Lately, the New Museum of Contemporary Art has been in the news and the blogosphere for all the wrong reasons. There have been woolly headed debates about the NuMu's courtship of collector Dakis Joannou, criticisms of Jeff Koons' slipshod curation of Dakis' holdings in the "Skin Fruit" show, a firestorm over NuMu curator Richard Flood's Whack-A-Mole characterization of art bloggers as "prairie dogs" (i.e. pop-up rodents). Even the awarding of the Pritzker Prize to the Japanese team that built the NuMu's new Bowery space is controversial, because, let's face it, the New NuMu has all the charm of a parking garage.
But therein lies the pervo charm of the New Museum, for it has always been weird, controversial and dysfunctional to the core. When Marcia Tucker founded it in 1977, after being fired by the Whitney for daring to curate a Richard Tuttle show, the New existed in what was merely a lobby of the New School building on 14th Street. You had to dodge a coat check, lobby guard station and cafeteria just to view the art, which critics generally dismissed has esthetically weak and conceptually ill-conceived. Marcia was always desperately scrounging for money and created a lot of resentment from the artists she showed by demanding a free piece of art for the New Museum's nonexistent collection, which was quickly turned into cash.
When the New moved to its next space on Broadway in SoHo, poisonous pigeon droppings screwed up the air inside the place, leading to lawsuits from museum guards and charges of a cover-up in the New York Observer and New York Magazine. Curatorially, Marcia's "Bad Girls" exhibition, for example, which introduced great artists like Renée Cox, CandyAss and Janet Henry, was roundly denounced from the feminist corner as trivializing the concerns of women. The staff in those days had some dedicated folks like Laura Trippi and Charlayne Haynes, who have never been heard from again, as Marcia tended to "act out" and burn through staffers with aplomb.
I did a lot of work with the NuMu for my WBAI radio show back then and fondly remember doing a live broadcast from the museum with my late, courageous friend Bob Flanagan, who turned his death sentence from cystic fibrosis into an affirmation of suffering and performance as the highest art. The late Chen Zhen, perhaps the greatest of contemporary Chinese artists, made his U.S. debut with a powerful installation, based on a Chinese laundromat, at the New Museum in 1993.
Always able to eventually sweep its problems under a Liza Lou-style carpet full of glistening baubles, for the first time ever, the NuMu became a financial stop for big-money benefactors under Lisa Phillips, another Whitney refugee, but it cannot shake its reputation as the Mr. Potato Head of contemporary art museums (MoMA is Monopoly, the Whitney is Skee-Ball and the Guggenheim is Barbie). Long may the NuMu juggle its parts in a frustrating effort to save face!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).