Marc-Olivier Wahler wants to blind you with science, fill you with philosophy and dazzle you with magic. He has a closet full of cowboy boots, and he loves the movie “Blade Runner.”
Wahler, born in 1964, was named the director of MSU’s Broad Art Museum last week. He thinks the museum has the potential to be a model for a new, flexible, ever-changing 21st century art museum, more laboratory than gallery.
“My mind is boiling with ideas and projects. It’s a great feeling,” Wahler said in a phone interview from Amsterdam.
The key position has been open for a year, since the Broad’s founding director, Michael Rush, died last March.
Science plays an important recurring role in the hundreds of exhibits Wahler has curated or directed.
In 2013, Swiss artist Gianni Motti walked the length of the mind-boggling Large Hadron Collider as part of a conceptual art project curated by Wahler. That impressed Christopher Long, dean of MSU’s College of Arts and Letters and chairman of the eight-member search committee that recommended Wahler to the MSU administration.
“They wanted to capture the human scale of this very large scientific tool,” Long said. “(Wahler) understands that the aesthetic dimension of the human condition is bound up with everything we do.”
At MSU, Wahler said, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams will be a natural electromagnet for international artists.
“I already called the artist the other day — ‘Gianni, you have to come here, I’ve got some work for you!’” Wahler said with a laugh.
One exhibit curated by Wahler set a colony of leafcutter ants in dramatically lit plastic chambers and tunnels. Another was based on Nikola Tesla’s ideas on electromagnetism and the physics of auroras.
“Just last year, I curated a show with an artist who worked with fireflies, crickets, algorithmic music, bioluminescent bacteria, in a setting with other artists,” Wahler said.
As for the Broad, Wahler envisions a mix of solo, studio-made art and collaborative projects with webs stretching across campus, the community and the world.
“There’s not a subject that is not being researched and considered here on campus,” said Catilín Doherty, Broad Art Museum curator. “His experience and interest in that side of things will be a real delight.”
In a way, coming to MSU will bring Wahler full circle. In 1995, he co-founded an art center in his small home town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, which he directed until 2000.
Since then, he has directed two cutting-edge contemporary art centers: New York’s Swiss Institute from 2000 to 2006 and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris from 2006 to 2012. If you add pop-up exhibits and festivals into the mix, the number of exhibits he’s curated or directed in the last 20 years tops 400.
After living and working in New York and Paris, Wahler doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect of moving to East Lansing.
“I’m looking for a house and a car,” he said. “I have a big collection of cowboy boots, and I hope to add some more specimens to my collection. You have a great rodeo and a rodeo club at MSU.”
Neuchâtel is even smaller than East Lansing.
“Only 40,000 inhabitants,” he said. “It’s no problem. I feel well in that context. When you live in a small town, you do as much as you do when you’re in New York or Paris.”
The search committee that recommended Wahler to MSU Provost June Pierce Youatt, who made the final hiring decision, included faculty members, administrators, members of the Broad’s board of directors and former Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beale, who is spending the year as a visiting professor at MSU.
The committee recommended Wahler after bringing eight candidates to MSU in January. Usually, a search committee does offsite “airport interviews,” because applicants don’t always want it known they’re looking for another job.
“This time, we decided that the building was so critical, and the campus was so critical, that we brought people into campus,” Long said, but added that it was done so quietly.
The committee was impressed by Wahler’s long list of achievements, but Long, who came to MSU from Pennsylvania State University in June, said it also looked for “intangible” qualities.
“I’m tuned in to somebody who has the welcoming and the humility of the Midwest,” Long said. “We wanted somebody who’s accessible and would make the museum accessible.”
Holland Cotter, art critic for The New York Times, ramped up a hot discussion in the art world with his October 2015 broadside challenging the outmoded, bloated art museums of today — including the other new Broad Museum, in Los Angeles, which Cotter criticized as a repository for billionaire collector Eli Broad’s blue-chip, “investment portfolio” art, mainly by white males.
“We’re still waiting, scanning the horizon for a new kind of museum, a 21stcentury museum, to appear,” Cotter wrote.
Could the MSU’s Broad Art Museum be it?
“That’s a crucial question,” Wahler said. “Institutions are still built on the 19th-century model. Everyone knows it’s going to change in the next decade. How? We don’t really know.”
The 21st century museum, Cotter predicted, will be “structurally porous and perpetually in progress.”
Limitless collaboration, Wahler said, will be the key.
“In order to understand the museum of the future, you have to work with people who don’t use the language which is formatted by the museum,” Wahler said. “That’s why it’s important to look outside the art world, and there’s not a better place to do it than MSU. The Broad Art Museum has all it takes to be a leading model for this reflection on the 21st century.”
For Wahler, the museum’s shiny building, a trapezoid of folded metal wings by cutting-edge architect Zaha Hadid, only put icing on the cake.
“It’s fantastic architecture, challenging architecture, that’s for sure,” Wahler said. “It’s the composition of all these great elements that will make the program and the Broad Art Museum totally unique.”
Wahler takes a deeply philosophical approach to art, with more than a touch of magician’s showmanship. When he left the Palais de Tokyo in 2012, a critic from The New York Times asked him what he would do next.
“I will disappear and turn into a dog,” he announced.
Wahler proceeded to conjure a new institution out of nothing, turning a cavernous old jam factory near Paris’ 7th Arrondissement into the Chalet Society, a maze of workshops and exhibits that fascinated visitors.
Wahler will wrap up his work at the Chalet Society, along with adviser gigs in Istanbul, Portugal and Amsterdam, before coming to the Broad in July.
Magic, Wahler said, is a useful way to explain “how artwork functions.” He compared his six-year tenure at Palais de Tokyo to the three stages of a magic trick.
“You present a cage with a bird inside, you put a piece of fabric on the stage and pwaff! You make it disappear,” he said. “The next stage is the reappearance of something that disappeared — for example, the bird coming out of your pocket.”
It’s the same with works of art, he explained. They appear as physical objects, “disappear immediately, in front of your eyes,” and “reappear as an art work.”
“There is something happening there,” he said.
Science fiction, he said, is another great door into contemporary art.
“In ‘Blade Runner,’ or the movie ‘The Invader,’ you think you deal with a human being half the movie, and suddenly, without him changing visual aspect, he becomes an alien, a robot,” he said. “It’s OK. Anyone can do this.”
Wahler has something bigger than a magic-trick narrative in mind for his tenure at the Broad.
“I think it might be integrated in another concept, which for me is very important: the concept of synchronicity, collective intelligence, working with illusionism, magic, brain surgery … ,” he said, pausing to laugh at the “brain surgery” part. “All this is connected. We’ll see.”