No Signature Reguired: Büchel, Mass MoCA and Handshake Agreements

Mari Espinosa

In December 2007, artist, Christoph Büchel threw up his hands in frustration and walked from his project and his agreement with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., (MASS MoCA).

Installation for "Training Ground For Democracy" at MASS MoCA

Installation for "Training Ground For Democracy" at MASS MoCA

The artist’s “Training Ground for Democracy” was to be an extensive installation on the American cultural and political landscape, but because of budget disputes was never finished. Büchel told the New York Times he left the project when he felt that the museum was trying to diminish the scope of his piece by inflating the costs of his plans.

The museum, which boasts 13-acres of exhibition space is one of the biggest contemporary art centers in the United States. MASS MoCA specializes in showing large-scale visual and performance pieces in all artistic mediums.

According to the MASS MoCA blog, the gallery, Building #5 (about 20,000 square feet) was to be filled with over 100 tons of material including the interiors of an old movie theater, a bar, a mobile home, stacked shipping containers and the fuselage of a jet (never acquired), and an entire house.

Most under debate was that installation of a 19th century, 1,800-square foot New England style house. It was cut down, transported and then reassembled inside the huge gallery space. In an interview with the New York Times, Büchel claimed the cost of the process was $18,000 while Museum Director Joseph C. Thompson insisted that the cost was closer to $100,000.

Installation of "Training Ground for Democracy."

Installation of "Training Ground for Democracy."

A New York Times article said another issue under dispute was the installation of a permanent bay door large enough to allow the house as well as other sizable items into the gallery. Costing $45,000, the door was included as part of Büchel’s expenses, despite being a future asset to the gallery space.

Representatives of the museum stated there had been an agreement with the artist that determined budget, resources and a time frame for him to work on the project. The project was to take six weeks and cost up to $160,000. Büchel’s work eventually exceeded both of these, but according to MASS MoCA, he was given extensions in time and budget to finish the project.

When Büchel left, MASS MoCA’s blog says that the museum offered to increase his budget for up to $400,000 but Büchel refused to complete the project or to return the materials for the museum’s reimbursement. Several months later MASS MoCA went to court to determine whether or not they could show Büchel’s unfinished work.

A year later, the court ruled in favor of MASS MoCA, stating that the museum could put the incomplete piece on display. Eventually, the museum decided to take apart the installation without showing it to the public, after receiving negative response from the art world for planning to show unfinished work against the artist’s will.

During the trial, Büchel began a new project using the e-mails, museum documents and court transcriptions and video to illustrate the complexities of the artist-museum relationship.

So… Büchel went over budget and refused to finish and was brought to court by MASS MoCA. He countersued and lost. MASS MoCA spent who knows how much on court costs to get the right to show Büchel’s unfinished work only to dismantle the installation soon after winning. Büchel makes new art based on the experience, and MASS MoCA has raised millions of dollars in funds since.

Image of "Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy" at Art Basel in 2007.

 Büchel's "Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy" at Art Basel in 2007.

Since the court case, there have been rumors that the contract between Büchel and MASS MoCA was less than one page long. Even on their Web site blog, the museum refers to it as an agreement:

“We had an agreement with Mr. Büchel regarding the budget, the time, and material resources available for fabrication and installation, the opening and closing dates of the show, and the general scope and scale of the joint effort. Big fabrication projects are in effect artists-in-residencies: we agree to provide a certain amount of time, artist housing, and human and material resources to create a new work that will be on view in a certain space, for a certain amount of time.”

For Chicago Art Magazine’s “The Contract Moment” series, we wanted to find out first-hand the specifics of the agreement and of the project itself. So though this story has been told before, we’re re-blogging and paraphrasing due to our interests in contracts and logistics in the art world.

The first step, because one issue wasn’t totally clear, was to pick up the phone and ask MASS MoCA’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Katherine Myers: “Was there any contract written down, or just a verbal agreement?”

She said that there had been correspondence, but “there was no piece of paper with Christo’s signature on it.” According to Myers, since the litigation began, MASS MoCA has not made any substantial changes to the types of agreements they make with artists.

Susan Cross, one of MASS MoCA’s curators said in a phone interview that the museum tries to tailor an agreement to each artist’s needs. Not all the agreements are formal, sometimes they are just correspondence by e-mail, she added.

Since Büchel, said Cross, the museum’s goal is to be on the same page as the artist, and to come up with a plan that is “more sensitive to both parties.”

But as U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor pointed out at a hearing for the case back in 2007, “…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.”

Still, MassMoCA stands by its loose agreement position. Myers told us that detailed contracts can “limit creativity” and “stand in opposition to the nature of the creative process.”

The MASS MoCA system appears to work. The museum’s director, Joseph Thompson said over the phone that “The impression that we don’t have things written out is not really correct. We actually do have contracts and agreements” though, he explained, there is no blueprint for the outcome.

The contract develops with the project, and over time with the artist because, Thompson said, there are times when “the actual agreement itself can become and impediment.” He added that the point of MASS MoCA’s system is to be open and flexible to allow the creative process to take its own shape and course. Thompson said the Büchel situation was a little disheartening since “it was right at the core of what we consider to be our very strength.”

Previous to Büchel, dozens and dozens of artists have successfully created works without a contract. Since the court case, the museum has worked successfully in this way with more than 10 artists on projects, among them, “Fransje Killaars: Installation: Colors, No Figures,” (http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=148 ) and “Simon Starling: The Nanjing Particles” (http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=404).

Fransje Killaars' "Installation: Colors, No Figures" in 2007 at MASS MoCA

Fransje Killaars' "Installation: Colors, No Figures" in 2007 at MASS MoCA

Perhaps contracts are not all they are cracked up to be. Despite the complications and high cost of the case, all parties are faring well. Büchel continues to profit off of the material from the trial he incorporates into his art and MASS MoCA’s endowment has dramatically increased by millions.

“I don’t think a contract would have made any difference at all in this case,” said Thompson to the The Boston Globe years ago, “I have some regrets. The lack of a single signature is not on my list.”