The Museum World
To the Editor:
In his article, “Art for Sale” [March], Michael J. Lewis makes important points about some of the problems plaguing today’s art museums, like the willingness to “deaccession” or sell off works to raise funds, and the rush to expand regardless of the consequences. He is also right to decry the uprooting of the Barnes Foundation collection. But I would question some of his other criticisms.
Mr. Lewis begins his polemic by condemning the Brooklyn Museum’s handling of the 1999 Sensation exhibition of the Saatchi collection (while giving a pass to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for violating the museum’s First Amendment rights). He suggests, invoking the name of P.T. Barnum, that museums are becoming circus-like. A similar charge was leveled at the London gallery-owner William Bullock for his promotion of an 1820 exhibition of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Bullock did indeed play up the painting’s most sensational aspects, but his manner of display was so superior to that of the 1819 Salon in Paris that it spurred a reassessment of the painting after the negative reception it had received there. In early-19th-century London as in late-20th-century New York, what at first shocked about an art exhibition later became secondary to the importance of its message.
Marion True, a curator at the Getty Museum who is on trial in Italy for participating in the smuggling of antiquities, is another of Mr. Lewis’s targets. “There is no question that [she] was involved,” he writes, “only about how deeply and actively.” Like so many others, Mr. Lewis ignores the fact that a museum curator can only suggest the acquisition of an object, which then has to be okayed by the director and the board. Barry Munitz, who recently resigned his position as president of the Getty under nebulous circumstances, chose to make True the scapegoat. Ironically, while True has been excoriated by the press, she was praised by Malcolm Bell III, vice president of the Archaeological Institute of America, for devising one of the strongest policies of any major American museum for ensuring the proper acquisition of antiquities.
As for Mr. Lewis’s treatment of the Guggenheim’s “flamboyant” director Thomas Krens, whatever the problems raised by Krens’s concept of museum franchising, he at least deserves credit for his vision of a new kind of museum that updates the 19th-century model. Why should museums built in 1830 like Germany’s Altes and Glypothek be the canonical models for museums in the 21st century, as Mr. Lewis would have it? Although, as he points out, the purpose of these early museums was primarily didactic, this was a very different intention from what the art in them was originally made for.
Before the advent of public museums, even religious and political art was a kind of serious entertainment. As I argue in my book Towards a New Museum, princely collectors lived with their art; the public enjoyed it in churches, civic buildings, and lively processions. Because museums removed art from these everyday settings, they have been equated from their inception with mausoleums. Presenting art in an entertaining environment is not a novelty; it is a return to an attitude that predates the invention of museums. Museums have not ceased to instruct— witness the ubiquitous wall labels and “acoustiguides”—but adding elements like contextual displays and frequent views to the exterior can make their art more meaningful for many visitors.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Lewis that an overemphasis on entertainment has its downsides. One of the biggest is the effort of major museums to move a maximum number of visitors through their galleries in a minimum amount of time, producing what Rem Koolhaas aptly describes as “an experience of body parts.” But a touch of Barnum can also remove art from the mausoleum and restore it to a lived environment.
New York City
To the Editor:
Thank you for Michael J. Lewis’s article on the state of contemporary museums. I am pleased to see from his discussion of Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (2003) that the essays in that volume (which I edited) remain relevant and of interest. We who work in museums should always remember that museums are charities held in trust. Nothing we do should ever put at risk the public’s trust in our motives or actions.
Since we published our book three years ago, a few museums have continued to flirt with for-profit initiatives, like global franchising or partnering with commercial entities to present works from their collections as exhibitions in Las Vegas casinos. Mr. Lewis is right to be concerned with such trends, but these remain minority activities. A greater threat to the public’s regard for museums is the continued picture in the media of museums as voracious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods—of works illegally removed from archaeological sites or illegally exported from source countries. This is an unfair characterization, perpetuated by the media on the basis of only a very few examples.
At a time when the world is increasingly divided into smaller and smaller nation states separated by false ideologies of difference, museums’ collections provide evidence that cultures have always been in contact with each other, have always overlapped, and have much more in common than we are often led to believe. But nationalist cultural policies are limiting the potential for museums to contribute to the world’s cultural commons. Countries are increasingly retentionist, preventing “cultural property”—always a political construct, what one state claims as its property and no one else’s—from being exported and shared with the rest of the world. These policies have encouraged the emergence of a black market. But contrary to popular notions, museums are actually acquiring fewer and fewer objects that may be designated another country’s “cultural property.” Who, then, is buying these works? We can only assume private collectors—clearly at the expense of the viewing public.
We have to find a way to broaden access to the world’s shared artistic legacy. Museums do not own their collections; they preserve and keep them for the sake of the public. It is not a matter of property but of custodianship. Today, more than 140 of the 191 member states in the United Nations have retentionist laws restricting trade in their “cultural property.” This is the greatest challenge museums face today.
Art Institute of Chicago
Michael J. Lewis writes:
If I can paraphrase the comments of James Cuno and Victoria Newhouse, it is that I have exaggerated the state of affairs with my anecdotal evidence—which dealt with the smuggling of antiquities, the feckless sale of objects in collections, the unfortunate application of business models to the operation of cultural institutions, and so on.
For Mr. Cuno, such practices—deplorable as they may be—remain “minority activities” and do not amount to a collective crisis. His confidence is somewhat surprising, since the symposium that led to the publication of his Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust was explicitly convened to address just such a crisis. In view of what has transpired in the museum world during the three years since that book appeared, I am not sure why he is more buoyant today than then.
Victoria Newhouse argues that crass commercial motives have always accompanied the public display of art, and their effects are as likely to be positive as negative. She cites Géricault to show that a shocking exhibition might lead in time to a richer understanding of art, and suggests that this might be the case with the Brooklyn Museum’s notorious Sensation exhibition.
That show is remembered now, if at all, for its elephant-dung-bespattered Madonna, but its most discreditable aspect was its exploitation of the prestige of a public museum to inflate the commercial value of a private collection. Instead of addressing the recent historical developments that could make such a thing possible, Victoria Newhouse chides me for “giving a pass to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for violating the museum’s First Amendment rights.” But it is a leap of logic indeed to equate the withdrawal of a public subsidy with censorship; surely she sees that one man’s right of free speech does not extend to the right to make another man pay for his soapbox. Clearly we have a disagreement over the meaning we assign to the same evidence.
I continue to believe that all is not well in American art museums. But the situation is better for the efforts of James Cuno and Victoria Newhouse, who have long been thoughtful defenders of what is best in the museum world.