get off my (museum) lawn!

Originally posted at my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities. It may or may not be a coincidence that my opinion of the articles in question is smack dab in the middle. Such is a Gen-X life. 

Maybe it’s just me but is it “dump on museums” month? First arts writer Judith Dobrzynski bemoans how participatory museums have caused “high culture” to hit the skids. Then CNN Travel senior producer James Durston makes a point of telling us why he thinks museums suck. All of a sudden, museums have everybody’s knickers in knots.

My first reaction was of the “Oh, no they didn’t!” variety. The museum industry is my baby and resisting my first instinct to tear into this conversation like a rabid mama wolverine was pretty challenging. So I took a deep breath, read both articles and the comments multiple times, and tried to unpack what was before me.

I’m showing my Gen-X stripes here but I read most of Ms. Dobrzynski’s “High Culture Goes Hands-On” in the voice of comedian Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day, art museums were elitist and stodgy and nobody talked or had fun and we liked it.”

Grumpy old man

Take this passage:

In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.

True, museums are repositories and stewards of human material culture. But since when has visiting anything been a passive experience? Even a seemingly mundane trip to the grocery store involves multi-layered engagement. How do you expect people to find that beauty and inspiration without activating their senses? And to suggest that the “uplift” gained from quietly viewing so-called masterpieces has more inherent value than engaging in robust conversation surrounding contemporary art is the epitome of hubris. Is the experience worthless because it isn’t the way you prefer to engage with art?

Just for grins, let’s visit the other end of the spectrum with Mr. Durston’s “Why I Hate Museums” where he takes issue with museum funding:

Many of the world’s biggest and best museums are dependent on public money. London’s Natural History Museum needed £82 million ($128 million) to operate over 2012/2013, and nearly £46 million of this, 56%, came from government grants. The Smithsonian has been government funded to the tune of $811.5 million for 2013 — 65% of its total costs. Yet these are still cited as among their country’s best ‘free’ activities.

And while he admits he hasn’t given much thought to how museums contribute to economies, he goes on to say:

But the collect-and-cage policy that defines the visible exhibits, much of which is not even visible most of the time, is anathema to an engaging experience.

More experience, not less. Caged objects, no food/no photo policies, mismanagement, and museums that glorify their architecture over their contents give him the blues. Drama, excitement, and theater should be the order of the day. On its face, this is an argument I can agree with. Audience engagement is central to what I do as a museum employee. Unlike most of the commenters, I don’t assume that Durston, a self-described “museum-phobe”, is a dundering, uncultured idiot. He’s right. Some museums come off like their administrators are allergic to fun. But isn’t saying that museums are important while simultaneously insinuating that none of them are worth supporting financially the worst kind of backhanded compliment?

These articles present as thirsty click-bait, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is the rancid divisiveness that’s sprung up as a result. As others more eloquent than me have pointed out, applying an “either-or” mentality to this discussion is ridiculous. All humans aren’t alike, so there’s no way to craft a singular experience that appeals to everyone. Yet we continue to focus on the differences when we should learn from the commonalities. It’s a distracting shell game that accomplishes nothing except pitting one side against the other in a tiresome, age-old argument.

Despite the disparity of their arguments, Dobrzynski  and Durston are saying the same thing: Museums are letting me down. So instead of name-calling, let’s put our collective brains together to figure out how to create open, encouraging environments that allow the peaceful co-existence of a variety of experiences, from quiet contemplation to boisterous activity.

That’s the only way to serve us all.

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Leaving Flowers For Andy

Earlier this week The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, one of the family of Carnegie Museums, announced a special happening for what would have been the artist’s 85th birthday. In cooperation with a church and a technology partner, the museum established a 24/7, night vision enabled live on the web camera feed at Andy Warhol’s grave to capture and perhaps protect the grave of one of America’s most well known and celebrated artists.

The news of this has traveled the world two or three times over by now, and you’d have to live under a goddamned rock not to have heard of it by now. What it all means? I know what one of my mentors Clyde would say. He would say, “It’s very interesting stuff. VERY interesting.” Sometimes we have conversations like this about the significance of things, and believe it or not, Clyde is nothing like Artie Feldman on Laugh In in a Nazi helmet and uniform holding a joint. It is interesting. When I shared it on social media channels, most people voted with the acid in their stomachs and said “Creepy!”

In the course of my service as an art, culture, and museum soldier, I probably have attained the rank of First Lieutenant. Maybe it’s a Brevet rank only, and I am really just a sergeant doing 1st Lt. things because all the 1st and 2nd Looies are dead. This has crossed my mind. Rank of any kind has its privileges, and one of those has been I have met some of the leading Andy Warhol scholars in Pennsylvania, the home state to an artist most often associated with New York City. How Pennsylvania clings to its sons and daughters is also interesting to me. New York could lay claim to Andy, but Pennsylvania, at least for now, has won the battle in the culture wars to keep Andy close to home. Scholarship about Andy is plentiful, and I have met more than a couple of people who met Andy somewhere along the line.

So here’s where I tell you I am some kind of expert on Andy Warhol or Pop Art, right? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I know more than the Average Bear about Andy Warhol, and I’ve given it a few days to have an opinion about the spectacle that is a live feed of a celebrity grave. It is a little creepy, but like one of the scholars I know might say, “That’s SO Andy!” She never met him. She doesn’t and didn’t approve of his approach to making art. She projects her own morality onto Andy’s. All of this seems like it would fall in the negative column, but for the most part, her scholarship is, taken with the pill that is knowing her, a very good start to understanding Andy Warhol, the last half of the 20th Century in America, and the looming threat of celebritization that is now our daily evening menu on television.

An author and curator I know well would fall into nearly the opposite camp, and she would say, “Andy would have been embarrassed to death by this.” She, too, brings her own gentle problems to the task of figuring out who Andy was. I think she would prefer to go back in time and hug him to writing about him. Yet she knows hugging him would have made him feel like a plank of wood on an alien planet with voluptuous probes wrapping around his bony parts. The damp warmth of a human embrace might have melted Andy on this planet.

One of the collectors I know who met Andy would probably say, “I don’t know what Andy would have said about this – unless it was his idea. Then he would just snow you about it anyway.” If you ever heard Andy being interviewed or talking about his art, this is probably the wisest piece of insight you’ll ever get about Andy Warhol. The former director of the Warhol museum, Tom Sokolowski, would probably come pretty close to the same conclusion although there’d be more swearing and a better delivery.

Andy was profoundly strange and creepy. He was incredibly self conscious, but he was also highly self aware. Andy was, in fact, spiritual and clingy about his strange-outside-of-Pennsylvania ethnic Catholicism. He loved his mother. He ate tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich every day for lunch. He liked getting one over on the art world, and mostly he wanted to be liked and was lonely. This sounds to me like he was just like the rest of us. I’m not sure even he bought completely into the idea that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Andy’s minutes are longer than mine.

The camera at his grave captures fame seekers, art mourners, weirdo worshipers, museum people on pilgrimages, and curious kids. Most cemeteries and graveyards are lonely places; families don’t hop in the station wagon and go see grampa’s grave on a Sunday afternoon after Mass and lunch these days. They used to. Those were different times.