America's big museums on the hot seat
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America's big museums on the hot seat
"Welcoming the Newcomers," left, a 2019 acrylic on canvas by Kent Monkman, is displayed in the Great Hall at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Dec. 17, 2019. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston commemorate their 150th birthdays in a state of heightened scrutiny, our critic offers a five-point plan to save the souls of our venerable institutions. Aaron Wynia/The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Two of this country’s largest and oldest “encyclopedic” museums — the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — turn 150 this year. With both now shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, this is an opportune moment for them — and other big, traditionalist museums in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere — to take stock of themselves, and for us to acknowledge their virtues but also to consider the reasons behind the present turbulent state of the art institutional soul.

I spent stretches of my childhood in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and have clocked up an inordinate amount of adult time in the Met. I treasure these places and their equivalents across the globe. From their vast collections of art and artifacts, I’ve learned a lot of what I know about art, which means a lot of what I know about history, and a lot of what I know about myself.

I’m someone, it seems, who responds to certain kinds of objects that present themselves as containers of stories and values. Some of these objects are “beautiful,” but they don’t have to be. When I was young, the objects, one by one, were enough in themselves. It didn’t occur to me to ask: How did these things get to the museum, which for many was far from home? Who brought them and why? For me, as a child, museums just happened. They were sites of benign accumulation, with a vaguely regal, devotional aura. They looked like temples from the outside, palaces from the inside. Walking their halls you could, if you felt welcomed, be a prince for an afternoon.

I eventually learned that many old museums were, indeed, built by men with princely aspirations, members of an American aristocracy of industrial wealth, citizens of a still newish nation that simultaneously shut the globe out and considered it ripe for the picking. Most of these patrons were white, Christian and Northern European by descent. Some were civic-minded and viewed museums as instruments of public education, although the “public” they envisioned was a narrow one, defined by class and race. In the end, museums were primarily monuments to their own values and tastes, showcases for what political power and private wealth could buy.

In 2020, after the decadeslong surge of identity politics, with its demands for inclusiveness and historical truth-telling, the traditional museum is on the hot seat. And a political present charged with racial bias, misogyny and economic inequality has upped the heat. The result is a new institutional self-consciousness. Our big museums are feeling compelled to acknowledge that they are products of an earlier, ideologically fraught time. To retain credibility they need to rethink what they were and are.

They need to rethink the Temple of Beauty branding they’ve coasted on from the start. They need to acknowledge the often conflicted relationship between aesthetics and ethics. They need to address what their collections leave out. They need to reconsider their own role as history-tellers and history-inventors. In short, they need to redefine what “encyclopedic” and “museum” and “art” can mean.

The museum’s educational mission is as valid as ever. Objects can be persuasive teachers. But in a distracted, memory-stunted age, they require new interpreters — curators from different backgrounds and perhaps artists — as decipherers, analysts able to link the present to the past. Our big museums are waking up to this, although much more has to be done. Here’s a five-point plan to move that process along in a post-coronavirus future.

1. Go for Truth
Although the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that I frequented called itself an encyclopedic museum (actually “universal museum” was the term used then), it was an encyclopedia with several missing volumes. There was no Native American art, little if any art from South America and no African art apart from Egyptian art, which wasn’t considered “African.” Contemporary art had almost no presence, and you had to look very hard to find art by women. Since the 1960s liberation movements and the recent onset of globalism, there have been changes — the museum now has modest-size galleries of African and Oceanic material — but they’ve been slow.

There are certain built-in reasons for this. Large, traditional museums are, by nature — even design — conservative. Before anything else they exist to preserve material things. One way of preserving things is to assign them the blanket positive value of preciousness, which can override and obscure realities of history and make objects with dubious provenance look innocent. It can also create an inflexible canon, a hierarchy of things that are valuable and, by default, things that are not. To challenge this arrangement is, naturally, threatening, which helps explain why institutional change can be so slow in arriving, and why, when it arrives, it is rarely sweeping.

To be fair, this is true even of museums specializing in modern and contemporary work. With the reopening of its expanded premises last fall, the Museum of Modern Art in New York finally admitted non-Western artists to its permanent collection display, although a relatively small number. And it wasn’t until 2016 that the Whitney Museum of American Art fully committed itself to the hemispheric implications of its title by hiring Marcela Guerrero, a Puerto Rico-born curator formerly of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she had worked on the much-praised 2017 exhibition “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985.”

No marginalized demographic has had to wait longer to be invited to the big museum table than women. This year, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, two venerable museums have extended that invitation in a dramatic way.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has filled the entire top floor of its Art of the Americas wing with a roundup of art by women, drawn mostly from its collection. Titled “Women Take the Floor,” it includes blackware bowls by Native American potter Maria Montoya Martinez; plaster figures by African American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller; jewelry designed by Claire Falkenstein; and two fabulous portraits: Alice Neel’s 1973 painting of art historian Linda Nochlin, done two years after Nochlin’s earthquake of an essay “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” first appeared; and Andrea Bowers’ 2016 photograph of African American transgender hero CeCe McDonald, who was charged with murder after she defended herself during a hate attack, dressed in flowing coral and winged like an angel.

Significantly, in self-rebuking wall texts, the museum acknowledges the show to be the long-delayed catch-up gesture it is.

In the same reparative spirit, the Baltimore Museum of Art has made a more dramatic move. In 2018, the museum sold off paintings from its collection by blue-chip male artists — Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol among them — and used the proceeds to buy work by African Americans and women.

The museum devoted most of its 2019 show to work by black artists, noting that African Americans make up more than 60% of the city’s population. In a similar way, its 2020 exhibition program showcased female-identified artists, several of them with roots in Baltimore: painters Grace Hartigan and Jo Smail, jewelry designer Betty Cooke, printmaker Valerie Maynard and photographer Shan Wallace. Finally, and most audaciously, the museum announced that all of its 2020 art acquisitions would be of work by women.

The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, has taken his share of critical heat both for the de-accessioning and for the gender-based acquisition commitment. But sometimes what looks like taking extreme steps is needed to swerve a museum in a healthy, forward direction. Was Bedford’s go-for-broke tactic at least in part a calculated shot at institutional advertising? You bet. And with luck it will sell and inspire imitators.

2. Rewrite History
Our big museums, with their century-spanning, continent-leaping holdings, are walk-in history texts. As such, they can either be treated as if carved in stone or be nimbly tweaked and revised, digital-age style, as was the case with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ magnificent 2019 “Ancient Nubia Now” exhibition.

The Nubian empire, centered in present-day Sudan, was one of the largest in the ancient world before being conquered by Egypt in the eighth century B.C. It produced great art, of which the museum’s holdings are the most extensive outside of Africa. Yet relatively little art-historical attention has been paid to it, and the collection has been only selectively visible, often as supporting material in the museum’s famed Egyptian display.

“Ancient Nubia Now” is forthright in attributing this sidelining to, among other sources, the ancient Egyptians themselves, who made Nubia the target of relentless negative propaganda. More bracingly, the exhibition points to the influences of early-20th-century Western archaeologists, including those who led the museum’s sponsored digs, who typecast Nubians as dark-skinned southerners more “African” than the Egyptians and therefore incapable of achieving comparable aesthetic heights.

Most important, the show flipped the story of cultural influence. In the new telling, encapsulated in a wall label, “Egyptian civilization was in fact indebted to cultures to the south, including Nubia, for some of its formative ideas — and that Egyptian civilization provided much of the foundation for Greco-Roman civilization.”

And in another particularly timely wall label, the show raised questions about the legitimacy of the museum’s ownership of its Nubian work. The label reads:

“The MFA holdings of ancient Nubian material came to Boston primarily between 1913 and 1932, when the Museum, in partnership with Harvard University, performed some of the first scientific excavations of Nubian sites. In exchange for financing and performing the excavations, we received a portion of the finds, a standard practice at the time. Yet that history is complicated by our growing awareness of the far-reaching impact of European colonialism. Although the Boston expedition held permits to excavate at Nubian sites, those permits were in fact issued not by the Egyptians and Sudanese but by British colonial officials.”

At present, when the restitution of objects removed by Western colonialism from Africa and elsewhere is, or should be, a sizzling institutional issue, these are potentially fighting words, and they need to be spoken and spoken again.

Such critical, power-shifting words can have particular weight — and meet with strong resistance — when they emerge from within the institutional world itself. This was evident when, earlier this year, Yale University’s History of Art department eliminated a revered but, in the department’s view, antiquated undergraduate survey course called “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present.” Protests were loud. “Yale’s Art Department Commits Suicide” was how an irate article in Commentary magazine greeted the curriculum change.

In fact, Yale made the right decision in eliminating a course whose very title implied that the history of world art and the history of Western art were equivalent. The department now offers several thematic introductory art courses covering a wide range of global topics and promises to reinstate a version of the old Western survey with a more reality-based perspective. Maybe at some future point Yale could be persuaded to develop a course on the subject of famous art history courses from the past, examining them as the historical artifacts they are and were. I’d sign up for that in a flash.

3. Redefine “Expert”
Along with expanding the choice of art they show and histories they tell, museums need to loosen up their ideas about who’s qualified to do the choosing and telling. The Brooklyn Museum made a smart move when it asked Jeffrey Gibson, an artist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, to organize an exhibition combining his own art with work culled from the museum’s holdings, including its Native American collection. The resulting show, “Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks,” is fantastic. (Fortunately, it will be up through January 2021.)

For it, he hauled out from storage a lugubrious life-size early-1900s bronze titled “The Dying Indian” by Charles Cary Rumsey, a non-Native artist, and fitted it out with snazzy beaded moccasins (the beading is by artist John Murie) and an upbeat new title: “I’m Gonna Run With Every Minute I Can Borrow.” From archives he pulled photographs of Indians smiling and laughing — there are many — and sifted the 1920s field notes of Robert Stewart Culin, the curator of ethnology who initiated the museum’s Native American collection, earmarking both Culin’s insights and his period blind spots.

And he gives us a heady sampling of his own work, including a rainbow mural made for the occasion, which riffs on, updates and queers Native art forms and traditions. In a United States that has long promoted the history of its First Peoples as an extinction narrative, he insistently does the opposite. The show, doubling as a solo and collection reinstallation, joins present and past, studio and archive, and feels completely of a piece. It’s art history as action.

In Brooklyn, Gibson has applied his expertise as artist-curator by invitation. Sometimes, though, a corrective expert voice can arise unbidden, as happened at the Art Institute of Chicago last year shortly before the scheduled opening of a show called “Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest.” The exhibition, composed of ceramics made in what is now southwestern New Mexico around 1100 A.D., drew protests from several Native American scholar-researchers. The excavated ceramics were, they said, funerary objects, private and sacred — not art in the Western sense and certainly never meant for public display. They asked that the show not go forward in its planned form.

The museum might, for practical reasons, have pushed ahead with its plans — publicity had gone out, related events scheduled — after inserting last-minute disclaimers. But in an act of cultural cooperation still too rare in big museums, the Art Institute’s director, James Rondeau, removed the show from the schedule so that it could be rethought with indigenous input. His acknowledgment of expertise of a kind once considered to lie outside the discipline of art history was, in terms of both scholarship and ethics, absolutely the right one.

4. Rethink Big
Everybody knows that less is more, except, it seems, museums. Last fall, MoMA opened with a barely navigable 47,000-foot expansion. Three years ago the Met drove its finances onto the rocks by leasing the Breuer building as an annex. Space has long been a problem for the Met. There’s never enough at the Fifth Avenue headquarters, and what there is, is inflexible. It was designed for a preglobal era when cultures were strictly siloed. Thus, on the ground floor Egypt is over here; and Greece and Rome are way, way over there, with the Great Hall, which forms the museum’s main entrance, a yawning Mediterranean in between.

The Great Hall has never, in my experience, been successfully used as an exhibition space until now. These days it feels almost purpose-built as a setting for two mural-size Met-commissioned paintings by Canadian artist Kent Monkman. Both are fantasy versions of the first meetings of Native Americans and Europeans, which Monkman, himself Native American, envisions as a combination of costume party and rescue mission, with indigenous people doing the rescuing.

Painted in a legible realist style, the images are slyly tailored to the Met’s anniversary. They are reminders that the museum is built on Native American land. And their mock-monumental presence serves as an aptly critical introduction to the many acres of imperial and imperialist art in the galleries beyond.

Surely the time has come for one of our encyclopedic museums to opt for unmonumental and anti-imperial as a house style. There appears to be at least one example in the offing in the future Peter Zumthor-designed building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, although it has proved controversial before ground has even been broken.

The main complaint is that with the new building, which replaces four old structures on the LACMA campus, the museum will lose significant square footage and therefore be forced to show less of its permanent collection. The museum counters that its plan is to rotate its display frequently (this is MoMA’s plan too), constantly refreshing the installation and in that way showing more of the permanent collection than before. In addition, the museum will maintain satellite galleries where further selections from its holdings will appear.

Purely in terms of design, the Zumthor design looks restorative. Spanning Wilshire Boulevard, it’s low-slung, curvy, light. It’s a bridge — not one of the blank, interruptive chunks or sky-reaching ladders that fill cities now. Also, the museum’s proposal for rotation and distribution looks, at least in the telling, like a sound and generous one. Its implementation will require continual work and experimentation. But if that results in more people seeing more art, in more variety, over time, some of it in places they might not have expected, that can’t be bad.

5. The Answer Is in the Art
Institutional stresses, operational and political, are usually invisible to outsiders. Lately, we’ve been getting a look at them, especially the political ones, as we’ve seen poorly paid museum workers fight to form unions and toxic sources of museum patronage — such as those who promote opioid painkillers — revealed.

It’s unlikely that such realities will ever again retreat from view. The days when museums could even hope to pass as morally exemplary, or even neutral, are over, and they know it. They’re under pressure now to change in everyday corporate ways — to more closely monitor sources of funding, to give greater voice to staff — and if the past is an indication, the changes will be slow, just as the curatorial embrace of inclusion and truth-telling has been.

Like all of us, museums are stitched tight into the fabric of a messy, venal, Darwinian world. The single thing that sets them apart is the art — the reason they exist, the thing they preserve and give us access to. Art can be a source of ethical instruction, too, as much for the museum itself as for its audience — a source of guidance, positive and negative, strong enough to insure survival for another 150 years. And now, with their operations stalled — and, of course, there’s no telling yet of the purely practical long-range difficulties the pandemic could cause — museums should take the opportunity to ponder the great asset they share. If they’re going to present themselves as enlightened alternatives to that messy world, they’d better get busy. Enlightenment is a hard-won fight, and alternative always starts as an inside job.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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