Jay Levenson: Forging Connections with Museums in Asia and Beyond

s the director of the International Program department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Jay Levenson leads a team that connects the museum to an international network of artists, scholars, and institutions. In 2009, his team launched Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), a research and exchange initiative devoted to art in a global context with a current focus on Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

What is the role of the International Program department at MoMA, and how has the department changed since you first joined in 1996?

The International Program at MoMA was founded in 1952 as the department that would organize international traveling exhibitions, as part of the museum’s new outreach efforts. The International Council, a donors group begun the following year, provides independent support for the department. For years, the International Program had a very distinguished record of organizing traveling exhibitions. About the time I started working at MoMA, the museum wanted to centralize the administration of traveling shows in the Exhibitions department. I agreed that it seemed like the correct solution, but that meant that I had to come up with a new mission for my department. My thought was that the department had always aimed to connect the museum with the entire world and that I should take this opportunity to think of new programs that could better accomplish that mission in a changed environment. When the department began, there were very few modern and contemporary museums outside the United States, and making MoMA’s collection available internationally was a generous goal. By the late 1990s, however, there was an ever-growing number of modern-art museums around the world, and many other U.S. museums were traveling their exhibitions internationally.

I decided to focus on forging connections with other institutions and specifically on the world outside of Western Europe, since MoMA’s connections to Western Europe had long been well-established through the curatorial departments. I selected East Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America as my first areas of concentration, as they were regions that had active art scenes and, in some cases, long traditions of modern art. I began looking for programs that could help us connect to those places.

With help from Patterson Sims, then the head of the museum’s Education department, I first organized a series of workshops for international museum professionals: annual two-week programs in New York that focused on shared administrative and curatorial issues. The workshops’ focus began with Latin America, then moved to Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. At that point, I moved my focus to other areas, but we’ve revived that program in the past two years.

We also began to publish a series of translations of important writings on modern and contemporary art from a variety of countries, beginning with a volume on Central and Eastern Europe in the later 20th century and then moving on to Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden, Japan, and China. The idea came up when I was talking to our curator Laura Hoptman about an Eastern European project, and she suggested (and eventually co-edited) our first book. Fortunately, Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, advised me to think of the book as the first in a series, and we soon had a list of other potential titles. We call the series “Primary Documents,” and volumes on Brazil and the Arab world are now in process.

We have also encouraged travel by MoMA’s curators to the regions on which we’ve been concentrating, particularly Latin America and Eastern Europe, in some cases providing access to special funding. More recently, however, our primary focus has shifted to C-MAP, which I’ll discuss later.

Do you think that U.S. museums like MoMA have increased their focus on contemporary Asian art in recent years? If so, what do you think has contributed towards this shift?

I think there has been a distinct increase in the attention paid by U.S. modern-art museums to Asia over the past fifteen years or so, and I associate it with Asian economic developments, particularly the rise of China as a major world economic power. Before that, U.S. museums, including ours, certainly forged links with Japan, but that was a special case that grew out of the close relationship between the United States and Japan that began with the post-World War II occupation. The rest of Asia was left to specialist museums and specialist departments in encyclopedic museums, many of which had little interest in art of the 20th century.

I think the recent understanding in the West that Asia has become an extremely important part of the political and economic world has led to an overall increase of interest in Asia on the part of the audiences of U.S. museums. Until this audience developed, U.S. museums did not have the necessary incentives to represent modern and contemporary Asian art properly.

What have you learned from U.S.-Asia collaborations during your time at MoMA? Do the nature of these collaborations differ from collaborations with other regions?

What I’ve mostly learned from working with Asian and other international museums is that each country has its own rules and issues. It’s difficult to generalize about collaborations with Asia. I’ve worked with China, Japan, Korea, and India, and the world of museums and of contemporary art is very different in each place.

For example, museum culture in China is a relatively recent phenomenon, and museums are often still grappling with identity issues that have long since been addressed in Europe and the U.S., and even in other parts of Asia, like Japan. Moreover, most European and U.S. museums are public—either run directly by state or local governments or, like ours, chartered under state not-for-profit laws.

In Asia, some of the best new museums are private, founded by individuals, like the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi, or by companies, like the Mori Art Museum. U.S. museums aren’t used to working with private museums and require a certain amount of adjustment to do so, even though the private museums may be their best potential partners.

What have you found to be the key factors influencing the outcomes of cross-cultural partnerships and international programs?

Mutual understanding is the most important goal. Although there are certainly issues that are common to museums in all countries, there are also significant differences, and for a partnership to work, it’s important for each side to be able to see the other’s viewpoint. For example, I’ve noticed that Japanese museums sometimes organize ambitious exhibitions on broad themes while U.S. museums prefer to present more focused exhibitions, often monographic presentations of individual artists. I’ve frequently advised Japanese colleagues seeking to borrow works from our collection that it’s important for them to explain to our curators the specific scholarly need for the particular loans, as that’s the major criterion for judging the request.

What advice would you give to institutions, either in the U.S. or Asia, looking to build cross-cultural partnerships and develop international programs?

It’s very important to choose the right partner or partners. Unless the other museum has goals that are at least broadly similar to those of your institution, it will be hard to find projects that are satisfactory to both parties.

MoMA’s “Primary Documents” publication series has generated anthologies that center on key modern and contemporary avant-garde art movements in China and Japan. What were the challenges regarding the issue of translation for these projects?

The volume on China was by far the most difficult, as there had been relatively few English translations of significant art-historical texts prior to our book. In many cases, there was no consensus on the correct translation of key terms into English. Ideally, of course, a single translator would be engaged for an entire publication, but to complete that book on schedule, we needed multiple translators. Our editors not only had to locate the best translators—and they often relied on paired native Chinese speakers and native English speakers, to be certain that the translation was both accurate and understandable in English—but also had to check the translations carefully to make sure that translated terms were used identically across the publication. Japan has had a longer history of translations into English, so the vocabulary was less of a problem. We always engage an English-language editor to make certain the translation is not only accurate but also readable.

How was the C-MAP initiative established and how do you think it has facilitated dialogue between MoMA’s curatorial staff and their counterparts in Asia?

We had always hoped to develop an international study center at MoMA, but we thought it would have to follow the model of large-scale institutes like the Getty and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery, places where invited scholars could spent year-long residencies working on their research. We had neither the budget nor the space to set up such a center. We also realized that our study center would have to work closely with our curatorial departments if it was to make a difference within the museum. When Kathy Halbreich arrived to be the museum’s associate director, she conceived of an international study center that could begin on a small scale and grow over time. So we formed three curatorial study groups, with twelve to fifteen staff members in each. We invited scholars, artists, and curators to come to MoMA to spend several days with the groups, giving presentations and studying works from our collection. And each group took at least one trip every year, usually lasting about a week, to the area it was studying.

The results have been dramatic. So far, the three groups have brought about 170 experts to MoMA for presentations and workshops and have met another 340 on their travels. To take the Asia group as an example: it began under the leadership of Doryun Chong and focused on the performance aspects of art in Japan in the post-WWII period. The group began shifting its focus to the East Asian mainland, but when Doryun left for M+ and Stuart Comer took his place, the group began a new program focused on modern and contemporary Indian art. So far, we estimate that almost eighty Asian works have entered the collection because of C-MAP research, nearly a third of the Asian works acquired since C-MAP became active.