Archive | June, 2011

In Praise of Your Local Art Museum

29 Jun

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything recently.  The truth is that I’ve succumbed to one of the great pitfalls of art museums:  you put off going because you assume you can go whenever.  You see, I decided that I wanted to finally write guides for the art museums in Munich.  Made sense, since I live here.  But I got busy with other things and put it off, thinking that as soon as I had a spare moment I could go.

We all do that, though.  We tend to overlook the great things about our local cultural institutions even when we can’t wait to visit those in other cities.  As soon as I step off the plane in London I head straight for the museums there, yet here in Munich I can’t seem to make time.  Obviously traveling does something to us, makes us feel like we have to see as much as we can while we’re there, but we seldom have the same pressing feeling whine we’re at home.

In doing so we miss out on the truly great relationship we can have with our local museums.  There are special advantages for visiting museums in your city on a regular basis that we lose when our exposure to art consists of a few hours while we’re on vacation.  For one thing, we often approach our vacations as one big to-do list.  We dutifully march around Rome, Paris, or wherever checking off the sights we feel we need to see and the experiences we feel we need to have.  Rarely do we give ourselves time to simply sit and enjoy our surroundings.  Visiting your local museums allows you to do exactly that.

In fact, I’d venture to say time is the single greatest advantage that local museums have.  You can go back week in and week out and see whatever parts of the museums interest you on that day without feeling like you have to see the whole thing.  There have been times when I’ve gone to Munich’s Alte Pinakothek and not even bothered to look at half the museum; I just wanted to stop in and see the fabulous Dürers on display and maybe spend some time with da Vinci’s Madonna of the Carnation.  That’s the beauty of local art museums – you can spend as much time with your favorite works as possible because you can always come back.  You can really appreciate the complexity of your average work of art only when you look at it for longer than 2 minutes.

There’s a certain intimacy that comes with visiting the same museum frequently.  You get to know the paintings and the artists in a way that allows you to feel comfortable with them as you do old friends.  You’re surprised by something you hadn’t noticed before every time you go in.  As human beings we take special delight with being around things that are familiar to us, and art museums are no different if we give them a chance.  We can make every visit unique and interesting by how we approach the works of art and make our way through the galleries all the while enjoying our favorite works of art.

The other great thing about local museums is that they are a reflection of the cities in which they’re located.  The more you visit the more you’re aware of the exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, and other events that museums offer to serve their communities.  You begin to really see the museum as a living, breathing community center instead of a collection of lifeless hallways.  You can try new activities such as specialized tours and after-hours events.  You might event want to become a member so you can be up to date on what’s going on and stop by whenever you want.

But we have to start by going.  I wish I could say I was some sort of great example for this, but I haven’t been recently.  I shall try to do better.  Like most people I find myself sitting on the couch watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the 12th time rather than going to do something truly interesting, which is especially sad since some of the world’s greatest art museums happen to be located where I live.  The thing is, I don’t know how long I’ll be living in Munich, and when the time comes to leave I hope I don’t find myself thinking longingly of everything I should have done while I was here.  Besides, I really should write about them eventually.

The Museum as Tourist Attraction – in Arkansas.

17 Jun

We all know that museums are, for better or worse, tourist attractions.  One tends to associate visiting art museums with large cities, however.  You go to Paris you visit the Louvre.  You take a trip to New York you see the Met.  Cultural offerings are one of the main reasons people travel to the larger metropolitan areas for vacations rather than sitting on the beach with a mai tai.  Some people like to use their brains as well as their livers on holiday.  Now smaller cities are catching on to the idea.  Most experts will say that it all started with Bilbao.  The opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum there put the city on the map.  In the first 10 years it opened tourist numbers in the city grew to about 20 times where they were before.  It was a resounding success.

But the phenomenon is a bit older than that.  Fans will go to great lengths to visit a place of importance.  The best example I can think of is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  The town has fewer than 2,000 residents, yet it gets about 350,000 visitors a year to see the Hall.  You have to want to go to Cooperstown, too.  To put it mildly, it’s in the middle of nowhere. (Look at this map if you don’t believe me.)  It’s a trip in and of itself, and it was popular long before the idea of art museums in smaller cities took off.

There are plenty of similar examples.  Obviously sports fans are a bit zealous, but even in art it’s a common to travel out of your way for something interesting.  People will take a trip to Arles to be able to follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh or a day trip from Paris to see Monet’s house in Giverny.  The Centre Pompidou recently opened a satellite branch in Metz, no doubt hoping for a similar effect as seen in Bilbao.  The artist colony of Taos, New Mexico was a tourist destination long before Julia Roberts added to its fame.  Where art is, tourists often follow.

The next place that’s hoping to become a destination for art is Bentonville, Arkansas.  If the name sounds familiar it’s because the city is the headquarters of Walmart.  Love it or hate it, the company has made more money than most of us can imagine, and now a member of the Walton family is using all that money to open an American art museum in the city.  By all accounts the collection is outstanding and Alice Walton, the main force behind the museum, is still working to build it.  It seemed a bit odd at first, though.  Who would want to go to Arkansas to see art?

I asked a friend from the state about the idea and was reminded that there is already a decent amount of tourism in the region owing to the Ozark mountains.  The combination could end up attracting people who like outdoor activities as well as culture.  I really hope it does.  Ms. Walton has put together a collection that is not only wonderful artistically but is also a great tool for teaching American history.  I firmly believe there’s something to the idea of having such a collection surrounded by lush green mountains rather than the concrete and noise in large cities.  American history is so closely linked to the wilderness of the country that viewing the art in such a context can open up new meanings to visitors.

Now I am aware of my own eccentricity, but I’d drive 6 hours from Dallas for that.  People shouldn’t be afraid to visit these out-of-the-way places for art.  The rewards of going somewhere a bit off the beaten path are wonderful, and such institutions can transform an entire region.  If you don’t believe me, just look at what the Getty Museum managed to do to the cultural wasteland that is Los Angeles.  If a place like that can become known for culture, Arkansas certainly can.

Cashing In On History

13 Jun

During my daily search for arts-related news, I came upon this rather interesting story.  Basically Salem, Massachusetts is saying that they don’t want to simply be known for witches anymore.  It’s a nice idea, but will it work?

I have a special place in my heart for Salem.  When I was 2 or 3 years old my family took a road trip through New England.  My earliest memories are from that trip, and most of those are from Salem.  Fittingly one of the things I remember is going to one of the many witch-themed museums in town.  I doubt it was the first museum I had ever visited, but it is certainly the first one I remember.

Now the city authorities are trying to let everyone know that there’s much more to the town than its many haunted houses and fortune tellers, attractions that are hoping to lure tourists who come for the city’s association with witchcraft.  The problem they’re having is that these people often only come in October, and they’re looking to draw tourists the rest of the year, as well.  And more importantly, does anyone care about what happened in Salem beyond the witch trials?

What city authorities have done is to be applauded.  Rather than completely ignoring what they’re famous for, they’re simply trying to remind people that there’s more to the city.  Salem was a major port city for centuries and his home to one of the oldest museums in the United States, the Peabody Essex Museum.  Literary types can also follow in the footsteps of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the city’s most famous resident.  Tourism is an important industry for the city, and they’re trying to branch out and attract more people.  You can’t blame them for that.

Salem has always been a unique case, though.  Whereas other cities try to avoid the darker parts of their past, Salem has always embraced their association with the witch trials in 1692.  By way of comparison, a search of the Chicago tourism site yields no results when you look for words such as “Prohibition”, “mob”, “mafia”, or even “Capone”.  By keeping a certain reverence to their past, Salem is not only helping its tourism industry but also keeping alive the ideals of tolerance and justice, both of which were completely absent from the trials.

It’s not just good tourism, it’s good history.  People need to learn history to be able to understand what is happening in the present day, no matter what’s involved.  I’m not naive enough to think that all of the town’s emphasis on witchcraft is from an altruistic sense of reminding people of one of the low points in American colonial history.  Money is certainly also a factor, but it’s all part of the combination of history and tourism that exists in modern life.  The important thing is that they’re trying to keep all aspects of their history accessible to the public.  More cities should take note.

Salvador Dalí

12 Jun

I often start writing by asking myself, “Why is this artist so popular?”  In the case of Salvador Dalí the answer is simple:  He wanted to be.

More than being a great artist, Dalí was a master showman.  Most Surrealists wanted to be on the outside looking in, but Dalí wanted to be the one directly in the middle of things getting all the attention.  Every public appearance he made throughout his life was designed to have the utmost dramatic effect, including wearing a cape and his ever-present walking stick.   How much of this was genuine eccentricity on his part and how much was orchestrated for publicity is hard to gauge, but there is plenty of evidence for both.  Dali even appeared on talk shows such as The Tonight Show and the game show What’s My Line.  Now to be fair in modern times an artist would rarely be a guest on such a show simply because our popular culture has been diluted to the point where art is considered too high brow for national television, but even at the time it was a bit extraordinary.

He was also a highly controversial personality throughout his life.  He worked with figures such as the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney but was shunned from the Surrealist movement led by Andre Breton, a movement he didn’t really join until late, anyway.  The main problem was his political views, which the left-leaning Breton took issue with.  Even if he wasn’t a very political man, he took great flack for his acceptance and even support of the Franco regime.

1931's The Persistence of Memory, now in the Museum of Modern Art New York

Besides his waxed, upturned moustache, the thing Dalí is probably best known for is his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory.  You know, the one with the melting clocks.  The painting style is certainly realistic, but the subject matter is significantly less so.  There’s the aforementioned clocks, of course, but other nonsensical images include the sleeping figure in the center, and the ants crawling out of the pocket watch on the block to the left.  It was all part of Dalí’s obsession with dreamscapes.  Like all good Surrealists, Dalí took major inspiration from psychology, especially the psychology of dreams.

We like Dalí’s work because it’s completely fantastic, yet easily understood.  At a time when artists were creating more and more abstract works, Dalí continued with his surreal style.  People could at least find images they recognized in the scene, even if it didn’t particularly make sense.  This quality, along with the sheer number and variety of his works as well as his publicity-seeking personality keep him in the public eye even today, even when art historians remain divided on his merit as an artist.

Perhaps Dalí can best be understood by his appearance on What’s My Line.  As I already said, the mere fact that he was on the show is very telling, but his answers are equally interesting.  One could make the case that it was a case of bad translation, but he claims he is a performer and writer, even an athlete.  This is a man who is clearly at the center of his own universe, but those glimpses he left for the rest of us are rather interesting at times, as well.

Admission Charges – A Necessary Evil

5 Jun

Lying in bed this morning I was contemplating museum admission charges (What, you mean you don’t do that, too?).  My traditional stance is that I hate any and all museum admission fees.  I think it’s pointless to have to pay to see the great works which belong to our shared heritage.  They should be available for everyone free of charge.  I’ve applauded things such as free days and think London is the greatest city in the world because you can see just about everything without paying one Pence.

The only problem is that like any other organization museums need money to operate.  Like most non-profits, they have been hurting since the financial crisis and are having trouble bouncing back.  At a time when people (myself included) are clamoring for lower admission fees, most museums are having to charge more to make up for the money they’re not receiving from their endowments or wealthy donors.  As much as it goes against my principles, it’s now up to those of us who enjoy art to step up.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York recently raised their suggested admission fee from $20 to $25.  People are outraged, understandably.  I personally think that paying that much money for an art museum is insane.  Unfortunately the money has to come from somewhere, and since American art museums get far less money from the government as those in Europe (which is in itself an entire post topic) we have to pay higher admission fees.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is rather unique, though.  It’s not quite like Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which announced that it will raise its mandatory admission fee to $22.  The Met has an agreement with the city of New York that stipulates that they officially can’t charge for admission since the building is officially city property.  Instead, visitors are asked to pay a “suggested” fee.  Now I can say from experience that the fee is in fact very strongly suggested by the signage in the entry pavilion and by staff, but those in the know often pay less.  Representatives from the Met have even declined to say what the average visitor gives for fear that it would encourage others to follow suit.  I can’t say I blame them.

We all get annoyed when our favorite restaurant closes because they’re not getting enough business.  Museums could be facing something similar.  It’s not that they’re going to close, but many could be forced to cut back on opening hours and popular programs if funding doesn’t increase.  Like many businesses, often the first step is reducing staff.

So, as much as I dislike admission fees to museums, they are a necessary evil.  I say this as someone who believes very strongly in the importance of museums in a society’s education and cultural life.  They are certainly worthy places to spend your money.  At the Met, if just 5% of their visitors pay the full fee (I have no idea if they actually do, it’s just a guess.  Please feel free to correct me if you know differently.) that would be an extra $1,250,000 in their budget.  That’s probably not much money for an institution the size of the Met, but it can still go a long way toward keeping the treasures in the collection in the best condition possible for future generations.

Maybe someday more art museums will offer free admission.  I can only hope.  But for right now, go ahead and make the effort to skip the free day and pay the admission.  Leave some spare change in the collection box or stop at the gift shop to pick up a present for your sister who has a birthday coming up.  Museums are in bad shape, and they need all the help they can get.  Just think about all the memories and experiences you’ve had in museums in your life.  Isn’t it only fair to return the favor?

Intel’s Museum of Me and The Idea of Museums

1 Jun

I was a bit curious when I saw something called the “Museum of Me” on Facebook today.  It certainly is an interesting idea.  As a society we’re used to seeing rather more famous names in museums.  Adding your own name, even virtually, to that list is quite an ego boost.

It begs a very important question, though – what are museums actually going to look like in the future?  Although I haven’t been able to get the site to work for me yet (It also took me a while to decide if the privacy agreement was worth it.  I finally decided it was in the name of research, so it’s OK) I’ve watched the generic demonstration and found it quite interesting.  Modern, Libeskind-like building, contemporary exhibition spaces with works artfully arranged – it certainly looks like many of the most recent museums.  But what about the content?  Is it really museum-worthy?  Who decides that, anyway?

I’m not trying to make some interesting, albeit relatively harmless, advertising campaign sound like a major comment on the role of museums in society.  It just got me thinking about the idea.  What are museums going to look like in the future, when so much of our lives has been conducted through electronic mediums that leave no tangible evidence you can put in a display case?  If everyone can have their own virtual museum, then who exactly should the brick-and-mortar institutions include?

Here’s an idea – go to a real museum.  Take a look at what’s there and compare the history on display to your own history as curated by a group of software engineers.  What does history mean, anyway?  If you weren’t actually there does it not interest you?  Who belongs in a museum, anyway?  Your grandmother?  Your heroes?  You were excited to see your own self put in that context, why shouldn’t you be excited to see the fascinating stories from generations past?  With all due respect, those stories are probably far more interesting than yet another picture of you on the beach during your vacation, anyway.

As for me?  Well, I don’t mind not seeing what my “Museum of Me” would look like.  Personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything important enough to merit a full exhibition.  What I will do instead is go write in my journal.  Facebook may be full of all kinds of internet age narcissism, but I prefer the old-fashioned variety.  I’d like my great-grandchildren to be able to read about my life once I’m gone.  I want them to have something from me that they can hold in their hands.  That kind of history is, to me, worth more than any online movie ever could be.

Pleasing the Gods

1 Jun

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

I think I waited so long to write this post because it’s the most complicated of the “Five Reasons” that I’ve discussed.  Religion has been perhaps the most volatile subject for humans discuss since we first met different tribes and realized that not everyone had the same ideas on the subject.  It’s virtually impossible to discuss the topic without offending someone, but here goes nothing.

At the same time it’s also one of the easiest to discuss, especially when it comes to art.  I once took a Japanese art class where we studied a set of prehistoric bells that were meant to have a religious purpose.  The professor reminded us that, “After all, music and dance were created as ways of doing something extraordinary for the gods.”  It stands to reason, then, that if the performing arts were created to appeal to deities than surely the visual arts were, as well.  The natural desire of religious humans is to create beautiful things in honor of their deities, whether they are songs or paintings.

How pervasive was this idea?  We think of pottery as a way of making practical vessels – tableware, containers, and the like – but many of the earliest surviving works from clay that survive are actually small figurines that experts suggest were used for magical or ritual purposes.  The difficulty in assigning religious meaning to these objects, however, is that no written records exist to say what exactly their purpose was supposed to be.  We don’t know what kinds of deities or rituals these groups had, so making assumptions about their religion based on what we know about the subject today is more than a bit arbitrary.

It is much easier to see the combination of art and religion by looking at architecture.  Most of us have at some point in time been in a house of worship and are at least passingly familiar with the theology behind the architecture.  The most moving example of this that I’ve ever seen is the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  Even without knowledge of Islamic theology and the conventions regarding the building of a mosque, you immediately get the sense that you’re in a mystical, holy place.  Islamic tradition states that no images of humans or animals may be depicted in a mosque, so the decoration is limited to vegetation and the intricate scrollwork that is the hallmark of Islamic art.  The end result is a stunning environment for prayer and a testament to the works of beauty humans are capable of in the name of religion.

Window depicting the Adoration of the Magi in Westminster Abbey

Works of beauty can also be educational, as well.  Since most people in Europe were illiterate in the Middle Ages, the church relied heavily on images to teach about Christianity.  These were incorporated into church structures in many ways.  The most striking, however, were the stained glass windows that were created for the Gothic cathedrals.  The glowing colors not only illustrated Biblical passages to the people but did so in a way that make worshipers feel like they had entered some sort of heavenly space on Earth.  Unfortunately the modern eye can’t fully appreciate how amazing these windows, and the cathedrals in general, were to the common people when they were first built.  Imagine, though, if you will, if you had never seen a movie or television show, if you had no books or magazines at home, how grand these windows must have seemed.

Creating art for religious purposes is fundamental to the human experience.  It’s rather unfortunate that religion is often seen as such a force for destruction and hatred in the world when it has also inspired some of the most astonishing works of beauty that history has passed down to us.  When works of art were created for worship they are tinged with a certain extra element of care that can create a touching moment for the viewer, as they were intended.  These are works of art that are meant to not only, as I put so in delicately, please the gods, but also inspire others to experience the divine.  Whatever your own religious beliefs, I think you can agree that Man can have no greater goal.