Museum, Artist Go to Court Over Massive Installation The major exhibition now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has been covered with yellow tarp and closed to the public for nearly two months, due to a dispute between the museum and Swiss artist Christoph Buchel. The artist is known for creating life-sized installations that visitors walk and climb through.
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Museum, Artist Go to Court Over Massive Installation

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Museum, Artist Go to Court Over Massive Installation

Museum, Artist Go to Court Over Massive Installation

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tomorrow, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will announce what it plans to do with an enormous art installation that has been shrouded in controversy and covered with tarps for months. "Training Ground for Democracy" was slated to open last December, but it never did because of a very public dispute between the museum and the artist. Well, now a federal judge has weighed in on the case.

Andrea Shea from member station WBUR reports.

ANDREA SHEA: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as Mass MoCA, is home to one of the largest exhibition spaces in the U.S. Building 5 is the size of a football field, making it the ideal venue for Swiss-born installation artist Christoph Buchel. Buchel is known for huge experiential pieces that provoke viewers by inviting them to crawl through elaborate often-scary landscapes. Outside a court hearing on Friday, Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said Buchel needed thousands of objects to realize "Training Ground for Democracy."

Mr. JOSEPH THOMPSON (Director, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts): Theater box office, a projection booth, a 200-seat raked floor theater, a Saddam Hussein compound that included…

SHEA: The mass of items filled Building 5 and the exhibition started to take shape. But the $160,000 budget doubled. The December opening date came and went. In January, the artist sent a list of demands to the museum. Eventually that list wound up on the Internet. E-mails flew. Newspaper articles are written. Bloggers weighed in. In May, the museum officially cancelled "Training Ground for Democracy."

Martha Lufkin is a lawyer and a legal correspondent for the Art Newspaper.

Ms. MARTHA LUFKIN (Legal Correspondent, Art Newspaper): It broke down because the artist, in the end, didn't like the way some things were done or there were questions over not enough money to finish it to the artist's full conception and vision. They then got into the situation where the artist said he was walking away. The museum was left with the assembled object, which they wanted to display.

SHEA: So Mass MoCA covered them with tarps and went to court, seeking a declaratory ruling on its right to let the public view the work in progress without the artist's consent. The artist counterfiled. Neither Buchel or his lawyers will be interviewed for this story, but in their court filing, claimed Mass MoCA's actions violated a part of copyright law known as the Visual Artist's Right Act of 1990.

Ms. LUFKIN: The artist has a right to not allow anyone to distort his work, and the artist in this case said that just by showing an unfinished installation is distorting my work.

SHEA: But Federal Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that Mass MoCA can exhibit Buchel's installation, but must include a disclaimer that it's unfinished and does not convey the original intent of the artist. The judge also questioned the agreement between the museum and the artist.

Ms. LUFKIN: And in fact, in July, the judge said that a second-year law student could have put together a contract that would have resolved most of the problems.

SHEA: Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said they had a clear budget, a clear timeline, and a clear idea of the extent of the installation.

Mr. THOMPSON: What it didn't have was 50 pages of contracts with remedies and waivers and, I think, when you're doing something that is, as the judge said, organic that begins with an idea and grows, I'm not so sure you can have those. I'm not sure you want them.

SHEA: But Nick Capasso says you do.

He's the curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Earlier this month, it opened an exhibition called "Trainscape: Installation Art for Modern Railroads." Twelve artists participated, and Capasso says the museum worked out a very specific letter of agreement with each of them.

Mr. NICK CAPASSO (Curator, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park): And this include who's paying for transportation, which things will be delivered, which things will be provided by the museum, which things will be provided by the artist, and timelines. I hasten to add, though, that we have not done anything as complex as the Buchel installation.

SHEA: The case is not over. Attorneys for the artist are filing an appeal. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will announce tomorrow - after all of this - whether it will pull off the tarps and show the work or haul the thousands of objects to the dump.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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