MONA: A Pop-Up Museum

DETROIT - According to London's Art Newspaper, what resources do you need to start a pop-up art gallery?

You must have inexhaustible reserves of energy, a large helping of missionary zeal, and a healthy dose of chutzpah. A network of artists willing to help out on a voluntary basis probably helps. Most important, courageous landlords to donate valuable real estate. Surprisingly, though, you don’t need much money.

The original pop-up phenom: Detroit’s artist-run Museum of New Art (MONA) was founded on these principles way back in 1996, and is going as strong as ever: having just announced its first Prinzhorn Prize awarded to six influential national and international artists - with upcoming exhibitions from winner Nicole Eisenman, and another from Lifetime Achievement recipients Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Over the last decade, the Museum of New Art has swapped homes six times, ranging from a commercial gallery’s walk-in closet to the entire second floor of a downtown skyscraper. And now, to its newest addition: a satellite gallery in Detroit’s Russell Industrial Complex.

Currently, the museum is housed in 7 separate galleries, exhibiting art in spaces ranging from Detroit to the city of Pontiac 25 miles away. It has swelled from that closet museum at its outset to over 40,000 sq. feet by 2003, then back down to its current size of 16,000 sq. feet.

To achieve all this, MONA has always operated at the opposite end of the financial scale from more traditional museums, eschewing questions of finance altogether. This may sound like idealism, but Jef Bourgeau, the museum’s director, sees it as a practical solution to the problem of arts funding: “Working outside the system, we remain untouched by hard times.”

And yet without a running budget the museum has managed some real art coups. Since its inception in September 1996, MONA has become both a playground and springboard for hundreds of artists, both new and established. including such notables as Sol LeWitt, Yoko Ono, Simen Johan, Crash, Stella Vine, Haim Steinbach, Lucio Pozzi, and Iain Baxter.

As for unique art events, the museum founded and sponsored: the Biennale Detroit; Documenta USA; the Detroit International Film Festival 1-10; Ground Zero (shortly after 9/11); e-MONA; ArtCore; Aperto; Moving Walls; and kaBOOM!

In the last year alone, MONA has initiated Detroit artist swaps with four major cities (Chicago; Berlin; Bregenz; Beijing). The Detroit exhibition in Berlin inspired the German television journal Aspekte to produce a segment on Detroit culture; and the Austrian display of Detroiters' art caught the eye of the director of Kunsthalle Wien, who is planning a Detroit exhibition at that museum.

Against all odds, the museum has also compiled its own “portable” but permanent collection (200 works made to fit into small archival boxes) created by artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Arman, Peter Halley, Jenny Holzer, and Vito Acconci.

As if an official validation, early on the museum brought down the wrath of Krens (Thomas), former Guggenheim director, writing a few years back:  "Any further press releases from you will be returned, unopened ...You are not geographically germane to our interests."

One early exhibition dealing with censorship was raided by the police and brought charges of obscenity for most scurrilously presenting a reproduction of Courbet's Origin of the World (1868). After three trial post-ponements, the case was finally dismissed when the ACLU stepped in.

And then, nearly two years in the making, MONA's Art Until Now changing installations at the Detroit Institute of Arts was shut down into its third day of a three month run - for presenting work that "might offend Christians." (Graham Beal, director). At the time, this was cheered by the likes of Reverend Jerry Falwell: "It's refreshing to see someone of authority in the arts community who understands the basic truth of accountability."

Shortly after that last incident, MONA applied for and received its 503(C)(1) museum status.

In a PBS interview, Jan van der Marck* said: "I do not see Jef Bourgeau's museum as a satire of the real thing, I see it more of a nudging, a questioning, of the real thing. In that cool Duchampian fashion that has no pathos, that has no big voice, but that is a subtle, unsettling challenge to the institution usually known as the museum of contemporary art and the people responsible for the founding, the running, the financing, and the publicizing of museums of contemporary art. And so, every museum of contemporary art and every institution by that name will find that Jef's little upstart in Pontiac is somehow a challenge, and perhaps, a negative shadow falling over the real thing."

*Jan van der Marck is a former curator at the Walker Art Center, the Dartmouth Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and, founding director of the precursor to the Miami Art Museum, and founding director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.


                 < PBS video