Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Price of Admission

I am an idealist and believe in helping those who need support in their daily lives, due to no fault of their own. But this is not a Missive about taking care of the poor but rather helping those who love the arts but cannot afford to see them.

I asked Google why art is important and found four billion six hundred and ninety million responses, No, I did not read them all but just a few and I liked the one on top best: “Art is important in our cultural and social lives because it is the medium through which we process our emotions and ideas. It is also an important tool for learning, teaching, and communicating.” We know it has always existed because as soon as fire was discovered there were paintings on the walls of caves and non- utalitran objects created even before that.

My question is why do many museums charge for the privilege of experiencing art first hand.

In order to learn history or art one needs to know what came before. Artists need to be able to view all they can before they can be inspired and make innovative statements. Before Picasso arrived at Cubism, he had studied the paintings of Spanish Old Masters in the Prado. Before the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, painted his grids, he had mastered the traditions of Dutch landscape art. Here is an early Mondrian from the Beyeler Foundation and one of his grids.

Art is a vital part of life and the museum is a port of entry. While I have written and others have said that museums are a small corner of the entertainment industry, it is not a momentary diversion or a brief escape like a movie, but a life enhancing experience. Yet, it is less expensive to buy a ticket to a movie than to enter many, if not most, major museums.

The Metropolitan Museum has an annual operating budget of approximately $300 million and an endowment with a current market value of about $4 billion. At their gala this year the museum raised 17.4 million dollars. Yet an individual who wishes to pay a single visit while passing through must pay an entry fee of $25.

What made me think of this is the announcement that the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is now raising their entry fee from $25 to $30.

According to a listing in Artnews more than 200 art museums in the United States offer free admission, including of course the federally subsidized National Gallery. Even for institutions that do not receive direct government funding, their tax exempt status allows the wealthy to deduct their contributions from their taxes.

Though I believe we all benefit from direct exposure to works of art, those who most need to go to art museums are the artists, art students and art educators. From the news we know that the college degree is a way to get in the door but you only learn your trade on the job. Degree or no degree the artist learns from how others have worked through the ages. To avoid the adage that there is nothing new under the sun, show me what came before. Let the artist learn from past examples the visions, techniques, and tricks of the trade to adopt, adapt or reject.

Granted New York city is one of the most expensive parts of the country but in relative terms museum fees can be a barrier to entry. An article by Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer for IMPACTS, which claims to be “ a global leader in predictive market intelligence” compares the average annual household income of individuals who went to the Zoo, Aquarium, Science Museum, History Museum and Art Museum. You might be surprised, or not, that those with the highest income, between $71-72,000, went to the art museum.

While all statistics can be interpreted differently, could it have something to do with the cost of entry? According to income categories I could find on line, the earnings of few professional artists reach that category.

Maybe the museums should look at whether their sources of funding other than an entrance charge could cover their operating costs. Surely access should not be restricted to those who can afford to enter their “hallowed halls”.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Museums and Social Media

Museums, as a general rule, are not the most up to date in the realm of technology and certainly not in the use of social media. But as they are finding that it brings in more visitors, that is beginning to change. I believe it is an unintentional consequence of the pandemic. Just like restaurants thought of building more outdoor spaces, museums started doing lectures and panels on Zoom and then started to use social media to keep the larger audience that they had gained. Here are postings from the Museum of Illusion ...

I heard from an artist that he gets most of his information about what is going on in the art world from YouTube. That surprised me. Then I read from a website I had never heard of,, “Thanks to its Community posts and commenting features, YouTube shares even more similarities with traditional social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.”

Here in our relatively small town with a large disproportionate number of museums and galleries several do post video recordings of their lectures and panels on YouTube. They have found it works in keeping their public interested.

The School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe is devoted to the study of anthropology and related disciplines with an emphasis on Native American artists with an important collection in that field. This is their YouTube channel

It seems that The Art Newspaper keeps track of the most popular art museums on social media every year. In an article by Aimee Dawson with research conducted by Chinma Johnson-Nwosu it mentions that for some reason the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia has slipped out of the top 20. I don’t know why, though I can guess, but it does say something about how social media works. The article does not say whether the museum tried to get followers just that it did not get as many. The premise is how many followers did the museum receive through their efforts. The one with lowest number of the top 20, having 1,550,777 followers, is the Guggenheim Museum in Bibao. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is at the top of the list with 13,346,854 followers. The next ones down are the Metropolitan Museum and the Tate in London, both having over 10 million. The Louvre comes in 4th with over 9 million. Of course, those large numbers come from the best-known museums around the world. These figures are a huge jump for social media from before the Pandemic.

You may already know that there is a new game in town challenging Twitter. Actually, there are several, but the one I believe most likely to succeed is “Threads”. Meta, aka FaceBook, has thrown its hat into the ring. One of the first art institutions to take make a move there is the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The person in charge of the Whitney’s Threads account is Casey Betts who started the account which Annie Armstrong on Artnet News called a quip-centric approach posting “weird contemporary art”. Betts said, “It actually fits in with our larger social media strategy, which is to reach as many people as possible. If the way to do that is to be more light in tone or be more casual, then this is a great opportunity to explore a voice that’s different than what we’d do on either Instagram or even TikTok.” Here are a couple of examples ...

I am excited at the prospect of some toning down of the serious, highbrow attitude toward art in favor of posting in a lighter vernacular to show that art is for everybody and readers do not have to feel ignorant or be scared of it.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Art History vs. History

Don’t study art history if you are looking for an accurate account of history. You can’t rely on art any more than any other form of documentation and often less so. Art historians want us to believe according to the Courtauld Institute “it is a way of understanding the world”. It does teach some things, but you can’t take a work of art at face value.

During the American Revolution Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas day in 1776. The event was memorialized 75 years later in the iconic painting by Emanuel Leutze. The painting includes numerous historical inaccuracies, even to the American flag which was only adopted at the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. An account in the on-line publication Purdue Today, points out, however, that the purpose of the painting was not to document an event but to inspire liberal reformers during the European Revolutions of 1848. So much for relying on art for historical accuracy.

The advent of Abstract Expressionism has been dated precisely as beginning in 1946, inspired by the turmoil created by World War II . But abstract art dates earlier. The website of the Tate Museum in London, gives the definition “Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.” A 2017 article by Abigail Cain in Artsy titled “When Picasso Almost Invented Abstract Painting” discusses claims to the advent of abstract art. Here is an image of a “Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair” in the Met by Picasso 1913-1914 painted well before the Wilhelm de Kooning, dated 1952-53, “Woman and Bicycle” at the Whitney, which one looks more abstract to you?

According to a publication BestLife, in 2007 Stanford University’s “Digital Michelangelo Project” discovered that if you view Michelangelo’s triple life-size David from below, he appears to have a calm and confident look but looking at his face straight on he seems rather tense about battling Goliath. Does it tell us anything of consequence? It is something amusing to cogitate but hardly an art historical discovery.

The devil is in the details not in the broad strokes of what seems obvious. New revelations may contradict what has been published and accepted in the past. What exists below the surface?

In a recent article by Richard Whiddington we read: “Henry VIII endures in the history books as a ruthless king with a cantankerous temperament.” Following a jousting accident in 1536 Henry spent the last decade of his life in great pain and believed it was a punishment by God. In his bible he marked several paragraphs and one of those says, “Take away thy plagues from me …” and another, “god forsake me not …” But a less cocksure man emerges in the margins of his own prayer books.” Royal portraits generally portray a confident, strong ruler but it should be noted that, after all, the artist must please his patron, not document reality.

If you wish to learn history a work of art can be helpful in filling in the blanks and understanding it better, but it is not reliable in revealing the human condition. As Benjamin Franklin was purported to have said, "Believe none of what you hear and believe half of what you see".

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Can Museums Remain Politically Neutral?

In 2010 the Supreme court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a controversial decision that allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. This opened the flood gates for corporations to use their funds to try to influence politicians that will promote their philosophies and interests. Institutions, as well, have become more and more involved in politics.

But what about museums? Aren’t they a-political? Bridging a gap between a Corporation, a museum and a place for diversion is Disney World which took a stance against Florida’s Governor DeSantis’s so called, “Don’t Say Gay Law” and the Governor retaliated.

Museums were originally created by or from great collections belonging to the Church or wealthy families such as the Medici, comprised of wealthy white people with immense power. By definition they were political leaders. Has anything changed? The large city museums are still supported by the 21st century version of the same.

It has been pointed out that Museums already take political stances by what they are willing to collect and can demonstrate where they stand by the exhibitions they put on. The Metropolitan Museum, having been criticized for not showing the art of Black artists just highlighted the fact that they were doing an exhibition of the art by a Black slave, Juan de Pareja (1606-1670). Take that anyway you wish, but I am sure some will say, they only did that because the artist could be related to a famous White artist, Velazquez, who had painted his portrait. Either way it is political.

After the past President put in a travel ban which affected people from predominantly Muslim countries the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) put up a selection of works by some of the artists from those targeted countries. That may be a very subtle form of protest but for those who pay attention it certainly expresses the political leanings of the Museum. The exhibition could not have happened without the efforts of the curators, the consent of the Director and no intervention, if not support as well, from the trustees.

Artists, of course, use their creative abilities to make social and political statements? Some do it through satire in cartoons or prints ...

Some with paintings and drawings of political events ...

Some with photographs of the poor and downtrodden ...

These are all efforts to call attention to societal problems, i.e. political ...

Now that I have written just how political museums have always been. I will leave you with something to think about. The Museum of the American Revolution is a private museum in Philadelphia that according to a museum spokesperson wishes “to create an inclusive and accessible museum experience for visitors with a wide range of viewpoints and beliefs”. In articles by Kevin M. Levin in Slate and by Taylor Dafoe in Artnet both published on June 29, we learn that historians across the country are objecting to the museum renting out its space for a welcoming gathering for “Moms for Liberty”. The radically right-wing parents’ group that supports book bans, anti-LGBTQ curriculums, and are against teaching about race, gender and sexuality organized a four-day event that took place throughout Philadelphia with the usual suspects as speakers. The Museum’s role only became known when staff publicly protested, being concerned for their own safety. For me it is a conundrum because I believe that different points of view should be expressed but to have extremists in a museum that tells a story about the founding of our country…

What do you think?

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Museums, They Are A Changin'

If you have been reading my Missives, you know I write about subjects that relate to the arts and give me and hopefully my readers something to think about. Just deciding on these subjects takes up a substantial amount of the time of producing them.

I was reading an article about fewer people going to museums but oops,.. that was 2022, still pandemic times when we did not want to be with a lot of other people. Slowly people are coming back to those institutions. The museum administrations, however, are always looking for ways to keep those visitors coming and making the younger generations feel welcome while, at the same time, not losing their older constituency.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention so as museum goers stopped coming during the pandemic, the directors and curators came to them through Zoom and other communication channels. It turned out that it worked so well that it is doubtful it will disappear in the near future. The outreach brought in a wider audience and, as a result, more funds. In many cases there was even interaction allowing the participants to engage in the discussion.

I just finished a book called, “Seeing Like an Artist” by the artist Lincoln Perry. One chapter is devoted to encouraging the reader to see works of art in the original and not rely on what they see in a book or on a screen. His examples, however, are all works of art in situ, the best-known being Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. In a museum, however, seeing row after row of paintings or showcases with the same kind of objects can seem static particularly in this age of increasingly short attention span. Special exhibitions are nothing new, some are done for serious art aficionados and scholars, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show, “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” but many are done to attract crowds. Bringing shows from abroad and bringing masterpieces stimulates curiosity and excitement. But even a good title can work, like Tom Hoving’s first blockbuster “In the Presence of Kings: Royal Treasures from the Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art” in 1967. It was curated by the Museum’s head of the Arms and Armor Department, Helmut Nickel, and was relatively inexpensive since the art was all in house.

Today, Fashion is the sensation of the moment, most recently the cause of lines at the Met, was for “Karl Lagerfeld: a Line of Beauty” celebrating the couturier who died in 2019. At a large museum, like the Met, there is plenty else to keep one occupied, but it is the shows that are getting ‘them’ in the door (”Butts in the bleachers” was the term my wife learned when organizing exhibitions). Museums say they need the cash and high ticket prices ($30 general admission for the Met) do not seem to lessen the crowds, but make museums seem more elitist than ever.

The Met Gala

Installation is all important as was proven by the Frick Collection, occupying the brutalist Breuer building for the duration of the renovations to its mansion home. The thoughtful installations, breaking up the minimalist space to create conversation between works or by the same or related artists (4 Rembrandts together and 4 Whistlers) and allow special moments of focus without distractions of d├ęcor or labelling.
From a company called The Marketing Arm comes a 2018 article called “The Experiential Museum: It’s not Just an Instagram Funhouse” with this quote, “Interactive, multi-sensory experiential museums let visitors explore new subjects of interest, engage all of their senses, and actually have a hand in determining their takeaways from museum narratives.” 

The new byword, “experiential”, implies participating not just viewing. It is geared towards involving the younger generation. According to a research paper by Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm “the emphasis is on in-person, personal, museum-curated experience and will evolve to accommodate digital engagement (on- and off-site), self-directed entry experience and visitor curation. As museums seek to expand their reach, a greater focus on youth-oriented programming will also emerge.” Why was this published by an architectural design firm? … Because museum administrations wishing to build for the future have to take into account a different kind of museum experience.

We must try not to simply lament the loss of what was our haven of solitude in the past and grasp the opportunities that new kinds of involvement in the art experience can offer us. It can be enjoyable, even if in a different manner.