August 09, 2010

Unsolicited advice for the Brooklyn Museum, much of it revealing

New York Times culture writer Robin Pogrebin continues her trial of the museum on charges of populism and attendance-mongering, this time by soliciting prescriptions from expert witnesses around the art world. But their advice tells us more about the conflicted state of thinking about art museums than about what’s going on across the East River. 

In a much-discussed article two months ago, Pogrebin challenged the Brooklyn Museum to explain why, after all those populist exhibitions and hip, admission-free social events, its overall attendance hadn’t risen. She noted that in 2004 the museum had set itself the goal of tripling attendance, and somehow managed to criticize both the fact that the museum had set such a goal — that’s bottom-line, crowd-oriented values, anathema to a true cultural institution! — and the fact that it had failed to meet it. 

Now, in a two-page spread in yesterday’s arts and leisure section, Pogrebin repeats those charges as the intro to a series of brief diagnoses and prescriptions from 18 invited observers. Some of them, like former Whitney Museum director David Ross and MFA Houston director Peter Marzio, are supportive of Brooklyn and its director, Arnold Lehman, while others, like Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson and New York State Council on the Arts chairman Daniel Simmons, Jr., implicitly criticize the museum for barking up the wrong tree.

But the assumptions and ideals that underlie their assessments are all over the map. The proverbial Martian anthropologist would read these capsule prescriptions and conclude that we Earthlings (or maybe, we New Yorkers) have no collective idea what our art museums are for or what might count as evidence of their success. 

Local community “ownership”? Trustee giving? Home-run exhibitions? World-class collections? Giving new artists their first shows? Curatorial vision? Empowering local artists? Creating touring shows? Diverse audiences? Large audiences? Web hits from around the world? Taking risks? Sticking to core competencies? Being like the Met? Differentiating from the Met?

As usual, there are two competing strains running through these comments, the same two strains that have riven the art museum world since the 19th century, when institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Met were founded. One emphasizes the separateness of art from daily experience and seeks to protect the curatorial, institutional authority that maintains that separateness. The other emphasizes the embeddedness of art in daily experience and wants to place curatorial and institutional authority in service to communities and their needs. ...

So the question of populism or popular culture — how much to embrace it in exhibitions, social events, and the museum’s identity or brand — is where the sparks really fly. The separateness camp values art (and by extension art museums) as an antidote to commercial culture, so its definition of quality and integrity includes the idea that not many people are going to like it. If it’s too popular, maybe it’s not really an antidote.

Hence the hostility here to the museum setting big attendance goals or drawing large crowds for its First Saturday events. Yet these are the very things that, for the embeddedness camp, would demonstrate that the museum is serving its audiences and achieving everyday relevance to its community.

The most high-handed position-taking in Pogrebin’s roundup comes (as she must have known it would) from Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now a faculty member at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. I was struck by several things about his contribution, starting with his insistent repetition of the word “great” or “greatness”:

Part of the turnaround would be to declare, not only rhetorically but also by action, "This is a great museum and an opportunity to see great works of art." The message here is that a major encyclopedic museum, one born like the Met or the Louvre along the values of the Enlightenment, flirts with popularization and the espousal of so-called popular culture at its own risk. Therein lies a paradox. I suspect that, in fact, what most museum visitors crave is some form of uplift, an experience to get them away from the humdrum of daily life in favor of an encounter with something unique, thus unreplicable. . . . 

I would stress the sense of privilege people in the area should feel at being able to see great old master paintings, great American pictures without having to go into Manhattan. Promotion would stress: "You don't have to go to Manhattan to see one of the world's great collections. We have it here in Brooklyn."

You don’t have to be a die-hard postmodernist to find that use of the word “great” almost comically out of date. Doesn’t de Montebello realize that ascribing “greatness” to an artwork tells us more about the ascriber and his cultural assumptions than about the artwork? How can anybody still believe that only “high culture” — a phrase he uses without irony, and without a definition — is capable of providing us vital, uplifting, unreplicable, and profound experiences?

Mabye you can get away with that universalist, "objective" definition of aesthetic quality if you happen to be the Met. Other museums have to work a little harder to assert their relevance.

There must be ways to advocate for the value of art without sounding like you’ve never been to a Rolling Stones concert. Because in reality the boundaries are never so clear, the choices never so stark. Can’t I visit a museum for escape and intensification? (At bottom, aren’t they the same thing?) And if an art museum just gives up a little of its preciousness, can’t it be profound and popular at the same time?

Photos: NY Times

Sarah Cortell — August 12, 2010

Amen! You are correct about the "high culture" reference. Completely out of date!

Nancy Proctor — August 13, 2010

I certainly wouldn't want to defend canonical notions of greatness, but - whether intentionally or not - Phillippe de Montebello did point to an important driver for mass audiences in any context: the notion that something is special, rare, or an event. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I know that I am guilty of not visiting local museums as often as you might think I would, simply because I tend to take them for granted. Like a comfortable old sweater, it's always pleasurable to slip into them, but what I get really excited about is the new outfit, movie premieres rather than re-runs, the museums in the town I've never been to before, and the exhibitions that are "once-in-a-lifetime" and "never-before-seen". Museums are special: how can we preserve that sense of wonder, excitement and - here I agree with de Montebello's language - privilege, because we *are* fortunate to have these incredible collections and scholarship about them at our disposal, alongside a warm welcome, and, as you say, relevance to visitors' lives?

Marjorie Schwarzer — August 16, 2010

Peter, Thanks for the great (sic) blog.

I agree with Nancy Proctor on this one. Let's resist the temptation to set Phillipe de Montebello up as a straw man for the elites vs. the populists argument into which NYT arts reporters like to dip their toes periodically. I agree with de Montebello that museums have the power to "uplift," and always appreciate it when he reminds of this power.

So, of course, do great rock concerts, great sci-fi thrillers, great parties, etc (doesn't the word "great" seem more innocuous here?) . The issue here, I think, is that it isn't an either/or, separate/embed, but, as any great chef knows, a well-imagined balance that allows for a little heart-stopping magic.

Dan Spock — August 30, 2010

I think there's some complexity going on in this debate that hasn't really be addressed. Isn't part of the problem that the BM set its own attendance goals high? After all, it does seem to have mattered to BM that a pluralistic approach would yield bigger gate numbers; if they had not chosen that as a criterion of success, it would be a different conversation. A pluralisitic success might be measured as a deeper level of engagement, or as a more diverse attendance demographic, or a more Brooklyn-resident demographic, any of which could've been achieved irrespective of gross attendance. The other thing is that, while BM gallery attendance has been slipping, their program attendance has been steadily growing, an indicator of success of a different kind. It is different for a museum to make its audience grow through public programming rather than through gallery exhibitions, but is that necessarily bad?

A big problem with defining a pluralistic success is that nobody really has a consistent idea of how that success might be measured. I argue that attendance numbers are a very simple, but ultimately coarse-grained indicator and might not be the best way for BM to understand the impact of their programming decisions.

What's most suspect about Montebello's pronouncements is that he assumes the main event should be the great art of the BM's permanent collection. But he should also know from his experience at the Met that the quality of temporary exhibitions are responsible for most of the ebb and flow of gallery attendance, especially if you are not a world class tourist destination and are dependent on local repeat visitors as your primary audience. Looking at the graph, there's actually a wide range of fluctuation over the last decade. 2009 may have been off, but 2007-08 appear to have been very strong years relatively. 2009 might be explained by the economic downturn, or by just somewhat less compelling exhibit programming and marketing than the previous year.

Dan Spock — August 31, 2010

Well, what do you know. Brooklyn Museum's Lehman responds to concerns about attendance here:

Peter Linett — September 02, 2010

Thanks all of you for these thoughtful comments, which I'm belatedly getting to. Nancy, what I'm bridling at in the notion of "specialness" is the subtle positioning of it as somehow above us, that we're privileged to be in the museum's glow. Somehow I just prefer to feel like it's ours, part of our culture and our history of expression. I'd extrapolate a little from Stephen Weil's point that museums aren't automatically "good"; it depends on what purposes they're put and how well they achieve those purposes. Museums aren't automatically "special," either: they have to work at it, above and apart from preserving and presenting collections of art that people love.

Marjorie, thanks for reminding me not to get drawn into the tired dichotomies the NY Times arts section sometimes tosses around.

And Dan, that's a nuanced analysis -- I agree that we need better metrics for the various ideals and goals we talk about. Thanks also for the link.

Dan Spock — September 02, 2010

One more word here if I may. I don't disagree that museums have a special role in that they provide some promise for an experience that is out of the ordinary, that is special in the sort of way that makes someone feel that they have done something to break the routine, that it's exalted, unusual, even transformational. The difficulty comes in trying to understand this in ways that are not inherently elitist. Words like "uplift" bother me because they imply that people are more lowbrow, uncivilized, or stunted before they come to the museum, that they need the museum's civilzing touch to become more human or worthwhile. I think museums are always on firmer ground when they frame what they do in terms of the quality of the visitor's experience rather than on the exceptional quality of the museum's judgment: connoiseurship, design, scholarship, etc. We may create a wonderful environment for these experiences by the public, but the experiences, with all of their idiosyncrasy, belong to individual visitors themselves. This does require a little more humility on the part of museums, but it doesn't mean that we need to stop being special.

When I look at Montebello, I'm always struck by the fact that his leadership of the Met and his public statements have been in contradiction. As director he consistently presented large, crowd-pleasing blockbusters, while at the same time turning his nose up at the efforts of other museums to do the same. I've thought it was facile of him to scold other museums without the location, legacy and collections riches of the Met for pandering, especially when these museums were trying to make creative use of the more limited resources they have at their disposal. I find this even more irritating than his insufferable air of superiority.

Nina Simon — September 02, 2010

Dan - great point about the BM numbers - Arnold's early goal/statement on numbers was what confused me in the first place about this whole discussion.

Re "uplift" and underserved audiences:
I was really intrigued by this TED talk by Bill Strickland about his arts/afterschool/job training center in Pittsburgh -

Again and again, Strickland says: we needed a fountain/beautiful building/fresh flowers/state of the art facility because that's what rich white people get and poor brown people deserve it too. His argument is for both inclusion AND specialness--that everyone deserves access to experiences that would be typically seen as elite.

I struggled with this argument, because it felt somewhat that he was saying that poor people could get extreme uplift from access to elite experiences. But then I realized it's not about access: it's about those experiences being truly FOR those audiences, not just that the doors are open.

From my perspective, the challenge of the museum kind of specialness is that it feels exclusionary to some people. The Met feels that way. The Brooklyn Museum doesn't. I don't think the BM's "popular" exhibits or programs are any higher or lower class than those at other comparable museums. They're just more welcoming to a more diverse audience.

This is an argument about a museum that might not feel "right" to the old guard. I just talked with a person from a large art museum that is trying to be more inclusive. They held what she perceived to be a great event because it really welcomed a diversity of community members. A big donor told her afterwards he felt it was not a successful event because it "wasn't exclusive enough."

That's screwed up.

Peter Linett — September 02, 2010

Years ago de Montebello's Met was praised for its "democratic elitism" (, and it's an oxymoron he relished. "That [elitist] is exactly what we are," he told a questioner at Harvard in 2002. "That is what art is, and that is what every visitor to the Met is — by crossing the threshold they are joining the elite." (

Dan, you've articulated my problem with "uplift" better than I understood it. And Nina, I've heard the same kind of thing from arts people, partciularly board members. (A symphony trustee on why people should dress up for concerts: "People are more polite when they're not wearing jeans.") I'll watch Strickland's talk, thanks for the link.

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