The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
New York Times culture writer Robin Pogrebin continues her trial of the museum on charges of populism and attendance-mongering, this time by soliciting prescriptions from expert witnesses around the art world. But their advice tells us more about the conflicted state of thinking about art museums than about what’s going on across the East River.
In a much-discussed article two months ago, Pogrebin challenged the Brooklyn Museum to explain why, after all those populist exhibitions and hip, admission-free social events, its overall attendance hadn’t risen. She noted that in 2004 the museum had set itself the goal of tripling attendance, and somehow managed to criticize both the fact that the museum had set such a goal — that’s bottom-line, crowd-oriented values, anathema to a true cultural institution! — and the fact that it had failed to meet it.
Now, in a two-page spread in yesterday’s arts and leisure section, Pogrebin repeats those charges as the intro to a series of brief diagnoses and prescriptions from 18 invited observers. Some of them, like former Whitney Museum director David Ross and MFA Houston director Peter Marzio, are supportive of Brooklyn and its director, Arnold Lehman, while others, like Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson and New York State Council on the Arts chairman Daniel Simmons, Jr., implicitly criticize the museum for barking up the wrong tree.
But the assumptions and ideals that underlie their assessments are all over the map. The proverbial Martian anthropologist would read these capsule prescriptions and conclude that we Earthlings (or maybe, we New Yorkers) have no collective idea what our art museums are for or what might count as evidence of their success.
Local community “ownership”? Trustee giving? Home-run exhibitions? World-class collections? Giving new artists their first shows? Curatorial vision? Empowering local artists? Creating touring shows? Diverse audiences? Large audiences? Web hits from around the world? Taking risks? Sticking to core competencies? Being like the Met? Differentiating from the Met?
As usual, there are two competing strains running through these comments, the same two strains that have riven the art museum world since the 19th century, when institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Met were founded. One emphasizes the separateness of art from daily experience and seeks to protect the curatorial, institutional authority that maintains that separateness. The other emphasizes the embeddedness of art in daily experience and wants to place curatorial and institutional authority in service to communities and their needs. ...
So the question of populism or popular culture — how much to embrace it in exhibitions, social events, and the museum’s identity or brand — is where the sparks really fly. The separateness camp values art (and by extension art museums) as an antidote to commercial culture, so its definition of quality and integrity includes the idea that not many people are going to like it. If it’s too popular, maybe it’s not really an antidote.
Hence the hostility here to the museum setting big attendance goals or drawing large crowds for its First Saturday events. Yet these are the very things that, for the embeddedness camp, would demonstrate that the museum is serving its audiences and achieving everyday relevance to its community.
The most high-handed position-taking in Pogrebin’s roundup comes (as she must have known it would) from Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now a faculty member at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. I was struck by several things about his contribution, starting with his insistent repetition of the word “great” or “greatness”:
Part of the turnaround would be to declare, not only rhetorically but also by action, "This is a great museum and an opportunity to see great works of art." The message here is that a major encyclopedic museum, one born like the Met or the Louvre along the values of the Enlightenment, flirts with popularization and the espousal of so-called popular culture at its own risk. Therein lies a paradox. I suspect that, in fact, what most museum visitors crave is some form of uplift, an experience to get them away from the humdrum of daily life in favor of an encounter with something unique, thus unreplicable. . . .
I would stress the sense of privilege people in the area should feel at being able to see great old master paintings, great American pictures without having to go into Manhattan. Promotion would stress: "You don't have to go to Manhattan to see one of the world's great collections. We have it here in Brooklyn."
You don’t have to be a die-hard postmodernist to find that use of the word “great” almost comically out of date. Doesn’t de Montebello realize that ascribing “greatness” to an artwork tells us more about the ascriber and his cultural assumptions than about the artwork? How can anybody still believe that only “high culture” — a phrase he uses without irony, and without a definition — is capable of providing us vital, uplifting, unreplicable, and profound experiences?
Mabye you can get away with that universalist, "objective" definition of aesthetic quality if you happen to be the Met. Other museums have to work a little harder to assert their relevance.
There must be ways to advocate for the value of art without sounding like you’ve never been to a Rolling Stones concert. Because in reality the boundaries are never so clear, the choices never so stark. Can’t I visit a museum for escape and intensification? (At bottom, aren’t they the same thing?) And if an art museum just gives up a little of its preciousness, can’t it be profound and popular at the same time?
Photos: NY Times
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