What’s A Museum For?

NEW YORK - MARCH 13:  A woman looks over print...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal:

Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were “cathedrals of culture,” collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that’s regarded by some as elitism, and it’s not enough. Reacting to demographic and social trends, they are bending the art-museum concept to reach new audiences and remain relevant. “We live in a more global, multicultural society that cares about diversity and inclusivity,” Ms. Feldman says. “We’re thinking about how we increase our service to the community.” …

There’s no shining line separating the generations, of course. Some directors have been preaching the “populist” gospel for years, often translating that into exhibitions about guitars, hip-hop or “Star Wars” paraphernalia and live music nights with cocktails, DJs and dancing.

Current thinking goes much deeper. Many young directors see museums as modern-day “town squares,” social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won’t be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it. “The Artist Is Present” show by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art—silent, one-on-one encounters between volunteers and the artist, which viewers hung around to watch—is a recent, popular example.

New technology and social media, from blogs to Facebook to YouTube, are helping to drive the trend. “We’re on the cusp of a huge change in the way technology will change the visitor experience and how people learn about art,” Ms. Feldman says. Adding to the pressure are changes in the art world, which is growing more global and more interdisciplinary, and in education, which skimps on the arts and is forcing museums to provide more context.

I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum, my goal to marvel at Big Bambu, a rambling, growing, insanely unlikely structure made of bamboo poles atop its stolid, sober, gray roof. It was a golden summer afternoon and the place was a mob scene: kids, tourists, hipsters, investment banker boys in their $3,000 suits. There was a giddiness to it all that was lovely, and unlikely, and engaging. This was art you could touch and stroke and walk on and peer through, the towers of Manhattan like some distant Oz captured between fronds and poles.

Then I wandered the museum, visiting my favorite object, a Hungarian shield from the 15th. century, covered with carnations. I admired Greek funerary statues and some cloisonnes and, when I got lost, was told to “turn left at the table” — a stunning pietra dure splendor in itself.

I don’t think museums are just for amusement or titillation. I think they are, and should remain, a place to slow down. To stand very still and contemplate — without the desperate need to interact or touch or listen to a noise — what extraordinary things man has created for milennia. In the Greek galleries, I saw, and coveted deeply, a pair of gold earrings, a pair of doves each ridden, with reins in their beaks, by a cherub. Want them!

I was very fortunate in growing up in a home where my father was a painter and artist in his own right, as well as an avid collector of all sorts of objects, from Japanese masks to Eskimo sculpture and prints to lithographs and engravings. I took for granted that my life, somehow, would always (as it has) include great visual beauty.

When I visit a museum or gallery, I feel deeply refreshed. Beauty feeds my soul. I need to remember, we all do, that every culture, in every century — whether working in clay or gold or gouache or plastic — has made objects worth contemplation.

How many young students now feel the joy of making lovely things with their own hands? How many will ever go on to appreciate that others, too, have created and continue to make, things well worth an hour or two or three of our time?

A recent study of museum-goers found that, on average, most people were spending barely a minute in front of any one piece.

Kids now spend seven hours a day engaged with technology, things that buzz and beep and tell them they are extremely cool and connected. It’s a closed, comforting repeating tape loop of narcissistic fantasy.

How, if at all, to bring them — to bring anyone — into a place of quiet beauty?

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Why Success Is Like an Iceberg

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
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I went to the Museum of Modern Art today. I live near New York City and, for my mental health, try to take a hooky day once a week to surgically detach from the computer so my brain doesn’t just feel like a cow at the milking machine. I don’t really love MOMA: I’m not wild about much modern art, there are always way too many tourists, and people race through the galleries rushing toward…the bathroom? the store? So many people don’t even look at the art.

But a show of theatrical drawings and paintings left a powerful impression — as so many of them were for productions that, de facto, were not productions because they were never produced. No one, other than those who commissioned them, saw them. The cynic may say, “So what? The artists got paid.” But the point of art, or creation, is to share it with an audience, isn’t it?

And what amazing talent was devoted to the backdrops and sets for these unsung, unseen plays and musicals and ballets: Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, Georg Grosz, Robert Delaunay. I wonder if they went home fed up and worn out from being hired to work on things no one ever got the chance to appreciate. Or, as working artists, if it paid the rent or bought some new clothes, it was just one more bit of welcome income.

It made me see these legendary artists in a whole new light. They, too, (as I have and many of my friends and colleagues have, in various media) worked hard on some projects that died a premature death, only now brought to light thanks to a curator’s decision to share them with a wider public.

I think success, whatever the medium, is like an iceberg. We focus all our attention, our praise or scorn, only on the visible, gleaming final 10 percent — never the invisible 90 percent, the efforts that didn’t work, the ideas that didn’t sell, lying beneath it, as much as part of the mass as that which we do know about. We only see a tiny bit of what anyone really produces. It may not be their best, or most innovative work, just what sold at that moment.

I recently attended a conference where graphic designer Michael Bierut explained the development of signage for a children’s museum. He projected photos of his sketchbooks so we could watch the progression and refinement of his ideas. It was so lovely, and so unusual, to share the intimacy of process. Writer Anne Hull, a much admired feature writer at The Washington Post, once shared early drafts of a story with some of us attending the Nieman writers’ conference, a brave move. It was helpful and inspiring to see how many self-flagellating drafts she put her copy through. By the time most of us read it, who knew?

I always want to peer behind the curtain. I used to write a lot about ballet, and have sat in on class for the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. I’ve seen, and appreciated seeing, the underlying sweat and effort, not just the spotlit perfection of opening night. I want to see and hear about the ideas that didn’t make it, and why not. Failure is relative, and success is impossible without it. Our failures are crucial to our success(es), no matter how quickly they come. No one never fails.

But we often keep our failures hidden, discussion of them taboo.

Talk About Moving House…

Compulsive hoarding in a private apartment
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You think you’ve got a lot of junk in your home. (Jammed into storage lockers, shoved in the attic, garage, basement and closets.) I’m completely guilty of hanging on to too much stuff — although forgetting to keep track of a storage facility bill a few years back meant the loss of a whole room-full of it. Bit of a surgical strike that, losing all those memories of…of what? If you haven’t opened a box in years, can you really mourn whatever was in it? I’m still hanging onto a document I needed when I lived in Paris in 1982, the guitar I haven’t played in more than 20 years, books that taunt me, years unread, filling up my shelves, leftover sheets of copper from a project.

Song Dong, http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?1290, a 43-year-old Chinese artist, decided to explore our obsession with hoarding, especially his Mom’s habit. Zhao Xiang Yuan lost her husband in 2002 and, devastated, began hoarding material goods in her small house to make up for his loss. But as the stuff piled up, Song wondered what it really meant. Would his mom be willing to part with every last bit of it — pots, cushions, belts, socks, handbags, baskets and four television sets — for an art exhibit? She would, and she did. Continue reading “Talk About Moving House…”