The most influential new trend in the art-museum-biz is the Giant Spectacle -- big showcases of the most famous names in art history, be they Tutankhamun or Chagall, Bonnard or W. Eugene Smith ... these shows are put together with investors, insurance companies, museums, private collectors, publicity specialists ... all with the reasonable goal of bringing new generations in contact with art that can only be truly appreciated in person.
But, in concentrating on such spectacle, or rather, by falling into the trap of spectacle which engulfs our society, museums are fundamentally missing the opportunity to serve the future.
Art Museums traditionally were tied to Art Schools -- one didn't really make sense without the other. An art school needed great art to inspire and instruct. An Art Museum needed talented curators and restorers, often an important stepping stone in the life of a professional artist.
But 'professional artist' is a modern distinction, given that, a lifetime ago, the bulk of traditional craft -- carpentry, ceramics, clothing, metalwork -- required a higher level of skill, patience, and heartfelt effort than most professional artists today ever achieve. By today's standards, almost everyone 100 years ago was an artist. They had to be. When everyone made most of their own goods, or the goods consumed by their neighbors, why wouldn't they do their best work?
By putting all their resources into merely showing off the best of the past, today's museums are simultaneously highlighting and ignoring something crucial -- the huge and regular gap between the present society and the past cultures that produced works of great care and skill. Go to a modern show about ancient China, and you'll wonder immediately "where did they get all these amazing artists?" The answer? There was a rich culture of good work, and good art.
But there isn't one today, especially in the west, in a desolation that began to take hold in the 19th century, accelerated during WWII, and is now complete. As a result, we're all willing to wait in lines for hours to see Vermeer, or travel for days to see Venice.
So, isn't it obvious what a responsible art museum should do? They should teach art. But not like the old days, only to specialists -- they need to teach it to everyone. That's the primary modern responsibility. Displaying the best of the past is a complimentary activity, but makes no sense without genuine learning. Learning with the heart, with the hand and with the mind.
I'll give an example from a current project, The Tango Center in downtown Eugene, Oregon. The best moments here are when people come to the introductory class, before the dance on Fridays and Saturdays, to actually learn to tango, not just to be a spectator. This is a place where people are artists, creating hours of the best improvisational art they can, for the benefit of their partners, themselves, the people taking a break, and the community watching through the window. This is true public art. The same could happen in a place dedicated to making clothes, ceramics, woodwork etc. The same could be true of a place where people off the street learned to draw, paint, sculpt and photograph. Or learn to play music. Or learn to build a community.
Museums have a long way to go to get close to this kind of energy. By packaging the creative process instead of engaging it, they're going in the wrong direction.
December 9, 2003