Spaces of Experience:
Art Gallery Interiors From 1800 to 2000 by Charlotte Klonk, Yale University Press, 305 pages
Museum spaces offer a striking example of what has changed in terms of 21st-century culture. The installation of multiple video-based works at SITE Santa Fe’s biennial presentation, The
Dissolve, presents opportunities to think through and experience some of the recent profound shifts in museum displays and to consider the very meaning and function of museums in contemporary times.
Charlotte Klonk’s historical survey of art-gallery interiors from 1800 to 2000 is a sound primer on the ways that museum spaces have worked to create cultural meaning. She asks and answers this important question: “How have Western cultures used the art gallery ... to conceptualize the nature of subjective experience, its value, and its relationship to the ideal of society pursued at the time?”
Klonk’s book is a valuable study showing how gallery spaces have been used to inspire feelings in individuals who visit them and reflect trends in the cultures that created them. By looking closely at museum spaces that were built beginning at the turn of the 19th century and comparing them with museum spaces over the decades since then, the author offers some important theories about how these places have functioned and how and why they have changed.
Her book is organized chronologically. After a brief introduction, individual chapters focus on the founding of the National Gallery in London in the early 19th century, the various manners in which art was displayed in German museums at and around the end of that century, the modernist interventions in Weimar Germany (influenced heavily by the Bauhaus) in the early 20th century, and the shift toward attracting patrons through consumerist practices at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City starting in the 1930s. The final two chapters look specifically at the “dilemma” of the modern art museum in the present day, focusing, in particular, on the challenges presented by new-media installations.
Within the framework of her book, Klonk suggests other important and interesting narrative arcs. For example, the author describes the ways that various Western audiences experienced the art spaces that were opened to them in the last two centuries. Klonk uses archival materials — photographs, etchings, critical sources, and the writings of the museum officials who were responsible for putting art on public display — and comes up with a story that traces the museum experience from one of national pride, to Romantic excess, to modernist challenge and emphasis on viewing art as a consumer experience. The author points out that the growth of public galleries in the early 1800s followed the creation of modern nation states and coincided with the Romantic era’s push toward seeking emotional experiences, particularly through art.
Klonk is especially interesting when describing the mid-century practice of presenting art in public museums in a manner that foregrounded the objects as lifestyle goods. She argues that this follows the increasingly consumptive practices of postwar Western culture. The co-option of Rem Koolhaas’ designed space for the Guggenheim Museum in the Soho district of New York by Prada in 2001 — it is now that fashion design emporium’s Epicenter store on Broadway — is a clear example of the ways in which art and consumerism are intertwined in contemporary times. “Just as the creation of educated, cosmopolitan citizens was thought to be necessary to the emerging nation-states in the nineteenth century, and the cultivation of the individual’s inner, sensuous self circa 1900, so the model of the extrovert, sophisticated consumer played an important role in the twentieth century. ... In short, consumption was fashioned into a civic duty.”
Klonk is particularly critical of the lack of variation and experimentation of the interiors of several contemporary museums, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Tate Modern in London. The daring design of the outside of many contemporary museum structures belies the strikingly uniform nature of their interior gallery spaces, which do little to induce a new relational experience among gallery goers and instead offer a generic place to view art. It would have been interesting to hear the author’s views on Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum, completed in 2006, which has garnered both rave reviews and strong criticism for the strange formations of its rooms. After reading
Spaces of Experience, you too may begin wishing for gallery spaces that disprove the notion that “the history of showing art is as rich and varied as only the exterior of museums are now.”