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Dismantled

The public never saw artist Christoph Büchel's giant installation at Mass MoCA. Now, as the museum takes it apart, documents filed in a bitter lawsuit offer a behind-the-scenes look at just what went wrong.

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / October 21, 2007
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NORTH ADAMS - Nato Thompson got an early warning, just as the curator started work on the most dramatic and expensive project in the history of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Christoph Büchel could be difficult, demanding, and temperamental.

The tip came from an unlikely source: the artist himself.

"He said, 'When you work with a curator in Germany, the artist will yell at the curator and stomp off, and the curator will do the same,' " Thompson remembers Büchel telling him last fall, after arriving here to begin work on his giant installation "Training Ground for Democracy." " 'This is the way things are done in a different culture.' "

As time passed and the relationship soured between Büchel and Mass MoCA, that comment would nag at Thompson. When, he wondered, did tension spark creative energy? When did it signal a breaking point?

The curator kept working. He had begged for the chance to put on his first show in Mass MoCA's vast Building 5 and desperately wanted to pull off Büchel's creation. And despite months of bitter arguments with the artist, the work had begun to take shape. So much had been installed: A 35-foot oil tanker, a two-story house, a carousel of bombs, and an old movie theater, rebuilt down to its water-stained ceiling tiles.

Ultimately "Training Ground" would remain unfinished, and the fight over the remains would taint Mass MoCA's once-stellar reputation as an art-making oasis, particularly for large installations. But this month, as the museum started to remove and trash more than 150 tons of materials from "Training Ground," the curator spoke almost wistfully about the project.

"We weren't that far away," he said. "He knew that. We all knew that. That's what made it so hard to let go of."

Last month US District Court Judge Michael Ponsor ruled Mass MoCA could open the unfinished installation to the public. Instead museum director Joseph C. Thompson (no relation to Nato) decided to dismantle it. The yearlong battle had worn down his staff, and a Jenny Holzer exhibit was due to open in the space soon. Mass MoCA, Joe Thompson said, wanted to move on.

But the fallout from this fiasco continues, even as the art world digests its lessons. Büchel has appealed the court ruling. Michele Maccarone, the New York gallery director who represents Büchel in the United States, said she will tell collectors not to support the museum and will steer her stable of artists, including Christian Jankowski and Carol Bove, away from the institution. Mass MoCA is planning a symposium this fall on the now notorious disaster.

And thanks to thousands of pages of documents filed in court, the dispute could serve as the ultimate how-not-to guide in the complicated world of installation art. Internal e-mails, letters, and planning documents reviewed by the Globe reveal, in the starkest terms, the depth of animosity between the artist and the museum. The communications also detail Mass MoCA's missteps along the way and the museum's repeated attempts to salvage the show, even as curators inside leveled criticism at the difficult artist.

To Laurie Anderson, the performance artist who has worked with Mass MoCA in the past, the Büchel case represents every museum's worst fear.

"This is like a snake pit, and it can go so wrong if it's not really handled right and everybody's not moving in the same time frame," said Anderson recently by phone from Monterrey, Mexico. "I have an equal amount of sympathy on both sides. I've been in so many situations where the plan hasn't been clear. And we've always been able to resolve it. The nightmare is when it doesn't work out."

Early optimism

The project started with such hope. Nato Thompson, 35, had been an admirer of Büchel's work ever since he saw a 2001 show at the Maccarone gallery. The installation featured one of the artist's typically hyperreal environments in which visitors, having signed an injury waiver, crawled over dusty floors into jail-inspired cages, and up a ladder through a ceiling hatch. The show earned a rave review in The New York Times, one of many for Büchel's work from critics around the world.

"Please give this the green light," Nato Thompson wrote his boss, director Joe Thompson, just before Thanksgiving 2005. "I have never programed (sic) Building 5 and I am sure I can nail this one."

Later that day, the curator wrote of a meeting planned with Büchel's Swiss gallery, Hauser & Wirth. He would press to find out how much money the gallery might provide to the show to support the artist. Joe Thompson replied with a one-line text message: "Get 100k plus mr. B's travel, and we'll knock that show out of the ballpark."

The next month, the museum director followed up with a letter to Hauser & Wirth.

"Büchel is too little known in the United States," Thompson wrote. "Though he's a bit earlier in his career than most artists we've featured in our signature Building 5 gallery, we think he has the capacity and sufficiently compelling visual ideas, and I admire his ambition and work ethic."

Opened in 1999, Mass MoCA operates with a tiny $3.4 million endowment and an annual budget of $5.5 million, less than at other major contemporary art museums. But Mass MoCA has something even New York's Museum of Modern Art doesn't: a 13-acre campus. The football field-size Building 5 has featured artists as well-known as Robert Rauschenberg and installations as sprawling as Carsten Holler's "Amusement Park," with rides ranging from bumper cars to a Gravitron. For Büchel, whose work had typically been done in galleries, his first major museum show in the United States would provide an obvious career boost.

Born in 1966 in Basel, Switzerland, Büchel (pronounced Boo-shel) is a former punk rocker who has nurtured a reputation as an intense, detail-obsessed mystery man. He doesn't do interviews and has rarely been photographed. His work is dark and makes metaphoric connections through a swirl of references to war, poverty, and consumer culture. "Training Ground," set to open in mid-December 2006, would be a kind of American village, part ghost town, part prison camp.

Nato Thompson found Büchel's political themes compelling. Museums, he felt, had been painfully quiet when it came to the war in Iraq. Here was a chance to produce a major project inspired by the conflict.

Joe Thompson saw the political ramifications, too. He would call the work the " 'Guernica' of our times," referring to Picasso's mural depicting the senseless brutality of war.

In that first, December 2005 letter to Hauser & Wirth, the Mass MoCA director estimated that the project would cost roughly $175,000, "a fair budget for these massive Building 5 exhibitions." Thompson offered to foot $75,000 of that bill, with Hauser & Wirth picking up $50,000. The museum and gallery would then work together to raise an addition $50,000, Thompson wrote.

Wrapping up, he made a request: Don't tell Büchel about the money, he wrote.

"I've not yet met an artist who can't spend multiples of the original budget, so I like to control the process very tightly."

Gathering, arguing

The bad feelings began well before Büchel arrived in the Berkshires to begin work on the installation.

In May 2006, Büchel blasted Nato Thompson for not telling him exactly how much money was available for the show.

"I need numbers," Büchel wrote via e-mail. Though the museum had a rough budget for the project, Thompson replied that he needed more details about Büchel's plans before providing a firm number. "Don't be angry with me," the curator wrote Büchel. "I'm on your team."

The exchange would set a tone. As time passed, Büchel's blistering notes would arrive regularly, and museum staffers would try to ride out the waves of emotion.

The tension didn't ease when Büchel showed up in late October. By then, Mass MoCA had begun gathering materials, from shipping containers waiting in the museum's courtyard to other things - bar stools, blenders, microwave ovens - scavenged from Goodwill and local residents.

As the activity grew more intense, Büchel grew more combative. He argued over which house and mobile home to buy, and then when they were purchased, complained that the museum had spent far too much. He wanted the exhibit to include an airplane fuselage, but Joe Thompson said it would be too costly.

Concerned about getting "Training Ground" ready in time for the December opening, Thompson pushed Büchel to cut back on his vision.

"I had a very difficult week," Thompson wrote on Oct. 28 to his chief installer, Richard Criddle, who had been away. "The guy is complex: he has an (sic) rock solid integrity and a clear vision. He took extreme, mortal, offense at my efforts to 'move the project along' by making a few decisions in his stead . . . At one point, I was convinced he was walking off the project."

Büchel declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. Cornelia Providoli, a Hauser & Wirth director, defended him, saying that the e-mail record does not accurately represent the artist's temperament. English is not Büchel's native language, she said, therefore his tone can often be misinterpreted. In addition, she said his frustrations were rooted in Mass MoCA's inability to understand how he worked and to give him the freedom and support he needed to produce "Training Ground."

'Way out on a limb'

Joe Thompson doesn't run Mass MoCA like a typical art museum. His style is looser and more improvisational. In the case of Büchel, this lack of structure and formality led to problems. His original $175,000 budget estimate would eventually double.

As costs grew, the museum never pinned down basic details. Thompson began to relay the money crunch to Büchel in September. " 'Budget' is a funny word to use," Thompson wrote Büchel. "We're way out on a limb, and it can't get more expensive."

That month, Thompson sent a contract for Büchel through Maccarone "to simply formalize our relationship . . . so we're all on the same page." The proposal called for an artist's fee of $5,000 - reasonable for a Building 5 show - and defined arrangements for splitting the proceeds were "Training Ground" to sell.

Instead of sending back the signed deal, Maccarone e-mailed what she called "our contract." It stated different conditions: Büchel's fee would be 10 percent of the total budget, he would have 24-hour access to the exhibit, and he could work independently on it.

Thompson didn't sign Maccarone's document. Later, when the conflict led the artist and museum into the courtroom, their mutual failure to sign an agreement drew the ire of Judge Ponsor.

"Jeez, a second-year law student could have drafted a contract that would have eliminated 90 percent of the problems the parties are now arguing about," Ponsor said at a hearing.

A special bank account?

As winter approached, it was clear the show would have to be postponed until the spring. Büchel left before Christmas, but the museum kept working. As the crew built cinderblock walls, swabbed leftover fuel from the inside of the oil tanker, sliced the house into six pieces and hoisted it through a newly constructed second-floor loading door, Dante Birch, Mass MoCA's 31-year-old production manager, sent Büchel periodic updates. In January, Birch wrote to tell him that cinderblock walls were being installed, the cinema was taking shape, and the house is "pretty cool!"

Büchel did not share Birch's enthusiasm. He criticized Birch by e-mail for the work and told him the museum should have waited to do the cinderblock since he had not decided how to build it. Then on Jan. 16, Büchel wrote Joe Thompson with a strongly worded list of demands. He would not return unless they were met.

"Your institution proved repeatedly not to be capable - neither logistically, schedule- nor budget-wise - to manage my project, nor did you understand what my work is about and how it is to be treated," he wrote.

He demanded that the museum raise the money to finish the project and that the funds be put in a special bank account under his name. He said he needed a new crew, and no outsiders could see the unfinished installation.

In addition, "There is NO negotiation about the scope of the project," wrote Büchel.

That month, Thompson wrote a letter to Hauser & Wirth explaining why he desperately needed $70,000, more than his original request. "The show," Thompson wrote, "is in jeopardy, and I am fearful for what that may mean not only for our museum, but also to Mr. Büchel's reputation."

Büchel's camp didn't budge. The artist ordered his gallery not to provide any money. After all, any funding it provided would come out of his pocket, he said.

Thompson began to consider what he called "Plan B," the idea of showing the work still unfinished. On Feb. 14, he sent his staff an e-mail outlining his thoughts on "how far we can go" in pushing forward without Büchel. Thompson's list of tasks included hanging a poster frame outside the movie theater box office without putting a poster inside, stacking objects inside shipping containers without arranging them as Büchel might, and doing "anything else that Dante and Nato feel is known with 80 percent certainty."

Birch wrote to Thompson, "It feels like CB is holding us ransom."

Richard Criddle, 51, the bearded British sculptor who had worked as Mass MoCA's chief installer for a decade, was fed up with Büchel and Building 5. He told co-workers he was looking for another job.

"To hell with the maybe this maybe that . . . CB is so fond of Sadam (sic) as a historical figure and he couldn't deal with deadlines either! (Remember Kuwait!) The time for further negotiation is over!" he wrote. "HE has missed his opportunity to return, he has been his own worst enemy, he has screwed-up a once in a lifetime chance to work with a world class museum on such a major scale. I am sure his career will suffer as a result."

Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, was making frequent visits to Mass MoCA for a separate project. Walking through Building 5, he was impressed by the potential. He also couldn't help notice the strain on the staff.

"Regardless of the issues of right or wrong, I've never seen an artist put this kind of abusive pall over a museum," he said in a recent interview.

With winter dragging on, Joe Thompson continued working on his salvage plan, believing the public would be drawn to "Training Ground." Back in December, when he still thought Büchel would finish, Thompson had written to Katherine Myers, the museum's director of marketing and public relations, "If we can't get 80,000 to 90,000 people through the doors, we should hang ourselves by our thumbs."

He later called "Training Ground" the "best unfinished work of art of the century" in an e-mail to artist Gregory Whitehead.

He wrote a potential donor in late January to warn of a "significant new development": The exhibition was likely to open in an unfinished state.

"So, like the Iraq story itself," Thompson wrote, "the show has become a black hole, with no good exit. Perhaps that's the uber-metaphor he's driving at - though I think a deep-seated bi-polarity is more likely the driving force here."

Susan Cross, a Mass MoCA curator not involved in the exhibition, spoke out in January. "We know Christoph is crazy, but this is a delicate PR issue," she wrote Thompson. "Is the unfinished work still 'art' or is it just 'stuff' - raw materials. I think it is still art and still belongs to Büchel."

In February, Thompson offered to travel to Europe to see Büchel and determine how to finish "Training Ground." Büchel refused, unless Thompson addressed his lengthy letter of demands point by point. Reluctantly Thompson did, and, in the process, defended his staff.

Büchel's response: "i think you should definitely apply as a volunteer in the white house. that's the best training ground for politicians and you would be very skilled."

The postponed opening date, March 3, passed. On March 19, Thompson tried again, sending an e-mail urging Büchel to return with a new opening date of May 18 at the latest. Instead of responding, Büchel sent a statement to the Boston Globe that included the list of demands.

That pushed Thompson. He sent an official letter on museum stationery to Büchel on March 28 giving the artist two choices: Come back and finish no later than May 25, or pull out. But if you don't come, Thompson wrote, you have two more options. Pay to remove everything in the galleries, and reimburse the museum for the $300,000 to $350,000 it has spent. Or accept that the museum will either remove the material itself or open the unfinished installation to the public.

Büchel called that "black-mailing" (sic). In a note to his gallery, he suggested suing Mass MoCA for "a very very big amount of money."

By April, Büchel had hired an attorney, who sent Thompson a letter saying the artist would talk with him on two conditions. The museum must promise not to let anybody see the unfinished work, and Thompson must take back "false statements" he made to the Globe in a March article.

The talk never took place. Three weeks later, Mass MoCA canceled "Training Ground" and sued for the authority to show the public what was inside Building 5. At the same time, the museum made another unorthodox decision: It would let visitors into Building 5 after covering most of the installation with tarps. The museum said it did this out of necessity, so people could see a hastily developed adjacent show called "Made at Mass MoCA," which traced the history of successful installations there.

Lessons learned . . . and not

The court of art-world opinion rendered its verdict long before Judge Ponsor did. Art critics from The New York Times and Globe and bloggers accused the museum of disregarding the artist's rights. Others defended the museum, with Anderson and Reynolds writing letters to the Times.

Thompson insists the museum won't change the way it does business and says his main regret is waiting so long to say no to Büchel's demands. "I had never dealt with this kind of person," Thompson said recently. "Brilliant, but demanding. Always threatening to walk out. I kept thinking that at some point, when we were driving one miracle after another, that we would engender a sense of collaboration. In retrospect, I drew a line far too late.

"In the future, I'm sure we'll be on guard for this kind of situation, and if we feel a project begin to creep in a direction that is potentially dangerous, I think we'll have to recognize those signs earlier," he added. "But we're not going to let one failure completely change the way we work."

Other art-world figures, even Mass MoCA supporters, point to clear missteps by the museum. The out-of-control budget is one issue: "I don't think that should happen," said Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at the University of Southern California. "We need to be responsible to our institutions, and part of that is having a responsible budget."

The lack of a signed agreement deviated from Mass MoCA's standard procedure. A survey of prominent art institutions that do installations found that many, including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Yale University Art Gallery, require some signed deal before proceeding, while others, notably the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh and Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, operate without written agreements.

"I don't think a contract would have made any difference at all in this case," said Thompson. "I have some regrets. The lack of a single signature is not on my list."

Mass MoCA's decision to sue to show the unfinished exhibit was a poor move, said Robert Storr, a former Museum of Modern Art curator who now serves as dean of the Yale School of Art.

"Overall, I think MoCA behaved very well under very difficult circumstances," said Storr. "That said, if you have something that doesn't work, you back away."

Released

The court ruling came down on a Friday in September. That weekend, Thompson had a beer with Criddle to talk over the situation. He consulted with Yale's Reynolds. It had been a bad year for Mass MoCA. Attendance had dipped from about 120,000 in 2006 to 100,000 visitors. Morale was low. Why not get rid of Büchel's stuff and get ready for the Jenny Holzer exhibit opening in November?

On a recent afternoon, Thompson, Birch, and Criddle met for an interview in a conference room to answer questions about "Training Ground." Birch said he did, in part, wish the public had a chance to walk through the unfinished installation, if only to show that Büchel, so critical of the museum's staff, was wrong. But he agreed with Thompson's decision. Criddle admitted his talk of leaving had been a bluff.

"My spirit was bent but not broken," he said.

Criddle was feeling better now. He was asked when his mood began to change.

"When I was let out of there," he said, referring to Building 5. "It was like I'd done a sentence."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts go to boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/exhibitionist.

Mass MoCA Court documents:
Dozens of letters and e-mails were filed as part of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s lawsuit against artist Christoph Büchel. Here are a few selected from the court record:
August 18, 2006: Mass MoCA Curatorial Assistant Bridget Hanson to Mass MoCA director Joe Thompson, search for airplane fuselage.

October 27, 2006: Büchel to curator Nato Thompson, pre-show publicity.

December 5, 2006: Joe Thompson to Buchel, ultimatum. (Warning: Document contains expletives)

January 31, 2006: Büchel to Joe Thompson, postponing original opening.

February 6, 2007: Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross to Thompson, “thought on Buchel Debacle”.

February 6, 2007: Joe Thompson to Büchel, answering list of demands. (Thompson’s responses to each point are underlined.)

February 15, 2007: Büchel to Joe Thompson, answering response to demands.

March 28, 2007: Richard Criddle, Mass MoCA’s fabrication and art installation director, doing work without Büchel.

April 9, 2007: Buchel to Joe Thompson, and cc’d to his gallery representatives, response to ultimatum.
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