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.”
Of course, the presence of live music in museums is nothing new. In 1943, John Cage played his first New York City concert in a MoMA auditorium. The Whitney has been hosting concerts for bands since the 1960s. Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk were regulars in MoMA’s sculpture garden, in the “Jazz Profiles” and “Summergarden” series. Mr. Rollins even recorded an album there, his rambling, associative, sometimes brilliant Solo Album from 1985. But the last generation of hip musical artists (or artistic musicians)–the so-called New Wave, including Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, John Zorn and others–played in New York’s vibrant gallery scene in the ’80s and into the ’90s. Music in museums was distinct from the art, ghettoized and cordoned off from the precious treasures of the collection.
Like their New Wave forebears, the bands playing museums now share a unified aesthetic: atmospheric songs with a loose structure, and frequent use of samples or dissonance or both. They stress the multimedia aspect of their acts so that they can call a museum performance an “installation” rather than a “concert.” When Animal Collective took over the rotunda of the Guggenheim last winter with its Transverse Temporal Gyrus installation, the performance was essentially song-free, and many fans expecting a concert vacated after slamming down the free absinthe. These Are Powers’ show at the Whitney included an interpretive dance troupe from Providence called Jazz Hand Job. For the band Javelin’s Whitney date, the sample-heavy duo built stacks of vintage boom boxes, painted in swirling psychedelic colors, like massive sculptures that became, briefly, a part of the collection.
“There’s something hanging over these museum shows that maybe something more is going on than just having a good time,” said Tom Van Buskirk, one of Javelin’s members. “Playing in a museum offers a suggestion that this is performance art.”
Javelin also played MoMA and brought with them an all-girl dance troupe named Anarchy in Motion, who stumbled around out of synch while Mr. Van Buskirk shouted, “Go shorties!” into a microphone. That performance didn’t quite make it into the collection, as it were.
Even some who have spearheaded the museum-music movement think a concert in a museum is exactly that–a concert and nothing else. Ronen Givony, the founder of the Wordless Music series, has brought bands like No Age into the New Museum with the aim of exposing the connections between electronic music, indie rock and classical traditions. These concerts tear down certain genre distinctions within contemporary music, Mr. Givony says, but the dismantling stops there.
“Whether it’s a string quartet or a rock band, it’s a concert,” Mr. Givony said. “I think it is interesting that these concerts are happening more often, and I know that bands like to play at museums, but to me, performance art is very particular and well defined, and indie rock is its own thing. It’s important not to confuse the two.”
Most bands on the museum circuit would argue otherwise. They want to be known not as rock stars but as artists–a moniker MoMA, for one, would deny them. High Places, an electronic duo from Los Angeles (via Brooklyn) has played the New Museum, the Whitney and the Guggenheim. Instrumentalist Rob Barber was teaching art at Pratt when he first teamed with singer Mary Pearson. Their intentions were more artistic than musical, a synthesis of visual art, recording and performance.
“We started High Places not thinking we were a band, but an art installation,” said Mary Pearson, the group’s singer. “It always takes on different forms depending on where we’re playing. It’s a kind of performance art, the spectacle of two people coming together to make something.”
In a museum, Ms. Pearson says, High Places is freed from the vicissitudes of a rock club, the uninterested drunks getting loaded at the bar, the catcalls to “play your older songs!” and other u
npleasantness. In 2008, High Places, along with No Age, helped inaugurate the opening of the NYPD’s least favorite illegal music venue, Market Hotel. Three weeks later, when the band was set to play there again, the cops raided the venue for the first of many times for noise complaints and selling booze without a license. Maybe bands are right to pine for the sacred temple of a museum.
“I don’t think,” Ms. Pearson said, “anyone’s too shocked by what they see in a museum these days.”