Friday 3 September 2010

Town square or cathedral

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal Judith Dobrzynski discusses what she sees as a shift in the metaphor that shapes American art museums - from cathedral of culture to town square. She writes:

Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were "cathedrals of culture," collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that's regarded by some as elitism, and it's not enough. Reacting to demographic and social trends, they are bending the art-museum concept to reach new audiences and remain relevant.

Dobrzynski attributes the shift largely to a generation of younger museum directors:

Ms. Feldman [head of the Minneapolis Institute of Art] is part of a new generation of women and men in their 40s that is taking the reins at America's top art museums. It includes Christoph Heinrich at the Denver Art Museum, Thom Collins at the Miami Art Museum and James Steward at the Princeton Art Museum, to name a few. Shaped by their times, which differ markedly from the formative years of the directors they are replacing, many have different views of what a museum should be.

Dobrzynski further shapes her argument in a blog post
, stating

As you may guessed, I have my doubts about the town square metaphor. Great art requires contemplation; it reveals itself slowly, over time, not in one glance. I don't question the motives of the new directors, or their goals, just their methods.

Last weekend I talked to a friend about the museum/gallery as civic space trend. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for panel discussions, gigs and interpretative dance events. But I'm uncertain how these really mesh into the core objectives of the collecting institution. I don't think this has to be an either/or question (and see Walker Art Center director Olga Viso's thoughts here), but I do wonder whether if museums and galleries are going to be increasingly treated as places for people to gather and share an experience not necessarily linked to the collections or shows, then we're going to have to look at different reasons for funding these organisations, and shifting staff resources.

In the WSJ Dobrzynski writes:

They [the new gen museum directors] believe that future museum-goers won't be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it. "The Artist Is Present" show by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art—silent, one-on-one encounters between volunteers and the artist, which viewers hung around to watch—is a recent, popular example.

This seems like a rather weird example to me; Abramovic's well-established practice of audience engagement and intervention wouldn't seem to have a lot to do with touchy-feely 40-something museum directors (I mean, there's no causal relationship).

A much better example is photographer Alec Soth's upcoming show at the Walker Art Center, which Soth himself is running Flickr projects for the public to participate in:

For our first Flickr Project, I’ve created a list of 10 items to photograph. Shoot as many as you can and post them in our group pool, and then check out our “Discussions” pages to talk about your work. I’ll post some of my favorite images on the Walker Art Center Visual Arts blog. On October 1st I’ll pick my favorite treasure hunter and send them a signed copy of the From Here to There catalogue.

Another question that struck me while reading these posts: in addition to building enduring relationships with a wider range of visitors, how might public institutions go about building enduring relationships wkith artists? With some notable local examples (Andrew Drummond and the Christchurch Art Gallery, Don Driver and the Govett-Brewster) most public institutions will work at most twice with any given artist on a solo exhibition. Is this a facet of community building we've overlooked?

1 comment:

staplegun said...

Interesting. I agree it's an odd statement. The actions of cultural institutions will always place them between a rock and a hard place because everyone's definition of 'culture' is different. To blame it on the ages of directors is indeed very odd! Though I guess it also applies in reverse - if the directors were 'older' and kept running it in 'traditional' ways, the lack of relevance to today's society would also be blamed on their ages!

I think the corest of core functions (of any GLAM) is preservation. Collecting specimens of culture that may be of interest to people now and in the future. Kind of like a Zoo?! If this basic collecting and preserving function isn't done, well, any other function just isn't possible.

Anything else the institution does above this perservation level is optional (as in, it will be institution-specific). There are no hard-and-fast rules about what the other core values are across the sector. This is a collective decision made locally by the institution's directors and its community (through their perceptions of the institution). Except of course there's usually no single collective view - both populism and traditionalism will be found to be wrong by various parts of the population.

And, the core values of an institution are not fixed for all time. GLAMs-as-civic-spaces goes in and out of fashion. It recently came back into fashion for libraries during the recession. No doubt it will flip back out again.

This doesn't really address your question of whether they should be civic spaces. I'm just saying I think directors should only focus on the needs of their community and grow thick skins because they will be criticised regardless. But this applies to any business...

Either way, I often lament how the act of collecting in bulk takes so many works out of 'circulation'. I'm not sure which would be the bigger tragedy? That all this awesome creative endeavour gathers dust (mostly unviewed) in vaults out the back of GLAMs around the world, or that it would be lost to future generations because it was in 'circulation' now but never preserved? Again, just like Zoos!