40 Years On: An Activist Legacy Turns Institutional

by Evan Carter

If a museum could write a memoir, you might get something like New Museum: 40 Years New. This hefty coffee table slab, printed by Phaidon, chronicles the origins of the New Museum, currently located on the Bowery in New York City.

The museum has developed a reputation for exhibiting both international and under-represented artists. In the past seven years, it has exhibited artists from Argentina, Brazil, China, South Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom. It has mounted ambitious surveys of important figures such as Ana Mendieta, William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy and Andrea Zittel before they received wider public recognition. The newest edition of its signature exhibition series, the “New Museum Triennial” just opened last month.

The book contains an expansive collection of images and nine essays contributed by directors and curators from within the museum. It stakes a claim for its place in history, initially as an alternative to the established museum structure, but eventually as a pillar of the global contemporary art world.

But is this shift a mark of success? The book begins by presenting the strong history of activism and clear sense of purpose imbued by its founder, the committed and controversial Marcia Tucker. But in reading the essays, the insider perspective offered by the contributors details a path of assimilation into the established institutional order over its lifespan that the museum attempted to resist.

This is not to say that the New Museum is not engaged in resisting market forces or to dismiss its activist roots. But it is clear that the New Museum has come to rely on those formal and aesthetic structures of contemporary art spaces at large that are often associated with exclusion and elitism. This is in stark contrast with the New Museum’s auspicious beginnings.

Director Lisa Phillips’ opening essay charts the museum’s chronological narrative from its ambitious beginnings as a counter-institution conceived of and founded by Ms. Tucker in 1977. While employed as a curator at the Whitney Museum, Tucker was ousted by a male director with whom she clashed over her radical ideas about art.

Early exhibitions were often controversial or confrontational, even if only by art world standards. It was after a showing of Richard Tuttle’s modest works that Tucker got in trouble at the Whitney. She left the museum and applied her expertise and vision to further contemporary art as well as provide a platform for women and other marginalized groups to participate in that process.

Phillips points out that many of the early exhibitions were held in alternative spaces founded by women who faced adversity in the art world (Phillips states that over fifty percent of the artists shown since the establishment of the New Museum have been women).

Before the New Museum moved into its current home, Tucker’s early efforts housed works by Richard Prince and Jeff Koons in storefront-style spaces that confronted the public. Other early exhibitions dealing with feminism, race, gender, sexuality, and the AIDS crisis featured works by Les Petites Bonbons, Barbara Kruger, and David Wojnarowicz.


Installation view: “Let the Record Show...,” New Museum, New York, 1987. Courtesy New Museum and the artist. Photo: Fred Scruton


In exhibiting works by artists unknown or at least outside of the mainstream, it gave early exposure to now well-known artists like Ana Mendieta, John Baldessari, Nancy Spero, and Félix González-Torres to name a few. Tucker believed art should not be limited to an institutionalized art historical narrative but that it was up to museums to create art history themselves.

Tucker’s founding vision is an essential link in the chain that connects our contemporary art moment to its history of activism and social engagement. But this is where we see a marked contrast between the New Museum as the brainchild of Marcia Tucker and the institution today.

Reading through the rest of the essays reminded me that most people buy these books for the pictures. One essay by Johanna Burton seemed to just list exhibition titles while another by Massimiliano Gioni seems to repeat information that had already been mentioned. Each essay has a title and subtopic but bear little consistency in how focused each essay is on its topic. Some relevant issues, such as “Exhibition as Environment” or “Museums and Institutional Critique,” are touched upon.

The essays toward the end show a blind spot in their failure to recognize the museum’s own role in the decline of the counterculture. Radical disruptive gestures that gave a platform to liberal ideals became a kind of norm that then gave rise to the current global culture of tech-driven entrepreneurship.

 Two of the New Museum’s most ambitious, large-scale projects tackle the relevant and contentious issues of entrepreneurship in the 21st century and access versus exclusion in cultural spaces. The final two essays are where the authors provide readers with a concise summary of achievements but little critical insight into whatever politics of access and exclusion their own projects engage in.

The “IdeasCity” project, directed by Joseph Grima, has noble intentions but, based on the description in the book, echoes the contentions of unaffiliated projects like “documenta 14” or Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument.

“IdeasCity” began as a weekend event in 2011 where people took to the streets to participate in workshops, discussions, and performances, with the goal of driving home the point that art is essential to the vitality of cities. Yet the project soon devolved into a residency that has held events in Arles, Athens, and Detroit, akin to the exclusive biennial cycle.

I don’t disagree that art can contribute to cities’ vitality, but placing an elite institution in a working-class community for annual events can also perpetuate classist divisions. Although these events allow for productive debate and discourse between the well-informed and educated, there seems to be little progress by way of engaging the public.

I think it valuable to bring artists and cultural figures together with politicians and organizers for conversations, but anyone who pays attention to politics knows that politicians constantly go to events primarily to network. And anyone who knows the art community knows it is, for the most part, insular. So, when the museum organizes events like “IdeasCity,” it is not surprising that it drifts under the radar in spite of its scale and spectacle.

Similarly, NEW INC is an entrepreneurial think tank housed within and created by the museum and led by Julia Kaganskiy. This project was developed to explore the dynamics of the transforming workforce. Though a significant issue, the resulting program is an incubator for creative tech startups that fall between the art world and the business world. With an array of product designers and businesses emerging out of NEW INC, it sounds as though capitalism quickly prevailed over generating real solutions to the transforming labor economy.

I wouldn’t take issue with this if Kaganskiy didn’t also heap praise on her own project as the force that returned the New Museum to its “unconventional roots.” NEW INC is providing a select few with great opportunities, but if the roots she is alluding to are the legacy of activism and institutional critique, creating an incubator for startups feels like a shallow defiance of convention.


Chris Burden, Ghost Ship (2005) and Twin Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers (2013). Installation view: “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures,” New Museum, New York, 2013. Courtesy New Museum and the artist. Photo: Dean Kaufman


The initiatives taken by the New Museum to organize these events and generate new possibilities for institutional structures and thought are laudable. It is particularly impressive if Lisa Phillips’ claim that the New Museum’s budget is far smaller than it appears to be holds true, given that their young home is designed

by the high-end, Tokyo-based architectural firm SANAA.

Regardless of these efforts, this book presents a museum that is proud of its 40-year-old legacy while continuing to pursue relevant change in our contemporary moment. Though the New Museum once bore a model that ran counter to the established norms of its time, this book is convincing in its placement of the New Museum as a groundbreaking institution upon its founding in 1977 and shortly thereafter.

This publication was an opportunity to highlight critical achievements and create a roadmap forward. They might have invited outside contributing writers, critics, theorists, and artists. There could have been interviews or a more detailed documentation of the museum’s recent projects. Instead, we get something far more typical of the gift shop, coffee table art book: pretty pictures and text most people won’t read.


40 Years New, Phaidon, 374 pages, 2017, $49.95


Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14

in a prior issue of the Examiner.

New Museum 40 Years New

Phaidon Press, 2017

Lisa Phillips, Director of
the New Museum.


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