Whose money? Whose power? Whose art history?

Author:Cuno, James
Position::Money, Power, and the History of Art

Art museums have had to resort to commercialization and partnerships with business enterprises in order to cope with their financial burdens. However, the most serious challenge facing them is not about finances but with the erosion of genuine art scholarship. Political and public perceptions have required art institutions to produce socially desirable effects in order to be deemed worthy of... (see full summary)


In a clumsy conclusion to an otherwise tightly argued case, James Beck recently imputed dishonesty of motive to the National Gallery, London, for attributing its Entombment to Michelangelo.(1) He implied that institutional vanity and commercial interests might play a role in the gallery's sustaining an attribution he finds so obviously wrong. After all, the attribution to Michelangelo rather than to, say, Baccio Bandinelli (to whom it once was attributed) might hold greater appeal for the gallery and, not least of all, Beck noted, for its marketing of "knickknacks, video disks, CD-Roms, books and other publications, tee-shirts, slide [sic] and deals with vast international computer industries." "[M]useums have become big business," he argued, "and big business has a healthy stake in its image and especially the public's reception of its activities."(2)

Not long ago, Beck's colleague Richard Brilliant wrote of an art museum's obligations to its nonscholarly public as a debilitating constraint on museum-based art historical scholarship. "Professor and curator diverge in their respective engagement in the artworks they (re)view, in the interpretations they advance, in their resorting to display or publication to make their ideas known, and in the historical dimensions and objectives of their scholarship." This is in part, he argued, because the curator must serve the museum as "collector, guarantor of authenticity, conservator, inventory manager, recorder, journalist, exhibitor, and asset protector and enhancer." If in addition he or she seeks to "raise the residual cultural value of the artworks in popular esteem, no wonder, then, that museum curators have less and less time and energy to give to research, scholarly-critical writing, the production of scholarly exhibitions (however defined), and the creation of meaningful historical perspectives." Rarely if ever can a curator present the sophisticated and nuanced context within which a work of art from "another site and another time" ought to be considered.(3)

From Beck's point of view, a curator's scholarly work suffers from reflexive institutional self-boosterism in the name of "big business," while for Brilliant it is compromised by the myriad of public responsibilities he or she has to perform in the name of "public access." Although naive and cynical, these charges are not without interest.(4) If nothing else, they raise the question of museums - the professional "other" to university-based art historians - and the problems we face at the end of the twentieth century.(5) I use the opportunity of writing for these pages to discuss what I consider to be far more real and urgent problems.

Coercive Philanthropy and Social Agendas

Museums are and have been for some time in financial crisis. Without consistent government support, we are forced to rely on notoriously fickle sources of income - admission and rental fees, museum shop profits, and individual and corporate gifts - all of which are, as they say, "market driven."

We've all heard weird stories of commercial incidents in museums: most recently, and most bizarre, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' partnership with Oldsmobile in the presentation of a Magritte exhibition. For the duration of the exhibition an Aurora, the latest Oldsmobile model, was parked in the museum lobby because, as Glenn Lemmerick, manager of advertising and promotion, Oldsmobile, for GM of Canada, put it, "With the Aurora, Oldsmobile was seeking to demonstrate a new and unexpected look for the division. That is why the visual elements, produced for the Aurora's participation in the exhibition, were developed to highlight the natural fit between the car and Magritte's works."(6) But these are just plain weird; they are not a harbinger of things to come, and there is no sign that they have affected scholarship in the ways that Beck imagines.

More influential and problematic are the constraints placed on museum activities by federal, corporate, and foundation granting agencies. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times two years ago, theater director and cultural critic Robert Brustein quoted an unidentified contributions manager as stating in the newsletter Corporate Philanthropy Report, "We no longer 'support' the arts. We use the arts in innovative ways to support the social causes chosen by our company." He also quoted the stated purpose of the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund's three-year grant program for resident theaters as "[t]o expand their marketing efforts, mount new plays, broaden the ethnic makeup of their management, experiment with colorblind casting, increase community outreach activity and sponsor a variety of other programs designed to integrate the theaters into their communities." Nowhere did the fund express the desire to expand, broaden, or support an artistic goal, only to encourage art's presumed social effects.

Brustein is right to call these developments in cultural funding coercive. And he is right to suggest that (be limited resources available for both social and cultural programs in our country encourage humanitarian agencies to believe that "a single dollar can fulfill a double purpose" and that "by forcing artistic expression to become a conduit for social justice and equal opportunity instead of achieving these goals through basic humane legislation, we are distracting our artists and absolving our politicians."(7)

The Emerging Consensus

Indeed, the biggest problem facing art museums today - and the gravest threat to the quality of their...

To continue reading