Benhamou-Huet is a seasoned French journalist and independent curator with a deep-rooted understanding of the global cultural sphere. Here, she speaks to directors from Beijing’s UCCA and Paris’ Centre Pompidou to learn how they are managing this challenging situation and connecting with audiences despite being physical closed.
Museums: the Highest Idea of a Man
“The museum, after all, is one of the places that give us the highest idea of man. The role of museums in our relationship with works of art is so great that we can hardly conceive of the fact that they have existed here for less than two centuries”.
So wrote French writer and future culture minister André Malraux in his 1947 work “The Imaginary Museum” (Le Musée Imaginaire). He could never have foreseen that 70 years later the world’s major museums would be closing their doors.
While each museum differs in terms of funding models and reactions, the challenges presented by coronavirus are uniform.
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art , Beijing
In Beijing, Philip Tinari is the director UCCA Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), one of China’s most celebrated contemporary art museums. Under his stewardship, the institution has continued its international outlook with last summer’s extensive Picasso exhibition, the first of its kind in China, a notable highlight. Picasso – Birth of a Genius was organized in partnership with Musée National Picasso-Paris and drew 350,000 visitors in its brief two-month run.
UCCA closed its doors on January 24 and will most likely reopen around 21 May, in time for Gallery Weekend Beijing, an annual event held at 798 Art District, the city’s premier contemporary art destination.
Pivot to Online
UCCA has responded to coronavirus by reinvigorating its online activities. “As everyone is discovering, it’s been all about what you can do online to keep the message out there and to keep people interested and excited,” says Tinari, “But what was surprising was the success of our online concert on 29 February, which was watched by 4 million people.”
UCCA X Kuaishou
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art worked with short-video app Kuaishou to live stream “Voluntary Garden”, on February 29. Originally planned as a multimedia art piece by Colin Siyuan Chinnery focused on music, performance and exhibition, it found new life — and an engaged audience — online.
“We presented a livestream of an improvised show which included performers like multimedia artist Feng Magbo along with the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto,” says Tinari, “at one point [Ryuichi Sakamoto] was using a cymbal printed with the words “Made in Wuhan”. It became an iconic image and something far beyond the art circle. It ended on a message of hope that was greatly appreciated.”
UCCA had originally planned to host a summer exhibition focused on New York’s 1980s art scene, but with international endeavours not viable at the present moment, it plans to focus on reflecting upon the past few months. “The idea is to present a show that is really responding to the situation,” says Tinari, “it’s a global event like we’ve never seen before, and people are having a shared experience. It also puts China’s relationship with the world into a whole new dynamic.”
That said, Philip Tinari still hopes to exhibit paintings of American artist Elizabeth Peyton on 27 June, as previously scheduled, through a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Centre Pompidou, Paris, Shanghai
Bernard Blistene is both the director of the Centre Pompidou and responsible for the programming at Centre Pompidou Shanghai, which opened in late 2019. The latter institution reopened, on March 20, making it one of a small number of major museums in the world to have done so.
Shanghai’s reopenings, however, are taking place with added health and security measures, “there are evidently rigorous security measures in place with checks upon entry and regulatory distancing,” says Blistene “attendance will gradually build back up again.”
‘French Cultural Exception’
In Paris, the head office of the Centre Pompidou benefits from what Blistene calls ‘the French cultural exception’.
“We are seeing dramatic consequences in the United States for museums that are reliant on private funding. In France, the current situation also demands a certain degree of reinvention,” says Blistene, “We are having to move towards new forms of production, we also have to work more with our own heritage and create exhibitions that are in tune with current events. But we have no intention of putting our present projects on hold. That said, several big events in our programme are linked to loans from the United States.”
Such postponements expose the global nature of art exhibitions in the 21st century. “We were due to stage an exhibition of the American artist Charles Ray in collaboration with the Pinault collection in Paris. The project has been delayed until 2021,” says Blistene.
“We were also due to open a large-scale Matisse exhibition on 15 May 2020 to mark 150 years since the painter’s birth,” notes Blistene, “I’d like to hope it will open in June 2020.”
Like museums the world over, the Centre Pompidou is embracing new online formats and has revealed it is receiving 16,500 daily visitors on its website, as opposed to 15,000 before coronavirus — a light note in these dark times.
Reinventing the Museum
André Malraux envisaged the ideal museum as a place that not only brought together great works of art, but also evoked, in the mind of the art-lover, those masterpieces not present. Today’s online museums offer a new —potentially fruitful — interpretation of this ideal.
In some ways, Malraux’s vision has never been closer or more present than during this period of confinement. And yet, these new digital forms, as mere reproductions, require added sensuality and further dimensions, otherwise they remain nothing but cold and sterile copies. Fortunately for these man-made gems we call museums, nothing will ever replace the direct visual experience of standing before a painting or a sculpture.
The primacy of this experience will endure, though we might have to wait a while before we can freely access museums as before, released by the constraints of social distancing and freed from viewing our fellow visitors as potential threats.