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  • The Perils and Possibilities of Dance in the Museum: Tate, MoMA, and Whitney
  • Claire Bishop (bio)

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[End Page 62]

Every few years, a burning topic appears to crop up in almost every single conversation with friends and colleagues invested in performance. Currently, that topic is “dance in the museum”—by which I mean the specific problem of programming dance in the gallery space rather than in a dedicated black-box theater attached to an art gallery or museum (as found at multidisciplinary arts centers, for example). In the last three or four years, discussions about dance in the museum have decisively taken over from those about re-enactment, which somehow climaxed and fizzled out with Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present (2010). It has also displaced all talk about performance as a component of parallel programming to exhibitions, which now seems to occur as regularly as talks and related screenings. At the same time, the question of how to acquire and display performance as part of a museum’s permanent collection is far from fully resolved.

The art world’s current fascination with dance follows on from a previous high point of interaction in the late 1960s and 1970s, and before that, a moment in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I am going to refer to these as the first, second, and third waves of dance in the museum. But despite this long and healthy—albeit intermittent—history of dance programming at museums, the current debate seems to revolve primarily around three collection-based institutions: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and Tate Modern in London. All three have recently begun to show dance on a new scale and to new ends (although it should be noted that MoMA and the Whitney played important roles in the first and second waves).1 Since the turn of the millennium, each of these institutions has reached out to incorporate dance into the museum in different ways. This essay seeks to sketch these institutional histories, to draw out the differences between their approaches and trajectories, and to highlight some of the ongoing possibilities and problems of presenting dance in the museum. The aim is not to be comprehensive, but to offer a quick survey, prejudiced by my own experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, for others to elaborate or reject.

The Museum of Modern Art

Alfred Barr’s original scheme for MoMA was inspired by the Bauhaus in Dessau, with departments not just of painting and sculpture, but film, photography, architecture, and design. Surprisingly, given Bauhaus’s achievements in theater and set design, this original plan did not include dance and performance. Instead, MoMA’s first wave of dance in the museum began in 1939, when it [End Page 63] accepted into the library the archive of writer and impresario Lincoln Kirstein, who was on the museum’s Advisory Committee and went on to found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine in 1948.2 Kirstein’s dance archive comprised historical and contemporary books, prints, photographs, slides, films, and other ephemera. In 1944, the dance archive became the basis of a curatorial division, the Department of Dance and Theatre Design, which acquired and exhibited works of art relating to the stage (Chagall, Larionov, Goncharova). During this period, dance was never performed in the museum’s galleries; instead, only the ephemera relating to stage performances were exhibited, with an emphasis on set design.3 In-house and touring exhibitions about dance included Isadora Duncan: Drawings, Photographs, Memorabilia, Anna Pavlova Memorial Exhibition, and Modern American Dance. In 1946, the historical part of the archive (approximately 250 books) was transferred to Harvard University, and the department was renamed the Department of Theatre Arts. It was eventually dissolved two years later, whereupon its contemporary holdings returned to their former status as a division of the library.

Although MoMA showed performances intermittently through the 1960s (most notably, Jean Tingueley’s Homage to New York in 1960, Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull in 1963, and Yayoi Kusama’s Grand Orgy in 1968), MoMA’s second wave of...


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