Tag Archives: Museums

Why “The Arts” Matter

This has been percolating for some time – in my heart, in my head. I have found myself in numerous situations, with academics and non-academics alike, trying to explain why I do what I do, why I love what I do. As I find myself at a professional crossroads I have considered this subject more than ever before. In a country were Wall Street and Google are more respected than the Smithsonian, is a life devoted to the arts wise? Manageable?

Art. The Arts.

I breathe it. I taste it. I cannot live without it.

I have devoted the last eight years of my life to studying the history, theory, and criticism of: art, art history, history, urbanism, architecture, urban planning, religion, philosophy, law, economics, etc, to better understand the development of the Western and non-Western worlds. How is the canon defined? How can we create a new canon to end the great white-western-tradition that excludes minorities, women, and the non-Western world. How can an understanding of the history of Cairo, for example, lead us to a better understanding of the development of Islamic Architecture and vice versa? How does the trade of silk fabric from China to Denmark impact Dutch woodcut prints, paintings, fashion, and their cultivation of Latin American colonies? This world systems analysis approach to the history of the arts and cultures is the basic tenet of the liberal arts and humanistic studies in the US, Canada, Europe and a rapidly growing university tradition in the non-Western world.

In a year where the GOP, Tea Party, and Conservative media et all, has called for the intellectual beheading of this country (defunding NPR, PBS, NEA, destruction of teachers unions, the abolishment of arts education in primary and secondary schools, etc) the slow-building anti-intellectual movement in this US has ramped up their destructive calls for further skepticism of American universities and their dislike, distrust, and further desire to de-emphasize the importance of an educated populace. It has become socially and politically acceptable to dislike and distrust educated people – the better the education, the more degrees the greater the skepticism. Sarah Palin, a woman who barely managed to scrape out a degree in journalism after attending five colleges, is a poster woman for many in this country. The term “elite” has come to serve as an acceptable degrading hiss of a pejorative in a country that has a great national distaste for the educated.

It has become so easy to dismiss the arts, to brush them aside with a flick of the wrist. So easy, in fact, that even Bill Maher made the case for defunding the NEA. For Maher, the NEA doesn’t save lives, doesn’t accomplish anything tangible, like say the EPA, and is thus expendable. This mentality of the “the arts don’t matter, they aren’t important, they don’t contribute or have an economic incentive to exist” is rampant in this country. Libraries close without a blink of a community’s eye. Universities slash humanities budgets but never touch athletics. Generations of parents scoff at the idea of an English or Women’s Studies major, pushing their children to major in computers or business instead. Universities close Latin, Classics, and Area Studies programs (to name only a few of the affected liberal arts) without any protest.

And why should universities care about critical reasoning skills? Why should universities support programs that train students to read within a critical, theoretical discourse, analyze the material, and produce a cogent, pointed argument or debate? Why should universities support philosophy, english, history, and art history majors? Wall Street isn’t interested in hiring from these majors, so why are they important? Perhaps because these majors score highest on the GRE and LSAT exams. Perform better in graduate and law programs than other majors. Have superior critical reasoning and analytical skills than mathematics and business majors.

The reason it is so easy to ignore and dismiss the arts, the humanities, is because Americans have become detrimentally separated from the history of education, from the history of what it means to be educated. Each generation, since the beginning of human existence, has sought to pass on cultural and social values, traditions, morality, religion and skills to the next generation. The passing on of culture is also known as enculturation and the learning of social values and behaviors is socialization. The history of the curricula of such education reflects human history itself, the history of knowledge, beliefs, skills and cultures of humanity.

Education creates vessels of humanity out of every student. The history of this world, of our cultures is crafted and disseminated in education. Without an educated populace, how are we to survive? How are we to know what came before us, what shape us, and how we can innovate our future? The process of receiving knowledge, processing it, learning lessons from it, and critically using it as a tool of future development and growth is the keystone of every educational system. But it is most represented in the arts, in humanistic pursuits.

‘The Arts” encompasses visual arts and cultural practice, the literary arts (poetry and prose), theater, music, dance, architecture, television, radio, film, journalism, fashion and food. The arts are what we see, read, watch, taste, wear. It is how we move, what we listen to, it is what we live in from the design of our homes and furniture, our planned cities, our cars, our clothes, and what we read day in and out. The arts encompass every output of the human creative practice. Even if you’d like to think of the arts as only the imaginative, creative, and nonscientific branches of knowledge considered collectively and studied academically, you can’t help but note the broad sweep of your implications in our everyday lives and in every plane of our societal functions.

The arts are both a response to the world around as as they are catalyst for cultural change. Artists, of all media, serve as a mirror to the world. They examine our collective conscience. They ask us to question our beliefs, our actions, to rethink what we know and how we know it. The nature of our world is defined, refined, deconstructed and reconstructed through the arts. Paintings of rulers can serve simultaneously as a glimpse into a a moment of history and state-sponsored propaganda (see my piece on “Oriental Nationalism” and the role of Gros in the court of Napoleon here). The arts help shape gender roles, cultural predilections for body shape and notions of beauty (see my piece of the impact of fashion photography and fashion in Vogue here). Art and artists have impacted global politics at times as well (for instance, Surrealism, see my post here). The arts bleed into areas of our lives we wouldn’t even think that they would: such as science and war practices (see my post on Performance/Body Art here, and my post on the nature of video and suicide bombing in contemporary art practice here).

Arts education, museums, galleries, theaters, and libraries are the keepers, the vessels of these great, impactful forces in our world. They are the ultimate democratizing force in the world today. The easiest way to restrict growth of a society, critical dialogue, opposition of thought and diversity of opinion is to restrict education, namely critical reasoning skills, skills that are central and foundational to arts and humanities curricula. Why are we so accepting of their dismissal from our national priorities? Stephen Colbert recently joked with the director of a forthcoming documentary on imprisoned Chinese artist Ai WeiWei that: “In American we know to ignore [serious] artists…serious artists are a complete joke.” Naturally, the knowing audience member realizes the bit Colbert has perfected on his show, the pseudo-Right Wing position he takes to mock such figures, such positions. But his statement is no joke. To many it is all to true.

American capitalism has made a MBA more valuable than analytical skills, than the ability to converse cogently about the broad breadth of humanity. We care not what people know, what they are capable of thinking deeply about. We only care about the object, the dollar amount they can produce.

In a country built upon innovation, where we pride ourselves on pushing the next wave of global development, why are we so uninterested in creativity? Why don’t we fight tooth and nail to keep the great bastions of our history of our creativity alive and funding and staffed to the hilt? We are so cavalier with culture, so flippant about art and art education, I fear that it will slip through the sieve of time without our noticing its loss till it’s too late. We are only as great as our ability to progress. How can we do that without knowing from what we have evolved? Our libraries, our museums, they hold within their walls the great majesty of our collective human achievement. Without them, what are we? What will we become?


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History, Music, Politics, Religion, US

Art 101: Guide to Museums

The best way to experience art is in person: museums, galleries, exhibitions, etc. Books, postcards, calendars just don’t do justice. But museums can often be a source of anxiety for people afraid that they will be intimidating, stuffy, or difficult to navigate with children in tow. You should never fear museums. Ever. Follow some simple guidelines and you will have an enjoyable experience every time out.

Basic Etiquette 

Let’s start with the basics:

1. No food or drink in the galleries. Art, all art, is sensitive to climate, water, oils, stains, etc. So no museum allows food or beverage in their display galleries. The risk of damage to artwork is too high. It should be noted that chewing gum should also be avoided, especially if you have small children who may inadvertently spit the gum out or stick it to a dais, vitrine, or artwork without realizing the faux pas.

2. No smoking. I think this goes without saying, especially considering how stringent most US cities have become with smoking in and around public buildings, but it needs to be said nonetheless.

3. Observe the museums photography and videography policies at all times. The UV light in cameras can be damaging to artwork, even with the flash turned off. Museums don’t restrict photography to crimp your vacation plans or keep you from capturing your child next to a Monet, they do it to ensure the molecular integrity of their artwork. It’s important that you appropriately observe the policies at all times. Every museum has their own policies. Most museums allow non-flash photography of their permanent collections only, but some do not. There will be signs at the ticket desk and you can also ask gallery attendants in the galleries. Photography is seldom allowed in small, private museums or in academic museums. Also, foreign museums seldom allow for photography. If you are ever in a situation where you need access to photography of a particular work of art and the museum will not allow your to photograph it yourself, speak with the curatorial department about acquiring rights for images.

4. Keep it “low key.” I know of no museum with a “dress code.” The only exception is the Vatican. So dress comfortably, especially when it comes to shoes. Most museums are spread out over a good amount of space and on several levels. Wear what you’re going to be comfortable in.

“Low key” applies to your behavior, too. You don’t have to be silent. Feel free to talk to your companions about the art, about the architecture, your experience, etc. Your behavior shouldn’t, however, impend the enjoyment or fluid movement of other patrons in the museum. If you and your family are screaming, running around, or blocking entrances to galleries you’ve crossed a line. Museums know people need spaces to have “moments” while they visit. So there are benches or chairs scattered throughout the museum as well as cafeterias, lobbies, restaurants and other communal areas in which you can take a break and regroup. If you have small children with you who need breaks or snacks, feel free to see a gallery and then head to the restaurant or lobby for a break. It will give everyone a chance to sit, rest, and regroup. Museums know that people enjoy a bit of food with their culture and as such they provide ample space to sit and enjoy a snack. A restorative snack between galleries is good for young and old a like.

5. No touching! It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: Never touch a work of art. All art is susceptible to damage from the dirt and oils on your hands. The older the work the more fragile it is. I know how tempting it can be to reach out and touch the tactile surface of a painting or the creamy smooth curves of a sculpture. But you must resist. Museums reserve the right to remove you from the galleries for touching, and in some foreign museums you can face worse. So, keep your hands to yourself.

6. Sketching. Just like photography, every museum has their own policies. Sitting on a gallery bench to sketch is never a problem; you’re not blocking traffic areas. But some museums restrict sketching to certain galleries or ask that you inform the front desk if you’re going to be sketching. Furthermore, the museum may dictate how large your sketch pad can be and whether or not you can use graphite, crayons, pastels, etc.

Do Your Homework

1. Check the website. All museums have one (exceptions, of course for some small foreign museums). Information on ticket prices, current exhibits, parking, etc, can all be found there. This will help you plan the logistics of your trip in advance. Furthermore, you will be able to see what type of art the museum has, their specific curatorial departments, and perhaps see pictures of their most popular or well-known pieces so you know what to expect in the galleries.

Utilize the Museum’s Resources

1. Children, family, and/or educational resources. Museums aren’t just depositories for art, they’re educational environments as well. Every museum has implemented and integrated educational elements into all aspects of their collection and exhibits. If you don’t know about a particular artist, period, or exhibit refer to the wall text, the information pamphlets at the start of the exhibit, or docents who work with the museum. You can also check the museum’s online calendar of events to see when there is going to be a gallery tour or talk. This is a great opportunity for free information about current work in the museum or a visiting exhibit. Also, often there are events held during the week aimed specifically for children or families. Contact the museum or the education department for details.

2. Gift shop. I always stop in the gift shop first. Not to shop, I save my shopping till the end, but to see what’s hot or popular in the museum at that time. Gift shops push the blockbuster exhibits and the works that the museum is most known for. A quick tour through the postcard rack and the front tables of the gift shop will clue you into what’s hot at that time in the museum.

3. Become a Member! The best way to enjoy a museum is to become a member of the museum. In addition to covering your entrance fees, the membership earns you discounts at the shop and sometimes covers parking costs. Even more important, however, is that with your membership you are often given opportunities for lectures, exhibit events, gallery talks, tours, etc. that the public is not afforded.

US Museums

Here’s a brief but handy guide to the best and most well known museums in the country. By no means is this a comprehensive list. I’ve mixed in large institutional museums with smaller, specialized and academic museums. All have great works of art to savor.

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
Orange County Museum of Art
Museum of Art, Santa Barbara
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino)
Timkin Museum of Art
Museum of Contemporary Art (La Jolla)
The C and the de Young (see www.thinker.org)
The Legion of Honor
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection
The University Art Museum (Berkeley)

Denver Art Museum

Wadsworth Atheneum
Yale Center for British Art

Washington, D. C.:
The National Gallery of Art
The National Portrait Gallery
The National Museum of American Art
Dumbarton Oaks Museum
The Phillips Collection
Hirshhorn Museum
Freer Gallery

Shangri-la (Doris Duke Foundation)

Art Institute of Chicago
Terra Museum
Oriental Institute Museum

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Baltimore Museum of Art
The Walters Art Gallery

Museum of Fie Arts (MFA)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Fogg Museum (Harvard)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Harvard)
The Busch-Reisinger Museum (Harvard)
Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)
Williams College Museum of Art
Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA)

Detroit Institute of Arts

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Walker Art Center

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
St. Louis Art Museum

New Mexico:
Albuquerque Museum of Art and History
New Mexico Museum of Art
Georgia O’Keefe Museum

New York:
Albright-Knox Art Center
Corning Museum of Glass
Brooklyn Museum of Art
The Frick Collection
Guggenheim Museum
The Hispanic Society
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
The Cloisters
The Morgan Library
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
The New York Historical Society
The Whitney Museum of American Art

North Carolina:
Museum of Fine Art (Raleigh)
Nash Museum (Duke)

Museum of Art (Cleveland)
Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin)
Toledo Art Museum

Thomas Gilcrease Museum

Philadelphia Museum of Art (MFA)
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Blanton Museum (University of Texas, Austin)
Dallas Museum of Art
Nash Sculpture Center
Trammel-Crow Asian Collection
Meadows Museum (SMU)
The Rachofshy House
The Amon Carter Museum
Kimbell Art Museum
The Modern (Fort Worth)
The Menil Collection

Virginia Museum of Fine Art

Buffalo Bill Historical Center

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Filed under Art, Art History, Culture