Skip to main content

In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

In 2008, anthropologist Matti Bunzl was given rare access to observe the curatorial department of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. For five months, he sat with the institution’s staff, witnessing firsthand what truly goes on behind the scenes at a contemporary art museum. From fund-raising and owner loans to museum-artist relations to the immense effort involved in safely shipping sixty works from twenty-seven lenders in fourteen cities and five countries, Matti Bunzl’s In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde illustrates the inner workings of one of Chicago’s premier cultural institutions.

Bunzl’s ethnography is designed to show how a commitment to the avant-garde can come into conflict with an imperative for growth, leading to the abandonment of the new and difficult in favor of the entertaining and profitable. Jeff Koons, whose massive retrospective debuted during Bunzl’s research, occupies a central place in his book and exposes the anxieties caused by such seemingly pornographic work as the infamous Made in Heaven series. Featuring cameos by other leading artists, including Liam Gillick, Jenny Holzer, Karen Kilimnik, and Tino Sehgal, the drama Bunzl narrates is palpable and entertaining and sheds an altogether new light on the contemporary art boom.

128 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: American Art

Sociology: Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“Bunzl shines rays of welcome transparency into museums' heretofore hidden byways. His approach is akin to an anthropological study of indigenous tribes, only the tribe here is MCA's staff. His embedded look as an invited observer, free of museums' self-promoting rhetoric, is a valuable contribution to both museology and public awareness.”

Chicago Tribune



“An important, lucid, and miraculously easy-reading contribution to the ethnography of art”

Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World

“With page-turning drama and great wit, Bunzl gives us a rare look behind the glamour of the contemporary art scene. His engaging analysis reveals how museum professionals work hard to manage the classic tension between art and money–a tension which has reached epic proportions in neoliberal America. Anyone concerned about the future of avant-garde art under capitalism should read this book.”

Jessica Winegar, author of Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt

“Not since Debora Silverman’s 1986 Selling Culture, near the beginning of America’s neoliberal era, has there been such a delicious, astute, and acutely observed account of the cultural economy of contemporary art museums, now in the full maturation of that era. Embedded ethnographically among the curators of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as much managerial mediators as connoisseurs of the new, Bunzl ranges widely, and in so doing redeems  the idea of an avant-garde in an art system that so degrades it.”

George E. Marcus, coeditor of The Traffic In Culture

“The pleasure of Bunzl’s engaging account, I suspect, lies . . . in its invitation to peek behind the scenes of an institution that works assiduously to manage its public profile. . . . It stands as a compelling and persuasive set of insights into the struggles that today animate museums of contemporary art.”

Museum Anthropology Review

Table of Contents

Two Jeff Koons ♥ Chicago
Three Fear No Art
Four The Gift
Five Untitled (Curation)
Six Ren

Further Readings

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press