Christoph Buchel’s Mess MoCA

July 24th, 2007

Last year Mass MoCA invited the Swiss sculptor Christoph Büchel to create a giant installation entitled Training Ground for Democracy. On paper, it sounded like it would be a fruitful pairing; a standard type of relationship between artist and institution. Büchel has an international reputation for creating ambitious, marvelously complex walk-in environments using all kinds of found materials, and Mass MoCA is known for sponsoring artists with ambitious, big ideas. Büchel, who was recently exhibited in this year’s Art Basel Unlimited, is known for creating unsettling and disturbing scenarios. Whether its winding through piles of obsolete cameras or walking through an abandoned sweat shop filled with sewing machines, Büchel forces his audience into cramped and creepy spaces intending to provoke deep, unsettling feelings in the viewer.

As the largest contemporary arts center in the country and a self-described “laboratory” for art-making, Mass MoCA is proud of its unique character; it exhibits some of the most challenging, and often the most monumental installations on view in the United States. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Franz West and Cai Guo-Qiang have benefited from the museum’s spacious galleries and progressive curators. Büchel’s work, however, was arguably the most demanding and pricey installation ever undertaken by the museum, with thousands of objects filling the football field sized Building 5.

Over the past six months, however, Büchel and Mass MoCA have been arguing over the proposed installation. The project was originally planned to open in December 2006, but complications regarding its budget, time line, and various other details caused the museum to announce the cancellation of the exhibition on May 22, 2007. Clashing information from both sides complicates the dispute. It seems that there was no formal contract regarding the budget or time span of this project. The museum asserts that they had a “basic written agreement with Mr. Büchel, in the form of a letter and follow-up e-mails” whereas Büchel’s lawyer has stated that “Mass MoCA never had a written agreement with his client about the project.”

The details of the situation however beg questions of accountability from museum and artist alike. Mass MoCA made its mistake in failing to form a detailed contract with Büchel. As a result, the project began to take on a life of its’ own. During the course of the installation, the museum was charged with procuring difficult-to-find objects such as an oil tanker (which had to be professionally cleaned for exhibition), a two-story Cape Cod-style house, a movie theater, cinder block walls, numerous sea containers, a mobile home, multiple vehicles, and thousands of found objects. Büchel’s desire to “make the gallery disappear” cost the museum more than twice the initial $150,000 budget, and with the artist nowhere to be found weeks before the opening, Mass MoCA was forced to either scrap the entire exhibition or to show the results of their failed efforts. The museum claims that the artist did not do his part, leaving the work unfinished and returning to Europe. According to the press release: “While Mass MoCA has provided double the original budget, increased the available time for installation by a factor of three, and made available to the artist significant additional funding to return and complete the work, the artist has so far not returned to North Adams to finish the work.”

From where it stands, it seems clear and even understated to say that no one wins here. Mass MoCA’s impeccable reputation for initiating compelling large scale projects is damaged, Büchel’s reputation for completing ambitious shows and his relationships with future institutions is most certainly damaged as well. Why didn’t Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson spend a few thousand dollars and hire a decent law firm to write an agreement between the museum and Büchel? Currently, Mass MoCA is seeking a court ruling on “the right to let the public view materials assembled for the installation.” Büchel and his lawyer are contesting this legal challenge, which in their view is “essentially a request for [court] permission to show a distorted, modified work to the public.” The basis for their case is formed on the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA).

Although irreconcilable differences between artists and museums rarely reach a standoff of such proportions, Mass MoCA has decided to make a lesson out of the canceled Training Ground, forming a new exhibition, Made at Mass MoCA that tells the story of the failed exhibition. The documentary project will address what works and what doesn’t work when museums and artists embark on collaborative projects on the scale of Training Ground for Democracy. The new exhibition opened May 26, 2007, and will be on view through Fall 2007. It focuses not only on the Büchel fiasco, but also on “other experiences working with artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Ann Hamilton, Tim Hawkinson, Matthew Ritchie, and Robert Wilson.”

The 20th century has been marked by nasty and devastating battles between artists and their patrons/curators/commissioners. As public art and collaboration between museums and artists has become a more popular way of exhibiting art, the grey area separating legal obligations and creative license has become increasingly prominent. Whether this is a case of project mismanagement that has turned into a public relations showdown or whether it turns into a stinging conflict over the aesthetic and moral rights of an artist, the alarm this controversy presents is centered on how the courts will decide on rights affecting artists in the long run.

Christoph Buchel shows with Hauser and Wirth in London and Maccarone in New York.

Arte Blanche: Is giving artists carte blanche really worth it? [f-news magazine]
Update: Buchel’s answer and counter claims against MASS MoCA
Artist’s moral rights and the visual artists rights act [NYFA]

Mass MoCA sues Swiss artist for right to show unfinished installation []