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Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Museums and the perils of success

Two pieces in the UK Guardian explore the perils of success among museums (or any nonprofit/public cultural organization). In one, Tristram Hunt posits on the downside of popular temporary exhibits (ie, blockbusters) and their threat to the contemplative, quiet, and even sacred spaces museums are intended to provide. In another, Dan Glaister explores the Boston Museum of Fine Art's Monet (and money) transactions with the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

In Hunt's tirade against blockbuster exhibits, he offers a passing note of gratitude for the new audiences they bring to the museums, but he quickly suggests that 'more people more of the time' isn't the true purpose of such cultural institutions:

Each exhibition has been cleverly marketed, enjoys strong brand sponsorship, and will generate impressive visitor numbers. But is that the true purpose of a museum or art gallery? For there exists a growing disquiet in the curatorial world that in the process of launching an ever more high-profile temporary exhibitions, part of the deeper function of the museum -- as a place of reflection free from the everyday maelstrom; as a public sphere with a different ethos to the marketplace -- is being lost.

Similar complaints are rising against the MFA in Boston for their 'loan' of Monet works to a casino in Las Vegas for a fairly commercial exhibit in a very commercial space. The article isn't particularly objective in its point of view, evidenced by its colorful and patronizing tone:

Enter the Bellagio's lavish foyer, head past the slot machines and gaming tables, and follow the signs for the wedding chapels....Just past the ice cream parlour is a haven of good taste, a bastion against Las Vegas's rampant commercialism: an exhibition of paintings by the 19th century French artist Claude Monet.

Granted, the exhibit could generate up to $1 million for the MFA...leading many to question whether the transaction was truly based on mission. The article contrasts the deal with the US Association of Art Museum Directors' guidelines, which say: 'In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain.'

Both issues are cut from the same cloth, and formed by the same inherent conflict: nonprofit institutions are not isolated from market forces, much as we like to believe. Instead, public status offers more of a buffer than a firewall to commercial concerns. These institutions gather a significant portion of their income from earned sources...museums less so than performing arts, of course, but still significant. As collection-holding organizations they are extremely expensive to operate and maintain. As public institutions, they are also expected to serve a wider public rather than a privileged few. Finally, as money grows tight from all sources -- government particularly in the UK -- the dance between mission, market, and mass audience grows increasingly complex.

I'm not sure why visitors to Las Vegas aren't worthy of great art, or why the idea of bringing that art to them rather than luring them to the art is necessarily evil. I'm also not sure why there can't be room in the mission and practice of museums to be both hotspots of more popular cultural fare and sacred spaces of preservation and contemplation. Certainly it's all in the balance, the nuance, and the delivery of the dance...which is why the administrative and management professionals must increasingly be 'artful' about their work.

posted on Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | permalink