The bookcase packed with Art in America issues dating back to the early twentieth century is a formidable presence in our editorial office. It makes the weight of history bearing down on us feel very literal. Past editors and writers of this 105-year-old publication have made some amazingly prescient choices about how to utilize scarce resources and column inches. A lengthy feature on Eva Hesse from 1971, a critical essay on Dara Birnbaum from 1982, a whole issue on the globalizing art world from 1991: these projects represent decisions that still feel vital and bold, setting the standard for our editorial staff today. Yet over the same period Art in America has also lavished attention on figures whose names have now been mostly forgotten, a result of the unpredictable churn of art history. Worse, the archives contain omissions. Some artists who seem integral to the art historical record today—many of them people of color—are simply absent from our pages.
We editors can correct the record to a certain extent by grappling openly with what we’ve published and offering new assessments that revise previous critical judgments. For museums that have built collections of physical objects—occupying huge storage facilities, not just a few bookshelves—this kind of reevaluation can be far more challenging. Museums receive tax exemptions and other public benefits in part because they make an enormously expensive—and permanent—commitment to care for objects that seem significant enough, at certain moments in time, to preserve.
This is why deaccessioning artworks, removing them from a collection, can be such a fraught process. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for instance, recently succeeded in selling off a prized Norman Rockwell painting after a contentious legal fight. The work had been a centerpiece of the museum’s collection, but the institution claimed it needed funds from a sale to stay open at all. But it’s hard to see how money alone could solve this apparent existential crisis. What is the museum, after all, without the foundational works in its collection?
The Baltimore Museum of Art created less of a stir this spring when it announced plans to sell artwork by twentieth-century greats like Warhol and Rauschenberg to fund a “war chest” for new purchases with an eye toward building a more diverse and inclusive collection. But any deaccession, for whatever purpose, is going pose a risk, as the evaluation of artworks changes over a long sweep of history measured in centuries rather than in the tenures of directors or stints on a board of trustees. What might seem redundant and irrelevant to one generation may appear crucial to the next; even Vermeer languished in obscurity for centuries.
Or consider Grant Wood, the subject of this issue’s cover story by Sue Taylor. An exhibition of Wood’s art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York reveals a far more complex figure than the folksy chronicler of Midwestern life that he is sometimes mistaken for. Though the artist is hardly unknown, the contemporary significance of his conflicted, searching depictions of America is only now coming into focus. Such changes in critical valuation can happen quite rapidly. Also in this issue Alexander Dumbadze discusses a survey of art from the heady days of the market boom in 1980s. The exhibition “Brand New” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., took an unusually broad and nuanced view of the decade. Dumbadze pushes back against the postmodernist interpretations of work by artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, which have hardened into a kind of critical dogma. The author suggests that their art offers a melancholy reflection on the process by which economic forces constrain the creative freedom that artists once guarded jealously.
Though we publish this magazine every month for readers of the present, it’s also true that we are producing a document for posterity. In part, I’m writing this for readers who haven’t been born yet, just as museums steward artworks for generations to come. Thinking about art on those timescales can make your head spin, and it might be easy to become tentative about making creative judgments in response. But acknowledging a partial view of historical circumstances is itself useful for the future, as our next contribution to the great bookshelf becomes a record of what feels urgent and incisive now.