Commentary on Daniel H. Weiss, “Why the Museum Matters”

Environmental activists who thrown tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London last week did so without damaging the painting, which is behind glass. The act was not so much vandalism as a rhetorical gesture – accompanied, of course, by rhetorical questions, directed at a bewildered audience.

“What is worth more, asks one of the young activists, art or life? … Are you more concerned about protecting a painting or protecting our planet and people? Sympathizing with their program does not mean accepting the alternatives as they are formulated. Art or life? Both, please. Endangering one does not protect the other. And a mindset that disregards van Gogh’s legacy shows little understanding of how people experience the natural world. The last thing you should do when looking at his canvases of sunflowers is to leave you indifferent to the fate of the sunflowers.

The incident happened after I had started reading Daniel H. Weiss Why the museum is important (Yale University Press) and quickly joined in the rumination on the book. Because undoubtedly the militants of London did not attack the table, but the institution which sheltered it: the National Gallery, with all the official sanction which its name suggests.

It is one of the oldest examples of what Weiss calls an “encyclopedic” museum, aspiring to “collect art and archaeological materials from the great epochs of human history across the vast geographies of the world”. . Another such is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the author is president and CEO.

Weiss led the Met through a turbulent period in its history, including a major change in admissions policy from a flexible entrance fee left to the discretion of each visitor to a fee scale for foreign visitors, by typical visitor (students, seniors, children under 12, etc.). His tenure at the Met also marked the disconnect from the institution of members of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma, given the company’s role in the opioid epidemic. This summer, Weiss informed the museum’s board that he would step down in June 2023.

Dedicated Met watchers will weigh in on the book’s handling of disputes arising on the author’s watch, but he doesn’t spend time on the details of politics or decision-making. Instead, the focus is on the issues inherent in the mission and operation of any significant art museum. (The extent to which they may overlap those of a science or history museum is not discussed.)

The challenge facing the 21st century art museum – to put it in the broadest possible terms – is to make the most of things despite a nagging institutional conscience. The ambitions that drive the encyclopedic museum were already at stake with the opening of the Louvre during the French Revolution. The French prototype faced, writes Weiss, “the difficult task of bringing together a program that celebrated artistic excellence, staggering abundance, elite taste and colonialist violence, on the one hand, while at the same time advocating a commitment to universal and unlimited equality”. public access, on the other hand. Then came the desire to bolster the collection through “an aggressive program of new acquisitions”, not quite separate from the Imperial plundering enterprise.

This array of goals and ideals could never align perfectly. Weiss sees the museum’s subsequent development as an institution as the gradual and flawed fulfillment of an educational mission to inspire and enlighten the general public, in part by acknowledging its own blind spots and problematic history. “As collections grew,” he writes, “and with them curatorial and curatorial expertise, museums became increasingly aware of the contradiction involved in labeling d ‘encyclopaedic’ collection which was inevitably selective; they ended up recognizing the harm done by making such representations to a heterogeneous public disappointed at not finding the art of their culture or tradition within its walls.

This ongoing critical self-assessment is in tension with another institutional mandate: to be “a place primarily for art, a sanctuary where everyone can find peace and inspiration, learning and community, and at least certain distance from the cares of the day. But any balance between relevance and tranquility must also reconcile the financial viability of museums. The problem can be mitigated by budget cuts, entry fees, donations or disposal of farms gathering dust in the warehouse. And a decision in any direction will necessarily bring change, even disruption, to some part of a museum’s self-defined mission.

In this spirit, the National Gallery soup throw should be seen in light of the recent announcement by another British museum, the National Portrait Gallery, that it would end its relationship with British Petroleum after 30 years. Ejecting oneself from the deep pockets of an extremely wealthy corporation that sponsored a prize and kept museum admissions free cannot be easy. It did so in response to years of pressure, as have other cultural institutions. Seems like a clever use of his outrage. I don’t have any details on hand regarding corporate donors to the National Gallery, but in any case, let’s keep Van Gogh out of the way.

About Elaine Morales

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