The Price of MSU’s Reputation?

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MSU Fifa trophy: A crowd in front the MSU (Museum of Contemporary Art) because of the Fifa trophy

When the Fifa trophy, the trophy of football championships, visited Croatia during its worldwide tour, all those interested had a chance to both view and pose with it, at the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art (the MSU). Thus the Museum was covered in multinational corporation colors – sponsors of the trophy tour and became the center of attention of manifold football aficionados. It is a rare occasion the Museum has such a numerous audience, and it is most probable that this was a first encounter with a museum for many of said visitors. They will remember it as a museum where Fifa’s trophy was exhibited, while the MSU should represent a whole other story. Deeming that such events are not in line with the Museum’s vision and mission as a public cultural institution and demean its reputation, discouraged by unsuccessful attempts to solve the issue within the institution, several museum curators enlisted the general public for help. They sent an open letter to cultural workers and artists seeking support in their efforts that such spectacles cease taking place. The Open Letter was signed by Nada Beroš, Iva Rada Janković, Ivana Janković, Tihomir Milovac, Jadranka Pintarić, Leila Topić. The MSU, along with other museums have previously already received criticism due to backing commercial content they cater to, and this has further opened a public discussion about the commercial renting out of museum premises. We will attempt to discover the underlying issues and what the future holds for our museums in this article.

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Jelena Rozga (a popular Croatian manufactured pop singer) at the Museum of Contemporary Art

This isn’t the first time the MSU took on the colors of a given corporation. Coca Cola came hand in hand with the Fifa, and the building turned into a large billboard that simultaneously promoted one brand and uncritically endorsed football as a mass spectacle. Previously seen at the museum were also the Black&Decker and Seat logos, respectively, as well as that of Zagrebačka Bank, Siemens and T-com. On the one hand, one brought trophies, power drills, cars and Jelena Rozga (and not as an exhibition visitor), into the museum, while on the other hand, others brought valuable exhibitions and artworks through commercial collaboration with the museum. Not to go into the issue of private sponsorship of public art collections, the curator’s reaction to the recent guest appearance of Fifa at the MSU should be viewed as two separate types of collaboration. It’s true that during events such as the T-HTNAGRADA@MSU.HR, the museum takes on T-com’s colors, that sponsors build their reputation of a socially responsible company on networking with the art world and latching on to MSU’s reputation, however, the content itself of such a collaboration not only isn’t aligned with the guidelines of a museum as an institution but also supports contemporary artistic creativity with awards and continuously enriches museum holdings with recent works of our artists through the T-HT@MSU collection. Then again, with commercial renting of museum premises, which was more than mere space utilization in Fifa’s case, as we experienced the MSU as a fundamental part of this whole massive spectacle via the whole media campaign, and the museum as a cultural institution does not reap benefits of such a spectacle. Aside from additional funds in its account, and the exact sum and its intended purpose is unknown as yet, despite sending an enquiry to the museum’s PR Office and to the Director herself, Ms. Snježana Pintarić. While the museum stands to lose greatly.

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Image 12 (Nives Ivanković): Mimara’s Classicist Architecture Serves as Stage Setting for Kitsch Manifestations

The Mimara example explicitly shows us what happens to carefully built and nurtured reputations of public museums over the years, based on cultural heritage, when commercial content overcomes the curator program. Few visit this museum due to it having one of the best glass or art collections in Europe. Today people go there in droves exclusively for the “events”. A documentary by Danko Volarić entitled “Mimara Revisted” was filmed, showing how classicist architecture of the museum has slowly but surely become an ideal stage setting for a variety of kitsch manifestations. This is something everyone who has a stake in the museum’s future should watch. Of course, examples aren’t only from our parts. We find similar situations in other countries as well. The French model of private partnership with museum institutions has largely been met with criticism due to the change of the role and function of a museum it entails. Gaps in the budget are attempted to be covered through commercial renting in Catalonia museums, they’re allowing any and all events to take place on there premises for stunning amounts of money. Thus the marriage ceremony of the Indian tycoon family Mittal in the National Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona provoked widespread controversy late last year, as not only was access denied to museum visitors, but the entire access zone, a public space with attractive fountains, was closed off to the public.

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We haven’t gotten a response from the MSU regarding our enquiry how much income did it generate last year from commercial renting, how much from renting it out to the Fifa and how are those funds being utilized

As to the enquiry what were the MSU’s proceeds from commercial renting last year, what were the proceeds for the Fifa renting and as to how these funds are being realized, we obtained an answer from the museum’s director, Ms. Snježana Pintarić, stating the museum’s overall income. We thus found out that in 2013 the MSU realized its own income of 3.908.820.84 HRK. Funds are used for expenses pertaining to guarding exhibitions, maintenance expenses, two employees on contract, program expenses, office supplies, etc. The information in regard to the question what part of that income came stemmed from commercial renting, as well as the income amount in terms of the Fifa case, was not forthcoming. We were told that its own income amounts to 18.46% from the overall business expenditures. If we were to go by the guideline that cultural institutions have to cover a third of their expenses from their own income, issued by Mayor Bandić over four years ago, the MSU still hasn’t realized its full potential and we can expect yet more of such events to come. World trends in managing culture pursuant to market laws are increasingly becoming our reality as well. The case with the MSU is only one of the more visible examples.
Curator Janka Vukmir from the Institute of Contemporary Art agrees with the fact that in today’s world, culture cannot be funded exclusively via public funds. However, she holds that in terms of both short term and long term commercial renting, content brought into the museum should be compatible with the museum’s content and meaning in general, its cultural offerings in line with the mission of the institution itself. Emphasis is put on the general public. New content should primarily be interesting to the museum’s target audience or aim to attract those who could be considered as a target audience. Vukmir comments on the MSU event as follows: “This situation was extremely unfavorable for the MSU, repulsive for MSU’s target audience, and failed to bring any type of new audience to the exhibition premises, to the contrary, it served as a distraction for all those interested for the museum’s primary activities.”

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Mimara women in national costumes in front of the picture) From the documentary “Mimara revisited” by Danko Volarić

With the aim of guiding museums’ policies towards generating income from quality museum programs, in lieu of unselective commercial renting which harms such an institution’s reputation, the MSU Managing Board issued an internal Code of Renting Premises back in 2010. Article 5 of the Code clearly states that no lease can be approved before “the Museum is made familiar with the content, participants and media campaigns held towards the public and taking place within the Museum’s premises prior to signing a contract”. The content and the events taking place within the premise must not in any way hinder the Museum’s function nor may they ruin the reputation of the Museum and its employees. “With the FIFA trophy, i.e. the non-critical glorification of soccer within its premises, the Museum’s reputation is surely questioned. The curators spoke of such an approach to soccer in an open letter seeking support: “… (We are convinced that the MSU) has gone thoroughly numb towards social phenomena that destroys the last bastions of freethinking culture and society we all strive towards. Professional soccer, as is already known, very often generates violence on stadiums, hooliganism, political, national and religious bigotry, as well as promotes socio-economic inequality through betting systems. These are undoubtedly topics the Museum and contemporary artists should tackle but only by taking a critical stance. This is surely not the case with this program which is a non-critical ode to professional soccer.” This latest incident, as well as those that preceded it, show that the Code does not have any real value. Curators who care about the Museum’s reputation already issued reactions within the domain of their professional bodies, but to no avail. Aware of the risks of this public outcry, governed by the ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Museums http://www.icomoesterreich.at/shop/data/container/ICOM%20Code%20of%20Ethics.pdf whose Paragraph 8, Article 2 gives them the right to react to the museum’s policies if they deem them detrimental, the curator decided to write an open letter as a last resort. In wanting to protect the institution’s reputation as an appropriate place for critical thinking and in asking for transparent management, the curators got off with a warning for public defamation of the Museum and were forbidden to publicly act.

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HDLU (Croatian Association of Artists) interpreted as a pot by Bruketa&Žinić at the Podravka event

Today when public funding for culture is decreasing, when culture and creative sectors are seen as sectors with new jobs and economic growth, this sort of silencing of the profession is unacceptable. In a time when culture is co-modified, which is confirmed only by glancing at the Creative Europe flyers through which Europe is willing to earmark millions of Euro towards development of culture within the next program cycle, only skilled and capable personnel will be able to create competitive programs and earn money without questioning the critical role of art. Otherwise, budgets will be repaired through commercial leases, the Museum’s name will be sold until it loses all value and all our museum edifices will end up like the building of HDLU – with tacky solutions by Bruketa&Žinić for the Podravka event. They will become boiling pots lacking any satisfaction, simmering with discontent, ready to burst.