What is notMoMA?

WStephanie Syjuco’s notMoMA (2010) is a work of conceptual art and social engagement, and the first work of social practice art to enter the Portland Art Museum’s collection. As a gesture of institutional critique, notMoMA questions the value and authority given to museum collections, who establishes and upholds that value, and how access to collections is granted. The Museum acquired the work in 2016 as a donation from the Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program. It is unlike anything the Museum has collected, so far.

To exhibit notMoMA, Syjuco asks the presenting institution to identify and engage a group of artists. The makeup of the group is completely open and in its three iterations to date it has focused on students from middle school to college. The presenter also designates a curator (again, who takes that role is open for interpretation) and the curator’s job is to select works from the Museum of Modern Art’s online collection. The group of artists are then tasked with recreating the selected works, using only the digital reproduction available on MoMA’s website as their source material. The intention is to refabricate the works to near actual size, employing readily accessible and affordable art supplies or scavenged things. When finished, the re-fabrications are displayed in a gallery deemed “notMoMA” and presented with interpretative labels identifying the original art works and original artists, alongside the names of the re-fabricators.

The work came to the attention of folks at PSU’s Art & Social Practice program when it was produced at Washington State University, Pullman. notMoMA was soon wrapped into an upcoming event “See You Again” that a group of PSU students were creating for the Portland Art Museum’s Shine A Light series of socially engaged programs. The “See You Again” collaborators Roz Crews, Amanda Leigh Evans, Erin Charpentier, Emily Fitzgerald, Zachary Gough, Harrell Fletcher, Derek Hamm, Renee Sills, and Arianna Warner decided to take their programming honorarium of $2000 and use it to purchase a work of social practice art that they would donate to the Museum. They selected pieces by Ariana Jacob, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Ben Kinmont, Carmen Papalia, Pedro Reyes, and notMoMA by Syjuco. On Sunday, May 31st, 2015, a large group of guests attended a cocktail hour and heard impassioned advocates make political style speeches to sway the audience toward selecting one work. A caucus style vote commenced until, at evening’s end, notMoMA emerged the winner.

OK, notMoMA was selected. Then what? Stephanie Parrish, Associate Director of Programs at PAM and coordinator of the Shine A Light series, advised the PSU students to sit tight: to guide the work through the acquisition process, it was going to need a strong advocate in the curatorial department. That was me. In September 2015, I came on board at PAM, with a goal to reinvigorate the contemporary art program and I set about establishing a vision to welcome a much broader array of artistic practices and expression. I have always embraced an artist-centered approach to creating exhibitions and have had the opportunity to provide artists with platforms for experimental works. But to this point, I had not yet been in a position to bring a performative, socially-engaged work into an institutional collection.

The Museum, like all public, non-profit collecting institutions in the U.S., has a collection committee appointed by the Board of Trustees. This committee’s role is to provide oversight and approval of all purchases and donations that enter the Museum’s collection. Each PAM curator presents works of art to this group in meetings that take place every other month. I knew that notMoMA would be a challenge because we don’t have a history of collecting this type of work and it would be an educational moment for our committee members. I decided to do some advance prep with the committee co-chairmen to discuss the work and use that discussion to be prepare for questions that undoubtedly would arise: What exactly are we collecting? Will this create concern for MoMA that we are supporting this work? Questions came up about appropriation, copyright infringement, and how to ascertain the long-term value and relevancy of the work when it is not a fixed object or experience. We discussed the professional standards for collecting conceptual art and performance through certificates of authenticity; I gave a primer in social practice art forms and outlined our ongoing relationship with PSU’s Art & Social Practice program. A rigorous debate ensued. Even with lingering concerns, the committee voted to accept the piece.

With the official stamp of approval, the accessioning process began. In conversation with the PSU students, they expressed a desire to have a material form for the work that they could deliver. We settled on a set of instructions with attendant appendices that illustrate past iterations of the work. The instructions serve as our certificate of authenticity. An institutional concern came up around the artwork’s transfer of ownership. When a work of art enters the Museum collection, the Museum retains rights to it as a special class of property. We did not have any precedents for a process-oriented, idea-driven piece that takes changeable physical forms. Does the Museum solely own the idea and the right to recreate the idea? What are the artist’s rights to the non-objective, to the piece as intellectual property? If an organization wanted to present the work with the artist, would they have to acknowledge “collection of the Portland Art Museum”? Is this work “unique,” e.g. are their editions or multiples that the artist might show or sell in the future?

notMoMA has given me reason to reflect more deeply on the categories and designations that museum collections place on works that exist in the social sphere. Specific to notMoMA, the piece concerns access to art; by virtue of the institution’s internal control systems a layer of restriction has now been added to mounting the work outside of the Museum. It raises a relevant question: is this work really collectible? What does it mean for students of social practice art to create a situation where a socially-engaged work goes out of circulation, frozen in an institutional vault? Wouldn’t the work and its ideas be equally, or even better, served by multiple well-documented presentations that would be more readily available to larger audiences? The “See You Again” requests certainly asked the institution to stretch its definitions and its categories, and that is indisputably good and necessary. But did the act of collecting notMoMA stop it from reaching a heightened potential in the real world where real questions get addressed?

After all, Syjuco intends that notMoMA bridge a gap in students’ understandings of “high art” and invites them to come to a greater comprehension via their own do-it-yourself collective vision. Whether considered copies, translations, or even mis-translations, all resulting works are unique expressions in their own right. They exist outside the institutional framework, even in healthy opposition to it. As an exhibition illicitly “borrowed” from MOMA’s collection, notMoMA creates a dialogue between a localized audience and a powerful cultural institution that may be inaccessible to the participants and public alike due to geographical, economic and socio-cultural barriers. Syjuco also reflects on the aura of original works of art, challenges the consolidation of cultural wealth in major institutions, and reasserts the physical experience of art in the digital age. Now that it is in another institutions collection, does this affiliation further complicate the work? Or could it be seen to neutralize its criticism some?

After acquiring the piece, I felt an urgency to activate the work and justify its “value”. We presented notMoMA in the context of our year-long We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments. series led by guest artistic director Libby Werbel. Werbel responded enthusiastically to including the work in chapter 3, MARVELS. She invited curators Shir Ly Grisanti (c3:initiative), Mercedes Orozco (UNA Gallery) and Melanie Flood (Melanie Flood Projects) to select MoMA works and area high school students from Jefferson High School, Gresham High School, and Reynolds High School to be the artists/re-fabricators. We also engaged a side project with c3:initiative, creating a space for documenting the process and giving more recognition to the student artists. We even got a best of 2018 mention in Artforum, courtesy of artist John Riepenhoff, probably the first critical attention the Museum has had in the print edition of the journal.

I am pleased and proud that the Museum has engaged with an important work of art, and of course I am pleased and proud that we can count it in our collection. Stephanie Syjuco continues to challenge me with the depth and complexity of her artistic inquiry. I’m grateful to the PSU Art & Social Practice program for making this engagement possible and allowing for this reflection of a wonderfully complex work. The number of questions notMoMA and the event/intention of See You Again continue to have for me attests to the importance of the work and adds dimension to the continuing relationship between the Museum and the PSU program.

About the author:

Sara Krajewski is the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Over her three-year tenure at the Portland Art Museum, Krajewski has reinvigorated the contemporary art program through exhibitions, commissions, collection development, and publications, and she has fostered collaborations that bring together artists, curators, educators, and the public to ask questions around access, equity, and new institutional models. Recent and upcoming exhibition projects include: Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal; We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments.; Josh Kline: Freedom; and Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene. Krajewski holds degrees in Art History from the University of Wisconsin (BA) and Williams College (MA) and has been a contemporary art curator for twenty years, holding prior positions at the Harvard Art Museum, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Henry Art Gallery, and INOVA/Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A specialist in transdisciplinary artistic practices, Krajewski was awarded a curatorial research fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and is a 2019 fellow at the Center for Curatorial Leadership.

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