Re-examining the role of the museum in society

26 November 2017Sarah Bahgat, Rachel Dedman, Asmaa Elmongi
Re-examining the role of the museum in society

In support of the CIMAM 2017 Travel Grant Program, Alserkal Programming sponsored a trip to the CIMAM 2017 Annual Conference for three grantees. The grantees selected were Sarah Bahgat, Adjunct Curator and Archives Manager, Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt; Rachel Dedman, Indepedent Curator, Palestinian Museum, Beirut, Lebanon; and Asmaa Elmongi, Curator and External Cultural Relations Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt. 

The CIMAM 2017 Annual Conference was held at the National Gallery Singapore between 10-12 November. This year, the conference's focus was on The Roles and Responsibilities of Museums in Civil Society. Here, Sarah, Rachel, and Asmaa shared their experiences and learnings from the conference through essays.

By Sarah Bahgat

In the 1960s French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault introduced the notion of the examining gaze. He argued that the meticulous observation of details and political awareness of small things could potentially help us see the “truth”. 

With the support of Alserkal programming, I was extremely privileged to visit Singapore for the first time to attend the CiMAM 2017 Annual Conference. I can definitely confirm that my short journey was full of examining gazes, endless observations and stimulating discourses. 

Three vibrant conference days, held at National Gallery Singapore, helped me learn/unlearn Southeast Asia, from the best structures in the fields of artistic and archival practices. The conference consisted of keynote speeches, networking dinners, museums visits, and numerous exchanges of conversations/jet lags.

A distinguished group of speakers – artists, professors, curators and directors - addressed a wide range of topics pertaining to theoretical and practical institutional cases.

Censorship was a key trigger for a series of debates that pushed us, as conference delegates, to delve deeper into the evolving relation between public interest and private resources in the field of museums and civil society. It was extremely inspiring to listen to the artist Tiffany Chung (Vietnam/USA), evoking how specific projects might attract “unwanted attention”.

As the Adjunct Curator at Townhouse Gallery (Cairo, Egypt), over the past few years I had to negotiate with not only increasingly conservative and nationalistic tendencies, but legal restraints being put in place to reinforce these attitudes. With so many Egyptian artists and intellectuals moving into exile, the accountability of Townhouse Gallery to the public to remain open and committed to freedom of expression is increasingly more relevant.

Furthermore, engaging in conversations with local artists Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei (Post- Museum, Singapore) and learning about their interventions to respond to their communities couldn’t be more applicable to some of the hard questions we are facing today in Egypt, during a time of major change.

On the third day of the conference, the notion of “right to the city” was vividly illustrated within the Tiong Bahru art and heritage tour, one of the oldest and first public housing projects in Singapore, with its striking Art Deco pre-war architecture. The tour featured the visit of BooksActually, an independent bookstore housing the largest collection of Singapore literary publications and the official bookstore for Singapore Writers Festival (which coincided with the conference). Grey Projects was the final stop of the tour which couldn’t conclude any better. An exhibition space, library and artist studio, Grey Projects provides an open platform for research, multiple encounters and publications.

Among the other inspiring visits which enabled us to gain larger insights into Singapore’s arts scene, was the NTU Center for Contemporary Art dedicated to research programs, international exhibitions and artist residencies; Singapore Art Museum (SAM) which was the main organizer of the Singapore Biennale in 2013 and 2016; and DECK independent art space - housed within 20 modified shipping containers –which supports photographers through its research based projects and specialized photobook library.

CIMAM 2017 annual conference was stimulating and thought-provoking on a personal and professional level, to say the least. It provided me with fresh reflections on my work practices at Townhouse Gallery. Also, getting to be around 280 delegates from more than 50 countries taught me a lot about how we are all surviving and tackling different issues in our distinctive socio-political and economic situations.

By Rachel Dedman

CIMAM’s 2017 Annual Conference was fascinating, stimulating, and impeccably-organised. Questions around regionalism in Southeast Asia, urgencies in the development of collections, and artists’ experiences of censure and politics all provided ample food for thought in the complex context of Singapore.

The city, therefore, was a fitting concern with which to open the conference. Nikos Papastergiadis’ opening keynote advocated cosmopolitanism as a lens for seeing cities: its heterogeneity a compelling antidote to globalisation’s desire to ‘make things commensurate’. However, casual references to ‘democratising the museum’ felt reductive given the varied demographic and global turnout of the conference. Increasing numbers of museums exist in contexts where the ‘demos’ itself is complicated, contested and uncertain, either due to political occupation (such as in Palestine) or in cases of totalitarianism. Surely by now we are uncomfortable with the idea that museums are island-bastions of democracy that might signal the way in tough times, rather than agents imbricated in the neo-liberal financial and political dynamics that contribute to today’s realities?

The strongest moments of the conference were when this was acknowledged and made nuanced. Patrick D. Flores’ reference to the curator’s ‘intense co-implication’ – the leverage of agency within a particular context – felt like one such moment. The final point of his address proposed eluding the ‘colonial optic’ by developing object/subject divisions outside and beyond colonial taxonomies, which struck me as a rare practical proposition for decolonising the museum imagination. This resonated with my work at the Palestinian Museum, an institution born within a vacuum of state infrastructure, privately-funded by wealthy individuals and NGOs, though carrying out a public remit. Such cases problematise and challenge any assumptions we may hold around the homogeneity of the museum; reminding us to examine institutions on their own terms, within their local contexts.

Indeed, in this sense the conference was an enriching opportunity to connect with colleagues from all over the world, offering common ground between the localities of my work and those of the Museo de la Solidaridad, Chile; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Yinchuan; and the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, among others. Both critical and light-hearted conversations, in the conference room, on the bus and over breakfast, rendered these few intense days the catalyst for new relationships and collaborations. I sincerely thank Alserkal Programming for their generous sponsorship of my participation – it was wonderful to meet Sarah and Asmaa too.

Modern and Contemporary Art Museums: Civil Society, Regionality, and Internationality
By Asmaa Elmongi

Modern and Contemporary art museums present history of every single society and its relation to other societies. They provide us the opportunity to understand the contemporary thoughts of every nation, which in turn could be related to historical and political issues; therefore, they are playing a key role in the world. From this point, I have been introduced to several talks of art museums’ professionals during CIMAM 2017 Annual Conference. The theme of the conference was: Roles and Responsibilities of Museums in Civil Society.

Through this article, I would like to highlight particular parts of the speech of three different speakers: Ade Darmawan (Artist, Curator, and Director, Ruangrupa, Jakarta, Indonesia), Donna De Salvo (Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA), as well as, Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei (Artists, Singapore).

Nobody can deny that art is a common way of communication among individuals. This is due to its accessibility all over the world, and its accompaniment to the contemporary events. It is important to involve the public in the art scene, and to reduce the gap between what people think the role of art is, and the main purpose of art. According to the speech of Ade Darmawan, “The living-together art spaces are an affirmation that art can be situated, quite naturally, among the people.” Darmawan who has directed an art space that is represented in a residential home that becomes a studio and a meeting place for different art events such as exhibitions, workshops, festivals, discussions, film screening, has opened the space to anyone of the neighborhood who want to teach, as a kind of a collaboration to make the public intervene with the place. In addition, the space is available to the public, a year before any event, so that it is like a brainstorming for anyone who wants to share the experience.

Availability of art spaces for the public - even those who are not art professionals - is one of the main hubs for engaging the audience. This is especially true in countries with economic crisis, or countries that experienced a serious political issue. Nations of both of these two cases often have priorities to be concerned about. However, there is always a need for discussions, whether by talking to each other, or by watching or listening to what could encourage them to confront with the situation.

Whitney Museum has been one of these places that supported the American public throughout the last US elections, as what was mentioned by Donna De Salvo. “The museum was open to the public, while the other art spaces and museums were closed. We decided to offer spaces, where people could talk and discuss. It was so energetic”. 

Recalling “nations” leads us to mention Regionalism and Internationalism, and talking about Modern and Contemporary Arts is indicating advancement and globalization. While artists were practicing Modern Art as a result of the Industrial Revolution from the 18th to the 19th century, Contemporary Art emerged as a result of globalization. After the World War II, the US started to spread new artistic movements all over the world. Whatever the materials or methods are, it is concerned mainly with political and social issues. The Industrial Revolution provided artists with new techniques and functions, which offered them a new way of seeing nature, light, and colors. The Cultural Cold War resulted in a new perspective of the world.

Artists Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei, who are the founders of Post-Museum – a cultural and social space which is an open platform for examining contemporary life, promoting the arts, and connecting people –, have given attention to regionalism, as a confirmation of their “right to the city”. “Local community-led projects are sidelined as they do not fit into the narrative of ‘grand rebirth’ and advancement.” said the artists.

In this confrontation, there is a difference between encouraging Social-Practice art projects, and regional artworks that does not conform to advancement. The first type refers to contemporary works of art that are concerned with social matters, and this is one of the main objectives of Contemporary Art. The latter could indicate local arts. With regards to the term “Practice the City”, which have been referred to by the artists, they have mentioned a number of art projects, which ascertained their practice of Contemporary Art. Since Contemporary Art refers to Internationalism, it cannot be limited to regionalism; on the other hand, we cannot describe art as "regional" by practicing Contemporary Art.

In conclusion, expressing our society or local community, is of a considerable importance. It is a way of involving the public in the art environment, in order to offer them a peaceful method to discuss or exchange opinions. At the same time, we need to spread our thoughts globally. Consequently, there must be a gate to the other societies, through which we can deliver the message, and to assure that the other party will receive it correctly. This gate could be Modern and Contemporary Art museums, or could be museums of “diverse-art”.

Images supplied by Sarah Bahgat, Rachel Dedman, Asmaa Elmongi.

A distinguished group of speakers – artists, professors, curators and directors - addressed a wide range of topics pertaining to theoretical and practical institutional cases.