Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

(Some) Museum matters

The Berkshire Museum's plan to sell 40 works of art, including one of Norman Rockwell's best paintings, to pay bills has generated protests. (Gillian Jones / AP)

1.  Berkshire Museum: there are merits to its proposal to sell paintings. There has been an uproar because the Berkshire Museum, a community museum that is more of a cultural center with a wide ranging collections of objects, including paintings, has proposed to sell a number of works and refocus not on paintings but other elements of its program.  The proceeds would be used to build an endowment and invest in the museum.

-- coverage from the Berkshire Eagle

This is contrary to ethical practice guidelines in the art museum profession, which states that proceeds from sales of objects can only be used for purchasing other works of art.  The guidelines forbid selling of works to fund programs, renovations, construction, or endowment ("Why a Massachusetts museum selling its prized Norman Rockwell painting should worry art museums everywhere," Los Angeles Times).

The Berkshire Museum argues it isn't really an art museum, that as other institutions in the region--including MassMOCA, the Clark Institute of Art, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and university and college museums--developed deeper fine arts programs and collections, its art collection was outspanned, which gives them the opportunity to focus their mission and program, and become very good at it.

Much of the writings about their proposals haven't been favorable.  But Joseph Thompson, director of MassMOCA--the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts in North Adams, disagrees, writing ("A case for the Berkshire Museum's decision to sell art") in the Berkshire Eagle, stating that the Museum has done exactly what people are saying it should do--plan and make hard choices.

I thought he was pretty convincing.  From the article:
The Berkshire Museum's role within this constellation of art-centric institutions is not diminished by the shifting landscape — indeed, its profile and mission have become uniquely and increasingly valuable. But its offering is based, at its core, not on its art collection — which is quirky and delightful, if episodic, and often less than ideally displayed — but rather in the manner it juxtaposes the natural sciences, antiquities, art, and historical artifacts in ways that educate, excite and beguile.

That is to say that the Berkshire Museum's unique cultural advantage within our region — gathering us as a community to discover and explore our connections to the world — does not rely on a single work of art, nor 40, nor even 400. The very being of many cultural institutions is built around particular works of art, or on the strength and concentrated essence of certain parts of their collection. Rockwell at Rockwell. Impressionism at The Clark.

The Berkshire Museum is simply not one of those. Instead, we cherish the Berkshire Museum for the quixotic diversity of its collection, and its power to draw interdisciplinary links between science, nature, and culture through layered educational programs. It can continue to do that with the 2,400 works of art in its collection and 38,000 other wonderful objects, specimens and artifacts. It cannot do that, however, without the means to remain in business. When Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said that this is a moment of existential crisis, he meant it. Let's get real: The museum's survival is at stake.
Note that wrt the sale of particularly beloved paintings, when deaccessioning, I believe a museum should make every effort to ensure that the works of art stay local, such as how the Eakins painting "The Gross Clinic," was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art when Jefferson Medical University put the work up for sale ("Philadelphia Raises Enough Money to Retain 'The Gross Clinic,' an Eakins Masterpiece," New York Times). That's probably what should happen with the Rockwell paintings in the Berkshire Museum collection.

2.  Newseum: will it close? In DC the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the news-gathering industry and created by what had been a foundation associated with Gannett Newspapers (publisher of USA Today and many metropolitan newspapers across the country), is facing serious financial difficulties ("Newseum considering outright sales of its Pennsylvania Avenue home," Washington Business Journal).

Because it was built at time of great economic chaos for newspaper chains and even television station groups no longer have the great profitability they once enjoyed, they haven't been able to build much of an endowment ("The Newseum opened as the journalism industry tanked," Washington Post).

The Newseum has found, like other museums in DC, that charging admission when most of the city's museums--run by the federal government--are free is a losing proposition. It's not helped by liberal salaries from the foundation to board members.  Nor the fact that they spent so much--reported to be $450 million--to build it.

It's a cool place, but then I have always loved newspapers (not so much local television news programming) and their relevance is rapidly fading in the face of digital news delivery.

One of the reasons the Newseum has financial problems is that at the time they decided to move to DC, they acquired their site at a very expensive price, paying the DC Government $100 million, at a time when DC was still only just beginning its Post-Marion-Barry upward trajectory ("D.C. Mayor Agrees To Newseum Plan," Post, 2000).

It was a strong vote of confidence in DC at a time when such "votes" were still few and far between.

Had the Freedom Forum been able to keep most of that money and apply it to the endowment for the museum, it would be in a much different financial position.

Most non-federal museums in DC have a tough time, with one exception, the International Spy Museum. It's a for profit museum, but seems to remain successful, even as other for profit museums like Madame Tussaud's or the now shuttered National Museum of Crime and Punishment limp along.

The degradation of facts in news and the ongoing vilification of the profession by President Trump is proof of a pressing need for such a museum.

3.  Proposal for an model railroad and architecture museum in the Berkshires. Speaking of a museum plan likely to fail, the Boston Globe reports on a proposal for a new museum in the Berkshires, to be designed by Frank Gehry.

The Berkshires--Western Massachusetts--is a widely touted example of arts-based revitalization, anchored by MassMOCA ("MassMOCA: expansive plans for the future," Boston Globe), complemented by a number of related institutions and initiatives ("The promise of MASS MoCA," CommonWealth Magazine; "MassMOCA and the revitalization of North Adams," Create Equity).

Separately, Frank Gehry's architecturally sculptural buildings have had some success in generating what is called "architourism," with the best example being the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The term “the Bilbao effect” has been coined to describe how dramatically designed buildings in major cities can be the foundation of post-industrial urban revitalization agendas linked to the creative economy and a revived tourism industry, organized around what is called “architectural tourism” (“Public space and Architectural tourism, Archipaper).

– “The Bilbao Effect,” Dwell Magazine
– “The Bilbao Effect,” Art Newspaper
– “The Bilbao Effect,” American Way Magazine

Although many cities that have tried something similar, believing any type of museum will suffice, have failed. In her thesis, Evdoxia Baniotopoulou argues that only art museums seem to have the transcendent drawing power that makes for successful projects ("Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and their Role in Transforming Societies: The Case of the Guggenheim Bilbao," Journal of Museum and Conservation Studies, 2001).

The new museum will cost $65 million to build and will feature 110 model railroad layouts in continuous operation as well as exhibits from a collection of architectural models. They forecast far more annual paying visitors than is likely--500,000 to 700,000--given that MassMOCA gets about 165,000 annual visitors and the Clark Art Institute about 170,000. The museum will be privately financed as a for profit venture.

It is part of a larger project, an expansion of the Western Gateway Heritage State Park, spearheaded by Thomas Krens, former director of the Guggenheim ("Grand plans in North Adams," Berkshire Eagle), who also is the person who came up with the idea for MassMOCA, back in the 1980s, when he was director of the Williams College Museum of Art and the factory buildings in North Adams were shuttering as the businesses ceased to operate.   From the article:
Totaling an estimated $300 million and comprising 11 components, the citywide redevelopment plan aims at creating a "cultural corridor" between North Adams and Williamstown, leveraging existing Northern Berkshire assets like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and Clark Art Institute.
I am big on planning and creating "cultural corridors," but I am not sure I would stake the success on this particular museum concept.  It doesn't seem likely to succeed, although at a cost of $65 million to build versus the $450 million cost of the Newseum, its construction and operating costs will be much easier to handle, but still steep.

Still, while Thomas Krens ("Whatever happened to Tom Krens?," Observer) has been criticized in many quarters for his Guggenheim expansion program, which has reshaped the field more generally, his successful creation of MassMOCA and Guggenheim Bilbao are very much to his credit, even if some of the branches failed (Las Vegas) or closed (Berlin), while the Abu Dhabi museum still hasn't started construction ("A decade later, still no contract to build Guggenheim in UAE," AP), and the project in Helsinki did not move forward.

4.  Metropolitan Museum of Art interview with Thomas Campbell, who recently stepped down.  There was a lot of controversy over the tenure of Thomas Campbell, the director of the Met, who had the misfortune of succeeding one of the art museum world's leading directors.  Coverage of the museum's financial and other matters in the New York Times put Mr. Campbell in a particularly bad light, and he resigned, replaced by the Museum's president.

In the artnet two-part interview, Campbell argues he was an agent of change, and even though the changes went forward, successfully, resistance to the changes, a change in the board of directors, and the media coverage and protest in the art world made it time for him to leave.

-- "From Tapestry to Twombly: Thomas Campbell on Why He Became the Met’s Surprise Champion of New Art"
-- "Mutiny at the Met? Thomas Campbell on the Price of Modernization at America’s Greatest Museum"

5.  My proposal for a heritage streetcar system to serve the National Mall has a model in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I haven't been to Lowell, Massachusetts, where the city's revitalization program has been anchored in part by the creation of a (now federally designated) heritage area, focused on the industrial history of the former mill town. 

Therefore, I didn't know that the heritage area has a small streetcar system run by the Seashore Trolley Museum, using heritage streetcar replicas of designs with New England roots, to move people around the park.  It's an example that I'll have to tout in the future.

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At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Changing of the guard at the Met--additionally, you don't let "Masters of the Universe" have control of the purse strings.


At 10:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Speaking of giving keys to the masters of the universe being a bad idea, that was a big issue with another NY arts institution too, but I can't remember which one.

Maybe the Metropolitan Opera, but while I had read this article before:

it's not the incident I'm thinking about.


At 10:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Rockwell family sues the Berkshire Museum to stop the deaccessioning and sale of the artworks.


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