by Miriam La Rosa

One of the central pieces of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. The painting was donated to the institution by Stein herself, and it was the first Picasso to enter the collection. When questioned about why she did not give the work to the Museum of Modern Art, Stein’s enigmatic reply was: ‘you can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.’ (Tinterow, Stein, 2010) As long ago as 1947, this statement stressed a certain dichotomy between contemporary art – at that time referred to as modern art – and collecting institutions; a museum of modern art would have been a contradiction by definition. Arguably, this could be revisited today. Since the eighteenth century, museum collections have gathered works that have withstood the test of time, whilst anything ‘contemporary’ has not yet achieved historical endurance. Whereas ‘contemporary history’ functions as an oxymoron, to elect artworks as museum-worthy means to qualify them as objects to be preserved for what Fisher called ‘the future’s past.’ (Fisher, 1991, 6) Such a past is that of art history and implies that works entering museum collections are projected into the future and recognised as role players of a predicted history.