Cultural Heritage, Art, and the 21st Century Exhibition

LA Times art critic, Christopher Knight, recently descried the increasing nationwide commercialization of museums.  At issue in the examples he cited were real or perceived conflicts of interest.  For example, in February the Princeton University Art Museum hired the curator John Elderfield.  As a Princeton curator, Elderfield continues to be a consultant for the for-profit Gagosian Gallery.  To queries about potential conflicts of interest, in December 2014 Elderfield replied:

Princeton and I have, of course, discussed this matter at length, and are satisfied that the transparency of my consultancy arrangements, and their strict separation from what I shall be doing at Princeton, will avoid conflicts of interest, potential and perceived.

Please note that these kinds of arrangements are not uncommon. Since some commercial galleries now present exhibitions of the ambition and breadth traditionally associated with museums, it is not unusual for people with academic appointments (including some who curate exhibitions at their own institutions) also to curate or write for the catalogues of exhibitions at commercial galleries. And many museums also allow their curators to write for such catalogues, if they have particular expertise in the subjects that they address

Elderfield’s response demonstrates disingenuousness or at the very least an unwillingness to acknowledge what is problematic about the subtle elision of commercial and public interests.  The ambition and breadth of gallery exhibitions Elderfield cites is hardly what critics are arguing is at stake but rather the steady erosion of public cultural institutions and civic trust in them.  Wealthy patrons who serve on museum boards or who are donors have long pressured institutions to collect and exhibit what reflects their personal interests.  In fact many of our most esteemed museums in this country were established in the 19th century when wealthy philanthropists sought to educate American people.  While the objectives of someone such as lawyer John Jay who helped found New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art might now seem paternalistic, the end result is that we have a world-class institution dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of art.  And while the $25 admission might seem steep, technically speaking the fee is a suggested donation.  The matter of feeling a social imperative to pay full price likely rests most heavily on those who cannot afford it but that is a subject for another essay.

In this century of great economic disparity we continue to see the establishment of museums by wealthy patrons, which is not entirely a bad thing.  The wildly rich Eli and Edythe Broad, for example, established The Broad Art Foundation in 1984, a non-profit organization, which recently opened The Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles.  Unlike the Met, The Broad has free admission with no suggested donation fee or shaming language such as that found on the Met’s website:

To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount.

Contemporary art such as that found in The Broad can be challenging and alienating to many museumgoers.  By making admission truly free, the museum encourages visitorship.  Since the museum first opened its doors in September, booking a free timed ticket has been nearly impossible—a testament to people’s willingness to experience contemporary art.  By publicly sharing their art collection in a museum context, the Broads remove the whiff of commercialism found in a gallery where everything has a price.  Framing the art as an expensive consumer product diminishes the possibility that someone with an empty wallet will make an effort to satisfy her curiosity about contemporary art by visiting the exhibitions.  When the art is in a museum—for better or for worse—it is instantly validated as worthy of our shared consideration.  And if admission is free, then the possibilities for public dialogue about the art begin to emerge.  Key here is the Broads’ clear efforts to distinguish the museum as a non-commercial pursuit.  Even if a privately run gallery has exhibitions on a par with non-profit museums, it nevertheless frames the artwork in terms of commercial exchange preemptively stunting popular dialogue about shared cultural value.

The Broad Museum
The Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles

The Broad Museum’s existence is encouraging in an early 21st century landscape where there is an increasing trend toward privatizing public services in the US.  Federal prisons, fire departments, student loans, state highway systems, and the military are among different endeavors getting privatized.  One problem with such privatization is that motivations for civic responsibility are eradicated in favor of profit-based motivations.  I am not convinced that privately run prisons, for example, are capable of doing much public good.  Their very livelihood relies on incarcerating more people while spending fewer dollars on prisoners’ housing and fair treatment.  A private, for-profit museum is hardly a prison, yet when we commercialize museums we tarnish public confidence in their ability to preserve and fairly represent shared cultural heritage. 


"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli (1781) in the Detroit Institute of Arts
"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli (1781) in the Detroit Institute of Arts

A few years ago the city of Detroit very nearly experienced a nightmare related to its world-class art collections.  When the city filed bankruptcy in 2013, a cacophony of privatizing voices suggested that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) should sell its key artworks to pay off debts.  During my Detroit area upbringing in the 70s and 80s, the DIA was an important cultural destination for my family and for many others.  It was one of the few shining beacons in an otherwise blighted city where Mayor Coleman Young spitefully razed artist Tyree Guyton’s environmental art projects and disaffected youngsters sought to burn the city down each Devil’s Night.  Throughout my life I have heard the repeated mantra that Detroit is on the brink of a renaissance.  I’m not sure that a Detroit-based Shinola bicycle factory is the answer to the city’s problems but I do know that selling DIA artworks would be an unrecoverable cultural catastrophe.  In his November 7, 2014 oral opinion, Bankruptcy Judge Steve Rhodes stated:

A museum “stands … as an invaluable beacon of culture, education for both children and adults, personal journey, creative outlet, family experience, worldwide visitor attraction, civic pride and energy, neighborhood and community cohesion, regional cooperation, social service, and economic development. Every great [c]ity in the world actively pursues these values.  To sell the DIA art would only deepen Detroit’s fiscal, economic and social problems. To sell the DIA art would be to forfeit Detroit’s future.”

(From Sally Yerkovich’s article in the March/April 2015 issue of Museum)

To Live and Dine in L.A.

Like the Detroit-raised Broads, I too now make my home in greater Los Angeles.  And while the artifacts in their new museum do not belong to the people of Los Angeles, publicly held collections do exist.  After visiting the Broad, Angelenos and visitors can remain downtown to visit another free exhibition that well demonstrates what can be accomplished with a modest municipal budget.  “To Live and Dine in L.A.” is an exhibition of menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library that addresses the city’s changing food history and invites visitors to consider current food politics.  The exhibition is on view now through November 13, 2015 in the Getty Gallery at the Central Library. 

If you’re unable to visit the exhibit before it closes, check back next week to read my review and see photos.


To Live and Dine in L.A. is on exhibit June 13-November 13, 2015 in the Getty Gallery of the Los Angeles Central Public Library located at 630 W. 5th Street.  The library is open Monday through Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9:30-5:30, and Sunday 1-5.


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