Making Art Speak

Three museum directors discuss the challenges, thrills, frustrations, and future of their profession. Three museum directors discuss the challenges, thrills, frustrations, and future of their profession

The democratization of the American art museum over the past few decades is one of the great triumphs of the art world, but it has also become one of its most difficult challenges. How can museums reconcile the need to give access to ever greater numbers of people—and to generate ever higher levels of revenue—while preserving the transcendent experience that can only come through intense personal engagement with art? Will the art museum as we know it be able to sustain its special function in a world in which entertainment and consumer culture have increasingly adopted the ways of museums, and museums the ways of entertainment and consumer culture?

These were among the questions addressed in “What’s Next for Art Museums?”, a spirited discussion among three of the nation’s most distinguished museum directors, presented by the 92nd Street Y Art Center at Manhattan’s Hunter College in late December. The panelists were Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the moderator was Milton Esterow, editor and publisher of ARTnews.

In their responses to questions from Esterow, and to written queries submitted by the audience, the directors agreed that the transformation of art museums into cultural attractions with broader appeal has raised significant new issues for institutions, accompanied by related questions about their missions. “The reality here is that museums in this country since World War II, and more specifically since the 1970s, have become increasingly popular venues,” said Lowry.

Lowry, who has just supervised one of the largest museum expansions in American history, explains, “We’re in a complex game of trying to encourage large numbers of people to partake in what we see as a thrilling and rewarding exercise, and recognizing that that’s going to put enormous pressure on the institution to figure out ways to accommodate those people so the experience is not diminished.” Lowry acknowledged that there were no easy answers to this dilemma. “It’s not solved by growing in terms of space. It’s not solved by increasing or decreasing the number of works on view.”

But the directors suggested that the way in which these problems play out depends enormously on the nature of the institution in question. Over the course of the 90-minute discussion, significant differences often emerged between the positions taken by Halbreich, on the one hand, and those of Lowry and de Montebello, on the other. In contrast to the Metropolitan and the Modern, which are among the country’s most established institutions and house well-known, even iconic collections, the Walker is an arts center—Halbreich shuns the word “museum”—that gives significant emphasis to new and often challenging work by less well known artists in a broad range of media.

At the Metropolitan Museum, which has long been the most visited art museum in the country, de Montebello suggested that the visitor dilemma can arise even in the presentation of individual works. He cited the small Madonna and Child painting by the early-14th-century Sienese Duccio di Buoninsegna, which the museum has just acquired, reportedly for a record $45 million. “The quandary is that my public-relations people, my visitors-services people, certainly my CFO [chief financial officer], want me to make a big deal of putting this panel into the Italian galleries,” he said. But he noted that the sheer volume of people that such promotion is likely to bring in may compromise the experience of discovering the painting on one’s own, among the many others in those galleries. “Half of me—the half my CFO doesn’t like—hopes that a few people will simply saunter into the room and spend one, two, three minutes in front of the picture,” he commented.

In contrast, although the Walker will complete a major expansion project of its own, by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, this April, Halbreich said that dealing with huge visitor numbers has not been an overriding concern. She described the primary challenge as building an institution that can benefit from the attributes of mainstream art museums while at the same time drawing a diverse crowd that may not necessarily have much in common with traditional museum visitors. She cited the Walker’s success in attracting a younger audience—100,000 teenagers now come each year on their own—as well as minorities and visitors from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. She acknowledged that this approach has involved taking risks that more established institutions shy away from. “It is very much a laboratory-like mission in that we really make new work possible,” she said. “Sometimes that work is notable, and really will change the course of history. But sometimes it’s transitional. And sometimes it’s wretched.”

One current controversy about which Lowry took an outspoken position was the decision to relocate the Barnes Collection—against the expressed will of its late founder, Dr. Alfred Barnes—to downtown Philadelphia. “I think this is a very troubled decision,” said Lowry, in a comment that generated audience applause. “It’s not at all clear to me that in the long term this decision serves anyone other than the city of Philadelphia.” De Montebello, in a rare disagreement with Lowry, retorted that the move would make the best works of the collection much more accessible to the public, and that the “quirkiness” of the stipulations placed on it by the collector Barnes “were always the troubling issue.” “Good Dr. Barnes in the pantheon of great creative figures doesn’t hold a candle to Cézanne and Seurat and Renoir (at his best only)!” he said.

The session produced a number of playful jabs, as well as several poignant personal stories. A New York native, Halbreich traced her interest in art to childhood visits to the Metropolitan, during which she wandered the Greek galleries barefoot—“something that wouldn’t be allowed today!” she added, glancing over at de Montebello. (“I don’t know about this—shall I look into it?” he replied.) Lowry described his own discovery of art history as the serendipitous result of frustration with pre-med biology in college, combined with the revelation that art courses “generally meet in the afternoons and you can sleep late in the morning.” For the Paris-born de Montebello, it was simply a matter of “total panic and despair when confronted with mathematics and science.” He added, “I still overtip, because I don’t know how to subtract,” to which Lowry interjected, “That’s what your CFO is for!”

All three directors attributed their passion for art and for bringing it to the public to their own epiphanies when discovering particular works for the first time. Lowry recalled his revelatory encounter with Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas—a painting that normally hangs in the Czech Republic—at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., about 15 years ago. “There is a moment that comes—it’s unpredictable, but it is visceral; you feel almost a tingle on your spine. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on edge,” he said. Halbreich described seeing a work by the Gutai painter Kazuo Shiraga, during a 1985 trip to Japan, that changed the way she thought about art. “I was looking at a Shiraga painting that he had actually made with his feet,” she said. “And one of my colleagues turned to me and said, ‘Gee, this is grade C Abstract Expressionism.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I’m standing in the midst of a very small island looking at a work of art made after the A-bomb hit twice. Are you sure this is about Abstract Expressionism?’ And I think at that moment in time, I began to be quite concerned about how culture gives meaning, and how it behooves us to think outside our own comfort zones in ascribing meaning and value to art.”

Perhaps most moving was de Montebello’s recollection of seeing Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece during his first visit to the Uffizi in Florence, as a young man. “Every possible configuration of goose pimples and cold sweat and whatever you call it happened to me,” he said. “I must have gone back to see the picture a hundred times, desperately trying to recapture it. And I loved the painting. I analyze it intellectually. But never did I feel that again.”

One of the challenges faced by museums today, the participants agreed, is how to facilitate such intense personal responses to art in a society increasingly distracted by commercialism and mass entertainment. Halbreich argued that it is time to rethink the role of the art museum and accommodate a broader cultural outlook. But Lowry and de Montebello suggested that it is more a matter of defending the traditional turf. “Entertainment and art are being pushed—squeezed together. Think of what happened in Las Vegas with various museums there,” said Lowry, in apparent reference to efforts in recent years to hang modern masterpieces in a casino complex. “What we can do is to locate those works of art in a different context, create a different set of relationships, encourage a different kind of looking, in order to distinguish ourselves from the entertainment world.” He added later in the discussion, “These works of art have the power to speak directly on their own.”

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