The lecture '"Why Museums Matter" has been adapted from the lecture "Why Art Museums Matter", this presentation with slides has been given at the following;
1995 Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
1996 Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii
2005 Gulf Coast Museum of Art, Largo, Florida
2006 The Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan
2007 The Pollock-Krasner Center, Long Island, NY
Cranbrook Art Museum.
'WHY MUSEUMS MATTER'
Keynote Address, Awards Luncheon. Wednesday 19 September 2007.
Florida Association of Museums Annual Meeting,
Belleview Biltmore Resort, Clearwater FL.
Wednesday, 19 September 2007.
Director Emeritus, Cranbrook Art Museum.
Obviously, museums do matter, which is why you are here today. Let us start with definitions. The word matter means: “to be of importance or consequence”. You will all agree that museums are indeed of importance and consequence.
The word ‘museum’ comes from the Greek mouseion: a place sacred to the muses; a place for the muses or study. The dictionary definition is: “a building/ room, for preserving and exhibiting artistic, historical; or scientific objects”. That definition has now been expanded to include any center dedicated to the study of the arts and sciences and, in modern usage, any building in which are preserved and exhibited objects. Professionally, the art museum is defined as: “a permanent, nonprofit institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose, with professional staff, which acquires objects, cares for them, interprets them and exhibits them to the public on some regular schedule”. Every museum represented here shares that purpose: “to procure, preserve, protect and present”; whereas the mission of every museum is education.
President John F. Kennedy said that we judge civilizations by their culture. At the time of the Bicentennial, for the first time in 200 years, the arts of America were recognized and celebrated. In 1967, when I arrived at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington was a sleepy southern town. By the Bicentennial, within a decade, the nation’s capital had become a cultural capital. Museums played a critical role with the building of the East Wing of the National Gallery: the Hirschhorn Museum; The Air & Space Museum; The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: Arena Stage and much more. Museums were recognized as playing a vital role in our history and nation. You should be proud to be involved in museums. Museums do matter.
Our museums reflect creativity, history, culture, ideas, innovation, exploration, discovery, diversity, freedom of expression and the ideals of democracy. Today, museums matter more than ever; as museums do protect and preserve our culture and civilization. In these dark and dismal days of nationalism; religious wars; terrorism and torture; museums present the highest ideals and achievements of humankind to be admired and cherished.
Last year, 2006, was designated ‘the year of the museum’. 100 years ago the American Association of Museums came into being and, among the celebrations, was a book: “100 years of Museums in America” by Marjorie Schwarzer. Let me quote the opening paragraph: “The American museum is a prism of American society. Its buildings reflect civic pride, often serving as examples of outstanding architectural accomplishment. Its collections are evidence of the nation’s boundless curiosity, our desire to know the achievements of other people, other lands, other times. Its exhibitions tell us stories, adding to the ever changing, sometimes contentious meanings we Americans give to history, to culture, to identity. The way the museum is managed and funded speaks to its position in the community, its many publics and political importance. The American museum today, more than at any of the time over the past century, it is a place of exchange, encounter and education. As a chorus of different voices, an arena of differing, sometimes warring interpretations, the museum has grown to become a reflection of American democracy itself”.
In the past, churches and banks were built to reflect greatness and inspire confidence. Museums were built to glorify and celebrate the arts and sciences. However, these magnificent beaux arts buildings, such as the Metropolitan or Corcoran, with towering edifices and grand entries, can overwhelm and awe the visitor. Modern architecture presents another issue and that is the ego of the architect where, particularly in art museums, the architecture can overwhelm the function of a museum: that is to show art.
Many issues exist within the museum. Is the museum for entertainment or education? New technologies pose both potential and problem in regard to the immediacy and experience of the original object. Rather than virtual reality, why not reality: the primary experience offered in our museums.
In this regard, Ford Bell, AAM President, talked to us about museums as being “essential and not a luxury”. He also stressed the need to see “real” objects; to experience the original as offered by museums.
Of the many concerns, I wrote an article, in 1982, on art museums in America: “The Temple Flourishes”. Ironically the conclusion of that article would seem to apply to museums today; for I wrote, “The problems continue to grow and administrators worry about budgets, climate control, security, conservation, acquisitions, trustees, volunteers, journalists, critics, artists, membership, guides, AIDS, politicians, orientation, elevators, transportation, insurance, parking, building repair and restoration, lighting, heating, garbage disposal, Museum shops, reproductions, exhibitions, catalogs, posters, invitations, annual reports, tours, attendance, education, special events, lawsuits, equal rights, feminism, federalism, regionalism, regulations, minorities, food service, lavatories, access the handicapped, storage, archives, accreditation and, maybe, the purpose of their Museum what ever it may be: art, history, science, children…..” “Museums by their very existence insure a finger grasp on civilization which seems ever to slipping away from us.”
Of course, the problems are many, some of which I have just mentioned, but, always, the overriding issue seems to be that of funding. My feeling was, and is, that if museums provide programs of quality and excellence then financial support will be forthcoming.
Another issue that has to be addressed, mentioned by Ford Bell, is the ethnic diversity that must be reflected in and embraced by our museums at this time. With the changing population of our communities and country, I feel that this can be addressed and changes occur, as is evident by the ever growing role of women in museums. I became director of the Corcoran in 1972 and, later, was elected to the Association of Art Museum Directors. At that first meeting, I noticed that there were no women present. In recent years that has changed dramatically with many major museums directed by women from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Here in Florida, women are directors at many museums including the Norton; Harn; and Gulf Coast Museums of Art and, nearby, at the Dunedin Fine Art Center and Heritage Village. Women museum directors now make up nearly half the members of AAMD. Women play a vital and growing role in our profession and rightly so. In the same way, I feel that the issue of ethnic diversity will be addressed by and in our museums.
Of course, you could also say that another problem could be existing relationships in museums. I did address the opening session of directors and trustees on Saturday and said, in simplistic terms, that “the director should direct and the trustees should trust”. I added that, in a conference with the theme ‘making connections’ and emphasizing ‘collaboration’, the most important collaboration in the museum is between the board of trustees and the director. Equally important is the collaboration amongst the staff and with the director. Respect and trust leads to cooperation and commitment: critical to the ongoing operation and visionary vitality of any Museum.
The educational mission of museums cannot be over emphasized. The educational role is the purpose of any museum. The WK Kellogg Foundation’s report ‘Catalysts for Change’ states: “The idea of museums as educational institutions is not new, however, in the museum world. Virtually every museum in this country was founded with a charter that made education a central mandate.”
The NEA Museum Program Review, 1989, commenced: “America art museums have long viewed themselves as educational institutions committed to enhancing the quality of cultural life in this country. In a sense, all activities fulfill this primary mission of education: lectures, tours, catalogs, brochures and even videos produced by museums are geared to this end. Presentation is not a passive enterprise.”
The educational mission for all museums is paramount to their being. To further human understanding may be the most meaningful rationale. Museums can enrich and transform lives in this millennium thru furthering awareness and understanding between all races and countries. In this way, museums nurture universal appreciation and respect among the world’s diverse cultures.
For a moment, let us consider the art museum and today’s problem of disputed ownership. James Cuno, director of the Chicago Art Institute, has stated that this is an age of “resurgent nationalism”. Cultural property and ownership has become a political issue. However, as Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum has said the issue is not that of “ownership but stewardship”. To understand world culture, objects and ideas must be preserved and shared. In his publication “Whose Muse?”, James Cuno writes that, “In museums, people can experience a sense of place and be inspired, one object at a time, to pursue the ideal of objectivity and to be led from beauty to justice… by caring.”
In the words of Harold Williams, past president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, “The world without the arts would be barren, without soul. It is difficult to imagine a human society without the arts. What dark and empty souls repopulate such a place and environment without paintings, statues, architecture, dramas, music, dance or poems? The arts define what we mean by civilization. They are part of the foundation and the framework of our culture. As a language through which we can express our common aspirations, the arts are a channel to understanding and appreciating other cultures. To be conversant with the arts is to be a civilized people, to be cultured. The arts are a basic and central medium of human communication and understanding.”
Although written about the arts, these words apply to all museums, whether science or history or children; for how sad and sorry would society be without our museums.
Museums matter for many reasons because museums:
- preserve and present our culture and times
- protect our heritage and freedom of expression
- help us understand our history and that of other countries and cultures
- give us insights into ourselves; our curiosity; our changing perceptions
- let us reflect on our aspirations and achievements
- educate our sensibilities; enrich our minds; and ennoble our spirits.
Museums are critical for us: to understand the past, appreciate the present and influence the future.
I wish you well in your endeavors. As professionals and volunteers, the museum depends on you, your commitment and effort. For you really are the ones of importance and consequence that make museums matter. Thank you.
FLORIDA ASSOCIATION OF MUSEUMS
Trustees Day 'Trustees Welcome'
September 15 2007
I welcome you with pleasure to the 2007 Florida Association of Museums. Today is Trustee day. The theme of the 2007 meeting is ‘making connections’ and focuses on collaborations. The most important connection and collaboration in any museum is between trustee and director.
As director emeritus of Cranbrook Art Museum and former director of the Corcoran, I believe that the director should direct and the trustees should trust. That seems simplistic nevertheless the role of the director is obviously that: ‘direction, decision and delegation’. The definition of direct is “to administer, manage, supervise, command’ and the director is “the person that directs, controls”.
The trustees are volunteers and, often, patrons. America is unique in the fact that museums came into being through patronage and volunteers; unheard of in my native Europe. Your role in the museum as trustee is critical as is your patronage. My board chairman put the role of the board simply as ‘give or get or get off’. However, the trustee does more than that by bringing in expertise, experience and knowledge from business, law, finance, medicine and other professions. Trustees offer objective oversight and invaluable support, yet must remember that trust is defined as”reliance on the integrity, strength and ability of a person” and, in the museum, that is the director.
If you go to a concert, you will expect the orchestra to be present and the conductor to be at the podium. You do not expect to come for a comptroller to be in the podium with a balance sheet? You anticipate the passion, experience and direction of the conductor. Within the museum, the director should direct, trustees should trust.
On Wednesday, I give the keynote address on “Why Museum's Matter”. Museums matter for many reasons: the most important is that museums educate and ennoble us and are bastions of culture and civilization. The collaboration between trustee and director is the essence for the vitality of any museum.
I certainly wish you well in your discussions and deliberations today. Thank you.
Cranbrook Art Museum
The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has a current membership (2008) consists of 190 active members, 40 emeritus and 20 honorary members. The requirements for membership include the qualifications and experience of the director and the purpose, size, standards and budget of the art museum. Members are elected to AAMD, on recommendation of the membership committee, by the Board of Trustees. In 1975, I was elected to AAMD when Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. As a practicing artist and coming from academia, I understand there may have been concerns over my nomination? Nevertheless, I was elected and continued as a member during my tenure at Cranbrook Art Museum; I was active in the Association for twenty years. After retirement, I received a letter, June 1995, saying that I had been elected an honorary member of AAMD. I was surprised and proud for, as stated in the letter, “an honorary membership is intended as an honor toward those who have contributed distinguished and devoted service to our cause and to AAMD, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that your contributions have been precisely of that nature.”
“The purpose of the Association of Art Museum Directors is to support its members in increasing the contribution of art museums to society. The AAMD accomplishes this mission by establishing and maintaining the highest standards of professional practice; serving as a forum for the exchange of information and ideas; acting as an advocate for its member museums; and being a leader in shaping public discourse about the arts community and the role of art in society.”
The Association meets twice a year. The first meeting that I attended was, ironically, held in Washington DC; at the F Street Club, a few blocks from the Corcoran. I was introduced to the members by Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art. The meetings are an invaluable way of meeting fellow directors and sharing not only information but exhibitions. The discussions cover relevant topics; the consistent issues being funding and dealing with the board of trustees! I am an ardent advocate of the educational mission of art museums; I chaired the Education Committee for many years. The AAMD has other committees that deal with relevant issues such as Ethics and Professional Practices; Government Relations; Cultural Properties; Community Issues; Public Affairs; Professional Practices; Program; and Membership. Over the years, committee names change but the issues remain with new problems arising. The Association continues to support its members and to act as an advocate for art museums.
Founded in 1916, AAMD has grown and, in 1992, published a review of its first 75 years. The report, a history of the association, was the result of research and study by Peter Trippi. Obviously, I was particularly interesting in the section on ‘Education’. A disparaging quote, made in 1938, by the Director of the Corcoran precedes the topic of education; he was concerned about “the busloads of undisciplined children of high school age” coming to the museum. The following are extracts from the Trippi review, starting with the first paragraph.
“Even if some directors have been hesitant to welcome young visitors, the interrelationship of art museums and education has been recognized throughout the Association’s history. Although most American art museums identified themselves as educational in their original charters, debate has constantly returned to the ongoing struggle between curators and educators for attention and funds. AAMD’s major contribution in this area has been its organization of three conferences that increased the directors’ understanding of needs and issues in museum education.”
I am proud to say that I was involved with preparing two of those three conferences. In 1982, I organized an AAMD conference on education: “Art Museums, Museum Schools & Studio Related Programs”. The meeting took place at the Art Institute of Chicago that November. I arranged for twenty five individuals representing fifteen institutions to attend; present were directors and curators from art museums and presidents and deans from art schools. As a dean, I had been involved as a member with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design; the association cooperated by giving stats that showed a third of its members reported affiliations with an art museum. The conference proceedings were documented by Cranbrook staff and published as an AAMD report the following year. In June 1989, the AAMD meeting in Rhode Island devoted one day to museum education; the program explored new strategies and technologies for interpretation, planning, evaluation and audience research. Among the distinguished speakers were the artist Robert Irwin and historian, Neil Harris. (Harris had written the introduction to the Design in America book). Peter Trippi concludes the education section with an extract from my 1990 letter to AAMD on the education committee trying “to further the momentum that was engendered at the annual meeting in Rhode Island. Education remains one of the prime missions of art museums and this is the decade of education.”
The National Endowment for the Arts, dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, was established by Congress in 1965. This independent agency of the federal government funds the arts and promotes arts education throughout the nation. I share the beliefs and commitments of NEA; I was actively involved and served on various panels. When I became Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, I was even more involved. At the Corcoran, I was “inside the beltway”, but now I was in Michigan. I had knowledge of DC and its politicians but now I represented the Midwest. Of course, I was delighted to return often to the nation’s capitol, my friends and colleagues.
Nancy Hanks was one of those friends. On the night before I left for Cranbrook, she gave a small dinner party in my honor at her club. I admired her leadership and skills; Nancy was the second chairman of the Endowment and, by far, its most effective leader! Nancy, born 1927, was named after her distant cousin, mother of Abraham Lincoln. She was appointed by President Nixon and served from 1969 to1977. She died in 1983; by a 1986 act of Congress, in recognition of her considerable contributions to the arts, the renovated Old Post Office building was named The Nancy Hanks Center. I have the greatest admiration for Nancy; her political skills were mixed with good judgment, intelligence, humor and charm. She was a champion of the visual and performing arts; politically astute, she formed a coalition of Democrats and Republicans and corporate leaders and artists. Over her eight year tenure, government funding rose from $8 to $114 million. She did not live to see some of the artistic controversies that were to be detrimental, and reduce, that funding.
Over the years, I served on various NEA panels: visual arts; design; architecture; museum; and challenge grants. I chaired the NEA Museum Program Overview Panel at the time of the Mapplethorpe debacle at the Corcoran. “The Perfect Moment” was a travelling exhibition, funded by the NEA, that presented the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. The photographs were regarded as sexual and controversial by many, particularly conservative politicians. The installation at the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of director Dennis Barrie on charges of obscenity. The show was to be presented at the Corcoran; the controversy was such that the museum refused to go forward with the exhibit. The art world was outraged; artists felt their freedom of expression was being challenged and undermined.
The Museum Program Overview Panel met in 1989 at the Nancy Hanks Center to discuss this controversial issue; I was also a former Corcoran director and knew Dennis Barrie well. The members of the panel included respected directors of contemporary art museums; they were outraged, as was I. The panel wanted to vent its anger; walk out; condemn the NEA and make a public statement. As chairman, I used all my persuasive skills to avoid such a confrontation; harmful and detrimental to the NEA and any hope of future funding. I will not say more except that, after lengthy and heated discussion, a public protest was avoided and a statement made; the NEA was grateful, as was AAMD.
Later that year, I appeared before The National Council for the Arts to discuss the issue of controversy in art. I made an impassioned presentation; starting by saying that this was not the first time that nudity in art had been controversial in the nation’s capitol. I went on to recount the tale of W. W. Corcoran and his prize acquisition Hiram Powers’ “The Greek Slave” a marble carved in 1846. Placed on view in his house for the first time in December 1851 the nude figure shocked many of the guests at his annual Christmas party. This dismay was soon overcome when all the partygoers agreed with one gentleman's comment that Mr. Corcoran was a righteous man and a true critic of art, who would never purchase a work of art that was of “inferior quality or in poor taste.” I defended the freedom of expression that is the pillar of our democracy; artists have the right to create and challenge our sensibilities. After my words, members of the council were congratulatory.
The Association meets twice a year; usually in late January with the annual meeting in early June. Member museums, with their art communities, host the meetings. Meetings are for directors only; and spouses or ‘significant others’. Agnes and I have attended meetings in places such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta, Williamsburg, Sarasota, Chicago, Honolulu and San Juan. As an honorary member, Agnes and I can attend meetings; on occasion, we do so. We have many happy memories of meetings; friendships were made that last to this day. Some of these friends are in the Sarasota/Tampa Bay area, where eight former AAMD members live. Nowadays, we spend time together with Nancy and George Ellis, former director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts; they live in nearby St Petersburg. The former director of Tampa Art Museum, Andy Maass lives in Longboat Key; he and wife Ruth have an annual dinner party for directors, both retired and active. Always enjoyable to get together and AAMD meetings are that too; fun to be with fellow directors. We joke that “misery loves company” and that to find others “up a creek without a paddle” is reassuring?! As we share many of the same experiences and problems, there is immediate affinity and lots of laughter. Of course, there is much, much more to these meetings than camaraderie.
The committee meetings and business meeting deal with serious issues and set policies for the museum profession. The AAMD has produced publications and papers on many topics relevant to art museums. “Professional Practices in Art Museums” is the most important of these, along with guidelines on issues including Deaccession; Reinstitution of Works stolen by the Nazis; Corporate Sponsors; Private Collectors; Non-Profit Integrity; International Exchange of Cultural Artifacts; and Exhibition Collaborations. These issues and many more are discussed at AAMD meetings and through ongoing contact between members; papers are published and information shared. Members work hard to advance the ideals of the Association through constant correspondence, conversations and meetings. The AAMD does a remarkable job in improving art museums and supporting museum directors. The work of Mimi Gaudieri is invaluable; her dedication and hard work admirable. She was the Executive Director through my years of membership; always helpful and supporting. Agnes and I regard her as a friend; Mimi leaves AAMD at the end of 2008, she will be missed and we wish her well. I benefitted considerably and learned so much by knowing her and by my involvement with the Association. The AAMD mission is fulfilled through the ongoing commitment and shared expertise of its members, directors of major art museums in our country. I am proud to be a member.
Other than the hard work and lengthy discussion that go into committee meetings, there are the countless informal meetings amongst colleagues. Travelling exhibitions offered; collections shared; lectures arranged; resources made available; ideas and information given. The opportunity to visit the host museum and other art museums in the area is most beneficial; seeing the collections, exhibitions, galleries, gift shop, service areas and facilities. Staff and volunteers welcome us; the visits give insights and ideas that are most useful and appreciated. Of equal importance, local collectors are most gracious in opening up their homes and sharing their collections. Agnes and I have had many memorable moments in seeing extraordinary works of art in private collections. Cocktails and hors oeuvres are served but the art is what fascinates us; to see such great original works of art is a unique opportunity. The art may be from different periods and cultures but all are masterpieces of painting and sculpture. Of particular interest to us is contemporary art; we have seen enormous outdoor sculptures on the grounds and huge colorful paintings inside the vast homes of collectors. Thanks to them for their patronage of art and, to us, their generous hospitality. To respect their privacy, no more will be written describing their collections; suffice to say, we do appreciate! The members and spouses, often an attendance of 200, travel in buses to the museums and homes. The buses are another opportunity to meet and talk with colleagues; at times, bus rides lengthy yet always plenty of conversation. The private collections are usually visited in the evening, although there is a ‘spouse program’ of separate and special visits during the day. The directors remain jealous as they sit and endlessly meet in committee rooms. As an Honorary Member, I am happy to join Agnes on the spouse tours, leaving the meetings to active directors; been there, done that!
The evening events and dinners are hosted in museums; always elegant affairs. When I joined, the dinners were black tie and formal affairs; now business attire will suffice but the evenings remain elegant and entertaining. My last meeting as an active member was 1995 in San Antonio at The Museum of Art. Much to my astonishment, that evening at the dinner, I was given a standing round of applause by my colleagues and guests. Overwhelmed by this spontaneous ovation, I could not stand, leave alone speak. For once, I was speechless; now, to my colleagues and friends of AAMD, I can say “Thank you!”