Anticipating Works Unknown: The Foundations of the Contemporary Art Museum

Publication Date

April 2015


Joseph Siry


Art History


English (United States)


Relative to older museum types, the contemporary art museum is unique as it has yet to reach maturity. In the 1960s, the relation between artist and medium began to change, resulting in an expansion beyond the traditional media of painting and sculpture. Works in non-traditional media such as large-scale installations, performances, conceptual pieces, or audiovisual presentations were rejected by Modern art museums, prompting the creation of alternative exhibition venues. In the 1980s, curators began to recognize the cultural value of these works, and started to design museum programs to accommodate them. This essay will examine the development of the contemporary art museum through a rigorous analysis of the history, design, planning, execution, and curatorial life of two built examples; the Wexner Center for the Arts (Peter Eisenman, Columbus, 1989) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Boston, 2006). The Wexner Center was built on the campus of Ohio State University and was intended to inspire the creation of new art while facilitating the exhibition of existing works. Its architecture is inspired by the site’s history as an armory building, expressed by the fractured brick turrets that compose its southern elevation, as well as an urban planning error between the campus and city, articulated by two sets of grids that structure its volumes and permeate its spaces. The ICA, constructed as a new museum facility for an existing institution, is cantilevered over the Boston Harbor. Intended for exhibition, its transparent glass fa’ade frames views of the harbor, allowing the museum to enter into a dialogue with its environment rather than isolating its visitors from its surroundings. Its gallery spaces, however, are shielded from distraction and aesthetically mimic those of Modern art museums. Contemporary art looks outwards by relying on content derived from societal conditions. To create an appropriate environment for contemporary art exhibition, contemporary art museums must look outwards as well. The architecture of both the Wexner and the ICA instill an awareness of architectural and historical context in the visitor as they circulate through the museum spaces. My objective is to examine how art, architecture, culture, and curatorship influenced the creation of the contemporary museum for contemporary art.

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