Why I Hate Provocation and Why I LOVE Museums

Edgar Degas, Norton Simon Museum
Edgar Degas, Norton Simon Museum

In what appeared to be a desperate attempt to remain culturally relevant, CNN published an opinion piece by Senior Travel editor James Durston titled, “Why I Hate Museums”.  The essay makes an attempt to stoke the fires among the ranks of museum administrators who apparently don’t do enough to stimulate museum goers.

“Worst of all, there’s a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry.  Confess that rather than stare glumly at an old beer chalice on a plinth you’d prefer to drink happily from a shiny new one in a pub, and you risk being outed as an ignoramus.  Well, I’m outing myself. I’m a museum-phobe.”

Durston chides museums as disengaged, boring, academic “graveyards” of stuff lacking a cohesive narrative to help visitors understand what they are looking at and experiencing.  For an editor whose career is built on writing about travel and tourism, I find it odd that he would choose to lambaste a subset of an industry that’s worth $192 billion  (but I don’t want to get “academic” here).  I don’t work in a cultural institution, but I sure love visiting them. Some are good and many need work. The problem with Durston’s piece is that it enables a certain lack of curiosity that is just shameful.  Rather than highlighting the museums that get it right, he stubbornly remains in a comfort zone of the “museums are boring” mantra while refusing to consider or highlight the alternatives.  There are museums out there who are engaging their public, harnessing digital media, curating and co-curating shows that highlight specific art movements and span the careers of artists and their process.  Why not talk about the ones who are doing it right, and how?  This is where Durston’s piece falls flat on its face. I can think of a few specific shows that managed to highlight artists and movements in very specific ways that resonated with me.

The De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA:  A few years ago I attended their Impressionists show and was pleasantly surprised by how the exhibit was curated.  The exhibit told the story of Impressionists artists as a collective of rebels, fighting the rigid artistic standards of the Salon and the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Admittedly, prior to attending this show, I always thought that Impressionist artists were the gold standard by which all subsequent movements were compared, and to hear the story of the Impressionist artists struggle and their ability to coalesce and turn the tables on the artistic establishment was fascinating.  The museum’s curation and narrative made the experience much more enjoyable to me (and I was previously a skeptic of this particular museum).

The Getty, Los Angeles, CA:  In my opinion the Getty has something for everyone; an amazing sculpture garden, an incredible botanical garden, stunning views, unique architecture, and Van Gogh’s Irises (which is the one piece that keeps me coming back).  Years ago the Getty introduced me to visual artist Bill Viola and their photography shows have been brilliantly presented.  Recently the Getty has taken to utilizing social media to engage viewers through their first person accounts of art creation, curation, and conservation through their guest posters on their “Getty Voices” site.  The topics have been very interesting and I love the way their guests engage with readers.

The Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA:  From a screen-printing mobile App to a 24 hr webcam from Warhol’s grave, the Warhol Museum not only engages their audience through social media, they do a great job bridging their digital content with their programs and performances.  My favorite is the “Out of the Box” series where museum staff open up one of the artist’s boxed time capsules.  It’s a fun pop culture archaeological dig and you’re invited!

LACMA, Los Angeles, CA:  Of all the museums in Los Angeles, LACMA is probably the one where you can literally spend a day there and not be bored.  They have the perfect balance of on trendy photo-op moments  (Urban Light, Levitated Mass) and a diverse, global offering of art from all genres and regions including modern, contemporary, African, American, European, Japanese and Latin American art.

MOCA, Los Angeles, CA:  If MOCA has one thing going for it, they are always “interesting”, so maybe the tabloid-esque, celebrity laden, drama-filled MOCA may be up Durston’s alley.  Sadly we were all too preoccupied with the internal strife between board members, Jeffrey Deitch and administrative woes that they eclipsed some good programming and a very strong permanent collection of Contemporary Art. Time will tell if MOCA can shore up their financing, strengthen their board and implement some strong leadership to move this institution forward.  In the case of MOCA, style does not trump substance.

Norton Simon, Pasadena, CA:  I just visited the Norton Simon last week and I can thank a museum guard for heightening my experience.  While viewing some Flemish artists in one of the galleries, the guard came over to talk about a specific Rembrandt piece.  Had he NOT shared that story, I would have superficially viewed the piece.  This man taught us so much and it was clear he was passionate about the works in the museum.  That kind of passion and enthusiasm is contagious.  Not only did we learn more about Rembrandt, Norton Simon’s collecting habits and the conservatorship of the works in the museum, but it also inspired me to learn more later at home.  The Norton Simon is low on gimmicks and could be viewed as “stuffy” by some, but if you are lucky and you keep your eyes and minds open, you are certain to experience something very special.

It’s my wish that everyone can find something that resonates with them whenever they step foot in a museum, and it all starts with an open mind and willingness to surrender to curiosity.

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