Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hard Times

Most articles that have appeared over the past year or so detailing the financial straits of museums and, as a result, their turn to permanent collection shows (and it is an entire genre of articles by this point) have focused on the positives of such a move, but the Wall Street Journal's "Picasso to the Rescue" takes the unusual tack of pointing out some negatives.
Exhibits drawn entirely from permanent collections can sometimes feel incomplete or unsatisfying, museum observers say. "Very few museums have got a deep enough collection to pull this off convincingly," says David Gordon, the former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum who now works as a museum consultant. He adds that the Met's extensive holdings make it one of the possible exceptions.
It's unclear whether Gordon is speaking specifically about blockbuster permanent collection shows like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's upcoming Picasso exhibition or generally. He has a far better point if he means the former than the latter, which would suggest that museums shouldn't even bother with permanent collections beyond what's on the walls at all times. Author Candace Jackson mentions one reason permanent collection shows can be valuable: namely, fragility.
Most museums display less than 10% of the artwork in their collection at any given time. The works in storage often include a mix of museum-worthy pieces that can be pulled out for special exhibitions, and others that aren't fit for public viewing because they are fragile, damaged or simply no longer considered examples of great art. The Met has 34 Picasso paintings, but usually shows only 25 to 28 of them at a time. The artist's drawings and prints are generally not on view at the museum, because they are more fragile, but they will be included in the spring exhibit.
She also uses an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as a positive example of a creative permanent collection show:
Though not every museum has a closetful of Picassos to draw from, institutions across the country have come up with creative ways to put together shows from their own storerooms. At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, museum-goers can take another look at the museum's permanent collection—using binoculars. The "Benches & Binoculars" exhibit features a salon-style gallery, hung floor to ceiling with works from of the museum's collection, like "Office at Night" by Edward Hopper. Visitors are encouraged to view the works through binoculars. Chief curator Darsie Alexander says the exhibition was meant to be "experimental, maybe even light-hearted," and to her surprise, has become one of the most popular galleries in the museum, requiring additional security guards because of the crowds.
The quote from Gordon actually follows this paragraph immediately, which makes it even more (potentially) insulting. Not all exhibitions aim to be comprehensive, and it's doubtful that even the Met's will be. Part of the appeal of permanent collection shows comes from seeing how a collection is built, not from rehashing the same old masterpieces once again, and these shows can be interestingly focused in a way larger exhibitions rarely are.

No comments: