Sunday, January 11, 2009

Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts

A visitor at the Brooklyn Museum of Art studying “Mask,” a work in the “Sensation” exhibit by Ron Mueck, a British artist.

As many of you should know Museums like many other art institutions due the current economic climate ,are scrambling to find it way to survive . Museums usually are the ones being hit the hardest because they count on attendance and donations from the public.Please read article from Holland Cotter of the NY Times citing some examples of several museums and its survival strategies.


Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts

Published: January 7, 2009

THREE weeks ago the art world waited breathlessly for word on whether the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles would survive or go bust. The museum’s problem wasn’t the economic downturn so much as stupidity. During flush times, when it could have and should have been building a nest egg, it ran through its savings.

As museums go, this one, just 30 years old, is still young, and young is sexy. So of course a white knight, the billionaire art collector Eli Broad, rode to the rescue with a $30 million bailout plan. Some people cheered; others sneered. Few thought to point out that more venerable and vulnerable institutions across the country are also struggling, but with no bailouts in sight.

Major art museums in Detroit, Newark and Brooklyn are prime examples. Forged a century ago or more from idealism and dollars, they are American classics, monuments to Yankee can-do and, in the case of Detroit and Brooklyn, can-do-better-than-Europe. As latecomers to the culture game, American museums had to buy art fast and big, and they did. Their fabulous collections are our national treasures.

But times and fortunes — we all know the story — changed. Depression, recession and politics brought powerful cities to their knees. Populations shifted. Whites left as blacks and new immigrants came; a once predominantly European culture became African, Asian, Latino.

Through all of this the old museums held on. Some were content to be dinosaurs, artifacts, and that worked for a while. But for most, passivity is no longer an option. Savings disintegrate; benefactors die or look elsewhere; people forget that museums are there and what they are for. Reality issues an order: do or die.

Several of our veteran museums are doing by undoing: loosening up the rigid values and temple-of-art models that shaped them, and replacing these with a new “people’s museum” model, unsacred in atmosphere, fluid in values, with complicated answers to the question of what museums are.

The results of this thinking range from great to work-in-progress gauche to soul-selling bad. The goal in most cases is the same: to get visitors through the door. People bring museums to life. Lively museums feel young and hip, which brings rewards.

At least that’s the idea. Time will tell. For now, as these older museums give it a whirl, they are setting examples that younger or better cushioned institutions should study. If they don’t, and the economy continues its descent, they’ll be out there too.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The most striking change in institutional fortunes has been witnessed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, partly because the museum’s form and ambitions were so grand. Founded in 1888, and later housed in a majestic Beaux-Arts building two miles from the city’s downtown area, it was both a civic and cultural monument, “dedicated by the people of Detroit to the knowledge and enjoyment of art,” according to the words carved over its front door.

The collection is extraordinary, with renowned pictures by Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Giovanni Bellini; one of the country’s premier troves of 19th-century American painting; and — the modernist pièce de résistance — Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a proletarian fantasy paid for in 1934 by a heavy-hitting local patron, the industrialist Edsel Ford.

Comparable largess is all but nonexistent in Detroit today. Wealthy industrialists have faded from the scene. The Michigan state government gives almost no money to the institute, the city even less. In 1997 Detroit built the Museum of African-American History across the street from the institute, its spanking newness in sharp contrast to its older, crumbling neighbor.

Graham W. J. Beal, who arrived as director that year, has done much to stop the decline, largely — and this is where other museums should pay attention — through the use of material at hand. In 2007, to attract the city’s black majority and woo back white suburbanites, the museum unveiled a top-to-bottom rethinking of all the permanent galleries, with strategic shifts in emphasis.

The museum’s very fine African collection, developed by the curator Michael Kan, was placed upfront, near a main entrance, where it offers a cool yet absorbing introduction to the institute’s imperious interior. A gallery for African-American art, including Detroit artists, was added upstairs: it’s an important gesture, although something should have been done to make it look commanding rather than dutiful.

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