Too often museums have been linked to scandal or questionable practices. And people are beginning to wonder about museums, about what and whom we stand for. We are on the verge of joining other distrusted professions—lawyers, politicians, the clergy, and corporate executives.”
So James Cuno, former director of the Harvard University Art Museums and current director of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, lamented to a roundtable of distinguished colleagues in the summer of 2 2. The gathering was the culmination of a lecture series, sponsored by the Harvard Program for Art Museum Directors and the Harvard University Art Museums, titled “Art Museums and the Public Trust.” The diagnosis reached by the participants was dire. The Adelphia and WorldCom scandals had rocked the corporate world; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “Sensation” controversy and just about every policy of Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens were threatening to sully their own field. “The more art museums look like multinational corporations and the more their directors sound like corporate CEOs, the more they risk being cast by the public in the same light,” warns Cuno in the introduction to Whose Muse?, a compilation of the lectures, out next month from Princeton University Press.
Whose Muse?, which includes an “edited  ;but not censored)” transcript of the roundtable discussion, provides a valuable, if often self-serving, insider’s view from the top. Engaging, eloquent, and even infuriating, it sometimes gives the impression that its erudite participants have revealed more than they intended. The directors traverse a fascinating list of concerns and challenges, both practical and philosophical: the lure of high attendance versus the dangers of crowding; how to balance temporary shows with the permanent collection; how to spark defining moments of art appreciation; and, especially, how and why art museums differ from other leisure-time institutions—and how and why those differences must be preserved. This last matter, the premise of the project, is handled with a mix of soul-searching, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing. The trouble is, the outraged directors are usually preaching to the choir.
But then the lecture series was not intended to include “representative viewpoints from across the profession” or “to present a debate,” Cuno explains in the book’s introduction. “One knows what the aggressive, risk-taking, expansionist directors think; they have expressed their opinions in print and in speeches many times,” he argues. “Equally one knows what the audience-building, community activist directors think…. I wanted to offer an alternative to these viewpoints.” Instead, Cuno gathered directors who certainly can’t be described as shrinking violets: Philippe de Montebello, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Glenn Lowry, of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Neil MacGregor, former director of London’s National Gallery and current director of the British Museum; John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum; Anne d’Harnoncourt, of the Phildelphia Museum of Art; and James Wood, who recently announced his retirement from Chicago’s Art Institute.
If the Guggenheim emerged here as the main culprit, the Brooklyn Museum, with its handling of “Sensation,” was a frequent target. “Charges of blasphemy, pornography, and financial corruption were made against the Brooklyn Museum and for months stuck to the public image of museums as such,” Cuno writes. “Museums appeared elitist, both in the sense that they decided what was and what was not art, even at the expense of the feelings of the public, and because they partied and even perhaps partnered with the rich and famous.”
How doyou decide what is and what is not art? Does it erode the public’s trust to show famous people’s clothing in, let’s say, the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute? How do you draw the line with controversial art when it’s hard not to offend some of the people some of the time? Those subjects relating to the public trust barely come up here.
But marketing—that’s dangerous. De Montebello frowns on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ slogan that it is “much more than a museum,” because, he says, it implies that being a museum is not enough. Institutions that make exaggerated claims—like the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ assertion that it is “the sixth largest museum in America”—“risk sowing the seeds of doubt about all else they may declare or claim,” de Montebello adds. One might think that the public takes advertising claims with a grain of salt.
And branding? “It’s about an image you want people to have about you; not what you’ve earned,” says Cuno. “‘Brand’ is about fashion. In one year, out the next.” So the Met’s satellite stores are not selling a brand? And MoMA’s recent tweakage of its logo is not part of an effort to promote one?
“There has been an invidious migration of business strategy into the not-for-profit world,” Lowry comments. The notion that “the same methodology that applies to the for-profit business world can also be applied to the not-for-profit world is profoundly wrong.” If he is talking about MoMA’s ill-fated attempt to create a for-profit Web site with the Tate a few years ago, he isn’t telling.
When the directors are not being disingenuous, they have interesting things to say. How do museums establish their authority? How do you manage to get visitors to contemplate art? How do you juggle attendance fees, membership, and earned income? Is showcasing conservation efforts a good way to heighten public trust? D’Harnoncourt says yes; de Montebello disagrees.
If the public does not trust art museums, no one seems to have told the public. Cuno himself quotes the results of a survey commissioned by the American Association of Museums, which found that museums were judged trustworthy by 87 percent of the respondents, while books were judged trustworthy by only 61 percent and television news by only 5 percent. But since the survey included all museums, not just art museums, he doesn’t think it means very much.
One voice of reason amid all these hand-wringers is Walsh. “So far, by and large, museums have managed to retain the public’s trust, while corporations have not,” he notes at the roundtable. In his lecture, in addition to providing sensitive descriptions of artworks that range from a Rembrandt to a Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Walsh makes compelling observations about gallery installations, signage, lighting, and design. And when it comes to the public trust, he should have the last word: “Some curators are apt to complain that seats spoil the look of an installation,” he notes, “but what is the installation for, anyway? If we are serious about extending the attention span of our visitors, seats are the simplest, cheapest means to do it. That, and coffee. And toilets.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.0