Beyond The White Cube: 6 Experimental Museums

Using Iwan Baan’s photography as an anchor, a new show at Yale documents six unconventional museums, sculpture parks, and art spaces.

Why do galleries paint their walls white? Maybe it’s to give viewers a more “pure,” undistracted experience of the art. Or maybe it helps to maintain a clean, sterile space for expensive works. Mostly, though, it’s just a tradition, bound up with embrace of Modern Architecture and good taste. A gallery with red walls (or old walls, or no walls)? Pearl clutch!


White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, a new exhibit at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, puts forward six alternative art spaces across the globe, each of which defies the titular “white cube” of 20th-century curatorial tradition. “These evolving institutions, appearing almost simultaneously at radically different sites around the world, are forming a new typology that mixes professional disciplines and offers the visitors choice and surprise,” says Raymund Ryan, a curator at Carnegie Mellon University, where the exhibit closed last week.

Ryan suggests that “art going” as we know it is in the midst of a sea change. His six representatives of a new vanguard are hybrid art sites. For example, Insel Hombroich, a collection of 40-odd parkland follies designed by big-name architects and sculptors installed in the German countryside. Or Inhotim, the 3,000-acre Brazilian park that mixes botanical gardens with site-specific sculpture and installation art. The Benesse Art Site, a multi-architect project that rehabilitated an industrial island in Naoshima, Japan, into a vibrant art center that preserve’s the island’s industrial heritage. A real treat is the model representing how Sambuichi Architects adapted the smokestack of the island’s industrial copper refinery into a viable natural ventilation shaft. The scale model smokes, thanks to two incense cones that are lit daily by Yale’s gallery staff.

The show is told through the literal lens of architectural photographer Iwan Baan, whose candid and sometimes messy shots of contemporary buildings have come to personify the movement away from the perfect, precious depiction of new architecture. Baan has visited each of the six sites addressed in White Cube and brought back images that–as The New York Times puts it–”do away with the old feeling of chilly perfection.” Which is also a perfect description of the six sites, as well.

The white wall has a special place in modern architecture as well as modern art. It represents the fundamental rejection of ornament and the embrace of hygiene, science, and logic. But the concept of White Cube, Green Maze, is that not all great science (or art) takes place inside a laboratory.

Check out the show through May 4 at Yale’s School of Architecture gallery.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.