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Is It Time To Break Up Overcrowded Museums?

Hrag Vartanian, whom you may know as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, had a very interesting opinion piece published on Al Jazeera America the other day. The headline was Break up the major museums to save them, with a deck saying “August institutions should build more outposts rather than cloister themselves in big cities.” 

LouvreQuite a proposal. His thoughts seem to have been triggered by attendance at the Louvre (12 million a year by 2025), and the experiences of many museum-goers — who can barely get near the art because the galleries are so crowded. He recapped some of the complaints contained recently in a New York Times article,  Masterworks Vs. the Masses, which noted “soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.”

Most of the comments agreed that conditions for real art-lovers are now horrible. Vartanian went beyond “us,” though, to look at museum reviews on Trip Advisor, where he found that the “masses” tended to agree. Wrote one of the Vatican Museums: “Seriously, it would only take one person to trip or to cause some kind of mild panic or corridor rage … it doesn’t bear thinking of.” And another of the Louvre: “There was absolutely no way that myself and my family members could enjoy the museum. There are so many people that all you have time to do is make sure you aren’t trampled by the mass coming at you from every direction.”

Hence his proposal: “I’m suggesting not that museums sell off their collections but that more museums consider aggressively building outposts or prioritizing longer-term partnerships with smaller or newer institutions that could benefit from such relationships.”

But that’s like destroying the village to save it. I disagree, mostly, but not entirely:

  • Building outposts is not the answer for virtually all museums. I admit to a few possibly exceptions, perhaps cities that not only have little art but that have no viable museum building. But most do. We don’t need more museum buildings, for the most part. As Vartanian himself wrote in another part of his commentary, “We need to fight the idea that museums must keep growing to stay relevant or survive.” Amen to that.
  • Rather, I prefer the sharing model — but not necessarily in long-term partnerships. I believe that strong museums, like the Metropolitan and the Modern here in New York, the National Gallery of Art, the MFAs, etc., need to remain strong and universal, special places that both locals and tourists will go to and return to, again and again, because of what’s dependably inside (not because of some event).
  • But they could easily share some more with museums that own less spectacular art. I know, art should not travel that much. But some art can — some works can be special visitors, perhaps “on tour” or in a single-picture exhibition; some can remain on extended loans (12 months?). Making these loans a special occasion — unless a museum truly has a spectacular collection in storage, which is doubtful, but which could be lent long-term — adds to their allure in attracting visitors.

Museums talk so much these days about “new audiences” and about “experience.” Judging by the commentaries I read and the press releases and emails I receive, every museum in the country seems to be trying to attract more visitors and to create more experiences.

I wish, as this opinion piece indicates, they would focus more on the experience of the art their current visitors are getting. A lot of art-lovers are truly unhappy with it — and, just to ward off the criticism comments like that seem to provoke, there’s nothing elite about being an art-lover. They can be — and are — anyone and everyone.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Daily Mail



  1. My very first museum-centric visit to NYC–i.e., two days of museums only, no other sightseeing–was a frustrating disaster that will likely keep me away for a long time to come. It was virtually cheek-to-jowl in every gallery. It’s impossible to enjoy and appreciate the art when you can’t even get a clear sight line because every idiot with a phone is compelled to take a selfie in front of the Greatest Hits of Western Art (MOMA is the worst in this regard, by the way, but the Guggenheim was nearly as bad.) On the other hand, smaller and perhaps less prestigious museums outside major metropolitan areas have offered, in my experience, an almost uniformly pleasant, relaxing, meditative atmosphere. Or maybe it’s just NYC that’s the problem–I’ve never encountered a human traffic jam on that scale at the MFA in Boston, and I even spent an amazing twenty minutes *alone* in Whistler’s sublime Peacock Room at the Freer in DC. Maybe the masterpiece count is less in Manchester (NH) or New Britain (CT), or one of the better university galleries, from Michigan to Yale, but at least you can breathe in those museums, and the experience is so much more rewarding. The “democratization” of art (e.g., take all the photos you want, queue up for a carnival-style “blockbuster” exhibition) may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

  2. I was at the Frick over Labor Day weekend — cheek to jowl. Geez!

  3. The problem is easily solved….go to your local cinema and enjoy EXHIBITION ON SCREEN ! 5 new films coming starting with MATISSE FROM MoMA AND TATE MODERN…then REMBRANDT FROM THE RIJKSMUSEUM AND NATIONAL GALLERY. You can’t beat seeing a painting ‘in the flesh’ but a comfortable cinema seat with a glass of wine is certainly much nicer than fighting the crowds…

  4. When her husband was ambassador to France, Elizabeth Royatyn saw how Paris seem to just suck the air out of the French provinces: and in terms of museums, too. So she formed FRAME, a consortium of 12 French museums and 12 US museums devoted to sharing collections, via loans, and, more than anything else, exchanging ideas and expertise. It’s a good model but I don’t know that it’s influenced much.

  5. Barbara Chalsma says:

    I hate crowds so have ceased to go to anything that creates them. On the other hand, I do not mind getting a ticket for a special time, as long as that time is long enough to look leisurely at artworks and not feel the body heat of another visitor. Theaters do it successfully due to limited seating, so why not museums, too, due to limited space? Unfortunately when I have reserved a time for special showings at museums there were still far too many people permitted for the specific time slots, but that would be an easy problem to solve.

  6. There’s an interesting model for Vartanian’s proposal that has already been up and running for five years in the UK – Artist Rooms, a major initiative that was initiated by a leading London gallerist, who placed his very impressive contemporary collection (1,500 works by 38 leading artists) with a consortium of UK museums who have since been touring displays by the artists across the country, with major support coming from the UK government:

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