June 05, 2006

Will public art museums survive in today's world?

Case art historian writes about the evolution of art museums in Museum Skepticism

Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Museum of Art

When the Cleveland Museum of Art first opened, museum-bound visitors disembarked from the Euclid Avenue street car, walked around the lagoon and then ascended the museum steps as though entering a temple to be elevated out of ordinary life.

"The grounds were almost sacred," said David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University art historian and the author of the newly published Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Duke University Press).

"Today that has changed," he added. "Cleveland's museum and others have become entertainment destinations with special exhibitions, movies, concerts, caf├ęs and stores."

Cleveland is an example of the evolution—and survival—of the public art museum.

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

In Carrier's new book, he raises the question of how the physical structure—or what is described as "the envelope" encasing museum treasures—changes how people view art work.

Museum Skepticism pursues the debate of the museum skeptic that believes "art cannot survive the metamorphosis taking place when it enters the museum."

Today's museum in Cleveland is much different from that under Sherman Lee's direction where he amassed a large collection of Asian art. Originally established by members of a burgeoning industrial community that wanted to channel its wealth to serve the public good, Lee, along with his education director Thomas Munro, set out to enlighten the public through its vast collections.

Lee's view of exhibiting works in hallowed spaces was juxtaposed against Thomas Hoving from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, whom Lee abhorred for his determined populist's staging of art extravaganzas to create large and enthusiastic public audiences.

Carrier said in the end, Hoving's model has won.

According to Carrier, most major cities—as part of their identity—have an art museum. The concept of the public museum had its birth on August 10, 1793 when Dominique Vivant Denon's transformed the Louvre, the former Parisian palace of France's kings, into an art museum with plunder looted from Napoleonic wars and quests to symbolize power for a new democratic public.

Carrier jostles a range of theories from the Marxist, Hegelians to a middle ground view to look at whether art, taken from Greek temples or sacred altars of Italian churches and placed in a Louvre or Metropolitan loses, changes or can sustain its original meaning and purpose.

"Case studies are required to see how a work of art survives the changes of its envelope," writes Carrier, the Champney Family Professor of Art History at Case and the Cleveland Institute of Art.

He chose to study the art collections, starting with Denon and the Louvre, moving to Bernard Berenson and the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum; Ernest Fellosa's Asian art collection for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Albert Barnes, a collector of modern art; Richard Meier, the architect for the J. Paul Getty Museum and Sherman Lee and Thomas Munro from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

"The focus on these institutions gives a perspective on the larger issue," said Carrier.

Some of those perspectives he offers are the decorative arrangement of art in the Gardner to art history in chronological order like the chapters in a book as seen in Cleveland and many other museums.

"As you walk through the museum you get an implicit narrative," said Carrier.

Carrier began research for Museum Skepticism as the next step after completing Principles of Art History about the rise of art history as an academic subject.

While at the Getty Institute as a scholar in 1999, Carrier said he thought about how Meier's contemporary "envelope" for the Getty Museum at a glance is deceptive of the museum's collection of ancient artifacts and European art up to the 1900s.

"The Getty is a peculiar sort of place—very new money, oil money, and southern California," he said.

"It is sort of the end of the line for museums," he said, adding that export of ancient art is being kept in native countries along with high export taxes and the skyrocketing costs for contemporary art now prohibit the movement and expansion of art museums.

"Now the interesting thing about museum skepticism is that it started out as a conservative view," he said, with the idea that things should stay in their own culture.

In his quest to understand the evolution of public art museums, Carrier takes the middle ground: "Museums are changing organisms. You see them growing step by step. They both preserve the past, they change it and then transform it by adding new things."

He stated that the museum offers a place for public discourse about art work, but yet enables the human mind to image the cultural context of the art work and the place where the art once adorn an altar in a French church or was a mask worn by an African chieftain.

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, June 5, 2006 02:53 PM | News Topics: Authors, College of Arts and Sciences, HeadlinesMain

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