Can Contemporary Art Displays Outside of the Art Museum Matter?

For some time contemporary artworks have occasionally been displayed outside of art museums. A number of the Whitney Biennales in Manhattan and Carnegie Internationals in Pittsburgh have supplemented the exhibitions with temporary displays in these cities. And of course the Venice Biennales regularly employ sites throughout that city. The 1991 Carnegie International temporarily presented Christopher Wool’s billboard, Untitled (1991-92), “The Show is Over” outside of the museum when his painting, with a longer version of this slogan, entered the permanent collection. And during Covid, in Fall 2020, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, a small institution sited east of Pittsburgh in a heavily Republican district, put up an ambitious show, the Diversity Billboard Art Project, a celebration of that theme using billboards on the local highways by a varied group of local artists.

There is a real desire for these many otherwise diverse institutions to expand temporarily or permanently outside of the museum walls. Because a great deal of present day art makes political statements, it’s desired that these works be set in a public space in order to reach the larger public. And so, just now when I published my review of the important local survey exhibition, the 58th Carnegie International “Is it morning for you yet?,” I realized that I had missed something. It include some drawings and works on paper by James “Yaya” Hough which I had seen in the museum, and also his painted mural A Gift to the Hill District (2021-22) on a billboard outside the Carnegie. Just a couple of miles from the museum, it is installed opposite a vacant lot in an impoverished Black neighborhood. That site is close to the childhood home of the famous Pittsburgh playwright, August Wilson, whom the poster quotes. A Gift, which is a lively painting, is different from most of the art in the museum. As its title says, it is a visually straightforward celebration of the local life.

As the website of the Carnegie explains, Wool’s statement “in the painting is lifted from Greil Marcus’ social commentary, Lipstick Traces, and is a definition of nihilism as quoted by situationist Raoul Vaneigem: The show is over.” This good art world painting was not a successful public work, for its clever comment on the commonplace 1980s art world belief that the history of painting had ended hardly meant anything to the men (or woman) on the street. If you have not read the Guy Debord’s situationists, the meaning of this statement will elude you. By contrast, Hough’s quotation of Wilson, “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief” speaks in a straightforward positive way to the Black community. As the artist, who grew up nearby says: “I want people to really start believing in this community, I want people to start engaging in this community, and I want people to start sharing, you know, themselves.” For art from the museum to be effective in a public space it needs to speak to the larger audience. Most museum art does not aspire to achieve that goal; A Gift would look out of place installed in the Carnegie’s galleries.

For two g enerations, many art historians have wanted that contemporary art be understood in political terms. T. J. Clark’s renowned accounts of Impressionism and the October writers accounts of modernism and whatever comes after have been extremely influential. And so it’s natural to hope that since so much art alludes to street life, that the artworks themselves can move from the museum into the public space. Of course that physical movement is readily possible, but what our examples show is that success in taking museum art into public is not easy. When the Carnegie installed Richard Serra’s forty foot tall Carnegie (1985), in the 1985 Carnegie International in front of the museum, they created a successful public work. (It is not, in my opinion the greatest Serra. But it is a good sculpture for this setting, because its vertical construction echoes the academic skyscraper which is across the street.) And Stanford University displays George Segal’s Gay Liberation (1981), a convincing figurative work commemorating the 1969 Stonewall rebellion. Albert Elsen, then the curator, told me that his policy was to repair damage without making any public comments. Museums are well-guarded, and so all sorts of controversial political statements can feasibly be displayed. But in public settings, even low key works attract vandals. Perhaps the most brilliant solution to this problem is David Hammons’ Day’s End (2014–21), a monumental installation, very visible but presumably physically inaccessible in the waters of Hudson River Park directly across from the Museum. Hammons alludes to the now destroyed piers and Gordon Motta-Clark’s famous use of that site. But even if you don’t know that local history, this is an effective sculpture, marvelously economical, visually majestic. Day’s End is a good monument to the now destroyed piers. Similarly, when Jeff Koons’ Split-Rocker (2000) was temporarily installed in front of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan even people who didn’t recognize the allusions to Marcel Duchamp’s ready made could appreciate the playful presentation of two different toy rockers, a pony belonging to his son and a dinosaur.

Here it’s useful to have a briefly sketched historical perspective, for public displays of contemporary artworks are not a new development. In the baroque, many of the leading artists were involved with the frequent public festivities marking the political events associated with the rulers and the sacred days of the Catholic calendar. On February 2, 1662 in Rome, for example, the French crown celebrated the birth of an heir with the construction of an illusionistic volcano on the Spanish steps.

People could climb a sweeping staircase around the left flank lined with ‘trees’ dangling with allegorical trees while the right flank was lit by a ring of dangling candelabra. At the top, obscuring the church facade, allegories of Peace and Fertility accompanied by trumpet-blowing angels balanced a crown over a silver dolphin. . . while three others held a trio of illuminated fleurs-de-lis in a cloudburst in imitation of the Bourbon coat of arms.

Then in the evening the mouth of the volcano erupted in explosions. As great as the Spanish steps look today, nowadays are they not a little disappointing by comparison? Bernini was one of the designers of this installation. The symbolism of this display would have been meaningful to almost any contemporary spectator. But in present day visual culture there’s a basic division between people who know something about the art world and the larger public. Hence the difficulties involved in taking art from the museum into the public space.


On. The Westmoreland Museum show see my On the 58th Carnegie International, my And on Jeff Koons, On baroque public art see Gauvin Alexander-Bailey, Baroque & Rococo(London, 2012), Ch. 6.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.