National Gallery of Victoria: MoMA

This morning I braved the exhibition opening day crowds and visited MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Not the world’s catchiest title, but, exactly describes what you are about to see. Luckily I had planned ahead and pre-purchased my ticket. Otherwise I’d probably still be in the queue waiting! I got into the exhibition space quite quickly and started my journey through the displays. If you are aware of what are called “compliment sandwiches” that’s exactly what I’m about to do next – positive, critical, positive. Let the implementation of a management strategy begin!

Something Positive – Layout

One thing I really appreciated was how the exhibition was designed. It was super busy, but, I never felt as though my personal space had been invaded.

There were lots of hallways for people to sit and sort of remove themselves if necessary as well as large open rooms that did not feel congested.

The use of light colours in the exhibition as well made the rooms feel bright and spacious. It did almost border on clinical and sterile, but, the artwork lifted the feel immensely.

Sculptures and other 3D works had been carefully placed in the space as to not be an obstacle. I appreciated that a lot! They weren’t trip hazards nor were they so close to the work on the wall you had to be careful stepping back.

Something Critical – Labels

Ok, art galleries, if you’re listening please hear me. Stop making labels so impossibly full of terminology that no one but yourselves can understand. It is alienating. I don’t want to walk around with a glossary when I’m trying to appreciate art. I have now said this one million times, but, I do want to keep mentioning it.

On the same subject, I had issues with the kids labels. I know I wasn’t the only one because a kid next to me at an artwork almost started crying because he couldn’t understand what it was saying. The labels were in the exact same format as the other labels and were located at a height that would have made them inaccessible to most children. Also, they had almost as much information printed on them as the labels for ‘adults’.

Every time I think about labels I’m transported back to Hampton Court Palace during the Open Palace Program. We had a presenter who stated that the most effective labels were simple. This is NOT the same as dumbing down.

Something Critical – Representation

If you never get the opportunity to travel to New York and see these amazing works then this exhibition is for you. If you are yearning for an exhibition that digs deeper into the diversity of people working during the 130 years the exhibition seeks to display and that would be present in MoMA’a collection, it will be a bit underwhelming. I do realise they might not have had control in what was sent over, but, then the responsibility is at the other end and decisions can be influenced.

Combining these two critical thoughts together, what the exhibition didn’t quite reach was genuine integration. To quote Adrienne Rich it was a ‘moment of physic disequilibrium’.

Something Positive – Curatorial and Kids Space

Just to soften those critical analyses, what was on display was curated beautifully. I also found myself captivated by artworks that I had no idea existed.

For example, I love the Bauhaus movement. So much so, I’ve made the pilgrimage to Weimar and Dessau to immerse myself in everything Bauhaus. I was so happy to see they had Bauhaus works on display including this very famous exhibition poster.

Joost Schmidt, Staatliches Bauhaus Ausstellung, 1923

Beneath the poster were a series of postcards from the same exhibition that I’d never seen before! They were truly amazing and I spent ages looking through them.

As I mentioned before, the displays were very carefully pieced together and almost every room conveyed the atmosphere of the work on display. I loved the pop culture room that had its own soundscape created by a film that was on show. It got you in the right head space for the contents.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, 1960s

Right at the end, I popped my head into the kid’s space and thought ‘yep, this is where the kids feel comfortable’. It was a great space and made up for the labels.

Something Positive – The Gift Shop

This isn’t sarcasm at all. I think gift shops play a hugely important role in museums and galleries. A disappointing or unnecessarily commercial gift shop can cheapen an experience.

This one, however, was so well-fitting. All the products for purchase had a purpose and weren’t just cheap memorabilia. The NGV has an absolutely top gift shop and I am very glad this was no exception.

Something Positive – The Staff

Look we’ve all been there. You walk into a gallery or museum and get the immediate vibe of “you’re not welcome here”. The attitude of staff can make or break an experience. I don’t mean everyone smiling and going overboard with niceties. I mean genuine pleasantness and making you feel welcome. The Gallery Officers were all so lovely asking people if they’d like any photographs with the work and not sort of in a state of readiness to shhh you or tell you to NOT TOUCH THE ART.

In the last room you can have your height measured and recorded on a blank wall. A really lovely staff member came over and offered to mark the wall for me. Just little things like that can really positively represent an institution.

Overall, I am so glad I visited and experienced MoMA outside of New York. These shows coming to Australia are amazing and I think all they could benefit from is more critical thought and presentation as well as meaningful integration (in whatever format it requires).

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator at the Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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