Sunday, January 19, 2020

Things Change

Continuing a theme, which, I guess, I started last week … how things change.  My British uncle used to say, “you know you’re getting old when the Bobbies (Cops) look like school children”.  By that definition I definitely qualify as old.  Today I am thinking of the Museum world and how things have changed. I have written about “change” before and I guess aside from death and taxes it is always with us!

A while ago I received an email saying I had been a member of the Metropolitan Museum for 50 years.  Did I receive any notice other than that. No.  There are too many people and I presume too many members including all those who are virtual members online.  As I have said before, when my parents had been with a certain New York Bank for 15 years they received flowers as thanks … after 25 years they got nothing.  

Tom Hoving was a brilliant, innovative, but mercurial director.  When he was Parks Commissioner, he opened Central Park to the general public by closing it to traffic over the weekend and being more liberal on what could be done there such as ignoring some rules when it came to barbecues, etc.  He did the same thing when he became director of the Metropolitan Museum.  Suddenly there were banners hanging in front of the Museum to announce exhibitions that were not static and just about scholarship but also theatrical and enjoyable such as “In the Presence of Kings”, where some pieces were even put on turntables.  There were not just esoteric and old master exhibitions, but Block Busters, which meant that one had thematic exhibitions that attracted crowds, the most famous being Tutankhamun. A new curatorial department of 20th century art, that not only showed contemporary art but accessioned works, was just one of Hoving’s innovations.

When the next director, Philippe de Montebello, came in he wanted to eliminate the banners, but they proved so popular that by the time he had been there for 30 years there were 5 banners. and even Native American art was exhibited broadening the horizons for the viewing public.  He carefully balanced scholarly exhibitions with blockbusters. The Metropolitan became more and more popular which is, of course, a good thing, but it also became less of place for meditation and more of an entertainment center.  

The current director at the Met, Max Hollein, continues the innovation with two monumental, politically charged paintings by Native American Artist, Kent Monkman on temporary exhibition in the Great Hall of the Met. 

In addition, Hollein added sculptures by an African artist to the niches on the fa├žade of the Met which had not been filled in years in what will be a rotating program of contemporary sculpture.   All this in order to make this sacred temple more accessible to its growing constituency.

The long-time curator of the Queens Collection in London, Geoffrey de Bellaigue, said years ago that he was no longer qualified for his job.  Why?  Because he did not have an advanced academic degree.  Philippe de Montebello was one of the best directors the Met has ever had, yet, academically, he only held a Master’s Degree.  Still he managed to grow the collection in all areas and balance popular and scholarly exhibitions.

Today every art institution expects the director (and curators) to have a PhD!  Too often someone with that degree is so focused on their specific field that they lose the ability to become generalists, which is a must in order to lead an encyclopedic museum.  Interestingly, Orientalists and Medievalists seem to have the broadest scope, maybe because they have so many media to cover.  Experience, managerial skills and some economics are also part of the job as well as a serious interest and a broad art historical knowledge, not to mention fund raising skills.

A new word has now appeared in our museum lexicon, “Experiential”. It is no longer enough to see the work of art. We want something more … what that is, maybe one of my readers will explain to me.  Maybe, if we insert one Euro the Mona Lisa will sing to us keeping the crowds coming!!!

Will we survive these changes, of course we will, though we will have to accept crowded museums and some exhibits we may not like.  We will just have to attend in the evenings and perhaps not go to every show. The permanent collections will remain and seeing (or experiencing) great works cannot be taken away from us!

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