Interview: Alexandra Munroe, Guggenheim's Asia art chief
The Guggenheim Museum's senior curator of Asian art believes that an exhibition should run the gamut of human emotion
I'm a historian, so I see everything in terms of historical development. We can say that the art world is still a boys' club, but compared to what it was in the 1920s, or the 1950s, or even the 1980s, it is radically improved. It is not perfect. But a tremendous evolution has occurred, and there is a lot to celebrate.
If anything, the art world is much more porous than other areas such as finance or government. It's more advanced because it's about creativity, it's about the eye and it's about individual choice. Statistically, we are probably way ahead of many other cultural worlds. Look at this year's Academy Awards, it was completely dominated by men.
The curatorial field is actually dominated by women. If you look at the Guggenheim Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art, the majority of curators are women.
The word may have become outdated, as it's attached to a certain kind of political movement and comes with an entire ideology that is tied very much to the left and to the sexual revolution. The problems have now become much more complicated than the word "feminism", on its own, can describe. But it accomplished a lot. We wouldn't be where we are today without that movement. It has generated a lot of different ways of thinking.
I had a great mentor, Martin Friedman, who was the legendary director of the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis. He taught me an exhibition is like theatre. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. You have the attention of a visitor for about an hour, moving through space. Like theatre, an exhibition should have sadness and happiness: it should move you, make you cry, make you laugh. It's about creating an optimum environment for an encounter with art and ideas. That's what I believe curating is.
The exhibition is only one part of a curator's work. I also expend enormous energy on the catalogues because they are what lasts. We also increasingly have access to many online educational tools that continue to generate debate and discussion around an exhibition, and give access to it.
The founding director was German artist Hilla Rebay. Her passion was for abstract painting. She had a belief that an encounter with abstraction in a conducive environment could produce not only a spiritual experience, but, one by one, create a better society. That ideal that art has a transformative power and contributes to the evolution of society at large is at the core of the Guggenheim.
At the Guggenheim, I am charged with redefining what "international" means in the 21st century. I have been given the charge here, under the rubric of Asia, to open up the Guggenheim to think globally. What does it really mean to think globally and act globally? It is no longer sustainable to present modern and contemporary art from a strictly Western viewpoint. You have to have in-house expertise in Asia and the Middle East.
Chinese experimental art of the 1980s and 1990s. I'm working on it with Philip Tinari, the director of Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It will be the largest exhibition of art from this period ever presented in a US museum. It's looking to present Chinese art from the period in the international context of what was developing in the world artistically, philosophically and historically.