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December 18, 2009

The Role of the Art Museum is ...?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What is an art museum for? The potential answers to that question can be framed in terms of, among other things, comprehensiveness and specialization.

The notion behind being comprehensive is that the museum should serve its home area by providing examples of many kinds of art from many places and eras. From this, the public in general and art students in particular can view a large variety of works of art in person, rather than vicariously via photographic images of the original objects. For example, such images never quite convey the nature of brushwork in paintings; it's very helpful to see the original painting if one wishes a good understanding of it.

Specialization is a concept bearing a twinge of elitism, snobbery and competitive triumphalism. (These can be good things, despite their bad reputation in common usage. It depends on the circumstances.) The result for a museum taking this path is that it can claim a "world-class collection of Ming Dynasty vases," "the largest assemblage of paintings by Vermeer" or some other bragging right. A prime example of a specialized museum is New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Buffalo's Albert-Knox Art Gallery has been in the news because it is deaccessioning parts of its collection to raise money to buy contemporary art.

I think this is okay, but only where there are plenty of other decent art museums nearby. This is the case in New York, London, Paris and even smaller places such as San Francisco. If yours is the main museum in town, I'm not so sure it's wise to specialize.

Consider the Honolulu Academy of Arts, housed in a fine old building designed by noted architect Bertram Goodhue. Honolulu was a pretty small place until 30 or 40 years ago. There is an art museum operated by the state, but not a lot else. Plus, the Academy has art classes as part of its program.

The result is that the Academy displays a small, but pretty comprehensive assortment of paintings. As best I can tell, none of the Western ones fall into the Masterpiece category. But they do offer the student and the interested viewer a useful spectrum of original works.

When I visited the museum earlier this month, I noted paintings by the following artists: Raeburn, Thomas Lawrence, Romney, Boucher, Gauguin, Bonnard, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Redon, Delacroix, Courbet, Pissarro, Monet, Picasso and Braque. There were others, but I failed to jot down their names -- there might have been a Modigliani, for instance.

A small museum doing a nice job.



posted by Donald at December 18, 2009


"If yours is the main museum in town, I'm not so sure it's wise to specialize."

Why not? While I like comprehensive big-city art museums and galleries, I've also been privileged to, over the last ten years, enjoy some great art in some fairly specialized small-town museums, such as the McMichael collection in Kleinberg, Ontario (specializing in Canadian art, particularly works from the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson), the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (having an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings), and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (self-explanatory). These bring in tourists from far away, and thus help their respective small towns' economies, certainly.

Posted by: Will S. on December 18, 2009 9:05 PM

I'm with Will. Regardless of the size of the town, or the museum, or whether there are other museums nearby or not, an art museum should seek to do something well, rather than attempt to do everything and, in all probability, fail to do much of anything well. In Donald's terms they can attempt to be comprehensive or they can specialize. Absent the scale and budget of the Tate or Louvre or Met it is damned difficult to be comprehensive and succeed in any meaningful way, which is why most art museums (except a small handful of world class institutions) find a degree of specialization required. This is rarely evidence of "elitism, snobbery and competitive triumphalism", but rather a recognition of practical reality.

To take the case of the Albright-Knox and similar situations a museum often finds itself with certain objects that fall outside their core mission. Sometimes they were acquired years earlier when that mission was less clear. At other times decisions get made to accept works that fall outside the museum's core in order to secure other works on offer by a potential donor. It is often better down the road to deaccession them, rather than have them languish in storage or display them without meaningful context.

That said, certain institutions may well have as a core part of their mission offering examples of many different artistic movements and well regarded artists, regardless of whether the works are "masterpieces" or merely minor works by master artists. Often museums associated with colleges fall into this category, the logic being students can gain significant insight by really studying a work by, say, Monet even if it isn't a major painting that will better enable them to appreciate and understand a Monet masterpiece when they travel to London, New York, or Paris to see one.

Posted by: Chris White on December 19, 2009 12:08 AM

The masterpieces of the Honolulu Academy reside in the Asian Wing, in particular the statue of Kwan Yin. It's amazing.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on December 19, 2009 12:50 AM

Some years ago the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings undertook a major expansion and raised large sums with the solemn promise that it would be a premier showcase of regional (Montana and High Plains) art and artists. Once they got the loot and built themselves a palace, though, they hired highly credentialed curators from the East, and regional art more or less vanished from its walls. I saw exhibits there that weren't art at all, at least by human standards, such as a whole gallery full of mineral stains on cloth put into creeks for a while. The curators were going to teach the local bumpkins a thing or two. It's been downhill ever since. We have some gifted regional artists--and you won't see them there.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 19, 2009 6:42 PM

Regarding the McMichael gallery that Will S. mentions, its curators made a concerted attempt a few years ago to "broaden its mandate" (i.e., break its charter) to... well, make it more like some gallery in downtown Toronto. The reason, as far as I could tell, was that they were embarrassed to be curating something as old-fashioned as the Group of Seven. Just conformism, in other words. From every reasonable point of view it makes sense to have a museum specializing in this particular stream of Canadian art. Surprisingly, the stick-in-the-muds won that battle, and I think they're still hanging in there.

Posted by: Chris B on December 20, 2009 8:59 AM

Not to pick a fight or make presumptions, but was the artist who filled a "whole gallery full of mineral stains on cloth put into creeks for a while" a regional artist?

Posted by: Chris White on December 20, 2009 10:37 AM

Mr. White, I have no idea. But neither do I make your assumption, that the person who submitted cloth to river staining was an artist. To call such a person an artist is to embrace nihilism. I'm sure the curators assumed he or she was, and indeed the gallery remains a celebration of nothingness, even several curators later.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 20, 2009 12:52 PM

The definition of "art" and "artist" is certainly subject to a great degree of imprecision. My assumption is that work selected for exhibition in a museum by "highly credentialed curators" (be they from the East or elsewhere) is that we're talking about art and an artist. A variety of current approaches to art may have nothing to do with representational depiction, but most of these are far from "nihilistic". Not having seen the work in question I can't say what my opinion of it might have been. I was merely wondering whether the artist was a "regional artist", which would seem to fit the avowed mission of the museum, or not, which quite possibly would not fit their mission.

Posted by: Chris White on December 20, 2009 10:02 PM

Chris B.: Well, yes, and they did broaden it somewhat, introducing a lot of native art, particularly West Coast Indian contemporary art, and they have introduced some changing contemporary art exhibits; I agree, it's unfortunate that they couldn't just leave it as Robert and Signe McMichael wanted it. But at least it's still mostly focused on Thomson and the Group of Seven. And their most recent contemporary art exhibit was one that incorporated Group of Seven paintings into dioramas, which were then photographed by the 'artist' in question; some of it was funny, some of it was nauseating, eye-rolling-inducing P.C. claptrap. But at least it was related...

Posted by: Will S. on December 20, 2009 10:53 PM

Mr. Wheeler's account is very interesting. However, after "they hired highly credentialed curators from the East" there was no need to say more (though I'm pleased he did). From those eight words, the story writes itself.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 20, 2009 11:33 PM

I think there's a place for both sorts of smaller art museum. The St. Louis Art Museum seems to collect and display a wide variety of material, some of which I find pretty remarkable (16th century European armor and Han dynasty sculpture among others). Is St. Louis in the category of "the Tate, and the Louvre, and the Met"?

OTOH, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY has a pretty remarkable museum of western art, a brilliant collection of firearms, and a fairly nice collection of Indian artifacts. (Each of the above is billed as one of the five museums in the center, but that's largely a PR thing; there's a single admission and it's a single sprawling structure.)

Upon reflection, I could see making a trip to Cody just to visit the museum, but I'm not sure I would do the same for St. Louis. For locals, though, both are remarkable jewels.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 22, 2009 8:41 PM

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