A Defense of Museums

In the recent article, Leave room for alternatives in art, Claire Aichholzer makes a significant and well-reasoned argument for alternative art spaces, as well as an insightful critique of contemporary art politics. However, at times it seems to be at the expense of museums. As a museum professional in the United States I feel compelled to respond with a defense of museums.

Aichholzer cites the dropping number of visitors, and the lack of diversity of visitors and of artists in the collection as systemic failings. The author is absolutely correct, and had the article ended after stating as much there would be no need for a defense. However, the author claims that alternative art spaces have been popping up to the fill these failings for decades. This is a play on cause and effect that may not necessarily be accurate as it pits one against the other. What is the relationship between established and alternative art spaces? I want to introduce some nuance into an answer to this question that may help to save the reputation of museums.

It is no secret that fine art is tied to wealth, and you’ll get no argument from me concerning the role of the market in fine art. The .1% of the world’s elite view contemporary art the way they view property—a commodity to be acquired, manipulated, and eventually liquidated. For the elite, art is an investment, one that will almost certainly accrue value over time. And many works of art purchased at auctions are delivered directly to storage facilities for safekeeping. This is a broad stroke, and my meaning is not to paint the wealthy as rapacious, or not having a true appreciation for art, but to reinforce the Aichholzer’s description of the art gallery, fair, and auction circuit as being a private club with prohibitive entry fees.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Source: Flickr (Erich2448).
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam;
Source: Flickr (Erich2448).

The museum, however, is a beast of a different nature. These are the depositories of the masterpieces of human culture, the “end of life plan” for canvass smeared with pigment. As museum professional at the Wright Museum of Art in Beloit, Wisconsin, I would like to make two points addressing the author’s questions before moving on to alternate spaces. First, a semantic exploration about the notion of “public.” Museums are (mostly) public institutions in name, though not always in practice. There are lots of cases of manipulations performed by board members or directors, but for the most part the public in “public institution” ensures that the objects these facilities house are stored for the public trust and available to the public. Once accessioned, objects can no longer be traded or sold in private transactions without public disclosure. The board members, directors, and other primary players are accountable for their stewardship and the repercussions of those decisions on the public stage (just look at Delaware). In short, the museum gets art off of the market and onto the publicly accessible wall, or the screen of the device of your choice. I’ve heard the lines to see the Mona Lisa are extraordinary—this means you stand shoulder to shoulder with crowds of tourists for hours, but it also means hundreds of thousands of people are able to view it. The same cannot be said for Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six which is held in a private collection.

The second point about museums is a little less obtuse, but still deals with the idea of “the public.” When you envision the public in a museum space what do the faces look like? Throngs of elementary students spending a day smirking at nude statuary? Undergrads reciting survey notes to impress their peers? Tourists getting their mandatory fill of “culture”? This is a pretty decent visual cross section of any museum in America. Now, with our hyper-capitalist vacuum we assume that quantity equals quality, that ticket sales reflect the health of the organization and that outreach is everything. It’s not. That 21 percent drop in attendance since 2012 that the author cites could be because modern museums are uninviting. More likely, it could be that this survey of American museums took place prior to and during the greatest recession that this country has seen in 70 years (one whose effects reverberated throughout the world, and undoubtedly affected the museums of other countries in much the same way). Every institution endured budget cuts. For public schools facing funding shortages and having to make cuts, an easy target is field trips due to the cost of bussing and tickets—so there are no elementary students in the museum atrium. With unemployment upwards of 11% many people had no discretionary funds—so the family vacation became the “staycation,” and the museum and dinner date became Netflix and chill. With unemployment among African Americans upward of 20% is it a surprise that non-white faces have been scarce in museums? An artist once offered me a bit of wisdom; “When budgets get cut, art is the first to go and the last to come back.” To address these dwindling numbers many museums are initiating underwriting programs for free admission days. Or they create Pop-Up museums in alternative locations, taking a version of the experience out to those who can’t or won’t come in.  As a non-profit, built for the public trust museums are a great measuring stick for the cultural, political, and economic health of a people. Keep that in mind while you read this next statistic: the number of museums in America has doubled since the 1990s. There are more museums in America than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined. And in the rare case when an art museum goes under, the objects are absorbed by other museums. Though records show attendance may be in a slump, suffice to say, the museum system in America is relatively healthy and growing.

National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Source: Wikipedia.
National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC;
Source: Wikipedia.

This may read as a diatribe in defense of museums, and it is. The art museum has a very important role within the complex of artists, consumers, and the agents of art/space production. But, and this is where the author and I completely agree, so do alternative art spaces. It is alternative art spaces that, as stated in the article, liberate the artist, allow access by consumers of all checkbook sizes, and provide critical evaluation and experimentation. Who exhibited at the Salon des Refuses? Manet and Whistler. Think of Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro’s impact with Womanhouse, or the Dusseldorf Pop movement. Not to mention Basquiat, Banksy, and Shepard Fairey whose street art origins hinged on these alternative spaces. All of these artists also happen to have work in major museum collections now that they have proved themselves on the alternative art circuit and have become palatable by the establishment. And that statement may leave a bad taste in the mouth of a burgeoning young artist, a student of art history, or a cultural revolutionary but it is true none the less, and emblematic of this symbiotic relationship between the alternative and establishment dialectic.

This point is addressed at the end of the article when the author raises a question about the nature of the alternative art space: “is it possible that alternative art spaces provide an antidote to the exclusivity and hegemony that has, and will, continue to exist?” I think the opposite is much more likely. That museums and galleries—the establishment—provide the antidote to the savage, unhinged, liberated beauty of alternative art spaces. Our white walls and protocols provide order, and our professionals can provide the context to make artwork digestible to larger audiences. It is far from a perfect system, and quite sadly, some really great art just does not or cannot survive the transition. If alternative art spaces are where art is lived, it is in museums where legacies are archived.

The street and the museum are the extreme ends of this discussion, and it is not my intent to propose a neat duality, like sides of a coin. Insider and outsider, like high art and low art, are difficult to identify except in comparing one to the other. However, both venues—the alternative or the establishment—are pillars of a system that may collapse in on itself without the support of either. And each is most effective when embracing its role in this larger system.  So if it begs the question—can we make alternative art spaces more digestible, and make art world institutions more accessible without compromising either? I fear the answer is no. I’m thinking of Joseph Beuys, the artist who lived in the substance between these worlds, Acconci’s attempt to burn down the house with Information, and Jay-Z’s fine art appropriation and self-aggrandizing Picasso Baby. Try as we might, we can’t have it all, nor should we.


James Pearson is Collections Manager and Exhibition Coordinator at the Wright Museum of Art at Beloit College.