and last season’s “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980.”
For both, the in-house organizers drew on seemingly esoteric material that had languished in MoMA’s vast storage, as if awaiting a context that would make it make sense. Maybe even more important, the curators did on-the-ground research in the geographic areas under study, talking to artists, some now elderly, and examining fragile archives that had been untapped for years. Similar projects related to China and India are in the works. (A very recent large gift of Latin American art to the museum, accompanied by the establishment of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, will, of course, radically enhance further work in the area.)
Much is made of digital developments in the museum world, but when it comes to art and historical artifacts, as any curator will tell you, there’s no substitute for being there. The thrill of discovery was palpable in both shows. (The curators were still abuzz with excitement when I spoke with them.) And “Transmissions,” in particular, projected a view of art as an instrument of ethical inquiry and political dedication, a perspective too rarely encountered in the market-fixated New York art world.
The Guggenheim Museum has its own program, the UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, with a goal not just to research new art but also to buy it. Set up in 2006, the initiative, funded by the Swiss-based financial service company UBS, began successive art-shopping sprees in three broad geographic areas: South and Southeast Asia; Latin America; and the Middle East and North Africa. Three curators, hired on two-year contracts and working individually, made the acquisitions and organized group shows of their purchases.
Some good work has come into the collection through the initiative, though the whole endeavor feels somewhat arbitrary and scattershot, an exercise in instant globalism. The curators were assigned enormously broad swaths of cultural turf. If you judge their efforts by the Western market-vetted buys, they confined their searches to art fairs and biennials. The museum has announced no plans to continue the collecting once they’ve departed, contributing to a hint of opportunism around the project.
Maybe the museum feels that there’s no need (or cash) for more than this short-term effort, particularly given the extensive buying that’s been undertaken to fill the still-unbuilt Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. That franchise, part of the Saadiyat Cultural District, which also includes a branch of the Louvre, has been advertised as a virtual monument to cultural globalism, showcasing “parallel bursts of creativity from around the world,” in the words of Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim. But the superluxury setting has led to the project’s being prejudged as an emblem of globalization rather than of global consciousness-raising.
New or expanded architecture, increased digital access and social media outreach are, at bottom, about promotion. They pull audiences into a museum and can provide potent teaching tools. But global consciousness is what museums teach, or should teach: the simultaneous existence of many different cultures, and the equal value of those cultures, everywhere, through the centuries, and right now. It’s a lesson that stands in exact opposition to the pall of intolerance in the air at present. In the end, art is small, pebble-size, not globe-size, and it can’t do much. But if it can persuade people to gather for a meal instead of for war, that’s something. And museums can play a part in that persuasion.