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by Grant Mandarino
To judge from the August issues of the major art magazines, museum bashing continues to be a popular art-world pastime. Faced with an economic crunch that shows little sign of abating any time soon, many of our big-time arts institutions are contemplating real changes in the ways that they operate.

One favorite of the Chicken Little crowd is the fear that museums are abandoning connoisseurship in favor of more interactive, "participatory" exhibitions accessible to even the least sophisticated viewers. The search for a broad, popular audience, they say, is definitely changing the museum experience.

Experience. The word is repeated ad nauseum by the museum directors, curators and artists invited to contribute to Artforum’s summer special on the future of the museum. Several of the many commentators maintain that it is no longer enough to showcase great art; museums must transform themselves into a kind of "entertainment destination" if they hope to capture the tourists.

Two New York museums that are deep into this kind of thing are the American Museum of Natural History, always thronged with visitors, and the Museum of the American Indian at the tip of Manhattan, whose gimmicky high-tech galleries are lonely despite the free admission.

Surprisingly, this theme-parkish nonsense -- which has been pushed for years now by outside consultants and businessmen-trustees with no real understanding of fine art -- is actually making inroads into curatorial sensibility. The savvy Boston ICA curator Helen Molesworth, for instance, notes that her institution has a "visitor services" section comprised of people trained to engage with viewers in the galleries. And at the Walker Art Center, "audience engagement" teams of designers, marketers, editors and curators are charged with generating "interpretation strategies" to make their shows more appealing to more people.

Populism is a virtue, of course, but pandering is not -- as much as it might appeal to the business side. Museum of Modern Art associate director Kathy Halbreich admits that "experience planning" for museum visits can parallel the kinds of corporate innovations used for places like theme parks and malls. "You ignore such things only at your peril," Halreich remarks, and she is certainly not alone in this thinking.

Family days, date nights, expanded restaurants, these are just the basics of building bigger audiences, all in hopes of boosting revenue. The gift shop, of course, is a crucial element, and Jeffrey Deitch says that his dream for L.A. MoCA is to "reinvent the museum shop."

Programs that aim to make the museum more viewer friendly run the gambit from silly to absurd. An item in ARTnews mentions that the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum hosts a regular yoga session in its galleries, while the Philadelphia Museum of Art threw a party for Phillies fans as a promotion for its "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris" show. Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin reports in Artforum that her museum now has a dedicated "curator of public engagement" and hosts around 250 free public programs a year.

The public can use some help staying engaged. Gail Gregg writes in ARTnews that the average viewer spends around ten seconds in front of an individual object, seven of those reading the corresponding wall label. Most viewers will turn away from any label more than 50 words long, and will lose interest in their museum visit altogether after about 45 minutes. Is this bad? The audience pays on its way in; why care how long it stays?

Another tried-and-true way to attract big crowds is with architecture so extravagant that people will travel across the world to see it. The Guggenheim Bilbao is the obvious model here, and Christian Viveros-Faune writes in the summer issue of ArtReview that the $680-million plan for the gigantic Renzo Piano expansion of the Whitney Museum in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District is nothing more than a late instance of the so-called "Bilbao effect."

According to Viveros-Faune, such hyper-stylized mega-museums are more important as anchors of urban redevelopment than they are for the artworks they’re supposedly designed to bring up from deep storage. "Putting Pollock or Rothko inside that carnivalesque monstrosity," he writes of the Guggenheim Bilbao, "is like driving Nelson Mandela to the Mall of America."

Viveros-Faune may have a point; on the other hand, Bilbao drew in over 1.3 million visitors last year, a statistic you can be sure the Whitney would love to reproduce and proof that the Bilbao effect retains its potency.

Even popular museums have to be managed properly, however. ARTnews reports that Guggenheim Bilbao director Juan Ignacio Vidarte has landed in hot water for allegedly using public funds to speculate in risky foreign exchange markets. The allegations date back to 2002, and his fiscal fliers were apparently intended to finance major acquisitions like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. Instead, they have cost the museum over $10.5 million. Vidarte, by the way, is an employee of the Guggenheim Foundation, with the title of chief officer for global strategies.

Public oversight can be such a bore! Which is why more and more super-collectors seem to be building their own private museums. The benefits are clear: no pesky board politics, no AMA ethical guidelines, and lots of tax breaks. Jeffrey Kastner, who reviews the current private-museum spree in Artforum, points out that these institutions, which are typically registered as "foundations," are tax-exempt and that the art they own is not subject to estate fees when the collectors die.

These days, big collectors are so wealthy that a single museum hardly does the trick. Los Angeles collector Eli Broad is now on his second, as are Don and Mera Rubell, whose scheme for a development in Washington, D.C., sites a museum alongside a luxury hotel and apartment complex.

Broad and the Rubell Family are on the annual ARTnews list of the Top 200 collectors, which comes out every August. Full of investment bankers and commodity titans, the list includes the collectors’ home towns and income source, but doesn’t give their mailing address. ("I never sold someone an artwork because I had their address," a dealer once said, but thousands of less discerning artists and dealers would no doubt be willing to put that maxim to the test.)

Back-of-the-envelope figures show that 32 percent of the top collectors are based primarily in Europe, and another 25 percent on the East Coast of the U.S. In an introduction, Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht is quoted, saying, "China continues to be unbelievably important," but only seven people on the list are based in Asia (three percent of the total), and none of them live in mainland China. Surely those grinning Yue Minjun paintings weren’t all bought by Westerners.

Needless to say, there’s plenty more museum bashing to be done. In the meantime, check out this summer’s Art in America annual guide to galleries, museums and artists, aka "the phone book issue," for a listing of upcoming museum shows around the world. Go and enjoy one of these exhibitions while you can, before the standard museum experience is rendered unrecognizable.  

That’s all for this month! Keep cool.

GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.