“The coming twenty years we’ll be okay, with all the baby boomers retiring. But after that we’ll have to come up with a different way of doing things otherwise museums will soon be obsolete.” It was Arnoud Odding, director of Rijksmuseum Twenthe, who said this when I asked him about the most pressing priorities in the Dutch art sector. Odding has given the subject a lot of thought. In 2004 he published Het Gedroomde Museum (The Dream Museum), about the museum as a place for debate. Seven years later he followed up this book with Het Disruptieve Museum (The Disruptive Museum), positioning the museum in the middle of the social network.
In a period of dwindling government support and a pressing need to engage the audience, social relevance is an issue no museum director can afford to ignore. Some experiments have been done trying to enrich the museum experience. The Kunsthal Rotterdam—a non-collecting institution—has been actively exploring new ways of exhibiting. In Museum Minutes (2012-2013) visitors were invited to contemplate works of art from the comfort of an armchair or the perspective of a treadmill. Their recent exhibition S.H.O.E.S. was conceived in active interaction with the public.
Wim Pijbes, director of the Rijksmuseum (and, not surprisingly, the former director of the Kunsthal), is trying to do something similar right now by inviting British philosopher Alain de Botton to curate a show. For Art is Therapy—a play on the title of his book Art as Therapy written with John Armstrong—de Botton’s ambition was to rearrange the museum thematically, grouping together works about grief, sex, beauty, etc. Because this was logistically unattainable, he had to make do with alternative captions. In these short texts de Botton, who in an earlier publication promised a happier existence through reading Proust and whose School of Life offers intellectual therapy for emotional problems, presents art as a tool for life improvement. Feeling bored with your wife of fifteen years? Don’t get a divorce, but have a look at Adriaen Coorte’s Bowl of strawberries on a stone plinth and you’ll have a renewed appreciation of the everyday, including your wife.
Some museums, especially those in the geographic periphery, explore new pathways not by tweaking exhibition formats but by concentrating on content. Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle is doing it with Meer Macht (More Power), a show curated by Hans den Hartog Jager questioning artists’ potential to make a difference. Arnoud Odding puts his ideas to the test in Enschede with shows such as the encyclopedic Paden naar het Paradijs (Paths to Paradise). And since Charles Esche’s appointment as director, the Van Abbemuseum has transformed itself into a social-political laboratory dealing with issues such as ethnic diversity and civil society.
Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch also qualifies as a place of experiment. More black box than traditional white cube, with a main hall devoid of daylight but equipped with an impressive light set and other theatre props, the new building (opened last year) invites curators to deviate from convention. It’s a cave, film set, and square wrapped into one. The current exhibition, Reinventing Happiness, uses these qualities to the full extent, playfully stretching the idea of what a museum is or should be.
Of course, this meta-question is not posed directly. Reinventing Happiness is what its title suggests: a search for—a research into—the future of our emotional well-being, collectively and personally. It’s got a utopian ring to it but chooses a very non-theoretical, hands-on approach. It’s a long-term project, lasting three years. The first year’s program, consisting of three artists or duos successively working in the museum for three weeks, finishes on June 15th with a communal picnic and the launch of an inspirational newspaper.
What is the relationship between work, depression, and happiness? Does nature improve urban life? What is the value of a chance encounter? A lot of the questions addressed in Reinventing Happiness coincide with Alain de Botton’s. But whereas the philosopher fits already existing artworks to a problem, thus instrumentalizing them and demoting them to the level of happy pills and self-help books (even though he explicitly denounces the solutionist approach of medical science and American pop psychology), Reinventing Happiness is much more open-ended and does not push art into an illustrative role. In fact, it’s even slightly problematic to pinpoint where the art actually is.
The exhibition part of Reinventing Happiness consists of documentation. The first artists in the program, Sjaak Langenberg and Rosé de Beer, explain the Happy Planet Index, which factors in not only life expectancy and economic welfare but also ecological footprint. They borrowed all books on happiness from the local library—700 in total!—and they show a documentary about Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá who retrained traffic cops as mimes in order to battle road rage. Throughout their three-week stint at SM’s Langenberg and de Beer invited writers, a philosopher, a play-actor, and also a medical entomologist and a hairdresser to act as so-called “super ushers.” They engaged visitors in conversations about the way social conduct influences our sense of happiness, paying them compliments and getting intimate in a way unexpected in a museum context.
A minority of visitors had difficulty relating to the show, probably having expected more traditional visual input. But the informed were enthusiastic and even deliberately planned their visit. The physiotherapist, for example, was booked for hours on end. The duration of visits increased dramatically and the personal treatment evidently rubbed off: the museum’s regular docents were spontaneously approached by visitors telling them their life histories.
The second leg of Reinventing Happiness, a comedy directed by community artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and stage director Paul De Bruyne, was even more interactive than the first. Auditions were open to all; story and conclusion were determined by whatever the players brought to the table. The third installment, by Frank Bruggeman, is rather studious and analytical, closer to a traditional presentation of artistic research. Bruggeman asked visitors to identify “green spots” in the city in order to collectively map pockets of happiness-inducing wilderness in the urban jungle.
Reinventing Happiness will continue until 2016 but from next year onwards the event will move into the neighborhoods. The museum will no longer be the focal point. It will have fulfilled its role as incubator, mental greenhouse, and social laboratory. But whereas Alain de Botton at some point actually shoos us out of the museum—“…the museum is only a prelude to a life well lived… The fulfilment of the mission of the museum is the closing of its own doors,” he states in Art as Therapy (p 96)—Reinventing Happiness does away altogether with the distinction between the museum and the outside. There is no hierarchy and no instrumentalization. The museum effectively becomes part of the social arena.
The only problem is: what does this mean for the art? Reinventing Happiness does not tick the boxes of traditional “visual art.” It is very much about text and dialogue, interaction and perception. The process has become the art but so has the social outcome, however fluid it is. In this way the exhibition is as much about redefining the nature of art as it is about public mental health.
(All images: Installation views from the first two months of Reinventing Happiness, Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch, March 8 – June 15, 2014;Photo: Ben Nienhuis / Courtesy of Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch)