The Power of Plurality

July 6, 2016

Every monographic museum has a propensity for hagiography and fetishism. For this reason, when I entered the Fundació Antoni Tàpies as its director (1989-1998), I saw a clear need to analyze the pertinence and interest that a center that was grounded in the work of a single artist could have for a city. In this case, in addition to the institution that would host the artist’s own collection, the task included those pieces that Tàpies had kept throughout his life, or recovered in later purchases, with the more-or-less conscious intent to show them in a space that would bear his name.

Barcelona lacked a modern or contemporary art museum until the 20th century had advanced considerably. The so-called Museu d´Art Modern de Catalunya was, in reality, an entity dedicated to Catalan’s Modernisme, and its collection concluded just where the Vanguard should have started. This vacuum was only ameliorated by the initiative of some artists and their allies. In 1963, for example, the Museo Picasso was opened at the insistence of Jaume Sabartés; in 1975, fruits were finally borne from the efforts of Joan Miró to build a place that would simultaneously promote contemporary art and house his artistic legacy. Tàpies joined these figures in 1984, marking a historic period for the city. These three monographic centers constituted—with all their limitations and contradictions, which are none but those of Spain itself—the actual museum of modern art in Barcelona. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, which opened its doors in 1990, inscribed itself in this tradition and acquired significance, above all, by encouraging a critical, reflective dimension on its role within the environment in which it existed.

The work developed by the foundation in its 25 years of existence supports the propriety of its creation, and, despite the economic difficulties it has experienced in recent times (as have a large part of Spain’s art institutions) we may say that its activities are not only sustainable but an integral part of this city’s collective imagination, and that it has survived the difficult trial of the death of its founder. However, this model is not directly applicable to any kind of artist or collection. We know that many monographic museums or sites conceived to show a specific collection have not always enjoyed the success that their proponents would have wished. That does not necessarily have to do with the quality of a work or collection of works.

For nearly two centuries the art museum had an encyclopedic character, seeking to establish the canon and explain the totality of knowledge in its different facets and manifestations. In this context, monographic museums or private collections open to the public were intended as a complement to this vision. The first were envisioned more as home-museums than as art centers themselves, while individual collections were all seen in the mirror of the encyclopedia, as in the cases of the Frick Collection or the Hispanic Society of America in New York. The latter was circumscribed within the Hispanic world, but it acted with the will to acquire all kinds of artistic or popular expressions—from Roman glass to landscape painting from the late 19th and 20th centuries—and thus obtain an ecumenical perspective on the Iberian Peninsula.

Nonetheless, in the present, encyclopedic knowledge is inconceivable. In a world regulated by hypertext, images and reports are generated instantly and without end. We cannot encompass totality, and the accumulation of an archive of material is not as relevant as it was in other ages—neither is competing to achieve a privileged position in a supposed ranking of entities with the most heritage. No museum or collection exists without a public who makes the works in its custody their own; it is no longer essential to have access to a unique history, but to generate narratives, communities, and “likes.” Perhaps the small collections, those centered on very concrete aspects of culture, rooted and localized in determined places and situations, today have more meaning than ever. In some cases, it is preferable that these institutions keep their own character; in others, that they are integrated into a larger organism. Still, they only acquire a reason for being when they interact with other institutions, sharing information and criteria, order and structure, to complement and interpellate each other in a shared environment, which is always specific. The art world is an ecosystem in which organizations of diverse natures and dispositions have an important role. Their plurality is our fortune.