On the occasion of the New Museum’s 40th Anniversary, “Pursuing the Unpredictable: The New Museum 1977–2017” reflects on the institution’s pursuit of groundbreaking art and ideas, and its legacy of questioning the structures and functions of museums. Founded in 1977 as a radical gesture by art historian and curator Marcia Tucker, the New Museum began as an alternative model of museum practice. At its inception, it was the only museum in Manhattan entirely dedicated to the exhibition, interpretation, and documentation of contemporary art. The institution championed under-recognized figures and those on the brink of exposure, and responded to new forms of art by proposing innovative ways of engaging with artists and making their work accessible to the public. This anniversary exhibition borrows its title from an essay Tucker wrote on the conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose 1981 exhibition was one of the New Museum’s earliest solo shows by an artist whose work had not yet been sufficiently examined—one of several foundational exhibition formats that continues today. Other exhibition formats, old and new, have taken their cue from artists’ changing modes of creating and presenting work, often intentionally pushing at the limits of what a traditional museum can support.
The early period of the New Museum’s history was defined by important debates in culture and aesthetics. A burgeoning postmodern discourse provided context for the institution’s ardent engagement with feminist, anti-racist, and postcolonial politics, as well as a more generally anti-authoritarian—and deeply self-reflexive—approach to curatorial work. The New Museum upended conventions related to the museum’s educative role, its relationship to artists and audiences, and its emphasis on permanence rather than process or change. These kinds of existential inquiries have persisted throughout the last four decades, as the institution has grown and transformed in response to a changing cultural and geopolitical landscape.
This anniversary exhibition presents a selection of past exhibitions, programs, and initiatives through key archival documents and select artworks. These highlight occasions that have been pivotal in shaping the New Museum and contributing to broader discussions about contemporary art and museum practice. Additionally, a select chronology designed by Project Projects, featuring select highlights from the Museum’s history, is presented within the exhibition, alongside a display of the entire collection of New Museum publications. The adjacent Resource Center functions as a press room, presenting critical and popular responses to the New Museum throughout its forty years. These materials bear testament to the themes and discussions that the New Museum has consistently pursued, from issues of gender and sexuality to the relationship between art and technology, as well as the mandates that have characterized its institutional practice: responsiveness to cultural crises, championing new forms of art making, and the belief in art as a social force.
“Pursuing the Unpredictable: The New Museum 1977–2017” is curated by Alicia Ritson, Marcia Tucker Senior Research Fellow.