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January 28, 2008

Is our children stitching, and other museum issues

Every single time I'm in an art museum, I hear a variation on this conversation:

"What a painting."

"Yes, it's a Warhol. And this one is by Wayne Thiebaud."

"I wonder what they're worth?"

"Millions. Otherwise they wouldn't be in a museum."

It's hard to imagine a greater indictment of the current art world than that kind of exchange. I've been going to art museums since I was knee-high to a Gris or a Hopper and I've not heard those conversations as much as I have in the last year or two.

I think we all know why people see art and think money: In the press, art is all about the market, $140 million sales here, and auction records there. Even New York's top contemporary art critic, Jerry Saltz, has given in and apparently considers an artist's retail prices a guiding barometer of worthiness. (If NYC's top contemporary art critic won't assert the power of his pulpit to steer us toward deserving artists, who will?) The news media, which has responded to shrinking circulation and ad revenue by cutting staff and coverage -- especially arts coverage -- understands the market story and writes the heck out of it. The result has been an under-considered change in American arts journalism, a devolution that has major ramifications for art institutions.

Consider: Only a handful of newspapers treat art and arts institutions as a journalistic rather than hagiographic subject. The trend in American journalism is to treat art and visual culture as a fussy little features area, the kind of thing that belongs in its own Sunday section so that it doesn't contaminate the rest of the paper. The only exception is when something gets sold. Money is something editors understand.

In recent months even the best art-covering newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has been hit with staff cuts. For the first time in recent memory it has ignored major institutional stories in its own backyard, such as the continuing budget and endowment trouble at MOCA, and the unconscionable fluffing of private collectors by the Hammer and LACMA.

It's not just the LAT: The Dallas Morning News had no idea how to cover the announcement that King Tut was coming to town, and made a drooling ass of itself. The San Francisco Chronicle has only the faintest inkling of how to report the disastrous tenure of John Buchanan at FAMSF. The Miami Herald writes about art for a week every December, and that's about it. And coverage of actual artists? Forget about it.

It may come as a surprise to most MAN readers that these changes don't much bother managers at newspapers and magazines. Their businesses are changing far too dramatically, their balance sheets changing too alarmingly, for them to be worried about specific areas of coverage. So as journalism increasingly treats art as nothing but a business story, who is most impacted?

Art museums. Instead of hanging art to which people respond, museums now find themselves increasingly hanging objects that are the subject of dollars-related curiosity. It's not just the near-death of arts journalism that's caused this condition -- and that's why arts institutions should be paying attention. The slow death of arts journalism should be the event that causes art museums to take notice of some recent trends.

Art museums are now operating in an environment that has depleted their audiences of much of their oxygen: Mainstream art journalism is almost gone. Arts education has been nearly entirely removed from the public schools. The notion that a collegiate education should be grounded in the liberal arts is a relic of our parents' generation. (Many museums have built up excellent schools-focused education programs, efforts that benefit from government grant money. One of the most under-covered education stories of the last decade or two is how as states have eliminated art education in schools, they have funded art education through museum at mere pennies on the prior dollars.)

Museums, desperate to maintain their audiences in the face of diminishing public attraction to actual art objects have launched singles' nights, sewing circles, bingo games, podcasts that feature museum patrons vapidly saying vacuous things about art, fashion shows, lame education 'exhibits' (my all-time favorite is in the Matisse show at the Baltimore Museum of Art: "How to Look at Sculpture") and so on. Too few museums engage their audiences in the broad area between scholarly, unreadable catalogues available for $75 at the end of an exhibition, and a sewing circle. (If ever a catalogue had an opportunity to be a fun read, it's SFMOMA's Olafur Eliasson catalogue. And, well, the pictures are good.)

Museums need to realize that they must engage their public in ways that journalism and schools used to do for them. In no way is it in the medium-to-long-term interest of art museums for people to walk up to a Pollock and have their first reaction be, "What's it worth?" Art museums exist in their current form because of the far-sightedness of the American people, as evidenced by a tax code that encourages cultural philanthropy. If art museums are ever seen by the American public as mere trophy houses for the accumulated baubles of the wealthy, you can bet that the education-related tax exemptions that allow museums to be museums won't last any longer than Robert Mapplethorpe did at the Corcoran. (Witness the hostility of powerful Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose distaste for museums is barely concealed.) In addition to their tax exemptions, many art museums rely on local and state governments for financial support. One, the St. Louis Art Museum, even relies more directly on the citizenry -- on local property taxes -- for much of its budget.

Therefore it is intensely in the interest of arts institutions -- especially museums -- to ensure that their audiences see more than dollar-signs-in-acrylic on their walls. Obviously it is asking too much of, say, a $25 million museum to make up for the banishment of art from schools, from core curricula, and for the business problems in American journalism. But within the spirit of their missions -- what MoMA calls "the encouragement of an ever deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art," I think that art institutions can and should be more innovative in how they wean their audiences off of the compulsion to see dollar-signs first, and art second.

Tomorrow: Kicking around some ideas on ways to do that...

Posted January 28, 2008 11:04 AM

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