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Reshaping the American Museum: An Introduction

Massimo Gammacurta, Caramella nuda, 2019, created exclusively for ARTnews.


For as long as appreciators of art have been collecting treasures and presenting them for display—whether in cabinets of curiosities or formidable buildings with stately columns or on sleek white walls—ideas of what an art museum could and should constitute have been in flux. Questions about the objects that go inside compound over time, as do matters relating to who might join in the enterprise in terms of administrators, staff, trustees, and audiences who assign museums their monumental stature.

In America, art museums are both young and showing signs of age. As the archetype evolves from a repository for collections to be admired and conserved over time to a new kind of destination for social engagement, education, and entertainment, institutions must choose how best to preserve or disrupt the status quo.

[See the Table of Contents for the Summer 2019 edition of ARTnews: “Reshaping the American Museum.”]

To peer into the past of museums is to engage the history of history, with norms and conventions ever prone to change. And these choices grow only more and more complex as the funds required—and questions regarding their sources—multiply. To aim that gaze to the future is to stare down issues and dilemmas that make the museum business daunting but also dynamic and conducive to dreaming about progress and ideals.

In a time of instability—with shifts in the finer points of infrastructure as well as new demands and expectations mounting in the world at large—what is the state of the American museum in the 21st century? How do its past and present figure in the prospects for its future?

With these questions in mind, for our new issue we at ARTnews looked into some of the most pressing questions in the museum field. Articles in our summer issue include features on protests roiling all kinds of institutions, Charles Venable’s populist experiment at Newfields in Indianapolis, the fate of an art museum in Las Vegas, a unique interdisciplinary partnership between James Turrell’s Roden Crater and Arizona State University, and an emphasis on listening to multivalent voices in the career of curator Candice Hopkins.

Also featured in the issue is a survey of policies and conversations surrounding matters of repatriation as well as infographics on the diversity of museum exhibitions and a survey of languages used in wall text. “The ARTnews Accord” features a conversation with National Gallery of Art director Kaywin Feldman and Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a founder of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The “Perspectives” column is devoted to an excerpt from an enterprising new book to be published this fall: Charlotte Barat and Darby English’s Among Others: Blackness at MoMA.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 52 under the title “Breaking the Mold.”

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