Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thoughts on two articles about Museums

I’m writing today, as an interested observer and a student of visual culture old and new, about two interesting articles exploring the state of major museums, and how they have adapted over time. The first article was featured in this past Sunday’s (1/11/09) NYT, Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts: Urban Institutions Rethink Their Missions in a Push for Survival by Holland Cotter. The second is an older article I discovered while researching my thesis, ART; Glory Days for the Art Museum by NYT writer Judith H. Dobrzynski, originally published October 5, 1997.

In the older article, Dobrzynski explores how museums transitioned from “places in which the halls were literally dark, designed for contemplation and existing primarily for elite visitors,” to the more democratic institutions we know now, dependant on blockbuster shows and sales in the museum store. She explains how early blockbusters like the 1963 tour of the Mona Lisa and the 1977 King Tut exhibition (which was seen by more than 1.3 million people at the Field Museum in Chicago before it toured, and is now embarking on a comeback tour) changed the museum world’s conception of who their audience was and how needing to consistently bring in this expanded level of visitors/members profoundly refocused the museum’s general mission away from elite connoisseurship and into education and outreach. This change effected every decision from architecture and gallery layout to staffing and publications. Dobrzynski talked to curators, marketing people and psychologists to find out what visitors respond to and why, and in this context, discusses the popularity of shows related to pop culture, using the MoMA’s infamous High & Low: Modern Art, Pop Culture show as an example.

Cotter’s more recent article looks at how three major museums, the Detroit Institute of Arts (where I first fell in love with Rembrandt at age 10), The Brooklyn Museum and the Newark Museum have adapted to stay relevant and survive in this age of economic upheaval. He talks about how these institutions took a hard look at their changing constituencies, and started mining their substantial yet underused permanent collections to draw these visitors in. The Detroit museum, funded for decades by the Ford family, has a deep collection of both classical and contemporary art. Noticing, for example, that African American families made up a large part of their regular membership, they redesigned their galleries, giving visitors easier access to their notable African art collection. Cotter discusses the Newark Museum’s history as a multidisciplinary “people’s” museum and their current strategies to contextualize their holdings in Asian, Indian and African religious art for an ethnically diverse audience. Discussing the Brooklyn Museum, Cotter revisits the popularity of pop art shows (like recent shows featuring Murakami or Hip Hop culture) and also talks about the importance of identifying an area of specialization that will be a constant source of scholarship (and visitors, of course) like the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (permanent home of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party).

After reading the Cotter article, I thought it seemed to be mirroring the situations many of our bay area museums find themselves in. For the most part, the blockbuster dependant model defined in Dobrzynski’s article is a given, to the extreme of “non-collecting” institutions like YBCA and the Contemporary Jewish museum which solely focus on producing and showcasing outside exhibitions. Like the Newark museum, the Asian Art Museum struggles to put a wide range of religious art in context. SFMoMA and the FAMSF seem to be perfect examples of the institution dependant on blockbuster shows to draw both publicity and visitors. Controversial as some of the de Young's choices have been (Chihuly, most recently, see my post from 8/21/08 for links, etc...) Love it or hate it, you can see the logic of producing this exhibition within the context of the Dobrzynski article. Like Cotter's example of the Detroit museum, The FAMSF at both the de Young and the Legion of Honor have found solutions through their emphasis on education and public programming, and seem to have found ways to leverage their permanent collection to draw in both new and regular visitors. In many ways, the same could be said of SFMoMA, although the local critics seem a little more forgiving of their curatorial choices. I’m curious what others think of the state of our local museums, and would love to hear comments and discussion about it.