A rendering of Carsten Höller's slides scheduled to appear at London's Hayward Gallery later this year. The Hayward Gallery

It's time for museums to desist with the silly spectacles and get back to the good work they could be doing in the civic sphere.

The Hayward Gallery is bringing the work of Carsten Höller to London starting in June. Improbably, the gallery has managed to take the spectacle of Höller's last museum appearance in London—at the Tate Modern in 2006—and turn it all the way up.

For his show at the Tate, Höller installed vast winding slides through the museum's Turbine Hall. Now, only nine years later, he's doing the very same thing at the Hayward, just on the outside of the building. That's in addition to the winding slide the artist punched through the floors of the New Museum in New York in 2011. And at the Prada offices in Milan in 2000, and at the Berlin Biennale in 1998, and so on and so on.

The artist tells the BBC that the slides at the Hayward are there for "experiencing an emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness."

Museums aren't buying into redundant Höller exhibitions for the wafer-thin societal critique. The slides are just one of a piece with the spectacle-driven art exhibitions that have come to dominate museum calendars—and therefore, the cultural platforms of major cities. If museums insist on commissioning artists to work at the glib scale of starchitecture, then it's time to start thinking of museums as malign developers.

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013) installed in Abu Dhabi in November 2014. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

Now, it's not the Hayward's fault, exactly, that theirs is one Carsten Höller slide too damned many. Nor is it the fault of any other museum or institution, individually, though some come in for a bit more blame than others. Hell, there's no point in pointing the finger at Höller, either: My sense is that he's laughing at both the viewer and the institution, not with them, so he's happy to mount his slides as many times as you like.

Consider the Rain Room at the Museum of Modern Art. Or Tilda Swinton sleeping in a museum (and ripping off her betters in the process), once again at MoMA. Or Yayoi Kusama's selfie-ready Infinity Mirrored Room, which now belongs to the Broad Art Museum as well as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Recall the time that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suspended a series of Chevrolet Metros for Cai Guo-Qiang through the building's atrium—or when the museum emptied itself of art entirely for Tino Seghal.

Complaining about new art is an old man's game, and too often in discussions like this one, the artwork gets thrown out with the bath water. Painting-only classicists will disagree, but contemporary art isn't the issue here. Museums are. The widespread zeal for buzz among museum trustees and directors is taking a toll, culturally, on museums and their place in the civic realm—especially as inflation drives the scale and ubiquity of stunts up and up and up.

The Rain Room at the Museum of Modern Art. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Only a few museums trade in spectacle and celebrity frequently enough to suffer the institutional rot seen at MoMA or the top-down dysfunction witnessed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (Those two museums are now locked in a he-said, she-said conflict: A dismal spectacle show by the exuberant Björk is on view at MoMA; a show by her ex, Matthew Barney, opens at MOCA in September.) Still, the worst offenders set the bar for peer institutions. This can have a disquieting effect on museums in smaller cities.

In one sense, spectacle shows represent acute risk aversion on the part of museums. It's cousin to the disease that has sacked Hollywood, where only remakes and sequels promise the margins that justify a global blockbuster production—so only remakes and sequels get greenlighted. In New York, the cognoscenti can't decide whether to blame Klaus Biesenbach, the celebrity-chasing MoMA curator, or the board of directors at that museum for the stunning celebrification of its programming: Tilda Swinton, Björk, Marina Abramović, Tim Burton, the cheap-trick Rain Room. (This is easy to sort out—the board is the body that can solve the problem, so the fault for not solving it lies with the board—but no matter.)

When museums chase blockbusters, viewers lose out, because the artists who can deliver at the scale of architecture are few in number, especially as the scale grows. It's a problem that Hal Foster fingered in his book, The Art-Architecture Complex, a survey of the global convergence of art and architecture in the narrow hands of a few elite practitioners. The fault extends beyond the walls of any single institution, but again, these expectations harm the smallest ones most.

Florentijn Hofman's Rubber Duck tours Shanghai in October 2014. (Aly Song/Reuters)

No one truly worries for the soul of New York if MoMA hands over the keys to James Franco and Chloë Sevigny and turns its Midtown headquarters into a shopping center for performance cheese. But smaller cities—say, Pittsburgh or Norfolk—must pay a dearer price to compete in cultural spectacle.

There is at least one charlatan obliging those cities. Florentijn Hofman operates a sort of freelance touring museum exhibit in the form of Rubber Duck, an aquatic art-architecture spectacle. Reportedly, Hofman takes a five-figure fee for bringing the circus to town, plus all the associated merchandise and licensing revenue (for intellectual property that he cannot reasonably claim as his own). Local businesses and regional artists pay the opportunity cost for these damned rubber ducks.  

It's a slippery slope (that's right) from building-sized chutes to novelty duckies. What a shame for public art—and at a time when the distinction between public and private spheres is so stressed.

A question rises now in Indiana: Can a pizzeria (or pharmacy, or pediatrics practice) discriminate against LGBTQ families (or seniors, or children) because the business as an entity feels it has a religious obligation to do so? Museums might have a say in this argument, pressing at the boundaries of the public sphere with provocative art or exploring its depths with nuanced installations. The same goes for the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, which push on the pillars of American civic identity. Museums avoided them. (What's on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art? "Dream Cars" opens May 3. Thank goodness for Indy MOCA.)

Kraftwerk performs at the Tate Modern in London in February 2013 following the group's "retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Rather it seems like museums are locked in the #Occupy protests—but on the side of the hedge funds, the foil, the One Percent. Spectacle art is totally at odds with civic debate in America. Add a slippy-slide to the building. Hang some cars in the atrium. Float a novelty-sized inflatable in the harbor. It'll be huge on Instagram.

The only debate that almost every museum has seen fit to address recently concerns selfie sticks. Should museums ban selfie sticks? Well, how can they? Museums are practically the reason those things were invented.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Downtown Roanoke is pictured.

    The Small Appalachian City That’s Thriving

    Roanoke, Virginia, has become what many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It started by bringing housing to a deserted downtown.

  2. A mural at a restaurant in the Mexican Town district of Detroit

    How Place Shapes Our Politics

    Political scientist and author Ryan Enos explains how geography can sharpen political conflicts.

  3. Design

    'Game of Thrones' Tourists Are Besieging Dubrovnik

    The medieval city in Croatia is having a geek-culture moment as the setting for King’s Landing in the HBO series (not to mention the new Star Wars movie). But not everyone appreciates all the attention.

  4. Design

    The Second Life of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monster House

    150 years after the architect was born, his striking tile-clad Ennis House is a testament to his continued influence—particularly onscreen.

  5. Solutions

    How Athens Confronted Government Distrust by Connecting Citizens to Each Other

    After the Greek city’s financial crisis, disconnected private citizens drove much of the recovery. The SynAthina Platform connected these groups, says Athens Vice Mayor and founder Amalia Zeppo.