Monday, July 27, 2015

Days In A Museum At A Price?

If you are a museum lover, like me, entering one can be a magical experience. After reading Christopher Knight's article in the Sunday Los Angeles Times awhile ago, I read the replies of his victims. This article has ignited a storm of anger and outrage, especially from the museums he used as examples of being commercialized.

My very first memories of going to a museum are with my Opa in Toledo, OH. The Toledo Museum of Art, a grand edifice built during the age of museums (1880's - 1920's) with many masterpieces, was my introduction to the world of art. We did the same thing with our children. They love going to them even today.

I have always loved art and finally in the 5th and 6th grade my parents enrolled me in classes at the Portland, OR Museum of Art. I can remember still being in awe of the Van Gogh Paintings on loan when they were building a new Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Week after week I saw them and loved the bright colors and expressionist style they had. I felt like it was a homecoming when I finally got to spend a day at yet another new museum for Van Gogh that I found out was closed soon after we were there and remodeled yet again. The two big surprises were that Van Gogh used a frame with strings at a variety of angles to help him keep his perspective and that several of the colors had faded within years of being painted only discovered behind the frames edges when paintings were cleaned. This is the purpose of a museum - to inform and educate!

San Francisco Museum of Art
Knight's article alleges things that are not being considered with the "responsibility to serve and educate the public through direct, personal encounters with works of art," taken from the Art Museums Directors code of ethics. He pointed out that a private, for profit firm,, arranged a private tour of the De Young Museum for $3500! This definitely takes "Personal encounters with art" to new levels, don't you think?

Some museums have more cachet than others. The local museum would definitaly not have the cachet of MOMA, The Metropolitan, the National Gallery of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago. Should a museum, any museum stoop this low? Should they allow their collections to be used for private viewings or for anything else that detracts from their mission to educate the public and that would mean all the public not the Daddy Warbucks.

Discovered in an acient shipwreck
The concept of a museum for centuries was unknown. Wealthy collectors and royal families held on to what they considered valuable pieces of art. They established a code where a collection of artifacts and other items of artistic, scientific or historical import was their personal property. Of course when an empire was defeated, these treasures were the first to go. The loss of the library of Alexandria is still mourned today. The irony there was the invading Muslims destroyed it but by saving other books of classical learning that they found, those books fueled the Renaissance and assured the rise of the west.

The first museums may well have been in ancient Greek temples dedicated to the Muses who were the patrons of the arts. The first museum not associated with gods and temples was Plato's collection. Early museums began as private collections of the wealthy. The first "museum" was the Capitoline Museum founded by Pope Sextus IV when he gave many of the churches ancient statues to the Roman People in 1471. The Vatican Museum opened to the public in 1506, the Armories of England opened in 1660 though those with money were visiting it since 1592. That was definitely a preceident. The 1700's saw the rise of Natural History Museums as scientific studies of animals and the distant past rose in the general consciousness.

After the French Revolution, the Directory took over the home of the Louis XVI, the Louvre. and using the copious amounts of treasures in it, made it a museum open to all the people.

The Louvre at night!
When Napoleon marched across Europe he was infamous for his looting of local museums and collections that soon filled the Louvre. While some of it was returned not all of it was. He set an example for Hitler over a century later who looted the Louvre as well.

Napoleon wasn't the first but he was the first to loot on such a grand scale. The problem always remains, how do you give it back? We are still struggling with the Nazi era, from 70 years ago.

From around 2010 most major museums began to digitize their collections and make them available online. Now, if you couldn't travel to Paris or Amsterdam or St. Petersburg, you could look at their collections as close as you wanted and as long! There is some discussion that this has cut into attendance figures and has forced museums to create dynamic and exciting exhibitions.

We all know that museums are struggling. The down economy has reduced giving and museums with their fixed, many think bloated costs, have had to look for other ways to fund new exhibitions and bring in an audience. According to Knight there has been too much collusion by the museums hungry for money and companies such as that are willing to help them. To private companies it is merely maximizing your product and what a product they have!

Knight seemed to hate the fact that a museum would bring in a gallery to help with an exhibition. Reading an article later, the museum who suddenly had a treasure trove of Samari armor and such had no one on staff that knew much about it so yes, they reached out to a gallery in Santa Monica, CA with vast experience with Japanese history and artifacts. Was this a wise decision? I think it was. Let the experts decide. I disliked the American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. for its lack of focus and poor, fractured explanations of the various tribes.

I'm not saying that is an innocent victim. Owned by Traina Interactive Corp., exists to enable rare experiences and connections benefitting worthy causes. Check them out, they have just about every experience you can imagine... for a price!

Not mentioned by Knight was the history of art itself. Nearly every artist we love and revere had a patron. Michelangelo had the Medici's, Jackson Pollack had Peggy Guggenheim and the list goes on and on. Pieces that changed our perceptions of the world from the Renaissance and even before had some kind of patron. Artists have to live too.

Baltimore Art Museum
Online one can find the Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines and they make for
interesting reading. They are written in such a way that allows profit and non-profit entities lots of wiggle room. "Proponents of exhibition collaboration with for-profit enterprises often make their case by citing changes in our global culture. Their argument is that 'education' and 'entertainment' as well as 'art' and 'experience' are becoming more and more fused." In invoking the guidelines of 1971, the revised version in 2001 makes no reference to advances in every aspect of the modern art museum.

The mission asks these questions: 
Does this collaboration further or detract from the museum's mission?
Will the collaboration enhance public access to important works of art?
Do the motives of the for-profit affect the non-profit institution's critical judgment?

The public rarely sees what goes on behind the scenes until, of course, they are brought to the attention of the public by the media, especially the giving public. They ask, "Why do you need me when there is some mega-corporation willing to hand over money?" Historically, there has always been money given to artists and later museums to further their missions. You hope and pray that the mission guidelines stated above are followed. But what Knight doesn't address is, would we know the difference?

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