NEW YORK'S BIZARRE MUSEUM MOMENT
BY MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
July 11, 2004 Sunday Correction Appended Late Edition - Final
SUDDENLY museums all across town are suffering identity crises.
Just as New York is shaking off its sorrows and crawling out of
debt, making new claims on the world stage with a bid for the
Olympics, our museums seem to be going through weird convulsions,
falling apart, abandoning their collections, being hijacked by
trustees or suffering delusions of grandeur. This is their most
precarious moment in many years.
The Whitney -- oh, the poor, perennially insecure Whitney, which
can never get its act straight -- is going through another of its
periodic upheavals. Its last director was pushed out, a new one was
hired, the old staff gracelessly purged or induced to quit, yet
another curatorial crew brought in. The Whitney has become like
Stalin's politburo. The only long-term survivors are the people
everybody in the art world knows really need to go: the trustees.
Cash short as always and feeling inadequately loved by the
Manhattan art world, the Brooklyn Museum seems virtually to have
said to hell with it all. Raising a fortune for a glitzy new facade,
it has at the same time been shopping or thinking of shopping parts
of its great collection, renting exhibitions of ' 'Star Wars''
costumes and cheapening its venerable permanent displays, all in the
name of community outreach. ''If that's not significant to
critics,'' its director, Arnold Lehman, told The New York Times last
April, ''you know -- and you can quote me -- I don't care.''
The New-York Historical Society, the city's oldest museum, is in
turmoil again, scaling back local-theme shows, firing experts,
betting questionably that expensive blockbusters will save the place
rather than destroy it.
The once high-rolling Guggenheim, which a decade ago was
expanding in New York and around the world, is now crumbling,
literally, the facade of its landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building
cracked and peeling. Its SoHo satellite is, like SoHo's heyday, a
dim memory; the dream of a Frank Gehry-designed palace on the East
River in Lower Manhattan has gone the way of the museum's
intemperate scheme to bank its fortunes on a branch in Las Vegas.
As for the Museum of Modern Art, its new building opens this
fall, a sprawling megastructure in Midtown. Will bigger be better?
Born a frisky place, it became increasingly defensive and
constipated as it grew. Now we'll see whether it becomes what it
promises -- the ultimate treasure house of modernism, rejuvenated,
majestic and frisky again -- or just a bloated, super-size custodian
of its own self-importance. And at $20 a ticket, who will go?
Even the Met, the gold standard of museums, is in some
transition. A reshuffling of its European paintings and modern-art
departments sounds eye-glazingly irrelevant. But it may be lousy
news for anybody still hoping that the museum will fulfill its
decades-old promise to deal properly with the art of its own time.
At the Whitney, the most recent director to get the boot is Max
Anderson. He wasn't perfect -- he'd staged his own messy staff
turnover and miscalculated the quality of some curators and
exhibitions -- but he brought in a bunch of good shows. Attendance
and membership were up. A team of curators he put together staged
the recent Biennial, a good one for once. The permanent collection
and art conservation were getting professional attention, finally.
But the place remained dysfunctional at the top. The chairman,
Leonard Lauder, who has given millions in cash and art, and the
president, Robert J. Hurst, were instrumental in bringing on as
trustees Jean-Marie Messier, the subsequently indicted chief
executive of Vivendi, and L. Dennis Kozlowski, the Tyco tycoon, also
later indicted. Mr. Hurst is the former vice chairman of Goldman,
Sachs, which took Mr. Lauder's company, Estee Lauder, public -- and
which has several executives on the board. Even after Mr. Hurst was
investigated and found to have evaded millions of dollars in taxes
on his art collection, the Whitney kept him on as president.
Meanwhile, the trustees were shoving vanity shows into the mix
-- an Agnes Martin display, for example -- and were overheard
grumbling that the place should be more fashionable, should reflect
their own tastes in collecting, should expand but with an architect
they liked now as opposed to yet another of the ones they thought
they liked before, and should compete with the Modern, which just
happens to be run by Mr. Lauder's younger brother, Ronald.
So Mr. Anderson had to go. The first move by his successor, Adam
Weinberg, was to fire a curator who was on leave to care for her
seriously ill child. After that public relations debacle, the
subsequent turnovers were handled more discreetly. The latest to
call it quits is a Biennial curator.
You can bet she's not going to be the last. At most museums,
curators stay put when directors change, as professors do when
college presidents go, because the affiliation is with the
institution and its permanent collection. At the Whitney, they come
and go like Yankee managers in George Steinbrenner's early days.
Over at the Met, the director, Philippe de Montebello, has
appointed a seasoned expert in Impressionist art with a background
in Cubism, Gary Tinterow, to oversee the museum's 19th-century
European paintings and its modern and contemporary collections. Even
some Met curators are baffled by the logic. Why European but not
19th-century American art or photography? Anyway, the larger
question is whether this fuzzy reorganization means the museum will
finally do better by contemporary art or even worse. The prospects
are not great: the curator in charge is intelligent and resourceful
but not a specialist in the period; his mandate is exceedingly broad
and Mr. de Montebello has made many statements to the effect that he
himself has little interest in the stuff.
Why should the Met bother with what's contemporary? Because
history doesn't stop. Under Tom Hoving, its former director, the
museum started collecting and showing new art more aggressively. It
briefly became the anti-Modern, a troublemaker and alternative voice
with special authority behind it.
Now it's the sleeping giant of contemporary art. Every modern
curator in the world knows its enormous potential. Its resources and
audience are peerless. One hundred percent of that audience is
contemporary. Artists consider the museum a second home. Other great
historical museums, even those without any new art in their
collections (the Louvre, the National Gallery in London) collaborate
with living artists, who bring in new audiences and put the older
art in fresh perspective. But the Met's outgoing modern-art chief
kept the place in limbo; he brought in gifts but mounted hardly any
shows of new art, bought tons of junk and displayed the collection
badly. An overhaul is due. A further retreat is not.
A friend called me the other day. Browsing through art sales
catalogs, he came across a painting on the block at Skinner, a
Boston auction house. The picture was by a once-fashionable,
occasionally stylish Viennese-born society painter, Emil Fuchs, an
acquaintance of Sargent's, who became popular in New York after
World War I. The catalog identified the sitter simply as John
My friend knew that McCormack was the great Irish tenor. But the
catalog didn't mention it: apparently the seller had shipped the
painting off for auction without bothering to figure out what it
was. The estimated price: a few hundred bucks.
The seller, it turns out, was the Brooklyn Museum. Fuchs had
bequeathed the museum all the art in his studio in 1929, shortly
before he killed himself. He chose Brooklyn because he loved the
place. My friend bought the painting for $360 (including
commissions), which is exponentially less than what he has been told
it would sell for had it been properly identified and auctioned more
auspiciously by the museum.
This was alarming news. But not surprising. Curators at Brooklyn
have said that their director, Arnold Lehman, has them scouring the
whole museum for art to sell off or otherwise get rid of. A
spokeswoman for the museum, Sally Williams, said it's just
''business as usual,'' that museums always assess their collections.
''Collections are always being reviewed with an eye toward gaps and
duplications,'' she said. The Fuchs was just part of housecleaning.
A century ago, an ethnology curator named Stewart Culin
collected American-Indian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern
European and Indian objects on expeditions for the University of
Pennsylvania and for the Brooklyn Museum. This was the sort of
museum Brooklyn was: a broad-minded and far-reaching place. Thanks
to Culin, it even opened a study room for artists and designers to
view the ethnographic materials he acquired. Pairing the art with
fashion and textile designs it inspired, the museum arranged
exhibits at department stores and elsewhere around town. That was
The ethnographic clothes Culin amassed ended up, along with who
knows how many of the fashion designs, in the museum's costume
collection, a populist gold mine full of high fashion but also
dresses that real middle-class Brooklynites wore when the Brooklyn
museum was in its heyday, throughout the early and middle decades of
the 20th century.
Now museum officials are talking with the Fashion Institute of
Technology and the Met about taking all or part of the costume
collection. That would at least keep it in the city and in public
hands. But it's appalling to think that Brooklyn might squander or
give up on one of its defining assets just because it costs money to
And in favor of what? In favor of a pandering overhaul:
Brooklyn's landmark gallery for American-Indian art, full of Culin's
treasures, has been repainted with cheesy eagles and sunsets on the
walls. Pseudo-Egyptian props in the Egyptian galleries, which are
presumably supposed to make the rooms more accessible, cheapen a
world-class collection. The American galleries are crammed
distractingly with wall texts and videos. Brooklyn clearly believes
that people weaned on television and the Internet need that kind of
stimulation. Art isn't stimulating enough, apparently.
That's the heart of the problem: that museums don't all still
trust art to excite people on its own; they increasingly think it
needs to be packaged, marketed and diluted. Does the public also
think so? How popular was that ''Star Wars'' show, anyway? Back
across the river at the Modern, where a different sort of
overstimulation may become an issue, the museum that started in a
modest gallery space, then moved into a town house, is soon to
become so vast it could qualify for its own ZIP code. Here's hoping
it will be spectacular, but the Modern's entire temporary space in
Queens, which demonstrated what could be done with a small gallery
at an obscure location, would fit into one of the bigger rooms in
the new building.
To explain the planned $20 ticket price, the Modern's director,
Glenn D. Lowry, said ''it's a more expensive museum to operate'' (no
surprise), and he compared it to ''other leisure activities'' that
charge the same or more. But is that what a museum is?
Reducing museums to nothing more than a leisure activity would
obviously be insane. So would consigning them to an ivory tower:
part of their beauty is their hubbub. ''Dream houses of the
collective,'' the phrase Walter Benjamin concocted for the Paris
arcades, suits museums today, with their shops and their mobs who go
to flirt and eat and pose. But museums are also our traditional
palaces of rational entertainment, places for people to discover
something they didn't already know, or didn't know they needed to
know. They are sacred spaces, too, no matter how unfashionable that
may sound: we expect to have in them encounters with authentic
objects in a context that is respectful of our intelligence.
People go to museums, in the end, to have an experience unlike
what they can get elsewhere, because works of art are not like
everything else in life.
For a variety of reasons, many of the most important museums in
New York find themselves simultaneously in the throes of
transformation. Collectively they are grappling with identity, and
some of them clearly have begun to lose track of their priorities.
But their crises are also an opportunity. These institutions should
seize the moment to interrogate their role in this swiftly changing
culture -- to recognize what their function is and get to it. Part
of that function does not change: unlike ''other leisure
activities,'' museums still set standards of aesthetic quality, not
equivocating but declaring what we should value about our culture
and standing by those convictions. We can decide for ourselves if we
To do so, however, they must attend to one profound obligation:
to cherish and preserve culture for posterity. Museums are our only
institutions to do that, and the museums of this city set a
standard. It's time for them to live up to that responsibility.
CORRECTION-DATE: July 25, 2004
An article in Arts & Leisure on July 11 about problems facing
some New York museums misstated the outcome of an investigation of
Robert J. Hurst last year concerning sales taxes on the purchase of
paintings for his private collection. Mr. Hurst, president of the
Whitney Museum, concedes that he paid the taxes only after learning
that L. Dennis Kozlowski, a fellow Whitney board member, had been
indicted in a similar case. But there was never a finding that Mr.
Hurst had ' 'evaded millions of dollars in taxes on his art
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