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by Thomas Hoving
|What else should most American art museums be doing these days other than educating their public and communicating straight with us? Not much except maybe for conserving their bursting (and far-too-big) inventories.
Their problem is: they still think they're in the biz of collecting and exhibiting.
What most American art museums are really doing is gorging themselves with second-rate stuff -- contemporary art PERHAPS excepted. They are exhibiting it in increasingly dull ways (Bilbao excepted.) And they are churning out tired blockbusters. Except for the vital task of conservation, almost everything U.S. museums are doing these days is outta synch, outta style and outta touch with the common man and woman. Hopeless. Art museums just don't care about communicating to people. If you don't believe me just try to make out what a standard museum label is trying to say.
Have you ever heard of any museum telling you what IS contemporary art -- in terms you could understand? I mean including comparisons with what is NOT -- and I don't mean "crafts," which is the fine arts, but illustrations, and movies, and Elvis pictures on black velveteen. Have you ever heard of any museum talk about quality? What's good, better, best? What is incandescently brilliant and what's pure junk? What's real and what's emperor's clothes? Or, tell you the obvious fact that artistic styles are all legit -- hyperrealism being just as valid as Cy Twombly? Styles are simply visual languages and who would claim that FRENCH is more valid than ITALIAN?
Not a chance!
What dismays me about the Brooklyn Museum "Sensation" mess is not Chris Ofili's feeble pictures, but the phony medical alert warning that you may vomit or whatever.
Don't tease us, Mr. director Arnold Lehman, illuminate us! Tell us which of the 40 artists in "Sensation" are good, better, best. TEACH US, Mr. Lehman, about art. I dare you to do it in plain English. There's still time.
While we wait for Judge Nina Gershon of the United States District Court to rule on whether Rudy Giuliani's decision to cut off public financing (and seek eviction of Brooklyn's board of trustees and the 1.5 million works of art in the museum) is or isn't a First Amendment violation, there have been some amusing developments in the saga.
One has been the possibility that all those works might be tossed out on the street. One of the mayor's stooges, deputy mayor Joseph J. Lhota, finally got clued into the fact that if the Brooklyn board is tossed out, the trustees can take the goodies elsewhere.
He actually loved the idea.
The Brooklyn trustees ought to feel the same way.
The present museum building is lugubrious, having been chopped up disastrously over time so that its neoclassical qualities (which were always dubious at best) have been permanently watered down. It squats there unfinished and tawdry, presenting to most first-time visitors an unappealing vista of ugly white brick. It's probably the unsexiest, user-unfriendliest, most old-hat and unreconstitutable art museum in the country. Ever since the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn's museum has been something out of a Saturday Night Fever nightmare -- go west to Manhattan!
So, the indomitable board members of the Brooklyn ought to be secretly encouraging Giuliani's ouster attempts.
I remember vividly back in the '70s when it REALLY looked like the City of New York -- and the courts -- were going to oppose the Metropolitan's master plan for renovation and expansion into its undisputed property in Central Park. We made secret plans to move the Met out of Manhattan. The then-chairman of the place, former Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon, offered a site for a brand new Metropolitan on his vast and gorgeous estates in New Jersey some 20 minutes from Manhattan. We got pledges for more money than it would take to build the master plan and a new structure would cost less than expanding the existing building.
The architectural firm of Roche, Dinkeloo started making plans for a shockingly beautiful new New Jersey Met with the extraordinary feature of a round-the-building glass facade and huge exhibition corridor combined. Inside this captivating exhibition space circling the structure one would see -- night or day -- various architectural and period rooms and monumental sculptural works displayed in chronological order. From the tomb of Peri-Nebi that now stands at the opening of the Egyptian galleries and the Temple of Dendur, through the magnificent late medieval choir screen from Valladolid and the entire Spanish Courtyard of the 16th century, right up to the Federal bank facade now inside the American Wing courtyard.
All the outdated, creaking, even dangerous, parts of the present sprawling and appallingly diverse series of structures would be erased and a fresh, modern, incandescently exciting new Met would be born.
I was crushed when we won the lawsuit and the city grudgingly allowed the master plan to proceed.
Brooklyn, listen up, the best thing that could happen to you might be eviction. Frank Gehry's in the phone book.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.