As monolithic as the institution of the art museum can seem, its role in society and culture can, at times, be particularly ambiguous. Sharpening the focus, an art museum’s relationship with the surrounding art community is often no clearer. An excited buzz recently flowed through much of St. Petersburg upon word of a new museum, the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, set to open there in 2016. Local artists, gallerists, art bloggers (including myself) seemed especially pleased with the news. I wondered, though, if this stemmed from anything other than the excitement that accompanies new exhibits in a new venue and a potential positive economic impact on the arts.
Really, it brought a larger question to mind. The local arts community and nearby art museums seem to share a special relationship. That said, does one actually exist based on some sort of cultural interchange and should it? Do better/more museums somehow make a better local art scene?
So it might now become clear that the “trickle” in this article’s title is not an economic one (and certainly not a biological one – nasty!) Rather, it refers to a flow of cultural value from art museums to local art makers. I’ve given this idea quite a bit of thought in preparation to host the next #TwitterCrit. I’ve since realized I’m not one of those quick-tongued critics that can form an unassailable opinion in the flash of a moment. Thinking about this ‘Museum trickle down effect’ has, in honesty, only left me with more questions. Still, maybe these questions in themselves are noteworthy points.
Why Trickle Down?
I initially made the assumption that art museums should somehow influence and, to a point, shape the local art community. Really, if a local art community informed a museum’s practice, I would likely call that “trickle up“. But why up?
Museums are generally thought of as centers of influence. Consider the generally accepted pinnacle of an artist’s career is the museum retrospective. Think about the MoMA’s role in defining the idea of Modernism. Note museum architecture old and new. Scrutinize museums bolstering of “cultural capital.” During the twentieth century art museums have inhabited a role somewhere in between “taste maker” and “history writer.”
Believe me: I don’t want to address why or how museums are vested with this power. Rather, does this model of Museum-as-taste-maker-slash-history-writer still work for us in the twenty-first century? I’m not sure, but I doubt it.
In a Wikipedia world, art museums do feel a bit like a stack of leather-bound encyclopedias. That isn’t to say the institutions should adopt the elsewhere ubiquitous practices of populism and crowdsourcing. I can only imagine how terrible administration-by-‘like’-and-‘retweet’ would be. Still, there seems to be a certain sense of pluralism that is missing. I’m not saying that everyone’s opinion should be included – we’d end up with a museum aesthetically similar to Pier 1. What I am saying is there should be mechanism to undermine the institutions’ tendency toward a meta-narrative of art and its history.
I’m sorry: I’m not really offering any specific alternatives, and in the end this might be as much an issue to be taken up with institutional curation as the art museum itself. To be fair, I did say that considering the issue “only left me with more questions.” If you have any ideas, however, I’d love to see it as a comment below.