Thomas Crow envisions a more “modest” museum

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Students observing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, Warburg Hall, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1941. Photo: Exhibition Records (HC 6), folder 2038. Harvard Art Museums Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 

ONE OF THE FEW TIMES that the discipline of art history has lately surfaced into general consciousness arrived when then President Obama used it as a convenient straw man in his touting of vocational training. “I promise you,” he reassured an audience in 2014, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree.” Not many days after, he had the grace to offer a handwritten apology to a professor who had stoutly objected to this facile scapegoating. That gesture in turn prompted what was surely the only time that Senator Marco Rubio ever backed an Obama position: “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof,” tweeted the indignant Florida Republican. “We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” But Rubio, fixated on insulting intellectuals, failed to notice that Obama’s letter to the aggrieved art historian never actually conceded that the study of her subject could be much more than an exercise in avocational self-improvement.

So it has generally been assumed, as laments over the condition of the humanities proliferate in the face of onslaughts by higher-ed administrators determined to downsize majors perceived as financially unpromising. Parents and students pick up these cues, leading to contracting-enrollment spirals, which reinforce the process. But the time is long past for those of us who practice art history to shake off the pessimism that afflicts our colleagues in history, philosophy, and literary studies. Leave them to look after their own problems and make it clear to the world that an advanced degree in art history represents the one humanities credential that comes with reasonably promising professional prospects. And the principal reason for this counterintuitive proposition is the museum.

Paul J. Sachs teaching the Museum Course, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1944. Photo: George S. Woodruff/Fogg History Photographs, International News Photos, folder 4. Harvard Art Museum Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 

The connection between an organized intellectual comprehension of artmaking (art history) and one principal repository of the relevant data sets (museums) is far from what it once was, days being gone when gilded Harvard legacies could glide from the Paul J. Sachs seminar into top posts at the country’s major museums. Art history remains the conduit between the university and the museum, its endeavors serving both, and there was a period, roughly from the 1960s to the ’80s, when the number and attractiveness of teaching positions gave academia the upper hand in the field. The result was a certain deficit of intellectual firepower on the museum side—and a conservative, proprietary claim to “the object” as a form of defense. So it is probably no accident that a complementary disavowal of “the object” (redubbed “the commodity”) then took root among influential academics, which exaggerated the divide—to the point that there began to be discussion of “the two art histories,” one for the university classroom and one for the museum gallery.

The livelier forms of art-historical inquiry that thrived in the academy, sometimes called the New Art History, bore fruit when carried over into museums. General audiences may still seem most comfortable with rote, single-artist blockbusters, but space was opened for more conceptually ambitious research, exhibition planning, and publishing projects and platforms. Indeed, such prospects can be more attractive to a young art historian than a lot of the drudgery that comes with one of the rare vacancies for an assistant professor. The (pre-pandemic) expansion of museums in size and complexity was keeping demand for well-prepared graduates steady—as it will again—which confounds the philistine dynamic that has forced the other humanistic disciplines into defensive rationalizations of their perceived impracticality. Adjacent to the museum sector lies the art trade in all its aspects, encompassing galleries large and small, and the auction houses, hungry for the expertise and habits of mind instilled in their recruits by university programs, despite reflexive academic contempt for anything having to do with markets.

A good deal of current dysfunction is traceable to the model of trustee governance itself.

The fact of the matter is that there exists in the professional sphere of the visual arts a niche for virtually any combination of skills and interests. Not even the perceived gulf between humanistic learning and the hard sciences necessarily applies, as sophisticated art conservation requires commensurable acumen in both chemistry and historically informed aesthetic judgment. While the prospects of the digital humanities have been somewhat oversold, some plausible new horizons may lie in complexity theory, a nascent body of knowledge that incorporates computer science as it spans the physical, biological, and social sciences. Under its rubric, a specialist in fluid turbulence could have as much in common with a historian of urban growth as with a fellow physicist. Any form of history is fundamentally an accounting for change, and art may benefit from the more refined description enabled by this nascent field’s umbrella vocabulary of emergence and self-organization.

For the moment, however, the necessary remedial work of correcting past social biases and indefensible hierarchies has put on hold consideration of such abstract bridges to the quantitative sciences—just as it has made the mordant critique of the commodity seem an antiquated hobbyhorse. A small intellectual field can only do so many things at once. The urgency of this current focus has intensified as recent graduates of art-history programs turn away from academia toward the more abundant opportunities provided by museums. Young staff members have been instrumental in calling out senior curators for instances of bias, and more than one high-level resignation has followed. And these newer hires have frequently been as vocal about their own historically inadequate wages and poor working conditions, insisting on the indispensable support they provide their institutions. “How can we build a different kind of art world, one in which our lives and livelihoods are not dependent on millionaire directors and billionaire donors?” asks Dana Kopel, an editor and critic laid off from New York’s New Museum and now working as a labor organizer. “For many of us, times were uncertain long before this moment. For institutions that claim both scarcity and radical politics while funneling more money into executive salaries and endowments, the pandemic reveals the depths of such contradictions: visible on the surface, empty underneath.”

New Museum Union action, New Museum, New York, June 25, 2019. Photo: Alex Greenberger.

Speaking for many of her peers, Kopel underscores that the recruiting advantage gained from the contraction of academia was not to be had for free; there would have to be concomitant changes to the museums themselves, to their priorities and to the ways they went about their business—a process yet in its early stages. Largely out of public view, as she emphasizes, lies the ultimate authority wielded by museum boards of trustees. The educated youth, more and more diverse in origin, possess values that are bound to collide with those espoused by major donor-trustees, given that their surpluses of wealth are more and more likely to derive from the predatory, amoral practices of private-equity funds. An obvious case in point was the campaign, under the rubric “Decolonize This Place,” to force Warren Kanders from his position as vice-chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, over the use of his Safariland tear gas in military assaults on refugees, migrants, and other civilians. Nan Goldin rallying a successful coalition against the opioid-profiteering members of the Sackler family presents another. Lately, the unfolding saga of Leon Black, the Museum of Modern Art’s compromised board chair, has loomed large. (Black was induced to resign his office, effective July 1, with longtime board insider Marie-Josée Kravis replacing him as chair, but as of this writing remains a trustee.) With other trustees doubtlessly fearing an eruption against themselves, Artnet News reported, director Glenn Lowry had to put his other responsibilities on hold, instead “sitting down with each department, one by one, to calm staff members” shaken and incensed by this financial patron of Jeffrey Epstein staying on for as long as he did.

With MoMA knocked back on its heels, it is perhaps no coincidence that a newly formed group of activists, under the mesmerizing name International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF), has emerged to target that museum’s trustees in particular. Calling for a ten-week “Strike MoMA,” the group’s ultimate objective (demand) is “that something else can emerge, something under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires.” They continue, “As MoMA winds down and we extract our imagination from its orbit, our energies, resources and labor power will be freed up for creating alternatives in its place.”

Horace’s ancient dictum that the task of art is at once to instruct and delight can hardly find a better home than inside a major museum collection.

This kind of protest and discontent is thus about more than the moral fitness of individuals, however essential such scrutiny remains. As Kopel makes plain, at issue is these institutions’ ultimate character, with a good deal of current dysfunction traceable to the model of trustee governance itself. Outsize compensation for directors, for example, comes less from unseemly acquisitiveness on their part than from trustees engaging in competitive rivalries with other boards. If some other director is awarded a higher salary, it constitutes a challenge: Our director must be just as good, they will say, so matching if not superior compensation is in order. Thus the scales ratchet up, further justifying the lid on wages and benefits for staff.

In a more subtle way, as the ethos of the new megarich entails obligatory disdain for the nonwealthy, museum directors must be raised to some threshold of exceptional affluence for powerful trustees even to grant them peer status. While many can resist temptation and remain loyal to their own formation as scholars, it is easy to see how a leader could be brought over to the values of the financial sector, which mandate as a point of pride high-handed treatment of rank-and-file employees, accompanied by a nearly religious antipathy toward unions. Lowry’s sway with MoMA staff stands out in a landscape where the mistreatment of subordinates has been the prime cause behind a number of recent executive departures, with more likely in the offing.

Protest in the lobby of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17, 2019. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images.

BACK AT THE ’70S DAWN of the New Art History, Michael Baxandall posited that the patrons of the Italian Renaissance favored art that offered pleasurable visual rehearsals of the ways they calculated proportion, ratio, and volume in their mercantile and banking businesses. While that historical conjuncture may have yielded a Piero della Francesca, its present-day parallel could be said mainly to generate oversize atria that echo the glossy appearances of luxe office buildings and airport terminals. The museum as a tangible envelope constitutes the primary reality of the institution to those charged with its ultimate oversight; hence the preoccupation with architectural expansion as the most obvious evidence of standing and largesse. One populist argument will always be that expansion serves the interests of the ever larger quantity of visitors seeking access to greater quantities of art; though it might be asked whether it actually works the other way around—that is, whether greater numbers paying substantial admission charges and overcrowding gallery spaces are required to keep amortized financial arrangements from collapsing. And there are ways besides more wall and floor space—denser hangs, more frequent rotations, repurposed temporary exhibition spaces—to expose even the deepest collection to greater advantage.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2015, New York. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

There come moments, to be sure, when physical renewal more than justifies the heavy lifting required to pull it off. The Whitney had been encased inside its cast-concrete jacket, albeit an architecturally distinguished one, and marooned in a neighborhood inhospitable to youthful energies in art and its audience. Director Adam Weinberg succeeded in the most dramatic leveraging in a generation of new museum architecture as a catalyst to civic life, both externally and internally. In that regard, the eruption of the Kanders affair was less a disturbance than a tribute to that accomplishment. As long as the constant cycle of physical expansion continues, however, prominent museums will necessarily cater to highly self-interested, megawealthy individuals, while tending to take for granted, outside of crisis moments, the exceptional network of human beings on whose largely unseen application and intelligence the fortunes of any collection depend.

The art historian Alex Kitnick recently posed a question in these pages: “Must modern museums sit on endlessly growing piles of capital” in order to feed an “incessant territorial expansionism?” By way of a counterintuitive answer, much like the IIAAF, he broached the thought experiment in which the great museums are reimagined as “poor” institutions. Among various favorable outcomes, he speculates, “might they keep exhibitions up longer and dig more deeply into their permanent collections, enfranchise educators and dock executive pay? In other words, change structurally instead of signify differently?”

Peter Zumthor, David Geffen Galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, anticipated completion 2023, Los Angeles. Rendering.

Boards are largely self-selected and self-perpetuating, with nonprofit law on their side. Even if inroads are being made, the struggle between ethically vigilant younger staff and the trustee edifice remains dauntingly asymmetrical. It is nonetheless vital to at least imagine and advocate for a more enlightened and egalitarian state of affairs. Kitnick’s call to “enfranchise educators” bears particularly rich implications, as Horace’s ancient dictum that the task of art is at once to instruct and delight can hardly find a better home than inside a major museum collection. But structural impediments stand in the way of unlocking this potential.

The Annenberg Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.

To switch this rumination to a more personal track, I have tried out the Met’s collection of nineteenth-century French painting as such a place of learning, putting the question to myself and my students: What if we never see the inside of a seminar room, much less a PowerPoint slide? Instead, what if we just meet, the seven or so of us, in front of a particular painting and go from there? Neglecting to make formal appointments with visitor services may have been a bit disobedient, but the encounters gained an intangible freshness from this forgoing of permission structures. The scenario allowed us to come up close, where a granular level of information manifests itself in a cognitive bounty lost even a few feet away. The external apparatus of prestige falls away when the actual traces of human ingenuity, bearing their replete messages from the past, fill one’s field of vision—beside which even the most accurate reproduction is still a kind of insult. By comparison, seeing a guided circle of visitors (pre-pandemic), spread out on camp stools at distances from which the work looks like a reproduction of itself, was enough to make one’s heart sink.

The Annenberg Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.

Though it can reasonably be objected that my example, the art of nineteenth-century France, reinforces an established bastion of European hegemony, the model I am proposing should be fully translatable across the boundaries between regions, media, ethnicities, and time periods. For any subject area, moreover, it is as much the how as the what that makes a difference; my late colleague Linda Nochlin always had more to say on this venerable topic, to the great profit of women in the field over several generations. Any collection optimally offers an open field of inquiry, including questions as to how and why it came to exist. In a transformed institution, gallery teachers, curators, conservators, editors, bookstore assistants, and security guards—anyone with knowledge to offer—might find themselves on a rota in a gallery freely offering some kind of undirected but informed exchange with spontaneously clustered visitors of all types, the formal protocols that tend to rule museum education left to one side. Among the many attractive aspects of this idea is that it would bring the true democratic constitution of the museum out of hiding, making itself visible in a symbiotic interchange with the collection, with buildings as no more than a means to an end.

In the realm of art, as in many others, the travails of the pandemic have had the effect of revealing alternative modes of conduct that merit retention when normalcy returns. As museums cautiously reopened last fall, special exhibitions sent into hibernation the previous spring were still there, like old friends turning up at holiday time. The costs in shipping, insurance, VIP openings, and damage to borrowed works have been proportionately curtailed. Reducing the compulsive churn of these events, as Kitnick suggests, could have positive effects in redirecting energy, research, and visitors toward permanent holdings and saving resources for the support of younger staff trained in their care and elucidation. The feeling of space and relative quiet in the galleries that followed from timed entry will likewise be missed should the old order return in force. Such glimpses of more modest, if not poor, museums can at least get our imaginations going.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.

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