The January issue of Art in America includes an op-ed piece from Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk on the topic of museums initiating contracts with artists in the wake of the Mass MoCA/Christoph Büchel situation. The full letter follows, as AIA doesn't publish online.
MUSEUM PROJECT CONTRACTS: UNNEEDED?
The September 21st verdict in the Mass MoCA vs. Christoph Büchel case (See: Mass MoCA Axes Buchel Show, "Front Page," November 2007) has taken the art world by storm and left no museum professional or artist straddling the proverbial fence on the issues of contracts, artist/museum responsibilities and exhibit budgets. It has been an ugly affair that we’re sure all participants would like to place firmly in the past. We are not aware of details or circumstances leading up to the Mass MoCA/Büchel situation and do not promise to offer a solution to how the incident could have been avoided. But as interested observers and practitioners in the field, we may be able to illuminate a method of working with artists that has worked for our organization for thirty years. That method is, simply, placing the emphasis on the creative process rather than the outcome.
For three decades, the Mattress Factory has commissioned new work from over 300 artists. During those thirty years and in those dealings with hundreds of artists, we have never signed a contract stipulating budget for a piece or detailing artist/museum responsibilities.
It is the Mattress Factory’s position that the creative process trumps written delineation of dollars and roles. Free, open and perpetual communication throughout the process is vital to both the artist and museum experience. A contract is a line in the sand that impedes this necessary dialogue. It dictates everything that lies on one side of the line is the responsibility of the museum, while everything on the other side is the responsibility of the artist. We believe that the best outcome is achieved when all participants work together and communicate openly for the greater good of the piece.
Many months before installation of a piece at the Mattress Factory begins, the artist communicates a vision and we begin working on a daily basis to assist in any way we can to help achieve that vision. From regionally sourcing cost-effective materials and labor to providing detailed information to aid in the artist's research, the museum’s resource base is an active participant in the process, not just the pen that signs the checks. We often meet with the artist multiple times to ensure that the vision and objective are clear to everyone involved before the artist begins his or her residency at the museum. Should the vision change mid-installation, the foundation of open and honest communication established at the project’s inception allows for a meaningful conversation about options and adaptations to consider moving forward.
The situation at Mass MoCA created unfortunate circumstances that a written agreement may not have been able to salvage. We do not claim to have the answer for how the Mass MoCA/Büchel incident could have been circumvented, but throughout our experiences, it has been communication, not a contract, that remains the key to a mutually fulfilling artistic process and outcome.
Barbara Luderowski, Executive/Artistic Director
Michael Olijnyk, Curator of Exhibitions
The Mattress Factory