“The problem with contemporary art is people who think they know,” says Marc-Olivier Wahler, the recently appointed director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “But the best public, sometimes, are people far away from this hub. They have to be open. And you can really start conversations in a healthy way.”
The audience at the Broad MSU is quite different than what Wahler is used to, which was a bonus—“I think any type of public is smart,” he affirms—but the university’s research mandate is also opening up unique avenues, and new ways to integrate art programming with other departments. Wahler foresees a two-way exchange of ideas that can enliven multiple disciplines, a way for artists to educate and inspire quantum physicists, and vice versa.
Wahler’s relocation to the Midwest is not without its share of culture shock—he formerly served for six years as the director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where he solidified a reputation for brainy, spectacular group shows. A text for his 2006 exhibition, “Five Billion Years,” is characteristically ebullient and interdisciplinary: “Science fiction as the key to contemporary art,” he writes, “schizophrenia as its engine.” For his curatorial debut at the Broad MSU, Wahler has chosen a rather broad theme—magic—to integrate the work of around 50 artists, including Ugo Rondinone, Marcel Duchamp and Hannah Rickards. “The Transported Man,” on view April 29 through October 22, includes Daniel Firman’s Würsa (à 18 000 km de la terre), a sculpture of an elephant balanced on its trunk in defiance of all gravitational laws, as well as Gianni Motti’s Mani Pulite, a bar of soap that purports to be made of fat taken from a liposuction operation on Silvio Berlusconi. Even the museum guards will have extra dramatic flair for the occasion—Wahler is commissioning a working magician to train them in a variety of tricks that will encourage engagement with visitors and artworks. “Anyone is going to understand a magic trick; it’s enticing enough to interest any type of public,” Wahler says. “It’s a chance for every type of community to build the keys they need to enter the exhibition.”
The director and curator is also shaking things up at with the introduction of a satellite project space, Field Station, which will focus on two-month-long shows from younger talent. That initiative launches in late April with a show by Alicja Kwade. There are also plans to build an app, titled Third Floor, which would allow the museum to commission artists to create work for a series of virtual rooms (just don’t expect a 3D-rendered Second Life-style experience, Wahler says—he’s aiming for something fresher, more disruptive). And in late 2017, Broad MSU will give overdue local attention to two Michigan art icons, Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley. Wahler has worked with Shaw before, most notably on “The Hidden World,” a collection of obscure, eccentric religious and political publications and ephemera that was initially presented at the Chalet Society in Paris. “It was held in an old school,” Wahler recalls, happy that this context challenged preconceived audience expectations. “It was impossible to see it as artwork, but also impossible to see it as only objects. It was in between, and it was fantastic—this tension.” That sort of category confusion is something Wahler thrives on. “We have been working in the same format for centuries,” he says. “It’s very urgent in our days: Museums have to reinvent themselves.”
Photo courtesy of Eat Pomegranate Photography