I love museums. It’s museum curators I sometimes wonder about. Maybe I’m just jealous, sheepish about how little traveling a New York trench critic gets to do. Maybe I still haven’t gotten over reading Dan Cameron’s 10-favorite-exhibitions list in last December’s Artforum. It included venues in Copenhagen, São Paulo, Spoleto, Antwerp, Arnhem, London, Johannesburg, and Queens. Guess which was the only show he listed that I had seen.
These days, curators seem to have all the fun. They’re the frequent-flying freelancers and salaried professionals. They stay up late, drink together in hotel lobbies, and see one another’s shows. Always talking, taking meetings, being on panels, or organizing exhibitions, curators are the art world’s latest art stars, the power brokers and precinct captains.
That’s why I was feeling testy recently as I walked into “Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility,” a two-day symposium organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative under the directorship of Paula Marincola. Turns out I wasn’t alone in my peevishness. Before the proceedings even began, a well-known critic for a national magazine leaned over and whispered, “I’m hoping to get enough incriminating quotes to hold over these people for years.” It was all very A-list. Participants included Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate; MOMA’s Robert Storr; Paul Shimmel from L.A. MOCA; Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center; Thelma Golden, deputy director of the Studio Museum; Philadelphia Museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt; peripatetic international curating machine and Antonin Artaud look-alike Hans-Ulrich Obrist; and Dave Hickey, who wears his curator’s hat with the same rebel abandon he dons his critic’s hat.
A lot got said. My favorite moment came after Storr gave an elegant opening statement on the museum’s need to be, in Lincoln Kirstein’s words, “dedicated to art that is decidedly debatable.” On the next panel, Mari-Carmen Ramirez, curator at the University of Texas, Austin, spouted a lot of familiar nonsense about curators as “agents of change,” “teachers,” and “producers of theory,” and repeated the old standby, “As many people go to museums as go to sporting events.” In the pregnant pause before the room was about to slit its collective wrist, fellow panelist Shimmel cut to the heart of the matter when he wondered aloud, “What does that mean?”
In the afternoon, Halbreich delivered a rousing, Clinton-esque speech about the Walker’s “outreach programs,” “educational initiatives,” “interactivity,” and “hyperlinks.” Her main point, however, set up an interesting quandary for the symposium, and drew a line in the sand. “The museum,” she said, “should be a town square, not a temple.” If I’m not mistaken, an air of disdain shrouded the word temple.
And that’s where she lost me. In many parts of the world, town square and temple are the same thing. Today, the entire city is a town square; metropolises are busy, noisy places; they sustain us. But we go to museums to get away from the crowd and tap into the collective unconscious. In those halls, we step outside of time and into something almost primitive or unknowable. I’m not saying art is sacred, only that it does something that is somewhat indefinable. In a sense, the museum is an ecstasy machine: a building filled with wormholes and time warps, extrasensory switching stations and ecto-transporters, psycho-circuits and invisible diving bells. They are strange places where people stand in front of inanimate objects, talk to themselves, and experience rapture.
I left the symposium after the first day, so I didn’t stay up late with the curators, or hear Hickey speak. In my time there, the pressing questions of academicism and institutional scale never came up. Beset by the desire to please and beleaguered by “educational initiatives,” a pious virus of expansion is spreading unchecked. Nowadays, museums build bigger buildings and erect huge impersonal additions to house uneven collections. Trustees, millionaires, and board members pick architects; they help lay out loading docks. Museums are becoming architectural attractions in and of themselves. But is bigger better? Is more more?
The credo has become “To expand is to grow.” MOMA’s expanding, the New Museum’s moving, and the Guggenheim just got the go-ahead to erect a 575,000-square-foot Frank Gehry building on the East River—that’s 10 times the size of their Fifth Avenue flagship. Which is great; building is what Thomas Krens does best. I’m sure Gehry’s swooping structure will end up on hats and T-shirts, plus New York could use an architectural shot in the arm. But when it comes to programming, expansion often brings dissipation, or worse: stupidity. Gigantic edifices are built, then filled with junk.
Museums can’t be all things to all people. Every temple can’t be Saint Peter’s. What about smaller congregations, the humble parish church, the basement chapel, meeting halls, or the small but exquisite shrine? How about museum as nightclub, lounge, or honky-tonk? The possibilities are endless. Just as a pot by George Ohr can vie for greatness with the Sistine ceiling, a small museum can be as exalted as a big one. In London, where there are tens of millions of people, the new Tate makes sense. In smaller cities, building a giant museum is like plopping down a shopping mall in a small neighborhood. More people come, but what are they getting? I remember standing six-deep at a Monet show in Chicago, while the upstairs Impressionist wing, containing several top-notch works by the artist, was nearly empty.
Museums are great. The problem is, too many of them have started to believe what they’re doing isn’t just good, but necessary. Too many curators seem to want to teach or preach to us; many are more interested in being do-gooders than in doing good by art. It’s as if they don’t think art is up to reaching people on its own. The truth about all this is, art’s a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is necessary. It might have been to cavemen, but it’s not now, not to us. Most museum people are dedicated to art in ways that go far beyond the frequent-flyer miles, didacticism, and the after-hours goings-on. Although many need to lighten up on the museum-as-educator or purifier-of-souls thing, most want what we all want. As Gilbert & George put it, “All we ask is to be with art.”