THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Neil Goodman
“The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast, the slow one now will later be fast, as the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’.”
Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’
When I was younger, I always thought of museums as repositories of culture, staid in their confidence of collecting fixed moments of time for eternity. Culture had made its decisions, value imbedded, and the decisions final. As I aged, I began to see the situation more organically, as posing a set of questions and answers for each generation, with the answers as fluid and viscous as the questions themselves.
If absolute truth perhaps evades us, my hope was still that the work institutions collected and showcased embodied those values and gave a permanent voice to artists whose careers had been vetted by the long view, in which judgments were layered by both the pedigree of time and a significant exhibition history.
But the times have indeed changed, and museums are changing with them. Those values are still imbedded within that culture, yet other questions are pertinent and influence museum programming and decisions. With this matrix in mind, I asked four geographically diverse, university-based museums to respond to a set of questions that address this rubric and shed light on how their decision-making is influenced by our time’s norms and concerns.
The participating museums were the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University (Lisa Graziose Corrin), the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University (Gregg Hertzlieb), the Hammer Museum at UCLA (Claudia Bestor), and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) (Lawrence Rinder).
Three of the museum directors responded to the questions via email, while the Block’s responses were based on a phone interview. As the answers were significantly longer than this article’s intended length, the responses have been edited. Quoted responses are verbatim.
Block: “The goal should be that when a visitor comes to the museum, they see themselves as in some way reflected within the walls and offered ways of seeing and thinking different than what they grew up with.”
Brauer: “Contemporary programming is relevant to our community by drawing attention to issues of identity… and something we can feel through discussion.”
The Hammer: “We have a long history of programming that covers the most crucial social and political events of our time through a long-standing forum series and we carry that thread throughout our other programs… We try to be a platform for people to speak out in their own voices about things they care about.”
BAMPFA: “The inspiration to diversify our program comes not from outside pressure but from the values and sense of mission of our own staff. We are highly cognizant of the importance of presenting a program that is balanced in gender representation and which redresses the historical under-exposure of artists of color.”
(Left) Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
(Right) Lisa Graziose Corrin, Director
2. How does cultural diversity affect your programming?
Block: “Responsible organizations will be diverse, challenge conventions and present a multiplicity of viewpoints.”
Brauer: “Cultural diversity causes us to think more consciously about how we are speaking and to whom our programming is directed. We at the Brauer think today with greater awareness about stories that need to be told and about those who could benefit from the telling of the stories…I want to appeal to human concerns but also want to share many voices, each with the capability to inspire.”
The Hammer: Our mission “believes in the promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world. The director felt everyone at the museum actively seeks out different perspectives and points of view in trying to fulfill that mission. As a result, a broad scope of representation exists in all their programming.”
BAMPFA: “Cultural diversity is our programming. As an encyclopedic museum, our collections-in both art and film-are global in scope.”
(Right) Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana (Left) Gregg Hertzlieb, Director and Curator
3. Do you feel that you have overlooked contemporary artists that work in more conservative traditions?
Block: “We believe that all forms are equally valid, avoid hierarchies, and embrace human creativity in all forms.”
Brauer: The museum is “steeped in conservative or traditional art-making approaches personally and so is more likely to be overlooking artists working in newer media…. Meanwhile, we as curators continue to learn about the contemporary scene in order to offer it as inspiring new material.”
The Hammer thought this question was more applicable as a question for curators.
BAMPFA: “I assume that what you mean by ‘conservative’ is for the most part, representational painting. We have continued to present artists who work in this media and mode.”
(Left) The Hammer Museum of Art, UCLA, Los Angeles, California
(Right) Claudia Bestor, Director, Public Programs
4. What changes have you made in the last several years in the field and what changes would you like your museum to make?
Rather than change, the Block emphasized what makes the museum different from anything else in the university is the importance of art as a material manifestation of human thought. This materiality is transformative to our way of thinking and understanding of the world.
Brauer: “We have truly increased our commitment to diversity in the collection and in our exhibitions, and we will continue to do that. I feel proud as an educator to be able to share powerful works of art created by women, by African Americans, by artists working in a variety of faith traditions and from a variety of backgrounds.”
The Hammer noted that, in the past few years, it has experimented with some longer single topic series: “Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the world and, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we did a year-long film series exploring multiple facets of Armenian culture, history and landscapes….”
BAMPFA: “Since opening our new downtown Berkeley location, we have added a number of programming threads, such as the Black Life and Fall event series, that not only enrich the museum with diverse cultural perspectives but which are themselves programmed through cross-sector partnerships and by curatorial authority delegated to members of diverse communities. In the future, an area of focus for BAMPFA will be to acquire key works by 20th century artists of color whose work was relatively overlooked at the time it was made.”
(Right) Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, California (Left) Lawrence Rinder, Director
All of the institutions have developed different approaches to these questions. Interestingly, though, they consistently have seen their mission as shifting and engaging their communities with these thoughts as an organic part of their mission. They are seeking to move with the world as well as move the world, and all four institutions contribute to engaging their communities with a core set of values based on diversity and a multiplicity of viewpoints.
Most of the additions to programming naturally reflect how conversations about race, gender, and ethnicity have become part of the dialogue. They also show a more elastic definition of boundaries. While each museum reflects its vision, its funding and its directorship, another indication of change would be to see what curatorial positions have been added and which departments have been added to over the past several years. Designated resources are the material evidence of change, and curatorial positions and job descriptions reflect and respond to those changes in values and definitions.
If we could look forward one hundred years from now, it would be interesting to see how museums had once again reconfigured their mission and responded to their times. University museums are less cumbersome ships to maneuver and, as their stewardship is strongly connected to academic freedom, perhaps they have a certain timeliness and flexibility in programming that differentiates them from larger institutions. As we look ahead, it is also equally interesting to see what is remembered and what is forgotten and how our values and norms bring the past into the present and anticipate the future.
Neil Goodman is the Los Angeles correspondent for the New Art Examiner.
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