Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Why doesn’t America have its own Turbine Hall?

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Once a year, the Tate Modern invites an artist to do something in its cavernous Turbine Hall. The art is inevitably big, smart, engagingly populist, and Flickr-genic. The Turbine Hall show annually generates more press and conversation than any other contemporary art installation in the world. It seems like all of Britain is looking at or chatting about today’s art, in this case Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. [Image: Sunflower Seeds (detail) at the Tate Modern via Phil Hawksworth.]

Here in the United States, we have nothing of the sort. Oh sure, we have big spaces in big museums, but they’re designed as rental spaces for corporate events and not as art spaces. None of them have ever hosted an installation that has come close to putting art or artists in everyday conversations throughout the country or beyond. Nor will they ever.

So what does Britain have that we don’t? Easy: A single city that dominates the discourse. About a quarter of the people who live in the United Kingdom live in metropolitan London. There’s no British city that has anywhere near London’s clout.

To put London’s dominance of the UK dialogue in perspective, here are the U.S. metropolitan areas you’d have to put together to include about a quarter of America’s population:

  • New York (6 percent of the U.S. population);
  • Los Angeles (4.8 percent);
  • Chicago (3 percent);
  • Washington, DC-Baltimore (2.5 percent);
  • San Francisco Bay Area (2.5 percent);
  • Dallas-Fort Worth (2 percent);
  • Houston (2 percent); and
  • Philadelphia (2 percent).

If someone could organize (and fund) a contemporary artist doing something significant at MoMA, LACMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, SFMOMA, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the MFAH and the Philadelphia Museum of Art concurrently, a U.S.-based project would certainly generate the pop that the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installations do. It would certainly be a big deal for the injection of contemporary art into outside-the-art-ghetto conversations.

In a related story, I think this is a gap in our contemporary art community that should to be addressed by philanthropy: Nothing in the United States elevates artists into the context of national or international discourse the way the Turbine Hall has helped put/keep Ai Weiwei in the forefront of discussions about contemporary China. I think the chances of getting all those institutions to do something together is, er, extremely unlikely. (So what could do it? Broadly distributed, nationally and internationally-minded journalism about art would be one way.)

Related: Turbine Hall installations are always big hits on Flickr. This one’s no exception.

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  1. Eric F says:

    The Public Art Fund is the Turbine Hall of the US, and I think the Gates and the Waterfalls got as much publicity as any Turbine Hall commission. In that, though, they illustrate the pernicious influence of the Turbine Hall on contemporary art, with scale, spectacle, and camera-readiness elevated to primary virtues.

  2. Matt Levy says:

    We do have a space worthy of the Turbine Hall, and it’s called Building 5 at MASS MoCA. As someone who usually goes out of his way to promote non-NYC art institutions, I’m surprised you didn’t mention it in your post. Sadly, the one time this space generated a ripple in the national conversation was with the disastrous Christoph Buchel exhibition. That fiasco overshadowed the many breathtaking, monumental installations that the museum has assembled over the years. To name but a few: Ann Hamilton’s beautifully poetic Corpus, Tim Hawkinson’s Uberorgan (made well before he was a household name), Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune (which reappeared in altered form at the Guggenheim), and Carsten Höller’s mindbending Amusement Park. Time and again artists have found inspiration in this cavernous, haunting space and have reimagined the possibilities of installation art, a genre all too frequently characterized by disposable biennale one-off’s.

  3. London is both the commercial and political capital of the UK, so it has most of the important national art museums as well as the few private ones. US art museums that claim ‘national’ status are mainly split between the private ones in New York and the federal museums in Washington. The effects of this split between commercial and political centers is probably as important as the distribution of population in the US, when comparing the art world in the two countries.

    The Turner Prize, in part due to its sponsorship by a TV station that publicizes the event, has widened the audience for contemporary art in the UK. There is potential in the US to make more of the annual ‘best show’ award ceremony of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) in New York, particularly if the event were televised nationally.

  4. Amanda says:

    It might not be quite as cavernous, but I would say that MASS MoCA’s Building 5 plays a similar role here. North Adams isn’t London to be sure, but in terms of “big, smart, engagingly-populist, and Flick-genic” exhibitions, MASS MoCA’s succeeding (see, for example, Ann Hamilton’s corpus or Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune”).

  5. Will says:

    I would like to mention that the United States does have an amazing museum of contemporary art that is capable of staging enormous installations comparable to those in the Turbine Hall which is MASSMoCA (The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Adams, MA.

    It seems that the only obstacle that prevents MASSMoCA and the rest of the American art world from competing with London is MASSMoCA’s remoteness from New York city (which is probably equidistant with MASSMoCA as Boston).

    MASSMoCA’s building 5 (one of the 27 abandoned Sprague Electric factory buildings on the Museum’s campus) is not as large as the Turbine Hall but it is roughly as wide and as long as a football field and clears two large stories in height. So far in the Museum’s history there have been a number of wonderful, and some not so wonderful, installations which used this enormous space in ways just as compelling as the Tate’s. For example Tim Hawkinson’s “Uberorgan”, Ann Hamilton’s “Corpus” (whose effect is similar to Ai Wei Wei’s “Sunflower Seeds”) and Cai Guo Qiang’s “Inopportune”.

    I would argue that America DOES have its own Turbine Hall, the problem that remains is its out-of-the-way location from the large population of the Art world which, as a result, plagues the Museum’s attendance and desire to be seen for what it is: an incredible venue for contemporary visual and performing arts.

    As you said, Tyler, if there were a way to fund installations of the scale of the Tate’s then there would be manifold opportunities for incredible installations in America. Such funds could allow MASSMoCA to renovate additional buildings as gallery space, such as Building 6 which prides 3 times the square footage of Building 5. With that space I believe America could most definitely compete with Tate’s Turbine Hall.

  6. Gadfly says:

    Don’t overlook the Park Ave. Armory’s aspirations. It certainly opens up opportunities in NYC that have not previously existed.

  7. Amy says:

    In the interest of spicing things up and throwing something into the ring other than MASS MoCA — MCA Chicago does some pretty great things with that giant wall in the lobby. Jose Damasceno, Jim Isermann, Rudolf Stingel to name a few. Nowhere near the scale you’re talking about, of course, but a nice use of a big space.

  8. martin says:

    i LOVE MASS MOCA too!

    Uberorgan was the best show in the Gallery 5 space i think… totally wondrous… sometimes i think about who might be awesome in there.

  9. jenn says:

    (i’ll add to the MASS MoCA building 5 love…) On a shoestring budget, MASS MoCA presents giant installations that indeed rival (and sometimes pre-empt) the Turbine Hall (Carsten Holler did a building 5 installation the year before he did the Turbine Hall).

  10. Beth E. says:

    MassMOCA is an obvious reference for this sort of thing (altho it’s a bit out of the way for many people, as nice as it is to drive through the Berkshires to get there).

    In addition, what about the rotunda of the Guggenheim in NY? I can recall a number of really intriguing installations in the space–not just the recent Cattelan retrospective, but I’m thinking of something like Daniel Buren’s space-and-mind-bending installation a few years ago, something that helped me finally honestly ‘get’ his work as a whole.

    I get the point, though, that nothing in the Gugg space is likely to generate the high-profile sort of public response that the Turbine Hall regularly inspires. Loved the dig at MoMA’s mostly vacuous corporate atrium, though–the real comparison should be MoMA, on the whole, vs. Tate Modern, on the whole. Upstairs at both reveals a great deal about a hide-bound institution straining mightily at its own narrative strait-jacket, vs. a space open to so much, much more…

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