MOMA Breaking from the White Cube

I just read this interesting blog post by a curatorial assistant at the MOMA. It looks like the major museum is slowly breaking away from the “white cube” ideology by painting some of the walls. Now, granted, light grey isn’t an extreme departure from the white cube space, but hey, it’s a start. (You can see a photograph of the color change within the MOMA blog post.)

Any opinions on the color choice? Do you think that there are new associations brought about by the changes to wall color? For me, the light gray seems to give the modern paintings a feeling of history – gray evokes the passage of time, emphasizing that these works are not brand-spanking new.
Do you think that gray walls seem to historicize these works more than the neutral white color? Maybe historicizing these modern works is a good thing – after all, in the 21st century, modern art is a thing of the past.
  • e says:

    I've kind of always wondered (especially since I get to see more museums now) why museums do pick the colors they have on the walls.

    The NPG, American Art, and National Gallery all have cream colored walls. Hirshorn and the modern art portion of the National Gallery have white. Is this just standard?

  • heidenkind says:

    I like the light grey. It works much better than the white, imo.

    e-It really just depends on the fashion of the museum & the time period–same thing with how they hang the paintings. The National Gallery in London, for example, first used a dark green and red backdrop for their paintings, then changed it (I believe) to a light cream. Now they've returned to the original, darker colors in some galleries, although they still hang the paintings in a very modern way–in a line around the room instead of them filling the entire wall space.

  • Davidikus says:

    I am glad to see that curators are starting to shift away from the white walls. Another step in the right direction would be to exhibit more pictures again. Simplifying the display helps neither the work, nor the viewer.

    Viewing (spectating?) a work of art is a difficult and highly personal process. Once the curators have recognised this, it will be patent to them that a museum should offer an environment where the viewer can build a personal relation with a work of art. White cubes are not welcoming. Displaying a small picture on a large wall is akin to taste dictatorship. Let's provide an environment where the viewer can say: I like this room most of all; of all the paintings you show I like this one best.

    Contemporary art has largely become sterile and repetitive – thanks partly to the white cube ideology. Bring more diversity in museums, art will become diverse again.

  • joolee says:

    i like the change – white is so stark, so sterile. i understand the desire to have a subtle, plain background in order to not distract the viewer from the works on display, but i think that colored walls can definitely add to the visual effect of the works on the walls.

    the last time i was at the Portland Art Museum (6 months ago, yikes! it's been too long!) i did my usual trek through their European galleries and immediately felt something was different – i realized the walls were painted! it was FABULOUS and seemed to transform the paintings themselves. each room/style was painted in a different color – a rich crimson, a dark hunter green, a regal purple etc. and let me tell you, there were ALOT more people in those galleries than i'd ever seen before, even when i worked there. i believe the color made a TREMENDOUS difference.

  • M says:

    e, There is a lot of reasoning as to why modern museums like the Hirschorn use white walls. When I was in graduate school, we analyzed a case study by Christoph Grunenberg called "The Modern Art Museum." Grunenberg discusses how the "white cube" setting (i.e. paintings in a square room with white walls) is a standard in modern art display. He pointed out that the white walls help to decontextualize the art – it makes the art seem timeless and autonomous. In a way, the white walls reinforce the idea that the museum is a "refuge" from the rest of the world. (If anyone is interested, you can read most of the Grunenberg case study here.)

    Today, the white walls and austere museum setting are almost expected when modern art is on display, since the "white cube" atmosphere is also associated with modern art.

    heidenkind and joolee, I think that the gray color makes a tremendous difference too. It makes a person look at the art with a new perspective, I think.

    Davidikus, I think that the white cube space is not welcoming, too. It is too austere, cold, and pseudo-authoritative. I also agree with you about diversity. If the museum setting is more diverse, that can affect the production of art (and hopefully make it more diverse, like you said!).

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.