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In Defense Of Art: Please Respond

This is your chance, and it may be your best chance, to make the case for art museums. Right now, online, The New York Times has invited a dialogue with readers that will run in Sunday’s Review section. You must respond by tomorrow (Thursday) to be considered for publication.

Frank RobinsonFrank Robinson, former director of Cornell’s art museum, the Williams College Art Museum and RISD, has posed the question — to my mind, way too simplistically. Nonetheless, the last words of his post are: “How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?”

You can read his entire “Invitation to a Dialogue” letter here.

Robinson sets up the question around the mess in Detroit, beginning “…How can we equate a few pieces of canvas with paint on them with the pensions of thousands of firefighters, nurses, police officers, teachers and other civil servants?”

First off, no one sensible is equating the two, and that is part of the problem. It’s not that simple. Robinson makes matters worse by saying this “problem” is repeated in many places around the country because art museums get tax breaks, and that many museums are increasingly dependent on government aid. Really? I’d like to see some statistics for that assertion – minus the tax deduction argument, which countries in Europe and elsewhere have decided is the best way to go. At time when others are copying us, this former museum director is undercutting the very system that works.

Finally, Robinson repeats the hoary tale that museums are not open to everyone. That is just nonsense. I’ve seen museums twist themselves into knots trying to broaden their audiences — even doing the equivalent of selling their souls for it. Yes, I am thinking of all those Star-Wars-like exhibitions that never belonged in an art museum.

Throughout his letter, Robinson mixes apples with oranges with cherries and bananas and even throws a few tomatoes in — quite an accomplishment for a 322-word letter.

But you can respond far better than I.

Don’t let this opportunity go by. Write your opinions to The anti-museum folks are out there.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cornell






  1. Andrew Decker says:

    Silly. The Soviet Union sold off countless works, many bought by people or groups in the U.S., 80 years ago. Yes, if we want to follow the path of the now collapsed Soviet Union, we should do the same. DIA Rodin for sale and bought by Russia? Sure, apparently.

    If someone wants to open that can of worms that’s where it will go, regardless of whether the beneficiary is the state or the bondholders.

    I am in no way belittling the complicated conversation about many things. Just mentioning that there are costs and benefits.

  2. Yet another misguided artworld professional retailing the bogus argument that selling the DIA collection will somehow be a panacea for all that ills Detroit. (This is the unspoken subtext of the art vs. pensions false choice.) At best, the worst case scenario mega-auction will give the city a one-time infusion of cash comparable to a crackhead’s head-cracking rush. When the hit wears off, Detroit will be left with yet another big empty building, and all the longterm problems that led to this mess will remain unaddressed.

  3. Amy Whitaker says:

    Thanks, Judy. This is an important conversation, and I appreciate your posts – and decision to email your list — about it!

  4. Keith Glutting says:

    Tweeted to our followers. Keep up the good work! Museums Council of New York City. @museumscouncil

  5. Remember a few months back we were talking about the interesting idea that the DIA and the city or state worked out tax millage. Yes, remember that. How does that impact all this talk when the voters approved this deal. Did that change the DIA’s relationship with the city/state? Was this sell off in the back of Detroit politician’s minds when millage was proposed?

  6. While I think that selling the art is a dumb one-shot idea that won’t really fix anything, I am reminded that when I was a kid the Met was free and un-crowded and there was nothing in it but art. I really liked it better that way however they managed it.

    • Paterson, NJ, tried to sell several paintings in its little known library collection to raise money for the City about 10 or 15 years ago. It was rebuffed by the Courts, so the little known art collection gets a few visitors, as Paterson still totters toward fiscal collapse.

      In this case, the Art should have been sold to improve the City, rather than dust and sunlight damage in the little used main library. Vice-President Hobarth would have approved. In the 1890’s Patersonians were the main founders of The Met in NYC when Paterson was one of America’s richest Cities. It thrived as a Colt Gun manufacturer; than Rogers Locomotive works; than an affiliation with Lyons France as a silk maker in the 19th century.

  7. Dear God, did Robinson really write this?

    “Thousands of works go for over a million dollars every year”

    Thousands? I’d guess it’s more like several dozen; I could believe a few hundred.

    “eight- and even nine-figure prices are common.”

    Uh-huh. Sure they’re common. That’s why it never even makes the news anymore when that happens.

    If Wikipedia can be believed, only ten pieces of art have sold for nine figures in all of history.

    It’s true that Robinson’s statement there isn’t central to his main argument. But (as I tell writers when I’m copy-editing) a big misstatement or exaggeration, even if it doesn’t affect the main point you’re trying to make, gives the reader an excuse to decide you don’t know what you’re talking about and dismiss the rest of what you’re saying.

  8. Asa Mittmanout the value of says:

    I know Frank from my years as an intern at the Johnson museum, and the characterization of him in this post and in the comments could not be more off-base. He is a passionate lover of museums, and of the real and lasting good they can do. He and I for years held an ongoing debate about the value of museum work vs. the value of teaching art history (which I do). He argued that he had the chance to reach thousands and thousands every year at the Johnson, whereas I would only ever have, even at a large school, a few hundred students in a year. He worked very hard to get the undergrads and community into the Johnson, hosting events, live music, and so on, and always presided over these events with booming cheer – “Great, great, great!” was his mantra.

    Frank is, I think, trying to get a conversation going. He asks a perfectly valid and important question that presses on issues of the inflated prices of the current art market, the collapse of social services, and the plight of underfunded museums. The piece is an “invitation to dialogue,” so he poses a juicy question to get the debate rolling.

    • Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, not many readers of his letter know Robinson personally. Before posting my remarks, I showed his letter to a few other people in the museum world – every single one had the same reaction I had. Perhaps he should likewise have shown his letter to a few colleagues.

    • Asa, see my comment below. Frank Robinson may have thought he was posing a juicy question to get the ball rolling, but he didn’t get around to actually posing the question.

  9. As for Frank Robinson’s main point –

    I saw that other blogger’s seemingly gleeful criticism of Judy by name for her alleged misinterpretation (“Real Clear Arts had a Real Muddled Understanding”) of Robinson’s letter to the Times. Said blogger was even more gleeful when Robinson wrote her to confirm her interpretation of his letter.

    He wrote to her, in part:

    “I suppose it’s too much to expect that people will respond to a nuanced argument in a newspaper article, even in the Times.”

    Well, one reader’s “nuanced argument” may be another reader’s lack of clarity. And a 300-odd-word letter to the NY Times Op-Ed page probably isn’t the place to try nuanced argument that requires “close reading” (the blogger’s phrase). That’s not what readers expect in that particular setting; if you put it there anyway, you shouldn’t be surprised when they seem to misinterpret you.

    Robinson again:

    “My central point, as you say, is that some people do think that this is not the time to provide support to museums, especially when it means people might lose part of their pensions, or have basic city services cut. It’s important that museum people understand this and respond to it.

    It’s that last bit that never made it into his letter to the Times.

  10. “O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous.”

  11. Frank Robinson is defending his poorly thought out letter? Perception is reality Frank. It is my guess most readers will not get what you contend is your real meaning couched in your badly constructed prose. I think you’re back pedaling due to outrage — like our friend Schjeldahl.

    • Schjeldahl, to be fair, didn’t try to say “Hey, that’s not what I meant.” To his credit, he said flat-out that he didn’t know as much about the situation as he should have when he wrote his first post and that he was entirely wrong.

  12. It seems Mr. Robinson got a bit bored in retirement and thought that his ramblings constituted an invitation to “dialogue”. Sir, you had 35+ years in the business to advance your insights in the museum community. Now is not the time to simplistically cobble together grand concepts and, effectively, end with the inane, “How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?” The question is only “agonizing” because there is no discernible answer. As NYTimes’ readers, we deserve better.

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