How Museums Grow

John Haber
in New York City

From Plaster Casts to Philippe de Montebello

How does a museum differ from a private collection? It seems obvious. Collectors are accountable to no one's taste but their own—and perhaps the market's, for a collection is also an investment. The collector also gets to decide who will see the art. Most often that excludes strangers, unless works of art leave the collection as a loan, a sale, or a donation.

A museum reflects the tastes of many people, and it is accountable to many more. It has its donors, its trustees, its directors, its curators, and its public. It has public hours and other public responsibilities. It may not have direct government or university funding, but it benefits from nonprofit status, tax breaks, or public land. It has to obey laws regarding any public accommodation. It also has to take seriously public outreach and education. Duccio's Madonna and Child (Metropolitan Museum, c. 1300)

So far so good, but the walls between public and private have a way of crumbling. In a series of related articles, I look at what goes right and wrong as the walls crumble. Fiscal crises at LA MOCA and the National Academy have put their private funding and public responsibilities in focus. Emily Fisher Landau has taken her collection public, within limits, so that one can watch the birthing of a museum in real time. I hope to keep monitoring the fate of the Rose Museum at Brandeis University. One really can track art's historical and economic context without becoming cynical about modern art.

Now, though, the Met makes a huge fuss over its growth, as its director retires. That offers a chance to ask how the walls grew in the first place. To frame a look at "The Philippe de Montebello Years," consider a short history of American museums by Allan Wallach, published in 1998 and already a classic. Does the Met end up looking like a retail enterprise—or even blend into its gift shops? Wallach thinks that museums helped invent the idea of a unique and original work of art, and the real gift goes to donors and collectors. de Montebello suggests an old-world devotion to past masters, but with a newfound devotion to reproductions, this time for sale.

Plaster casts and crumbling walls

The walls between public and private always have windows, doors, less-visible cracks, and gaping holes. They must, in any society of private individuals and private wealth, public streets and social connections. Art is always about the intersection between public and private anyway. It begins with an artist's private impulse. However, it represents others, communicates to others, and depends on others for its livelihood. It takes its styles and its meanings from other conventions and other works of art.

All that is a good thing. However, it also leads to the creation of art institutions, including schools and museums, and institutions can have some pretty nasty admission requirements. As postmodern critics never stop stop explaining, museums are a modern invention. They have their origins in private collections, and most have to cater to collectors if they wish to grow. That relationship does not just shape museums. It also alters the value of private holdings and public views of art.

I have drawn often on museum critiques like this one. This Web site has looked at the influence of museums over what gets said about contemporary art and art history. That includes too many bizarre curatorial theses at the Met—about the early Renaissance, say, or the early Baroque. Museums also shape audiences for art, as sites for museum blockbusters. As institutions, they have an urge to expand not unlike global corporations. Thomas Krens catered shamelessly to the Nasher collection, and he designed his empire for the Guggenheim at the expense of its collection and exhibitions.

Critics have also argued that modern art influenced the design of the modern museum, with its white cubes in place of old-world palaces and private libraries. In turn, "the museum as muse" influences the look of a contemporary art gallery and lends it respectability. The museum is the heir of private collections, which often gave birth to a museum and form its core—as in the Norton Simon collection's merger with the Pasadena Art Museum to create the Norton Simon Museum. Museum directors are still full-time events managers, catering to potential donors. The winter 2009 issue of the Frick Collection's magazine for its members, itself a fund-raising tool, has photographs of a fund raiser. A well-dressed crowd assembled for dinner in the Frick's majestic long hall, surrounded by Rembrandts and Turners.

Alan Wallach took the lead in critiques like these. He described older museums, such as the Louvre, as compendiums of knowledge—like what Michel Foucault called the "panopticon." The project involves setting limits on what counts as civilization, and it creates an all-seeing eye that controls who belongs. In another essay, he asks how the modern American museum arose. He sees it as a rejection of nineteenth-century American museums devoted to plaster casts.

He quotes Samuel Parish in 1898, calling casts as the "real treasures" of the Parish Art Museum, then the Southhampton Art Gallery:

In Parish's view, collections of "modern pictures," although "interesting and valuable," did not compare in educational worth with "plaster reproductions of the antique and Renaissance sculpture, those masterpieces of the genius of man at its highest period of development in the world of art."

Today's museums, "accustomed to equating museum art with notions of originality and authenticity," have sent its casts to the basement or the trash. "As the robber baron collectors began to discover their fortunes equal to the prices charged for old master paintings," Wallach continues, "connoisseurship became increasingly professionalized." At the same time, the goal of the museum changed, to educating the public on esthetic qualities that no mere copy could contain.

Three versions of authenticity

Having trouble imagining a museum of plaster casts? That alone shows how much has changed. I had a surprise in store myself, in entering some traditional art schools. I could see full-scale models of great works of the past, from ancient Rome to Michelangelo and beyond. Wallach sees the change as a new valuation of originality and authenticity. This, in turn, reinforces the new power of the upper middle class—by valuing their privileged eye for genius.

For all that, I think, Wallach is wrong. At first glance, he merely repeats a long line of criticism debunking originality. Others, too, have linked the idea to capitalism's elevation of the individual creator and individual consumer. Each asks if art is to move beyond its investment in genius. Walter Benjamin praised "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and John Berger even popularized his thesis for television with "Ways of Seeing." Rosalind E. Krauss wrote of "The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths."

Wallach continues the story, and with that one can already see a flaw. Each version underestimates art's or capitalism's ability to absorb criticism. The collage, photography, and anti-art that Benjamin admired have entered the museums. With Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, appropriation has even become a shortcut to the Met roof and to stardom. The many casts by Auguste Rodin that Krauss admired mostly discourage looking or criticism. By the time American education stopped caring about anatomical studies and plaster casts, European painting had taken up genre painting, landscape, and other inventions long before.

However, this summary overlooks something: each version of the story shifts the target and the savior, in order to justify and to criticize the art of its time. Benjamin, writing in 1935, saw authenticity as a premodern invention. It had roots in the wealth of the aristocracy. However, it flourished with Romanticism, the image of the Romantic genius, and the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Modernism was a revolution in the arts, he believed, with potential for a transformation of consciousness and a greater revolution.

Writing in the 1980s, Krauss sees Modernism as the problem, but also containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Her call for an end to Modernism accords with Postmodernism. So does her strategy—the trust in internal contradictions. It goes back to Marxist dialectics, but as given new life in cultural criticism like Benjamin's. It also accords with philosophers after structuralism, such as Jacques Derrida.

Strategically, Wallach takes an older Marxist line, based on who owns what and who benefits. He also turns against everything past a certain point, the dawn of Modernism. Everything since then, he argues, is infected. His revolution, curiously enough, celebrates a deep past. This tactic may sound less than promising. It is a thoughtful and insightful history, and I keep learning from it, but it is also disingenuous.

The birth of the copy

Wallach relies on selective evidence by his very subject, the American museum. As he knows from his writings on the Louvre and elsewhere, European museums valued originals long before. Art had long depended on patronage, wealth, and a decidedly premodern style, a style that Ilya Kabakov evokes with The Empty Museum—not unlike photographs of an actual empty museum by Wijnanda Deroo. They just happened to belong to the aristocracy. Capitalism shifted the terms of patronage, with problems of its own, but it did not invent the issue.

Moreover, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the modern museum was decades away. Wallach elides the shift from casts to originals with the shift to display "modern pictures." However, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a gallery with the name "Art of This Century" took another, later act of defiance. In fact, it took reinserting art into ordinary life. By then the struggles of Laocoön would look melodramatic, in reproduction or not.

Benjamin had this right after all: a past age had as much or more invested in genius. Parish insists on it in that very quote: museums exist to display "masterpieces of the genius of man at its highest period of development." Only that genius and that period lay elsewhere. In fact, Parish never once refers to authenticity one way or another—not because the term or "certificates of authenticity" did not yet exist, but because Wallach's equation of genius with a rejection of the copy is ahistorical.

American museums were out to "sivilize" America, like Huckleberry Finn's elders. They were also out to educate students of art, who learned by copying these models. The privileged class could learn in another way as well—the obligatory Jamesian experience as an American abroad. That explains why "modern pictures" could not make the grade. If modern artists learned by drawing from casts of great sculpture, they were producing mere copies of copies. They could not make great art, because that would take an original.

What changed was not so much the birth of the original as the birth of the copy. Along with new buyers, new audiences, and new art, there came new means of reproduction. Who needed casts, when arts education could have slide lectures and illustrated textbooks—and as European painting and sculpture landed in America? Copies became less essential, but not solely because the original had its privilege. They became less essential because other reproductions and the originals, too, took over their function. Artists could turn on these as well, with collage and new standards that rebelled against Romantic dramas in favor of the everyday social universe.

Now the market has become dominant, with disturbing effects. At the same time, the museum's independence is often now at war with the market. For the first time, it looks suspect when a museum displays a private collection apart from its permanent collection. A critique of institutions is still essential, but as often in the name of art and artists. Originality, authenticity, and genius have not lost their hold. They are just at war with themselves, and the war zone is more than ever in need of reporters.

A director's dream

It is also in need of you. The Met has one used by now to exiting its shows through a gift shop, often as meandering and spacious as an exhibition hall. One enters "The Philippe de Montebello Years" through a store as well—in its corridor off the twentieth-century wing. This once, though, I could swear that I had never left.

The Met celebrates its departing director without obvious regard to nation, culture, style, or medium. Unlike the dignified Morgan Library's new acquisitions, it really does look more like a shopping occasion than a museum collection. Those familiar pictures on the wall must be poster reproductions, no? The objects among them, on pedestals and in display cases, must surely be its tchotchkes. They go handsomely with another exhibition, "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy." With its jewelry, fine-paneled furniture, and birthing trays amid paintings by Titian, Filippo Lippi, and lesser lights, it supplies the bridal registry—along with an earlier age's notion of porn.

But no, this art is the genuine object—and a costly one. The first show's "three decades of acquisitions" include many of my favorites and I bet some of yours as well. de Montebello can take pride in such popular work as its enigmatic Jan Vermeer Study of a Young Woman, Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh, Marilyn by Richard Avedon, and Georgia O'Keeffe, looking nearly as sexy and twice as sly behind a black sweater in a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. It has surely the largest and most majestic of White Flags, in three panels by Jasper Johns, and my favorite of all, a family self-portrait by Peter-Paul Rubens. In his later years, with a younger wife and young child, he has more than ever the warmth and confidence of an artist and lover. Besides, they keep their kid on a leash.

The chance to wander from Africa to America and back also lets one linger over things one might otherwise miss. I never visit the musical instruments and rarely linger over examples over Chinese calligraphy, and here I wanted to hold so many of them both in my hands. I might normally rush past Joachim Wtewael as fast as possible on my way to the Baroque, but his oil on copper brings out the chill and excess of late Mannerism. I might never put up with Baron Gérard's odes to the nineteenth-century French aristocracy, but his satiny colors play off a filmy dress. In pen, watercolor, and gouache from India, a fruit bat arches his chest and stretches out one wing like another polished, caped performer—a Romantic antihero. Oddly enough, a small scale almost hides de Montebello's most costly acquisition of all, the Madonna and Child by Duccio.

A visit can still illuminate art's historical evolution, especially of the early Baroque and starting in the early 1980s. In a Lamentation by Lodovico Caracci, the earthiest in style of three brothers, Jesus is based on a study of anatomy but has an otherworldly pallor, while the mourners drawn from the imagination look alive. It contrasts with a similar but tighter composition not twenty years later by Domenichino. The same artist later borrows from representations of the dead Christ to further humanize his full-scale drawing of the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia. More often, though, the exhibition's only real periods are the Met—and who knew that a museum has periods? With each decade, it paints the walls a different color.

The periods also belong to the Met's special exhibitions. Objects may enter the collection through an exhibition or serve as the germ of one, but either way a museum views the occasion as an opportunity for growth. Regular museum-goers will recognize Caspar David Friedrich and his Moonwatchers or Winter Pool, a combine painting and collaboration by Robert Rauschenberg. Its panels flank a wooden ladder leading up or down, but only to the cold. After a display devoted to her holdings, Muriel Kallis Newman donated Number 28, 1950 by Jackson Pollock. Finally "The Philippe de Montebello Years" indeed ends in the gift shop, and it really does amount to one of two concurrent shows devoted to patronage.

For all that, the very notion of patronage has changed since the Renaissance. As Postmodern critics have argued, the notion changed with the advent of the modern museum, and that institution has altered art. In fact, every exhibition, not just this one, is also the Met's not unbiased celebration of its curators and itself. In another acquisition of note, a burst of blue falls on nearly bare canvas. Below it, Joan Miró writes, "this is the color of my dreams" (ceci est la couleur de mes rêves). Anyone can dream, but not just anybody gets to spend.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Alan Wallach's "The American Cast Museum: An Episode in the History of the Institutional Definition of Art" appeared as Chapter 3 in Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 1998). "The Philippe de Montebello Years" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, 2009, "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy" through February 16.

 

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