No Matter How Many Times Your Band Plays MoMA, You'll Never Be an Artist

Every time a young band plays a concert in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium, it seems that Rodin’s Monument to Balzac is frowning at the spectators in disapproval. The crowd drinks beer and smokes cigarettes in the sculpture garden, and a cavalry of security guards is on hand to kick people out for getting their nicotine fix next to Picasso’s She-Goat. (How dare they!) In one sense, the concerts transform the space into a giant, weird party; a museum guest might say to a friend, “Why don’t we check out that Jasper Johns before we go hear the Walkmen?” For bands, playing MoMA has become a major form of validation: Their music reaches beyond the beer-slick floors of the Mercury Lounge. But it’s also part of a blurring that’s happening in major museums in New York as the line between entertainment and art grows hazy. Institutions are embracing live spectacle as a form of expression. Youth appeal and money (read: future members) have something to do with it, too. 

While most museums, including the New Museum, the Guggenheim and the Whitney, consider live music an integral part of their overall program, MoMA insists their PopRally performance series and Warm-Up parties at MoMA P.S.1 are “non-curatorial” and just a way to get people inside. Despite the suggested implication of media and performance at PopRally events, all of which are done in conjunction with an exhibition, these shows are meant to be “accessible programming organized by junior staff at the museum,” according to a museum spokesperson.

“The museums are trying to be cool,” Seva Granik, who supported the Warm-Up team as stage and bookings manager, put it more bluntly. “That’s all it is. And everyone’s so happy. Bands think: ‘Oh my God, I need to play in a museum.’ It obviously adds to the aura of the artist in most people’s eyes. And then agents can say, ‘Hey, this guy played MoMA! Or the Whitney or whatever. We don’t want the $2,000 you’re offering, but $4,000.’ It’s a never-ending circle jerk of these institutions. But it works.”

“The idea is that contemporary art is a conversation that artists are having,” said Ethan Swan, the programmer of the Get Weird music series at the New Museum, “and musicians are certainly participating in that. We’d be wrong not to recognize new music being made right now as part of this conversation.”

Like PopRally, Get Weird emphasizes connections between musical performances and current exhibitions. But at the New Museum, some of the musicians have work in the galleries. The “Younger than Jesus” show at the New Museum in 2009 featured live music by the band Men, who refer to themselves as an “art/performance collective,” though you can still catch them at Bowery Ballroom next week. Emily Roysdon, an instrumentalist and songwriter in the collective, displayed her photography in “Younger than Jesus.” The group played inside a 40-foot-by-30-foot house that they built out of scrims of paper, based on a series of Ms. Roysdon’s photos. “We’re absolutely not looking to be just another venue for live music in downtown New York. That’s a hole that doesn’t need to be filled. But we do feel that live music is part of the discussion in contemporary practice, and we are trying to enhance that.” Apparently, the phrase “band practice” is due to take on a whole new meaning.

Even if the introduction of contemporary music into a museum is nothing more than a grasping for credibility, the spaces themselves carry a heavy context. Playing in a building that has the splattered canvases of Jackson Pollock hanging on the walls is now a rite of passage in the evolution of a band, like the first sold-out show or an invitation to the side stage at Pitchfork Music Festival.

“It legitimizes what we do to be recognized by an institution,” said Anna Barie, who has played at the Whitney and P.S.1 with her band These Are Powers. “It’s like the equivalent of getting an honorary degree from the New York art world.”

No Matter How Many Times Your Band Plays MoMA, You'll Never Be an Artist