Duke University Alumni Magazine


A private collection: detail from The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery, 1647, by Flemish artist David Tenier, court painter and keeper for the art collections of the archduke, who was the Netherlands' regent

Illustration: Corbis-Bettmann

Once seen as elitist, aloof, and off-putting shrines to high art, museums have become the temples of late twentieth-century secular culture.

n a gray November day in the nation's capital, official Washington has its attention fixed on a spectacle--the House Judiciary Committee and its impeachment hearings. But within sight of the Capitol building, unofficial Washington is assembling for a spectacle of a different sort.

More than an hour before opening time, a line is stretching from the National Gallery West Building entrance at Constitution Avenue, down Seventh Street, along Madison Drive by the Mall, and almost all the way to the East Building entrance at Fourth Street. With their briefcases, shopping bags, cell phones, and, here and there, bed rolls, thousands have turned out--many of them destined for disappointment this day--for something that's at once transcendent and trendy: "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Several weeks later, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is reporting one of the five busiest days in its 128-year history. For one weekday between Christmas and New Year's Day, the museum draws 47,165 visitors. That influx, according to a museum official quoted in The New York Times, reflects the influence of tourism, school holidays, family outings, an eclectic exhibition schedule, and rainy weather. I can testify to the pressures of over-population: After starting out together in "From Van Eyck to Bruegel"--gallery after gallery of the Met's Netherlandish offerings--a fellow-traveler and I lose track of the other's whereabouts. We manage to reconnect hours later through a serendipitous sighting between the gift shop and the cloak room.

Photo: Justin Lane / nyt pictures

Just over a year ago, a Times headline heralded "Glory Days for the Art Museum." For the Duke University Museum of Art, the glory days may be just ahead: In November, Duke announced that Dallas art collector, philanthropist, and real-estate developer Raymond D. Nasher '43 is giving $7.5 million toward a new art museum on campus. Construction of the 50,000-square-foot, $15-million facility is expected to begin in the year 2000; it will replace a museum that moved into a renovated science building in 1969.

The Times article pointed out that even as dance companies, orchestras, and theater groups struggle to retain their audiences, museums are setting one new attendance record after another. In 1996, America's art museums drew an estimated 100 million visitors. The article painted the museum as appealing to a culture that's consumed with the visual image, with leisure pursuits, and with freedom of choice. "Americans, particularly young ones, learn their news on the tube and their history in the movie theater, and what interest they have in the high arts is best satisfied by the visual richness of museums," said the writer, Judith H. Dobrzynski. At the same time, she observed, most museums charge less than the price of a movie ticket, visitors can go when they want and stay as long as they like, and, once inside, they can choose their own path, "stopping to look at something--or not."

That pick-and-choose quality of the museum visit gets to one of the strengths--and ironies --of a relentless museum momentum: The museum, at least as it was once conceived, celebrated excellence in creation and a legacy of refined patronage. But its dedication to unfettered exploration, to broad-based learning, signals a commitment to democracy.

"Museums traditionally have been viewed not just as educational institutions, but as places you can go to 'better yourself,'" says Michael Mezzatesta, director of the Duke University Museum of Art for the past twelve years. "From the nineteenth century, museums were built to create a sense of moral uplift; that's why you have museums built in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago--they were community projects that were meant to educate the masses. What has happened over the last twenty-five years is that museums have become even more democratic."

Particularly with the decade-long administration of the Met's Thomas Hoving, beginning in 1967, museums abandoned their "stance of superiority," in Mezzatesta's words. As Hoving writes in his memoir, Making the Mummies Dance, "I was interested in anything that made a news splash or changed the public perception of the stodgy gray old lady of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whether in statements to my colleagues or flamboyant exhibitions or, the most fun, acquisitions."

Museums have, in fact, become what cultural reporter and critic Edward Gomez '79 calls "the temples of late twentieth-century secular culture. People are responding to the cultural pulse of the moment, which is a recognition of the art museum as an entertaining place that has depth and intellectual dimensions beyond television and the movies." If they're no longer exalted as sacred space, museums have evolved into prime social space. And that evolution has reflected a staple of modern business--sophisticated marketing.

Becca Seitz '84 is director of marketing and communications for the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland's largest art museum. The BMA has one of the finest collections of modern art in the country, and the largest holdings of Matisse--paintings, sculptures, and works on paper--outside France. "The trend of the Nineties is audience development," Seitz says. "Museums are looking closely at who comes, why they're coming, what they do when they visit, and what it takes to get them back."

Responding to the reality of busy working schedules, BMA has moved beyond the usual docent-led walk-throughs by introducing after-hours programs for the first Thursday of every month. Embracing gallery tours, music performances, and dance, each event draws some 1,600 people. There's a summer jazz series in the sculpture garden, a contemporary dance series, and an African performance series. The museum runs art-making workshops for children, and it brings in some 40,000 through school visits each year.

Seitz says the BMA makes a particular marketing push for its special exhibitions. "A Grand Design," an exhibition from last year focusing on the art of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, was promoted by full-page advertisements in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. (The corporate sponsor, VISA, helped to foot the advertising bill.) For a more recent exhibition, "Degas and The Little Dancer," the museum set up a mock dance studio at the end of the exhibition. Children sketched and shaped clay models of dancers from the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts--following in Degas' dance steps, as it were.

At the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Dawn Taylor Biegelsen '89 is steeped in fund raising, membership development, and searching for corporate sponsorship dollars. To increase membership by 30 percent within five years, the museum is employing direct-mail campaigns, telemarketing, and person-to-person "asks." Every blockbuster needs its underwriter, and museum officials are "trying to get corporations to think of art museums in a business way, to use museums as one vehicle to reach consumers," she says. "We want to be savvy and anticipate some of their demands --how many will get the mailed announcement, how big the logo will be, what it takes to be called a presenting sponsor. But we don't want to jeopardize the integrity of the museum or the collection for financial gains." The Nelson-Atkins launched a $175-million fund drive in March 1997; it's due to finish in June 2000, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Kansas City. The campaign will fund museum expansion and renovation along with educational outreach. "The biggest predictor of adult visits to the museum is that they visited as children," Biegelsen says.

Photo:Nicholas Turpin

The Nelson-Atkins has made itself an inviting space for social interactions--an effort that's bolstered symbolically, notes Biegelsen, by its playful display of giant shuttlecocks just outside its neoclassical facade. The museum showcases barbershop quartets, dance groups, and children's puppet shows; it runs events for teachers and develops curriculum materials; and it organizes mixers for young professionals.

For its part, Duke's art museum is reaching out more conspicuously to the Durham schools. It has shaped curriculum guides to complement classroom work. Last summer, it played host for a workshop in which teachers earned continuing-education credits while spending the day at the museum. It held a second workshop geared to arts educators during the North Carolina Arts Education Association Conference.

The Duke museum is more fully integrating itself with campus and community life, socially and educationally. In last fall's "A Moving Experience," students in the Duke dance program choreographed and performed a dance inspired by a work on display in the museum. With The North Carolina Independent, the museum sponsors a Wednesday series of mixers. In the words of the museum's events calendar: "These popular evenings feature unique cuisine --from fresh oysters to Ethiopian--as well as great local musicians--from harpists to blues guitarists--and of course the usual professional single adults from all over the Triangle." An after-hours series offers a smorgasbord of lectures, concerts, and, last fall, an artist and cook sharing her memories of growing up in Italy through slides, recipes, food tasting, and an exhibition of clay pots she created in her nearby studio.

"I view the museum as an intellectual center for the university," says Michael Mezzatesta. "We need to be interacting with the various departments and programs, and we've done that for years on end--not just with the department of art and art history, but with the Slavic languages department, with the Romance languages department. Through our links with the writing program, which runs the only course required of all students, we have freshmen coming in here all the time and looking at individual works of art."

One of the museum's winter exhibitions, "A Celebration of Barrier Islands: Restless Ribbons of Sand," involves a collaboration among Mary Edna Fraser, Marjory Wentworth, and Orrin Pilkey, James B. Duke Professor of Geology. The exhibition incorporates poetry by Wentworth, who writes about barrier islands and endangered shorelines from South Carolina; text by Pilkey, the author or co-author of twenty-six books, including The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America's Shoreline; and artwork by Fraser, whose "batiks" derive from on-site water-color studies and photographs that she takes from her grandfather's 1946 Ercoupe airplane. (The batik is produced when removable wax is applied to fabric, creating areas that will resist dye, while any unwaxed areas will absorb dye.)

And this spring, the Duke museum presents its eleventh student-curated exhibition. Unique among American university museums, the program gives undergraduates the opportunity to indulge in "the complete curatorial experience," as a printed notice calls it, culminating in an exhibition of contemporary art in the museum's main gallery. With the guidance of art professor Kristine Stiles, the student curators travel to a major city, where they visit artists, collectors, and dealers; develop a theme; select art works for loan; negotiate loan agreements; write critical essays; work with the catalogue designer; install the show; meet the press; and lecture to the public. The new show focuses on Los Angeles.

Despite the status that contemporary culture assigns to the visual image, Mezzatesta has his doubts about students' skills in visual literacy. "Those skills are not highly developed. To me, that's the irony of the situation. You have students who grow up exposed to a wide range of visual stimuli, but they don't yet have the critical faculties or the methodology to take those images and understand how they're composed and effectively what they mean. They're too quick to interpret, much too quick. They need to slow down and examine before they begin to interpret. Examination takes time, and it takes thought. But everything is instant gratification: I want to know it right away, and I certainly don't want to read this 150-page catalogue.

"We want students to be able to analyze a painting or a sculpture as thoughtfully as they analyze a novel, a poem, a sonnet, a short story. Because there's a way of looking visually. It's a way of taking something apart, deconstructing it, asking yourself certain questions, and then understanding in some fundamental way what the context is. But you have to begin by getting them to look, to describe what they see, not to interpret. Artists help us see things that we haven't seen before; they are in many ways like the nerve endings of society."

The United States has around 1,200 art museums; in 1970, the number was 600. If, as the Times article declares, "the Nineties are the age of the art museum in the United States, perhaps even the golden age," museums are buying into the golden age by constructing new buildings or expanding old ones. Looking to a major expansion, New York's Museum of Modern Art has begun a $650-million capital campaign. It is the largest fund-raising effort by any museum in the country and possibly by any American cultural institution.

The most-commented-upon addition to the American museum scene is the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Time dubbed it "Moby Museum," noting that it is possibly the most expensive building (at a cost of more than a billion dollars) in American history. Decked out in Italian travertine and aluminum, the Getty is a symbol of architectural exuberance, perched as it is on a 710-acre hilltop above the San Diego Freeway. More than that, it points to a role that the museum has come to assume--a marker of local pride: "Large expectations ride on it as both a cultural institution and an emblematic focus for Los Angeles itself."

Michael Mezzatesta, Director of the Duke University Museum of Art
Photo: Les Todd

And just before the Getty opened last winter, an outgrowth of the Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, in the Basque region of northern Spain. In the same article, Time proclaimed that the glass-and-titanium Guggenheim has hit Bilbao "with the force of an architectural meteorite." Architecturally, it earns approbation as "the most exciting public building put up in a long time." And as a symbol of the (decaying industrial and terrorism-inflicted) city, it ranks as "a solid emblem of peace and cultural openness."

Britain is a year and a half away from opening its first new national museum in a hundred years and, as it happens, the first national museum in London devoted solely to modern art. The new Tate Gallery of Modern Art takes over a former power station across the Thames from St. Paul's Cathedral. Even as a work-in-progress, it is "already becoming part of the fabric of London's cultural life," The New York Times reports, as a setting for site-specific art installations.

While society doesn't place much stock in, or encourage much devotion to, the contemplative experience, the museum can be viewed as an elevating alternative. Still, the popularity of shows like Van Gogh at the National Gallery and the Jackson Pollock retrospective at MOMA feed into a celebrity-obsessed culture. These are "the big brand names of modern art," says Edward Gomez, with the requisite "quirks and eccentricities." And visitors are drawn to the image of the artist just as they're drawn to the image on canvas.

And far from serving as some kind of aesthetic redoubt, the modern museum enthusiastically embraces consumerism. Museums are simply buying into the same "commodification of the art object," Gomez observes, that has preoccupied artists like Robert Rauchenberg, who employs Japanese kites and other "found objects" in his art. In a pre-Christmas segment on National Public Radio, special correspondent Susan Stamberg spelled out her version of the museum routine: "Look till you drop, then shop." She ran through a list of "art-related offerings" for the holidays: "lacy glass icicles" meant to evoke the Phillips Collection's "Impressionists in Winter" show; stuffed teddy bears pegged to a National Portrait Gallery exhibit that featured Theodore Roosevelt; animal crackers inspired by a Delacroix retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum (which also served up pasta shaped like forms from Rodin's sculpture); a water-lily pin offered by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to commemorate "Monet in the Twentieth Century."

In December editions of The Times, MOMA advertised its book store and design store offerings alongside display ads from merchants like Saks Fifth Avenue. The newspaper, in its "Inside Art" column, reported that for its Van Gogh exhibition, the National Gallery would be selling "everything from watches and vases to mouse pads and computer screen savers, in addition to the standard selection of posters, postcards, calendars, tote bags, and wrapping paper." The National Gallery set up a special Van Gogh shop across the hall from the show; at the Soho branch of the Guggenheim, visitors are obliged to enter the galleries through the museum shop.

"I personally do not find that belittling of the art work or degrading," Gomez says. "I think that would be a very elitist view. We live in a consumerist culture, and everything is up for grabs, everything has its price, every person has a price." Art museums, in his view, espouse not just aesthetic values but the commercial values of the wider culture.

The value of the spectacle was a feature of Thomas Hoving's time at the Met; the spectacle is now enshrined through blockbuster shows like Van Gogh at the National Gallery. At Atlanta's High Museum, Anne Knutson '86 is organizing a blockbuster-in-the-making, a Norman Rockwell retrospective planned in conjunction with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" will encompass seventy of the artist's original paintings, all of them done as cover art or illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post--with which Rockwell had a fifty-year affiliation. The show opens next November.

An American-studies expert, Knutson did her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh on illustration. She hopes the Rockwell show will have popular appeal and scholarly substance alike. "The taint of illustration has steered scholars away from him for so long," she says. But scholarly opinion is beginning to shift. "Now we see tons of people producing dissertations and books, and scholars are looking to illustration as subject matter."

The local media have already made note of the upcoming exhibition, Knutson says, "and they love the idea that the critics have bashed Rockwell for so long."

"Our approach is two-pronged. We'll be looking at Rockwell as a mass-media artist and also as a fine artist who has created compelling narratives, many of them influenced by early-American genre painting from the nineteenth century and Dutch genre painting from the seventeenth century. Rockwell referred to himself as an illustrator, but he had formal art training and a stint in Europe, where he dabbled in the modernist style." The exhibition, she says, will bring in material from other disciplines to put Rockwell's work--which reverberates in spheres ranging from the Disney theme parks to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington--in a social and political context.

When a major museum like the High assigns the imprint of "art" to illustration--to Norman Rockwell illustration, for that matter--it's making a decidedly anti-elitist statement. This past fall, the Duke University Museum of Art displayed "Popular Passions: Romance Novel Art." This was, according to a museum promotion, a presentation of "the drama and vivacity of these novels as seen through the original paintings on which the covers were based." The show featured twenty-one Harlequin cover paintings.

Such exhibitions point to part of the appeal of--and the challenge for--today's museum. In the presumably postmodern context, "art" is a fluid term. Critic Arthur Danto, for one, declared that art "came to an end" with a pop-art movement rooted in cultural commodities--"when art, as it were, recognized that there was no special way a work of art had to be."

A milestone of sorts was achieved in 1990 when Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnick, in their ground-breaking "High and Low" show, admitted pop art into the Museum of Modern Art. As they said in the accompanying catalogue, within the realm of graffiti, caricature, comics, and advertising--the artifacts of popular culture--exist works of "originality and intensity." The guiding spirit of the show was their notion that "modern painters and sculptors have made new poetic languages by re-imagining the possibilities in forms of popular culture." If "art" as a term is to embrace, say, the comic-strip form, the idea of the stuffy, elitist museum--dedicated to "the traditional 'high' ceremonial and religious art enshrined in places like the Louvre," as Varnedoe and Gopnick described it--is out of fashion.

Just how out of fashion was demonstrated late last summer at New York's Guggenheim Museum. "The Art of the Motorcycle" became the single most popular exhibition in the museum's sixty-one-year history. More than a hundred motorcycles were parked in the spiral-ramp building, ranging from an 1868 French velocipede to a replica of the "chopper" Peter Fonda rode in the 1969 film Easy Rider. By the time it ended a three-month run, the show had drawn some 280,000 visitors. Newsweek, in an article (co-written by former Chronicle editor Devin Gordon '98) called "Rumble on the Ramps," observed: "In a society where the political climate discourages public funding of 'elitist' cultural institutions, museums are thinking more about box office. So now they're selling tickets to bike lovers."

"One of the first shows I wanted to do when I came here was on the tailfin in American car design," says Duke's Michael Mezzatesta, trained as an art historian and a specialist in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. "We had the show all planned out; I was working with a member of the University of North Carolina faculty who subsequently published a book on the history of the tailfin in American car design. And the reason we couldn't do it was because we couldn't get the cars into the building--the doors weren't big enough. I think art and design go hand-in-hand, and I think a car is as much a work of art as a painting or a sculpture: It's a three-dimensional form, and the history of automotive design is not just a technical history, it's also a history of our culture. Is that stretching the definition of art? Certainly over the last twenty-five years, that definition has become more and more elastic.

"Art is difficult. Contemporary art is very, very hard to understand. I still struggle with a lot of material I see. So if it's hard for me, imagine how hard it is for someone who's coming to the museum for the first time when he sees a pig floating in a tank or a cow cut in half and presented as an object of aesthetic appreciation. But I think you have to be willing to suspend your hostility and try to look at these things with a fresh eye."

Gomez, who teaches design at the Pratt Institute in New York, has curated and written catalogue essays for exhibitions, and has had his own work shown in exhibitions, says, "What's interesting is that here we are at the end of the twentieth century, and classic forms of modern art from the beginning of the century--painting, sculpture, music, dance --are still seen as radical, incomprehensible, controversial." Never has the answer to the classic question "What is art?" been "as difficult, as frustrating, sometimes as downright annoying," he says. While barriers are being broken between high and low art, postmodern theory focuses less on the qualities of an art work than on the cultural and political context behind its production. And with installation art that invites the viewer's participation --where, in fact, the viewer makes an impact on the art --the lines are disappearing between audience and artist. When the viewer assumes a shaping role, and the work is considered a product of cultural circumstances, the artist loses authority as an original thinker who is uniquely adept at transforming forms.

"Does that mean anything could be, anything should be, put on display?" Gomez asks. "Well, if you subscribe to the viewpoint of movements such as Fluxus, the answer is yes. The Fluxus artist is saying art is life. And we saw throughout the Seventies and Eighties a number of performance artists who made everyday life activities the substance of their art."

Kristine Stiles has a background not only as an art historian and painter, but also as a politically-minded performance artist; she was the first art historian to teach a course on art and popular culture at the University of California at Berkeley in 1980, when she was still a graduate student there. Still, she has concerns about the blurring of boundaries, about museums approaching art primarily as a commodity or failing to make a distinction between art and popular culture. "I have never believed that art is for everyone," says Stiles, of Duke's art and art history department. "Just because art is visual, people assume that because they have eyes to see they will be able to understand what they see. They don't think that because they can count, they will be able to grasp physics."

Stiles says it is useful to consider the reference of art historian E.H. Gombrich to "cupology," or the study of common objects that differ from art objects. "Art is not something that is created only to hang over sofas and be sold at Christie's. Progressively, we have reduced art to a thing. I don't believe that the purpose of art is to be commodified, and I don't teach it that way. And I don't believe that exhibiting art as a commodity is the best way for museums to present it. If there is not a large public for art, just as there is not a large public for quantum physics, so be it."

In an effort to build their constituencies, "museums run the risk of pandering to the lowest common denominator and to the least problematic way of understanding what is shown," Stiles says. "So of course museums think that the public wants to see Impressionists--Van Gogh, for example, because he is a romantic hero. He made brightly colored pictures and he cut off his ear. But I have more respect for the public's sense of art than that, even though I, too, like Van Gogh and Impressionism. Museums should also educate, not simply supply what they think will attract the largest paying audience."

Stiles was on the board of directors for the Washington Project for the Arts when, in the early Eighties, the Corcoran Gallery cancelled a controversial exhibition featuring the homoerotic photos of Robert Mapplethorpe. The WPA took the show immediately. It then found itself with some 10,000 visitors a day. But such creative risk-taking is increasingly unlikely in the museum community, she says, because "museum administrators are concerned about losing their audience and their funding."

The historical example of Pompeii wall painting points to an enduring interest in "a pleasant encounter with something visual," she says. "I'm not opposed to decoration; I'm not against commodities either. But I think we need a healthy, vigorous discussion about the difference between art and the popular world. Sometimes art is something from popular culture. More often, it is not. We need that pleasant visual experience, and we need that which is something more. And we need that something more, that something else, increasingly as we become more technological, more homogenous, less ritualistic, more commodity-oriented, and less spiritual.

Photo: Nicholas Turpin

"Throughout time all cultures have provided a privileged place for art. Everyone who visits a museum is in search of finding out something about the privileged site. That place is--I don't want to say necessarily sanctified, elite, liminal, ritual, or metaphysical--all those things, and more. Art cannot be reduced only to everyday life. I'm not saying that art has to become something like the Mona Lisa, God forbid. In fact, perhaps the Mona Lisa has become a cup because of its over-commodification in commercial culture. I am saying that art serves an extraordinary other function."

In the midst of the Van Gogh-seeking hordes, Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery in Washington, pauses to consider the future of the art museum. World Wide Web technology is serving up possibilities like the National Gallery's virtual tour. But far from replacing the museum visit, a technology-based delivery system "abets the curiosity" and inspires a visit, he says. And even as he notes steady hikes in museum attendance--5.5 million last year for the National Gallery--he says that, unlike performing-arts audiences, art-museum visitors tend to be younger. He thinks art is addictive, and he is convinced that the National Gallery will see most of the Van Gogh visitors, museum first-timers included, make return visits. Many of them, he notes, will indulge in the National Gallery's recently renovated social space: a cafeteria that he characterizes as having the aura of "a European sidewalk cafe."

The Van Gogh crowds don't allow much opportunity for the individual visitor to be alone with art. But leisure time is precious in our society, says Powell, and few experiences provide the equivalent of the encounter with the visual arts--"relaxing and learning at the same time." And few institutions can approach the museum's comprehensiveness: Powell's National Gallery offered lectures on Van Gogh's techniques and reputation, a slide overview of the exhibition, films on the artist's life, an evening for arts educators, a concert of music by Van Gogh's contemporaries, and a 160-page exhibition catalogue.

Museum visitors "walk away with something they haven't had," in Powell's view. "Maybe that's entertainment in some sense, but it's also spiritual and intellectual growth. In the museum, you are always picking, choosing, evaluating, making value judgments. You are always learning. One of the great manifestations of the democratic idea is public education. The notion of the museum as sacred space or holy ground--the notion of a glass wall between the collection and the public--has dissolved. People see the museum as a cultural institution that belongs to them."

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