Sunday, July 31, 2022

Why Are University Museums Different?

Why are University Museums different? Frankly as an art dealer I never thought of them as different. After all, they may vary in respect to size and quality of their collections, but they have curators and directors with whom I was friendly, and they bought from our gallery for their collections just like any other museum though often their budgets were smaller.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) there are 35,000 museums of all types in the United States and only 680 University museums and art galleries. The distinction being that a gallery will just have rotating exhibitions while the museum includes a permanent collection. Yet in an Artnet News op-ed column Christina Olsen, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, claims that “Museums Need to be Braver” and learn from their smaller brethren.

Michigan University Museum of Art

Olsen believes that campus-based museums play “an outsized role in making the visual-arts ecosystem more equitable and accessible”. I started to think about that and realized that it is true that it is always easier to maneuver a smaller institution than a larger one where bureaucracy and fiefdom politics are endemic. So, what can they teach the big guy on the block?

Of course, the University Museum has the goal of teaching it’s student body. Olsen sees the classic museum as there only to collect and store art. That is pretty cynical, but she has a point. And from this point of view, they put the collection first and people second while the University Museum does it the other way around. The larger institutions do educate however, they have collections spanning large periods of time through which they can convey a broader understanding of the time and culture of works of art. Also, special exhibitions allow a curator to be more specific to the process and docents and/or curators add insight beyond the signage.

It is true that the Metropolitan Museum does not have students on governing boards with decision making power. Further members cannot take objects home on long term loan as from Olsen’s Museum and the Univerity of California, Berkeley. That again is the advantage of a small museum that has a better handle on its audience.

It is easier to find an enrolled student than the thousands of strangers who are members of the Met.

The University of Michigan Museum let the public vote on 1,000 photos available to the Museum and they received a hundred thousand votes and selected 250 for the collection. I hope those photographs were first vetted by curators who understood the history of photography and who printed the images and when. I hope that the objective of this exercise was not to just have a bunch of interesting images on the wall with no thought of what the students would learn about the art of photography. It might not be a bad idea for an exhibition but to make those 250 photos part of a collection seems like a waste of space to me.

I am going to muddy the waters just a bit by saying that University Museums are analogous to the definition of a small museum as opposed to a large one. A museum wishes to enlighten and educate its public no matter what the size.

In her article “Mini but Mighty” Ashleigh Hibbins, in Museum Hack, calls smaller museums “superheroes”. She cites, among their advantages, being able to target their audience directly and speak to local issues. They are de facto more intimate and comfortable for the visitor.

In a University of Toronto blog, we learn that Justine Lyn, who was finishing her under-graduate work, was trying to decide in which direction she wished to continue in the museum world. Having interned in both, she points out that in a smaller institution you have to work in multiple areas as a “Jack of All Trades” while the large institution allows a specialist to work in a single department.

Every individual or institution can learn from the other but I believe neither has exclusive claim to knowing the right way.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Art of the Pill

I think I should start out by saying that I have neither medical training nor a great deal of knowledge of the subject. I am just a very curious older person so here is what I found.

It all began this morning while I looked at my dish of pills. I realized why older people speak of their “pill cocktail” it is certainly a medical mix. Looking at my dish a bit longer I started to wonder who comes up with these colors and shapes. I have not, to my knowledge, seen duplicates of the exact shape, color and size of any one of them.

When a new drug comes on the market, naturally Research and Development are involved. The quantity of the ingredients or the desired time release, be it immediate, gradual or long release, may dictate the size of the pill or capsule. Also, it has to be a size that is easy to swallow. Sometimes it is recommended that you take two 25 milligram pills rather than one 50 milligram pill

To my amazement, marketing also plays a role as to a pill’s color. In and of itself it has no bearing on the efficacy of the drug. Still, research has shown the associations patients make with the colors may affect how they respond psychologically to the drugs. There are some colors you rarely see on a tablet, brown comes to mind, though you may find it on a capsule.

I was just curious about this subject, but to some it is a serious concern. At they answer questions such as:

-What's this pill I just found in my teen's pocket?

-Was my prescription filled correctly? It looks different.

-My pills are mixed up. Which pill should I take?

-So why are they so smart? Do they know the secret password?

Well, the answer is, yes, they do. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requires that every prescription drug has an imprint code, so that not only can poison control and health care providers identify the pills, but also law enforcement and others. The imprint code identifies the size, shape, color, ingredients, strength, plus manufacturer and distributor of the product.

An imprint code can be a single letter, number, combination of letters and numbers, or words, company names, National Drug Code or a mark, symbol, logo or monogram. It is the drug company that makes this decision. There can be more complications but that is not what I set out to write about.

Even though generic drugs are made by different manufacturers and therefore may come in different colors, shapes and sizes, the FDA demands that they have an imprint code.

One final comment … older people obviously have far less understanding of advanced technology than those who grew up with it. As I was doing my on-line research I was astounded by the following question and answer:

“Can I take a picture to identify a pill? With auto capture, the app continuously takes pictures of your pill until a result is found. Smart Pill ID uses Artificial Intelligence to search for your pill in our databases using its inscription, color, shape, and size.”

I remain curious, even if there is an app for everything!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Interviewee

The other morning, I was watching a financial channel and the CEO of some company was being interviewed on Zoom or some other app and behind him was a totally blank wall. Far to each side was the frame of a window and above him the very bottom of a very contemporary chandelier. My immediate thought was what is he trying to hide, maybe a sloppy office, maybe how opulent it really was and he did not want his clients to know the fortune they were bringing in for him.

No news to anyone that thanks to Covid 19 our world has changed and for better and for worse interviews more often than not are done virtually. I remember when Rachel Maddow broadcast from her rustic wood home, and Chris Cuomo reported from his basement where his family had relegated him when he had Covid … it was, however, a nicely fitted out basement.

How do people being interviewed at home decide where the interview should take place? I don’t have the slightest clue but like so many others I am fascinated by the places that they decide on.

It is always interesting to see how other people live. You never see a Rembrandt or a Rothko on the wall because who wants to set themselves up as targets for thieves. Sometimes, with less valuable art interviewees may allow it too be seen. Last Monday Rachel Maddow had Barry Berke on her show. He was Chief Impeachment Counsel and prior Impeachment Special Counsel for trump’s impeachment trials. In the background you could see that he has collected examples of African art.

Sitting in front of your library seems a common way to show your education or promote your book. In an article written for Vogue in April 2020 Stuart Emmerich wrote about the subject. He, like me, was trying to figure out the rationale as well as read the titles of the books in these libraries. He said that watching MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt he noticed that her library was arranged according to color.

Anne Applebaum, a historian and staff writer for the Atlantic, often sits in front of her library showing a group of books on the Gulag. The only one where I could read the author’s name was one she had written. I am quite sure that this was no accident. It is a perfectly legitimate way to illustrate your accomplishments. It made me want to look her up on line, where I learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her Gulag book.

I love Steven Rattner’s library. He was President Obama’s economic adviser. You can’t read the book titles but with the leather armchair and cushion it not only looks very comfy, it is just what you would expect a scholarly person’s library to look like in the movies.

Recently Henry Kissinger, who served as United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was interviewed in his library . Behind him was one of the many books about this great statesman as well as a book titled the Nixon Tapes. There was no agenda here: Kissinger at the age of 99 has nothing more to prove. You could actually see the range of his interests such as antisemitism, with a book called Anti Judaism. I find it amusing that he has the book “Super Intelligence” which might just be a description of himself, but In fact, it poses the question: what happens when machines surpass humans in general intelligence.

The disadvantage for interviewees doing their interviews from home is that peering into their surroundings may distract us from what they have to say .... but it is such fun!

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Art of the Subtitle

Subtitles are relatively new to opera but have long been used for foreign language films. They can be confusing as you look at the action and are trying to read at the same time but also very helpful. The aim is to translate the sense of the dialog not necessarily the exact words and in opera it is often a distillation of repeated words.

As a destination for tourists as well as dedicated opera fans, the Santa Fe Opera introduced subtitles early on. In what now seems another age Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia came here together for the opera every summer. The house has a capacity of over 2,000 seats. While the stage was protected, the roof and sides of the seating were part open and people used to get soaked during monsoon season, which is July and August, so they covered overhead and put up baffles on the side to protect against the winds.

At the Santa Fe Opera In front of each seat there is now a little box for the subtitles which can be turned on. What goes into creating these words that come across the screen turns out not to be as simple as you might think. But first some history.

I remember the days when my father insisted that I read the synopsis before we went to any opera. According to an NPR article published a week ago, subtitles, also called supertitles, were first used in 1983 by the Canadian Opera Company for a performance of Elektra in German translating it into English. It was, at that time a glorified slide show of images projected above the stage with the possibility of only 45 letters. Beverly Sills the famous soprano and then director of the New York City Opera became an immediate fan and adopted them for her house.

Like all new technology people fought it at first feeling that subtitles distracted the audience from the music and action on stage. The director and conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, said a few years after the City opera adopted them that it would be over his dead body that he would have them in his house. In 1992, however, a patron donated the funds for subtitles mounted on seat backs and Levine gave in.

I learned more from an article by Mark Tiarks in Pasatiempo, The New Mexican newpaper’s weekly culture magazine. The system used at the Metropolitan Opera as well as in Santa Fe was sketched out in 1992 on napkins at Maria’s, a local Mexican restaurant we frequent, by Patrick Markle who was the production director at the Santa Fe Opera together with two Metropolitan technical employees. It was only adopted here in 1999 and in 2019 an even more advanced system was installed by in-house personnel.

Premiere of "The Barber of Seville", Photo by Curtis Brown

The translating, editing and technical side are quite complex. In Santa Fe the process takes five on-site individuals but starts with one person, Christopher Bergen, who is fluent in Italian, German, French and Russian. He translates every opera into English. Then, since we have a large Hispanic population, someone else translates the English into the Spanish option available on the display.

Bergen does not try to give a word for word translation, avoiding issues like rhyme to give just the gist of what is happening on stage. A composer and librettist might repeat a phrase over and over again and it might only appear on your screen once or twice. He needs to find English language equivalents for jokes, and they must be perfectly timed. If the punchline appears in the subtitle too soon, and the audience starts laughing before the singer comes to the actual words, the latter almost always shows how disconcerting it is.

Most difficult is when several performers are singing different words at the same time. There is neither room on the screen nor do you want the audience to be reading rather than watching the staging which can be most entertaining. After the translation has been done and honed a techy takes over and formats for the software required. Two more members of the team cue the titles to appear during the performance. During dress rehearsals the team makes any adjustments that may not have been accounted for.

We recently attended the opening night at the Santa Fe Opera of Stephen Barlow’s new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It was an incredible performance with excellent singers and a great deal of comedy. I realized how much directors must care about subtitles because their audience depends on them for the success of their production. The subtitles in Santa Fe’s Barber certainly helped create the gales of perfectly timed laughter from the audience.

From "The Barber of Seville"

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Ghent Altarpiece, Most Stolen Painting of All Time

I listen to a lot of books, usually in my car driving to my office and back or anywhere I drive on my own. I try to adhere to a routine of alternating Non-Fiction and Fiction. What I like best are when true events are woven into a mystery, aka a historical novel.

Anyone interested in art history knows the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 which took on a life of its own making it the greatest tourist attraction in Paris.

Recently I started a book by Steve Berry, a well-known mystery writer, because the review mentioned the Ghent altarpiece. Also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, it is considered one of the most important works of art in the western hemisphere. What might be news to you is that it is also the most stolen work of all time! There have been between 11 and 15 crimes against the altarpiece depending on your sources. I will reveal a number of them below.

The 12-panel polyptych is said to have been painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432. It measures 14.5 by 11.5 feet. Believed to be the first major work using oil paint it marked the transition of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It was commissioned by Jodocus (Joos) Vijd. Today we sometimes indicate who commissioned a painting in the label on a museum wall. Then, however, (what makes much more sense) the artist painted Vijd’s likeness on the lower left panel and his wife on the lower right. Here you can see an image showing both the front and back images of the Altarpiece. When the altar is closed you see the donors.

In 1566 “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” almost fell victim to Reformation iconoclasts. Calvinists did not believe in the worship of images and therefore wished to eliminate them from churches. Realizing the danger Catholics moved the altarpiece from the cathedral to the Ghent Town Hall which they considered their stronghold.

The Mystic Lamb

In 1794 Napoleon’s troops stole four of the panels. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and Lous XVIII was restored to the throne he gave the panels back to Ghent as a thank you for having harbored him when he fled the Revolution.

The following year a vicar at Ghent Cathedral, who deemed six wing panels worm-eaten and in bad condition, sold them to an art dealer. They ended up in a Berlin museum. In 1919, however they were returned to Ghent as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles.

During World War II Hitler and Göring wanted the altarpiece as pay-back for the loss of the panels due to the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler also believed the paintings held mystic powers and that possession would ensure his winning the war. When Nazi troops found the altarpiece on its way to the Vatican for safekeeping, they seized it. First it went to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria for restoration and after that it was put with 7,000 other art works looted by Hitler’s army in a salt mine near Altaussee, Austria. After the War It was retrieved and returned to Ghent by the U.S. Monuments Men.

The Ghent Altarpiece in Althaussee Salt Mine

What remains a mystery, however, is the theft in 1934 when a thief stole the lower-left panel of the Righteous Judges and wanted a ransom of a million Belgian Francs. As an act of good faith, so to speak, he (they) returned the grisaille painting of St. John the Baptist which was on the back of the panel. Though a deathbed confession revealed copies of the ransom notes, what happened to the painting remains a mystery. The case is still an open one and a detective with the Ghent police is assigned to it.

After an eight-year restoration, the altarpiece, with a reproduction in place of the missing panel, is now back in St.Bravo Cathedral, protected in a $35 million dollar bullet proof display.

I have written about the strange life of objects before but this one may just be the strangest!