Culture interview: Connecting through art

Mudam director Suzanne Cotter  Mike Zenari

Mudam director Suzanne Cotter  Mike Zenari

Just shy of two years since she took charge of the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Australian director Suzanne Cotter is embracing the challenges she says face Mudam. She speaks about making the museum part of the everyday landscape and creating a collection that speaks to people. 

When she arrived in Luxembourg, Suzanne Cotter said she was made aware of the fact that Mudam was viewed as being for the elite. As someone who firmly believes in the place of museums, this presented a challenge. “I think the museum has a role to play in making it possible for art to be part of people’s everyday lives. That goes contrary to the persistent perception of the museum as a place like a gated community, where only certain elites can cross the threshold.” 

Having connections all around the world, Cotter says that the museums have achieved a lot in breaking down barriers and becoming more accessible, citing the Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall as an example. “We have to shift this around so people think of the museum as part of the landscape, of the city and natural circuit, like going to the bakery or to the market to get your fruit and vegetables.”

Meeting the challenge is a long haul, Cotter admits. She admired the initiative launched just before her arrival to create what she calls a “free zone” at Mudam, so that visitors can enter the central hall and view the exhibit there and also go to the Mudam café without paying an entrance fee. Installing sculptures in the Dräi Eechelen park that surrounds Mudam last summer was also welcomed positively. Cotter sees this as a way of animating public space through art that draws people back to the museum. “We wanted to draw attention to the fact that Mudam has a reach that goes beyond its walls. The museum is a platform for visibility, but it is not defined by the architecture itself.” The “Fresh Window” walking itinerary that saw store owners from the Gare neighbourhood all the way up to the historic centre display a work of art from the Mudam collection in their shop was also a success. “It helped us to think outwards and go into the community. We had huge positive feedback… people felt it created a real dynamic in the city.”

Diversity of offer

That doesn’t mean the museum is compromising on the quality of its exhibitions. It still needs to attract art connoisseurs and to retain its artistic reputation. “One of the things we’re thinking about is the diversity of offer,” says Cotter. She cites the exhibition by Albanian artist Anri Sala, with their large space installations that combine the visual with the musical. “It’s very immersive. He’s a very contemporary artist, but the medium he uses are, I think, very accessible… and participative in a way. Then, we have a more scholarly exhibition with David Wojnarowicz, ‘History Keeps Me Awake at Night’, which is proving to be tremendously popular due to the nature of the work and of the artist. It’s about thinking about what resonates with people in different ways. I think both these exhibitions have the potential to touch both an advised audience and one who doesn’t necessarily know much about art at all.” 

“We wanted to draw attention to the fact that Mudam has a reach that goes beyond its walls,” Cotter told Delano Photo: Mike Zenari 

The fact that culture, through digital technology and social media, has become very visual has been a great help in attracting different audiences, and especially the younger generation, Cotter reckons. “People curate their social media pages. I think people are much more engaged with the visual now, but also with the experiential.”

Encouraging debate and discussion and questioning the relevance of art is a key aspect. But Cotter stresses that the aesthetic is also vital, and that offering beauty and a chance for audiences to escape and be inspired is equally important. As in all the arts, name recognition is also important in attracting audiences. “I think there’s really only a handful of artists in the world who might be globally known.” So, the museum has to rely on exciting curiosity by staging exhibitions that give the audience the sense they are seeing something very special.

The launch, in May 2019, of the American Friends of Mudam to help with acquisitions that could broaden the museum’s own collection has strong potential, says the director. “The history of museums is a history of important donations, often coming from private collections. Mudam has a little of that history, so the American Friends of Mudam is one of those avenues, but not one we can rely on totally.” 

Building and cultivating relationships and trust is important to finding the works that can be added to the collection. “The collection is the thing that will sustain the museum over time. We are a young museum with fewer than 700 works, including some significant works. Our challenge is to build on that and to ask who are the artists and what are the works that would make a difference, that would really define what this collection is about.” Cotter is also keen on identifying strands that need developing and are relevant to the museum’s location in Luxembourg, with its cosmopolitan history--“whether that was through necessity or through choice”--and in the heart of Europe. “In essence, the collection should be European but with a view to the world and should also resonate with Luxembourg as country that connects to, but also gathers, cultures,” she explains. She wants the collection to speak to people, in the belief that it is something in which people can recognise themselves.

Strong global network

In a rampant market, acquiring art at the right time and being creative with the funds available remains a real challenge. The explosion in the private art market is making it more and more difficult, but Cotter sees some hope in the fact that certain artists are happier to have their work shown to the public in museums rather than have it admired by a few guests of a private collector. “That is something we need to exploit. But at some point, we still need to come up with the cash, even if we manage to negotiate really favourable prices for the museum.”

Cotter has recently been appointed secretary-treasurer of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art. Indeed, she says her career path has enabled her to establish a strong global network that allows Mudam to put on exhibitions and partake in projects that it could not do on its own. The David Wojnarowicz exhibition, for example, is a collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. “It’s not just about the money… it’s also about the content. It’s an exhibition that was five years in the making, with scholars and curators who have been studying Wojnarowicz’s work and collecting it. We can bring to Mudam an expertise that we can’t possibly have in-house. The beneficiaries of these collaborations are the public.” Mudam is also in active discussion to initiate collaborations for 2021 and 2022 with “first tier museums” in Europe and the rest of the world. “So, we can produce, and drive some of that knowledge and gain visibility.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Delano magazine.