Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 327-348
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If the attempt to disentangle itself from the museum was characteristic of much experimental art in the 1910s and 1920s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, then we might describe our present historical moment in terms of the attempt by the museum, as it approaches the condition of the multiplex entertainment center, to disentangle itself from the project of experimental art altogether. This is not simply a matter of what goes around comes around. Nor does it have to do with the ways in which museums are increasingly devoting more and more space to the arts of shopping, dining, web surfing, tourism, and so forth. Rather, it is driven by the fact that museums have oversold the notion, as Brian O'Doherty once put it, of the assimilation of art without effort. 1 A major force in the promulgation of this notion, particularly with respect to the organization of exhibitions, is the dramatic reconfiguration of curatorial practice that has taken place over the last several decades. Where once it was primarily curators who called the shots—on account of their subject expertise and disciplinary judgment—these professionals now routinely serve on box office-driven curatorial teams composed of marketing specialists, public relations personnel, education curators, exhibition evaluators, and project "managers." The attempt to embrace the differing and often directly competing priorities represented by each team player often leads to a leveling of critical ambition; perhaps nowhere has this leveling proved more detrimental than in the exhibition of new and difficult art.
With this problem in mind, I would like to turn to consider an earlier moment in the history of the acquisition and exhibition of contemporary art, wherein an alternative model of curatorial [End Page 327] practice was advanced, and to a considerable extent realized—in Russia, in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917. Involving as it does the interventions of artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Vasily Kandinsky, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and David Shterenberg, and critics like Osip Brik and Nikolai Punin, this alternative model gives the lie to the standard assumption that Russian vanguard artists and critics—in their pursuit of the dissolution of the division of art and life—simply turned their backs on the museum. On the contrary. The former Suprematist painter Malevich, for example, was among the many vanguard voices calling in 1919 for the state's construction of a vast network of museums of contemporary art across the new Republic. This network was to be interconnected by a "superhighway" (magistral') for the smooth circulation of traveling exhibitions, and anchored by a central museum in the new capital, Moscow. 2 Like the electrical engineer Gleb Krzhizhanovskii's adventurous contemporaneous plan for state electrification, Malevich's proposal followed the structural principle—the arterial linking of city to countryside—of most utopian visions formulated under the Bolshevik government's Civil War-period (1918-1920) policy of War Communism. This policy comprised a highly centralized command economy—or, at least, fantasy of a command economy, if we are to share Tim Clark's wise skepticism 3 —with a putatively totalizing control over the Republic's even most far-flung reaches.
As it was to turn out, the vanguard project for the state "museumification" (muzeefikatsiia) of contemporary art was both undertaken and substantially realized by the new cultural bureaucracy established in January 1918, the People's Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, or, as it is usually known (by its Russian acronym), Narkompros. In March 1920, the first of Narkompros's new contemporary art museums opened as the Museum of Painterly Culture (Muzei Zhivopisnoi Kul'tury [MZhK]), in a suite of eight galleries on Volkhonka in downtown Moscow. 4 Its definitive installation took place in June 1920. 5 According to a Narkompros guidebook, some thirty such museums were founded by 1921, with a centralized Museum Bureau in Moscow functioning as an acquisition and distribution center for the shipment of work to Petrograd and provincial cities. 6
With the Bolsheviks' nationalization of private property in 1918 and the abolition of the private dealer...