Collecting as an Artistic Mode

This is the second part of my notes on Museums By Artists, edited by A. A. Bronson & Peggy Gale and published by Art Metropole in 1983. Phrases have been lifted from the text, then grouped with like. See also: Museums, Collections and Art.

Daniel Buren
Museums by Artists (Poster), 1983
Art Metropole Toronto Canada
56.6 x 78.5 x cm.

Collecting as an artistic mode has taken various forms throughout history. Early expressions include the collection of studio props and the assembling of the products of colleagues. Depictions of art collections are later joined by “collection pictures,” consisting of numerous small images.(1)

Cubists Braque and Picasso incorporated fragments from “reality” such as stenciled characters and facsimile materials into their pictures without the application of pictorial distortion.(2) This emergence of assemblage and collage signaled a reevaluation of collecting, but still within traditional media.(1)

Marcel Duchamp went further, declaring found objects themselves to be works of art and signing them.(2) Flowing from his self-definition as a flaneur who selects objects for ready-mades, he reduced the visibility of his paintings in favor of emphasis on material elements. In doing so he revealed the obsolesce both of Surrealism’s pictorial production and the retrospective exhibition format, anticipating “the ultimate destination of the object into the structural definition of the work.” Through his concern with placement, transport, evaluation, institutionalization, display and maintenance, Duchamp changed role of the artist as creator into that of collector and conservator.(3)

From its inception with works on canvas, the activity of isolation and reorganization of objects had grown in scale until it lay claim to largest possible setting for presentation, an evolution which lead to the employment of the organizational pattern of collecting — the “Artist’s Museum.” (1) In the hands of artists, a Museum could be used to clarify, heighten or counterpoint intent, or as the actual content or medium of production.(4) Even regarding indirect collections, such as the creation of an exhibit of a collection made or left over by another,(1) what mattered was not the origin of the collection but how, as found or transformed, it fit into the artist’s autonomous form or idea.(2)

“These are museums by artists. And what better place to develop the interior kingdom of the soul than in … this idealized vision of the ‘museum,’ of history, in which the artist animates the quaking body of the institution with his own obsessive will?”(4)

But to create ones own museum was simply to create a “little picture” on another scale. Artists found more success when they matched an object and place which dialectically implied each other. Such artists showed what a work implied in a given place, leading to a consideration of what the place itself implied. Work produced for the Museum must examine its influence. Or, going further, it’s impossible to conceive a work outside the place where it will be exhibited. And it follows that “work taking into consideration the place in which it is shown cannot be moved elsewhere and will have to disappear at the end of the exhibition.”

This, however, presented a challenge to the Museum’s inclination towards preservation and the narrative of “immortality” it desired to present.(5) And so in the 1960s and 70s, language-based art began to question the roles of institutions such as the museum, dealer, collector and public; rejecting object-centered assumptions of construction and sale, and the requirements of exhibition, collection and power hierarchy.(6)

In June and July of 1969, Iain and Ingrid Baxter of N.E. Thing Co. created an environment at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This performance was “a parable about gallery space” in which a national gallery was turned into an artistic venture commenting on its context. Reflecting “the building’s intended existence as an office complex,” they took over the first floor of the gallery to assemble the Company’s premises and products, with Iain Baxter going to the office every day to carry out the normal “business activities” of his art practice.(7)

The Documenta 5 exhibition of 1975 was “gesantkunstwerk,” using artists and works as if they were “dabs of paint in the panting.”(8) The expanse of collection was emancipated from subservience to artistic production, having become a form of production in its own right. “The collection as manifest outcome of artistic activity thus came to lay claim to the institutional setting which hitherto had been reserved for artist’s products.”(1)

The ultimate example may be bureaucracy as a museum by artists, as embodied by Canada’s Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC). Founded in 1976, the Association was a living museum resulting from the self determination of artist run spaces and lack of a viable art market or access to New York’s hype-system. It existed in an aura of hyper-aesthetic tension between idealism & poetic aspiration and the empirical realities of cash. Defined by democratic meetings and the lowest common denominator mechanisms of bureaucracy, artists participated in the nationally funded cultural character. (This is in contrast to the US, where they crumble under the entrepreneurial model.)

ANNPAC, a structure for the union of museums by artists, existed outside any particular physicalities. The continual, casual travel for exhibitions, performances and lectures was enabled by communications technology and the Canada Council’s program of travel grants, with publications and video serving as additional connective tissues. Intrinsically self-defining, they allowed communities of artists to recognize themselves as existing (for “we all know the importance of seeing ourselves”). The artist in this context inhabits flux of dream galleries, enacting the whole chain of art world beings.(4)

“The museum in the head is the place, the world, where a never static sum of speculations feed from diverse sources struggle for visualization.”(8)

See also: Museums, Collections and Art.


All from Museums by Artists, A. A. Bronson, Peggy Gale Editors, ISBN 0920956130.

  1. Walter Grasskamp. Artists and Other Collectors
  2. Claes Oldenburg. Mouse Museum
  3. Benjamin Buchloh. The Museum Fictions of Marcel Broodthaers
  4. AA Bronson. The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centers As Museums by Artists
  5. Daniel Buren. Function of the Museum / Function of the Studio / Function of Architecture: Notes on Work in Connection With the Places Where It Is Installed
  6. Peggy Gale. Introduction
  7. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd.
  8. Harald Szeemann. Museum of Obsessions

Thank you Kathleen McLean.

Posted September 2012

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