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  • For Them, Not Us:"Turning" the Museum in an Anxious World
  • Declan McGonagle (bio)

This essay discusses the need for a shift in thinking about the purpose of art and the role of art museums. Fundamental questions continue to seed debates across the art sector and had particular resonance in Ireland at the beginning of the 1990s during the founding of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), of which I was the first director. Questions about the nature of a museum and for whom it existed were key because of the issues raised by this significant cultural initiative of the Irish state, and because of its interactions with broader social and political processes. That context, the ways in which IMMA addressed issues that arose for a new publicly funded art museum in particular, and emerging issues for museums in general are explored here with reference to salient features of IMMA's positioning and strategy. Although localized in a specific set of Irish circumstances, the issues I raise relate to wider transnational contexts where assumptions about the nature and purpose of art (production) and of art museums (distribution) remain resistant to change, notwithstanding ongoing debates and challenges to the status quo.

IMMA opened at the beginning of the final decade of the twentieth century, a period when issues of identity and the nature of the state were still openly contested, especially in relation to the political conflict in Northern Ireland. An emerging new story in Ireland was in collision with an old story—in effect a modern mind-set conflicted with a premodern one—a common confrontation in many postcolonial situations. Questions about the purpose of the new museum and, by extension, about art itself were unavoidable in such a scenario. Although these questions usually tend to be considered in terms of form, an era of increasing social, economic, political, and cultural regression and anxiety created a new urgency for the arts sector to [End Page 75] step up and reconsider purpose. Received thinking about the nature and purpose of art, around which our forms of institutional provision have fossilized, is regularly challenged by evolving art practice. But I believe that the various crises of form that recur in a linear narrative of art have been overtaken by the crisis of purpose. And it is this latter purpose that necessitates a step change in thinking, discourse, and practice.

Art happens and has always happened in human society because it has had an ethical social purpose and value. Thus my starting point is that the purpose of art is, and always has been, to see self in other and by so doing to create empathy—to sustain and not simply to entertain society. "Individual humans are relatively powerless creatures. . . . It is what they do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet."1 No matter what form the art process has taken, this underlying purpose has been true of art for as long as we have had human societies and understood human relations as social, that is, as reciprocal and transactional. Since the concept of art cannot be separated from its experience—and in my view the art process cannot be separated from social process—it is time to reassert that the principle of empathy is at the center of society and at the center of art. Around this principle new forms of art production and of distribution have begun to emerge in recent years.

If we work to this principle, we are bound to ask what is the capacity of our existing models of institutional provision to develop a new sense of purpose. This question has become as necessary for the formal education sector as it is for the museum sector. How should we think about and advocate for future provision if it is based on a shift from the disempowerment that comes with the privileging of consumerist models of experience to the empowerment that comes with the validation of participatory models? How does the museum model fit the present and the future? How does the inherited model need to turn in order to achieve and sustain an empowering and reciprocal purpose rather than a disempowering...


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pp. 75-103
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