Art Historical Musings: The Contemporary in Encyclopedic Museums

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Courting the Contemporary
Art-Historical Museums Follow the Money

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Enjoying the centuries-old paintings in the gently-lit exhibit on Japanese collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the visitor entering the rooms at the hairpin curve of the u-shaped circuit of galleries was confronted with a narrow, lightly curved, soaring piece of gleaming white metal on a thin, highly-polished, black stone plinth (Slide 2, Fig. 1).  In a space at the very end of her tour, contemporary paintings surrounded a glass sculpture of a deer (Slide 2, Fig. 2) affectionately called “Bubbles” because of its skin of varied-sized glass spheres.

Such incidents have become quite common in encyclopedic/universal art museums, where the primary focus on objects–from all over the world–with aesthetic and historic value has been slowly eroded by a pressing need to attract more people to guarantee enough income to keep this type of art venue alive.  Even a frozen-in-time institution like The Morgan Library and Museum splashed a detail of an Andy Warhol book jacket–decorated with a couple of flirtatious nude angels–on the cover of its Calendar of Events: Winter & Spring 2016 (Slide 3, Fig. 3) to trumpet its upcoming exhibit, Warhol by the Book–a departure from its usual, more staid fare.  In yet another incident of new art keeping company with old, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC situated Roy Lichtenstein’s classically toned painting Entablature on the wall above a quintessentially Canova reclining nude (Slide 3, Fig. 4).

Other manifestations of these contemporary times can be found on the websites of all museums–like that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Slide 4, Fig. 5), where links to social media like Twitter and Facebook have become de rigueur, and redesigns of logos as part of rebranding campaigns–like the one undertaken by The Met in 2016 (Slide 4, Fig. 6)–attempt to alter perceptions by presenting a more with-it, though aesthetically flawed, veneer.

Museum education programs have morphed, too, into vehicles engineered to engage a more diverse audience.  In the face of this increasing proliferation of contemporary art, new approaches have been developed to help museum goers deal with incomprehensible objects that baffle and irritate them.  Traditional, information-based explanations have in some places yielded to Socratic questioning to elicit viewers’ responses to, and thoughts on, the art object.

When museums turn their spotlights on the contemporary in this way, they are responding to outside forces, primarily those of the marketplace.  Since at least the late eighties, when artists began departing from ordinary means of expression, (painting, drawing, sculpture, even video) and embarking on experiments with largely conceptual and otherwise unusual materials, new art has been edging out its competition.  Increased demand has turned contemporary art into big business, creating a veritable “asset class” of great interest not just to collectors but also to hedge fund managers, who buy low in quantity–driving up prices of little-known artists’ work–and then, after holding onto the objects for an average of two years, sell high–sometimes, in the process, flooding the market.

Growing numbers of collectors with major holdings of contemporary art, looking to place their work strategically–either through loans or outright donations, offer financial support to those institutions receptive to their artists.  Art-historical museums like The Met can’t afford to ignore such a large pool of prospective patrons, but when they invite them and their cohorts–galleries, dealers and auction houses–into their hallowed halls, they risk practicing “checkbook art history.”

When an encyclopedic museum that has historically limited its holdings to that of the past, acquires an art object of a certain age, the effect on the artwork’s market value will be little affected by the positive regard thus bestowed.  But when a piece created by a living artist enters a museum’s permanent collection, all of that artist’s production will increase in value, much to the advantage of the dealer/gallery who represents the artist and has sold it.

These and other dangers have not served as a deterrent to universal museums like The Met in New York–which plans to reconfigure and expand its current modern and contemporary wing, and in 2015 leased from the Whitney its vacated Breuer building (Slide 5, Fig. 7) to mount related exhibitions during that process–and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Slide 5, Fig. 8) in Arkansas–which announced in 2016 its intention to transform an old cheese factory into a display box for new art, explaining how it would become “one of the hottest destinations in the country” and be “huge for the younger generation, the millennials.”  The Met, however, was later forced to put its well-underway program on indefinite hold due to financial troubles, some of which have been ascribed to the outpouring of funds needed to cover the refurbishing and staffing of its new annex.

For boosting numbers, such architectural add-ons are good bets.  The results of a 2015 study found that “[m]useums that expanded between 2007 and 2014 saw their attendance rise significantly faster than museums that did not…,” although in time those gains became less dramatic.

This pressing need to bring in more visitors and hence more money originated in the early nineties when a stagnant economy forced the United States government to question its commitment to funding the arts.  The Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 provided fertile ground for the culture wars that ensued, when politicians like the mayor of New York railed against the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s cutting-edge exhibit Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (Slide 6, Fig. 9), and the Corcoran cancelled its upcoming retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs, bordering on the pornographic (Slide 6, Fig. 10), had the potential to trigger a defunding backlash from the federal government.

Other economic pressures have accrued to art museums in the ensuing years.  Afficionados of contemporary art with large enough collections and deep enough pockets began at the beginning of the twenty-first century to build their own museums rather than target a favored museum as the final resting place for their beloved objects.  The alternative to donations–purchasing art outright–has become less of an option for museums, whose acquisition budgets can’t keep up with prices like that of Amadeo Modigliani’s Recumbent Nude, which sold at auction for $170.4 million (Slide 7, Fig. 11).

In their desperate competition for limited funds, art museums today are trapped in a maelstrom of inexorable growth.  Reduced government spending has led to greater reliance on corporate and individual funding, which requires museums to substantiate their worth with healthy attendance figures.  Nothing does that quite so well as blockbuster exhibitions, whose increased costs call for even more individual donor support.  To attract new patrons, museums have to appeal to their artistic tastes, now overwhelmingly contemporary, with reimagined and expanded old buildings and newly constructed minimalist ones that reflect their art.

Enlargement brings its own challenges.  Growing to resemble major corporations, museums have to meet the demands of their metamorphosis by expanding existing departments like administration, visitor services, development and membership, creating new ones like media relations and establishing novel positions like that of chief digital officer–the holder of which at The Met commands a staff of seventy–all of which costs money.  Increased overhead requires additional income, which calls for more fundraising efforts aimed at corporate sponsors and individual collectors, and forces museums to lure even more people through the door with ever more dramatic exhibitions for which new donors must be found, repeating the cycle ad nauseam.

These financial stresses have bred questionable practices.  Nonprofit museums now extract payments, which they call donations, from galleries whose artists they show, requesting anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 to help cover expenses.  They might also squeeze them for referrals of potential donors.  The larger the gallery, the more it can afford to cooperate, which apparently garners maximum benefits.  Almost a third of major one-person exhibits in the US between 2007 and 2013 went to artists represented by just five galleries, with the figure staggeringly greater for contemporary art museums like the Guggenheim (ninety percent) and the Museum of Modern Art (forty-five percent), a cautionary statistic for art-historical museums that insist on playing in this league.

Artists already represented by big-name galleries become widely known and hence more popular, enticing museums to use as a criterion for inclusion the fame factor.  In its press release about its Collectors Committee’s recent purchases, the National Gallery of Art proudly declared that it had acquired Janine Antoni’s chocolate-and-soap sculpted self-portraits, “Lick and Lather …, arguably her most famous work (Slide 8, Fig. 12).”  [Italics added for emphasis.]

The statement highlights the elusive nature of defining the artistic value of mainly conceptual, contemporary art.  Not only do curators find themselves in competition with sales-related departments like marketing and digital media services, but when they and other apologists for the new are asked to delineate criteria for it, they avoid answering the question.

Art seasoned by time can accrue value over the course of its existence simply by virtue of survival.  Too, historical criteria for its quality and importance will have already been established.  Not so with brand new works that have not been subjected to that test of time.  An art that indiscriminately encompasses every self-defined work as art invites a leveling of expectations and hence quality.

Scholars and other arts writers romantically obsessed with the latest artists and their productions often enjoy cozy relationships with their subjects, depending on them for information and explanations, a situation that impedes the objectivity that time and distance can bestow.  The risk is real that these so-called art historians will become “glorified publicist[s] or ventriloquist[s] for the artist.”  Because the living never remain as constant as the dead, specialists in this field might also find themselves sorting out conflicting responses.

This love affair with the contemporary finds expression in other museum activities.  One example is The Met, which for their rebranding intentions commissioned a design and marketing firm–whose website’s tag line proclaims “We are creative partners to ambitious leaders who want to design radically better businesses”–to construct for it a new logo (Slide 9, Fig. 13) and graphical identity.  The choice of consultant should not surprise anyone who has heard the director of The Met, Thomas Campbell, refer to the museum as a business.

The split between curatorial mission and corporate practices was nowhere more obvious than at a Met staff meeting regularly presided over by Director Campbell during which a representative of the design company presented its ideas to a roomful of curators and other staff in the fall of 2015.  A young student intern confided her shock at the way the woman spoke to the assemblage as if to grade-schoolers who needed simplified instructions to grasp her meaning.

Reactions to the new logo have been almost unanimously negative, including among guards who now display it on their jackets.  In focusing excessively on marketing and other business-like strategies, a museum like The Met risks losing status and public trust.  Several years before he became the former director of The Met, Philippe de Montebello cautioned: “How we market our museums tells much about how we view ourselves, and we should not expect our public to be unaffected by such attitudes.”

In devising strategies to gain new audiences, museums have again looked to business models, shifting from a “selling mode” that uses its wares–art objects–to attract visitors, to a “marketing mode” that researches (e.g., through focus groups) the needs, interests and character of prospective guests to more effectively lure then in.  Museum organizations’ statements reflect this change.  No longer placing emphasis on collection-related activities, they demonstrate a new concern with public service and education, even envisioning museums as instruments of “communal empowerment” and “social change.”

This evolution has not stopped there as museums have sought to become everything to everybody.  One need only look at the proliferation of concerts, dance performances (Slide 10, Fig. 14) and completely novel events like exercise routines (Slide 10, Fig. 15) that have become staples for many of them.  The need of visitors to have a good time, and not that of curators and their collections to inform, has turned the museum experience into one that seeks to provide “…social interaction…spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge,…[and] consumerist indulgence,” even happiness.

That’s in stark contrast to the original purpose of museums, which was to provide a place for experiencing art.  Today the museum not the art has become the destination–as in “let’s go to The Met” as opposed to “let’s go look at some Italian Baroque paintings and sculpture.”

Some of the events offered by these repositories of art have little to do with their contents, although they do have the potential to generate income, like the cash bar on the Great Hall balcony at The Met (Slide, 11, Fig. 16), which on MetFridays becomes a place to meet and hang out with friends (Slide 11, Fig. 17).  Much further south, when Tom Walton announced that Crystal Bridges would be converting an old factory into a space for contemporary art, he envisioned “a ‘kind of living room for the community,’ where art, music, performance and food would be on offer in unexpected ways.”

A contemporary museum like the Guggenheim can unapologetically develop events designed to gather “the ‘in-crowd’ of society” under its roof.  In the late nineties, the museum’s director of communications and sponsorship could unabashedly admit:
“We are in the entertainment business, and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.  We have a Guggenheim brand that has certain equities and properties…[I]f they are here for a party and happen to look at the art and come back again, that’s valuable to us.”
His was the time when many cultural institutions in New York City were beginning to entice new audiences with offerings of up-to-date music and high-styled fashion.

No one summed up this change in targeted audience better than the entrepreneurial former director of the Guggenheim in the 2001 press release on his museum’s partnership with the Venetian Resort Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia:
“…today the profile of a typical Las Vegas visitor increasingly approximates the profile of the visitors upon which every major museum in the world…depends, and to which they communicate.”
Contending with that kind of attitude, curators find themselves called upon to partner with, rather than guide, audiences through their collections.  One trend has museums mounting shows–virtually or on their walls–consisting solely of selections made by “citizen curators,” as if there were no special qualifications for assembling artwork into coherent and informative exhibitions (Slide 12, Fig. 18).

The success of all these schemes has brought crowding and noise to formerly quiet settings conducive to contemplation and extended viewing.  At The Met, the Costume Institute has become notorious for taking over galleries already filled with art, effectively shutting down entire viewing areas for months at a time.  The 2015 show China:Through the Looking Glass obliterated the Chinese galleries, turning them into rooms reminiscent of discotheques–loud music permeating darkened spaces illuminated with bright spotlighting (Slide 13, Fig. 19).

Curators now must consider crowd flow when they lay out galleries, especially for blockbusters–those temporary exhibitions devised to generate massive numbers.  In designing new museum spaces, architects have to choose between cavernous rooms to accommodate the hoards and intimate galleries to provide optimum viewing opportunities for visitors naturally inclined to look at the art.

Museums cannot, however, survive on their gate alone and in addition to relying on the support of individual donors, must also pursue government and corporate funding, contending with a new emphasis on educating children.  The study of art for its own sake no longer qualifies a museum’s existence but now must guarantee the acquisition of important academic and/or other life skills.

Providing enlightenment for both adults and young students about the works of art on display (e.g., their origins, materials, subject matter and former contexts) has been giving way to focusing on the viewers’ perceptions, paralleling the shift to indulging entertainment needs rather than offering up works of art as means of engagement.

The matter remains unsettled, however.  On one side are those who believe in the value of the old way (providing information), and worry about dumbing down museum education, meeting visitors at their current level of knowledge instead of challenging them with more sophisticated fare.  On the opposing side are those who would use art education to teach other skills, including how to look at the art itself–as though a masterpiece could not speak on its own to an untutored audience.

Singlehandedly, modern and contemporary art, now ubiquitous, could easily account for this sea change in approach.  One educator with many years experience observing audience response to new art, noted:
“…both modern and contemporary art can produce a great deal of angst, if not negativity…[Visitors] are confused and often hostile when confronted with, for example, an all black canvas.”
Naturally, he had to distract audience attention from the irritant, redirecting their gaze to their own feelings and thoughts.  After all, what can be said about an all black, or all white, or all red, canvas that isn’t purely conceptual, having nothing at all to do with the thing before one’s eyes?

In the end, visitors voted with their feet for the art that most appealed to them.  In a 2015 compilation of statistics from museums worldwide, art-historical museums monopolized the top five spots (Slide 14, Fig. 20), attesting to the type of museum experience the viewer still prefers.  Encyclopedic museums would do well to take stock of the treasures they already possess rather than looking elsewhere for solutions to their financial woes.

Like Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “…you’ve always had the power (Slide 15, Fig. 21).”  It’s time for art-historical museums to click those ruby slippers together and return home to what they alone know how to do so well.

[To get a copy of this paper with the endnotes, send your request to]


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