The Museum of Everything ? Exhibition #4

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Lauantai 19.11.2011 klo 16:15 - Raija Kallioinen

A travelling museum without fixed abode, exhibitions arranged in all kinds of places — in a former dairy or a department store. Exhibitions without names, just numbers for their titles. The visual expression is classic Courier and artwork consists of simple drawings. The colour scheme is restricted to black, white and red. 

How did London art collector James Brett manage to make his minimalist museum into a brand recognised by millions in just a couple of years? How was he able to set up Exhibition #4 in Oxford Street in the heart of London, in the prestigious windows of Selfridges? Has The Museum of Everything managed to claim its place among museums, in the hearts of outsider art enthusiasts?

To explain the museum's quick rise to fame solely with financial resources would be too simplistic. Its success has required wit, creativity and people skills. 

Creative business: James Brett appears to have a passionate relationship with his subject: art that flourishes in the margins. As a collector he trusts his instinct and taste. He has a fantastic nose for business, excellent talent for public relations and an ability to create brands out of anything he chooses. The operational model he calls a museum lies outside the established museum circles; it does not follow the operational culture, norms or ethical codes of traditional museums. Rather, this is an innovative business idea, and like a businessman, he brings his products to the markets. With a feel for the now, he acts on his instinct. 

Fascinating contents, unique delivery: The Museum of Everything is a product with high visibility. Its core is outsider art, a genre that until recently was only showcased in the UK at various art studios, a few galleries and in the international London-based Raw Vision Magazine. The public finds the Museum's artistic contents fresh, alien and thrilling. Their imagination and curiosity are stirred by the exhibition premises, be they a former dairy or the windows of a luxury department store. 

Speaking the contemporary language of the people: The Museum of Everything invites the public to join its ranks as volunteers. The exhibitions are accompanied by interesting and entertaining events and workshops. Friends of the Museum receive an endless stream of information appropriate for the Facebook era. This information is conveyed in an amusing, witty, tongue-in-cheek way without oversimplifying the message. These entertaining museum memos are sure to be opened and read. The Museum of Everything does not collect an entrance fee, like any other "normal" museum, relying on visitor sympathy: it asks for donations and calls on volunteers to provide their services. This mode of operation seems to be working; there were numerous young helpers at the Selfridges exhibition. Perhaps they consider it to be something of a status symbol to be involved in this kind of community, part of the Everything movement.

Networking with superpowers: Time after time, James Brett seems to find partners in places where creativity and profitable business come together. He brings outsider art, weird and fascinating, to the inner chambers of big business and provides an insight to the added value both can gain. As a museum which does not receive any public funding, it depends on sponsors and partners. Brett has also managed to stir the media's interest and, even more impressively, he has managed to keep the interest alive in a metropolitan environment with an abundance of competing topics vying for public attention.

Dialogues in the inner circles of expertise: The catalogue for Exhibition #4 offers a spectacular picture of the systematic way that James Brett engages in dialogue with various distinguished experts of outsider art. This interesting booklet records 20 discussions with, among others, Professor Colin Rhodes, Director of the Museum Gugging Dr Johann Feilacher and the curator of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Daniel Baumann. The publication conveys an image of Brett as an active participant in the dialogue and a scout for new talent. One could, however, quite easily get the impression that the catalogue is an attempt to harness the interviewees' prestige to somehow serve the image of The Museum of Everything, to build upon the brand.

Product positioning and commercial nous: Can you imagine better premises for doing business than a street-level shop in Oxford Street? Selfridges provided just that for the branded merchandise based on works created by disabled artists. There were art-themed shirts, dresses, posters and bags on offer. One had to admire the very skilfully branded art materials with The Museum of Everything logo on them. The Museum website also contains a shop of artwork for member studios. Admittedly it is not quite clear how the charity aspect of the Museum, mentioned on its website, is implemented. One can hope that at least some of the profits go to the disabled artists.


Impressions of #4

The idea behind #4 was innovative, the location brilliant and a breath-taking number of artists from every corner of the globe was showcased. Participants included studios known for the high quality of their art as well as interesting unknowns. The exhibition featured some strong, expressive artists, whose work conveyed the image of a unique artist.

Yet despite all the admiration I felt, I was more baffled than anything. The exhibition area was divided into small poorly-lit chambers. Works densely covered the staircase walls from floor to ceiling. Individual pieces were drowned under the others, and the general impression was that of mediocrity. One could not even see the names of the artists in the gloom. I tried to locate some works sent over from Finland but only managed to find one.

Most of the works were covered by Plexiglas, rimmed with colourful adhesive tape. A clever solution, one that workshops with limited funding employ so that they can produce a neat and uniform effect with minimal expense. In this context, though, it looked too easy and gave the exhibition a cheap and amateurish appearance.

Perhaps the labyrinthine, dark and crowded way that the works were presented was an attempt to draw parallels between the dark side of the human mind and the chaotic world but it failed to do justice to the art displayed. If the objective was to boost the esteem of disabled artists as professionals and participants in the "real" art world, the setting failed to support this.

Exhibition #4.1 held in the storerooms on the upper stories of Selfridges was completely different. Enormous textile sculptures by famous disabled American artist Judith Scott were hung in the air, light as feathers, in a huge hall. What a wonderful display! It was a complete contrast to the exhibition downstairs.


Does "everything" include everybody?

Despite the abundance of art on display, it was striking to notice that some renowned European studios were absent altogether, or that some had only sent a very meagre and unremarkable selection of work from their extraordinary collections.

Exhibition #4 has, indeed, been the focus of astonishment, bemusement and even controversy in European outsider art circles. Most studios are involved in international exhibition activities and are familiar with established loan practices. Many studios were, therefore, quite shocked when The Museum of Everything, after having chosen the works for its exhibition, announced that the condition for exhibiting the works was that they had to be donated to the Museum's collections, or if parties were unwilling to donate their works, they could be purchased by the Museum for just ten (!) pounds. So many studio representatives have come forward with this story that it is difficult to question its validity.

Of course, it is not illegal to ask for donations or buy artwork cheaply. We must also recognise the value that exhibitions which cast unknown artists into the limelight have. But when the artists are disabled and the studios involved have altruistic motives, the museum's terms seem to many to be quite unreasonable. It is also rather unusual that these exceptional terms are only revealed towards the end of negotiations. Perhaps now would be a good time for all parties in the outsider art field to study the code of ethics introduced by the International Council of Museums.

Psychiatrist and artist Johann Feilacher hits the nail on the head in his interview in the #4 catalogue: “A good artist with a disability should be paid the same for his work as any artist of the same calibre. The artists here cannot make contacts in the business world, nor can they run their lives with the money they make, despite the fact they are great artists. I help them to achieve all this. Every artist should have equal rights.”

I can well understand why, having thoroughly considered the ethical issues, many studios who look after the interests and professional circumstances of disabled artists made a deliberate decision to opt out of this exhibition. The fact that their names did not appear among "everybody" does not invalidate their operations. Those who work in the field of outsider art recognise the value and importance that each of them contribute.

A monopoly on everything is nothing but an illusion, a game. Anything that declares itself to be "everything" leaves out more things than it includes: "Everything Else" is excluded!

Time and space are infinite; there is room for variety in the circle of life. We can all find our place, with tried and trusted practices, novel insight, interests and rejected ideas, and mutual respect ought to be exercised.

Raija Kallioinen
Vice president of the European Outsider Art Association EOA

Avainsanat: outsider art


26.2.2012 15:13  pikalainat

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