Rush to the exit

museum_closedIt may be safe to say that the news of the closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis has brought the panic barometer up a notch in the museum world. While the Rose’s news is particularly shocking, parallel announcements are also dropping jaws: word came yesterday, for example, that the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City will eliminate the positions of Chief Curator, Director of Education, Director of Planning and Director of Operations, along with other staff. Other organizations have announced similar cuts. It is rare, at this point, to find a museum that has not, at the very least, taken preventive measures, such as imposing hiring freezes or budget reductions. These announcements foreshadow a troubling landscape for venerable museums that, we once thought, would be around us forever.

The ultimate sacrilege of de-accessioning is no less shocking than drastic board decisions that, in one sweeping stroke, can erase the labor of generations of collectors, curators and philanthropists. Are these decisions inevitable? Is there another way to save a museum, without dissolving its collection or its staff?

What doesn’t seem to be discussed much is role of the government. Today, Congress is voting on a plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee which includes $50 million in supplemental funds for the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other provisions that can benefit the arts. While this would be a helpful stimulus (if it gets approved), it is still a tiny sum of money. It barely represents a quarter of the Metropolitan Museum’s annual budget.

Shouldn’t culture deserve a bailout of the kind that banks and the auto industry have enjoyed? Art has never been a major priority of this country. But just how much is it worth it to us? What would happen if five months from now the list of threatened museums expanded to the highest tiers? Will we just watch all that art go away? If we were to play this scenario out to its ultimate conclusion, we may have to picture ourselves twenty years from now, staring at American Gothic somewhere in Shanghai, or Nighthawks at a museum in Dubai. Could that be the future?

Author: Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and contributing editor for Artworld Salon. Originally from Mexico City, his multi-disciplinary work often deals with topics such as history, social thought, perception, fiction, and academicism. His works, which are usually performative in nature, have included making phonograph recordings, composing orchestral pieces, inventing fictional artists and museums, founding educational and research institutions, and writing scripted symposia with actors. He has performed individually at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (Parallel Lives, 2003), and has exhibited or performed at other venues such as the Royal College of Art, London; the Havana Biennial, Performa 05, and many others. He received a Creative Capital Grant for “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically traveled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering 25,000 miles, and becoming the most physically extensive public art project on record. This project will be showcased in a solo traveling exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York, which will also travel to London, Mexico City and in other locations. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Senior Manager of Education of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he developed and oversaw the museum’s public programs. He has organized more than 500 public programs in the course of his museum career, including the international symposium The Museum as Medium (2002) and the Fifth Installment of the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory in Mexico City (SITAC, 2005). He currently is Director of Adult and Academic Programs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of four books: Endingness (2005), an essay on the art of memory; The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005; Spanish edition; 2007, English edition), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Witches of Tepoztlán (and other Unpublished Operas), (2007), The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) and Artoons (2009).

2 thoughts on “Rush to the exit”

  1. The Brandeis case offers up, in a nutshell, all the quandaries confronting the museum world at the moment: the genuinely scary state of endowments and revenues, the responsibility and wisdom (or lack thereof) of governing boards, and the variety of unappealing responses to the crisis. The latter, to paraphrase Woody Allen, are divided into two categories– the horrible and the miserable.

    At a conference of museum directors earlier this week, the Rose was on everyone’s lips. There was agreement on three points: The Rose won’t be the last. Wholesale liquidation, quite apart from questions of institutional morality, is bad business. And finally, the museum community has not prepared for today’s radical circumstances.

    Of the three recent museum busts, one has led to a benefactor bailout, another to a full-blown shutdown, and a third to a deaccessioning of art assets. Responses from the arts community have ranged from queasy discomfort (LAMOCA) to full-throated outrage (Rose), and, in the third instance (The National Academy Museum), to a form of uncompromising professional censure that was tantamount, as one observer put it, to “being voted off the island.”

    Manifestly absent from the current debates are practical remedies and rescue mechanisms for distressed museums. Foundations, bruised themselves, are not rushing to set up emergency relief funds. The arts component of the stimulus package is already drawing the ire of conservative lawmakers. No mechanism has been created, as in finance, to manage and mitigate the fallout. The rules haven’t been rewritten. Directors continue to play musical chairs. Calls for “leadership” aside, not much has changed.

    But there is also a human side to the story. University museums matter a lot, and it’s worth remembering exactly why. Here is a passage from a student of mine, Sabrina Spiegel, an alumna of Brandeis:

    There is a Georges Braque painting in the vault of the Rose Art Museum. It is a simple still life titled Peaches, Grapes, Pear, Jug, from 1924. I don’t know why I remember this particular painting so well, considering the breadth of images I’ve seen in my four years studying art history at Brandeis University. Nevertheless, I can still conjure the puckered peach flesh, deep clefts of shadow, and translucent swaths of white, like doves’ wings – a subtle orchestration of color and form.

    Fleeting flashes from the slide projector and color-drained photographs were my primary tools of art education, but certainly not the most memorable. There is no substitute for one-on-one art viewing – the satisfaction of absorbing every nuanced pigment, the grainy warp and weave of canvas. The unique collection of the Rose, founded and nourished by the remarkable generosity of donors, was an integral part of my experience at Brandeis. I took tremendous pride in my school, knowing that my chosen field was well respected and woven into the fabric of the university.

    Founding president Abram Sachar believed deeply in the importance of art in a liberal education. His enthusiastic advocacy for the arts resulted in a swell of donations – the bud that blossomed into the Rose Art Museum. Sam Hunter, the Rose’s first director, recognized the power of the museum in the larger context of a community devoted to learning and introspection. “In the life of the university,” he wrote, art functions as “an index to contemporary civilization.” This confidence in art’s capacity to traverse disciplines and hold both historical and emotional significance for the entire Brandeis community had sustained the Rose for nearly fifty years.

  2. Here is a text of today’s proposed amendment to the stimulus bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn. I am sharing it to illustrate the context in which museum issues are being discussed:

    Senate Amendment to Bar Museums From Any Economic Recovery Funds
    Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the economic stimulus bill from going to museums.

    The language of the amendment, (Amendment No. 175, as filed) is, “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.”

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