Thursday, January 6, 2011

Art Museums: Compromise is the Key to Public Support for Art

Art Museums: Compromise is the Key to Public Support for Art

Towards the end of 2010 situations involving the motivation behind specific works of art and arguments over art museum exhibit content were at the forefront of many online debates within the circle of artists and art writers that I frequent. Debate concerning these issues are common throughout the year-- sparked by one controversy or the other. However, the end of 2010 brought with it an ignited powder-keg of hardcore debate. One could say that the year in art went out with a bang. That said, it is my hope that the dialogue continues-- specifically, the conversation about what should be expected from public funded art museums and other public funded art spaces.

Concern for public reaction, interpretation, and point-blank outrage is often at the core of these issues. The situations and names of those involved change-- but the heart of the debate is often the same. Very few solutions are agreed upon in this on-going cultural struggle-- mainly because those within the context of the debate tend to adhere to one political/social/religious extreme or the other. The conflict of viewpoints concerning art is so solidified that finding common ground is nearly impossible. In fact, the few who offer balance are often lashed out at by all sides of the so-called culture war.

With all of this in mind I think it is important to focus on the spearhead of these issues-- which happens to be the public at large. After all, a work of art-- or an entire art exhibit for that matter-- fails to be controversial if a portion of the public does not find it offensive. Thus, the struggles facing art/museum culture can’t really be appreciated unless we consider why some portions of the public in general appear to be anti-art. I am of the opinion that throwing words like ‘bigot’ around as if they are answers is simply lazy.

In my opinion, the problem facing art in the United States is that the public-- in general-- has failed to view artwork as one the purest displays of our personal liberty. The public-- in general-- has failed to view art as a symbol of the freedom we all share. This goes 10 fold for artwork that conveys a message that conflicts with our individual viewpoints.

I believe there are key factors that muddy the waters of our creative reserves:

* By indulging in the freedom and choices that we enjoy we have inadvertently become a nation that clings so tightly to what we consider our personal rights and privileges that we often fly in the face of those same freedoms and choices-- displayed in opposing ways-- by fellow citizens. We have forgot to be tolerant of the diversity that is spurred by our Constitution-- which is itself an example of cooperative understanding and mutual compromise.

Our nation was designed to offer choices. True, there have been many snags throughout our history-- slavery for example-- however, the focus of the Constitution has always been on individual choice. With that in mind, it goes without saying that we should respect the choices of others-- even when it comes to art.

* I think the public-- in general-- is tired of seeing the limited space that is available for art, specifically public funded spaces, used as an obvious front for one political/social agenda or the other. Art exhibits tend to cater to one-sided social and political extremes-- which is acceptable. That said, it is not acceptable when a public funded art exhibit spaces tend to exhibit the same one-sided social, political, or religious views throughout the year. At some point the one-sidedness becomes a whitewashing of our collective history. The end result-- some individuals grow to have no interest in art.

It should come as no surprise that some individuals are not supportive of art when you consider that their viewpoints are constantly mocked in the spaces they help fund. As it stands, there are portions of the population who have to sit back while their lifestyle choice, religious choice, and political choice are constantly bombarded negatively by institutions that should, in my opinion, represent them just as much as they represent others within the context of our diverse society.

Point blank-- the diversity of opinions and ideas that form the foundation of our nation is rarely acknowledged within these public funded exhibit locations. (I do realize that sometimes that is to be expected depending on the mission of the space). I have no doubt that this plays a major factor in why so many taxpayers loathe the fact that their hard earned money is used to fund institutions that offer space for art exhibits-- or fund art exhibits directly-- that oppose their personal views and choices be it political, social, or religious. If the complexity of opposing views were truly honored I feel that more people would say “I get that!” to themselves when visiting art museums and other locations that tend to receive public funding for art.

Unfortunately, portions of the population are not represented visually in these public funded spaces-- and I don‘t think they will be anytime soon. Anyone who truly supports our freedom and liberty should be disgusted by the stranglehold of political, social, and religious-- anti or otherwise-- thought that is currently dominating our public funded institutions. We should expect a true reflection of who we are as a people visually when visiting these locations. These public funded spaces-- specifically museums displaying artwork by living artists-- should not be used as a source of, dare I say it, one-sided propaganda that fosters cultural and historic trickery.

The fact remains that the majority of art museums receive public funding as well as the benefit of tax exemption of donations of money and art. With hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from government grants and other sources I fail to see why so many art museums have not acquired artwork by a variety of living artists that represent the diversity of social, political, and religious thought that has made our nation what it is today. I don’t buy into the suggestion that all ‘good’ artists and ‘good’ art falls into one political or social box-- anyone who can put their own social, political, and religious thoughts aside with respect for liberty as whole would agree. With liberty comes compromise-- sadly, we are seeing little to no compromise within the majority of art museums nationwide.

Art museums have an educational, curatorial, and scholarly mission that is far more than a string of pretty words used to snare grants and other sources of funding. Our museums, in general, should be expected to adhere to the mission they have set forth. True, there are museums devoted to specific social, political, or religious ways of thinking-- but there are many more that should be focusing on a wide range of viewpoints visually. Sadly, many professionals working within museums obscure the mission of the institution they represent by tossing it aside for their own restrictive bias.

I’m sure some of you are asking yourselves “How does this situation change-- how do we get the public, as a whole, to support art?”. I don’t have all the answers-- but I certainly have an opinion on the matter-- the blunt of which would involve activism in the form of contacting political representatives and museum directors to express our concerns and requests:

* In my opinion the directors of art museums should not be allowed to use their position for political grandstanding. It often seems that museum directors cultivate social, political, or religious one-sidedness if you look just under the surface in regards to the art exhibits that take place. Our art museums should be places of research and education that uphold a clear observation of the various viewpoints concerning society, politics, and religion that dominate our culture. Anything less, as I mentioned earlier, is cultural and historic trickery spurred by one-sided zealotry.

To put it bluntly, there are many people who are turned off by art simply because the extreme views of a single individual can influence the direction of a museum as a whole. If an art museum director is unable to place his or her social, political, or religious bias aside he or she should be fired immediately and replaced by someone who will hopefully acknowledge the complexities of our liberty. After all, museum directors are technically serving the public as a whole. Again, I do realize that some museums have a specific social, political, or religious mission-- thus, I want it to be clear that I’m talking about museums that do not have a solid direction in that regard.

* In order to continue receiving public funding it is my opinion that art museums-- and other forms of public funded art spaces-- should be expected to acknowledge a true sense of diversity as reflected in the variety of art exhibits that take place throughout the year. In other words, art museums should be expected-- if continued public funding is desired-- to display a wide range of social, political, and religious viewpoints visually or endure a 100% cut in public funding.

The reality of facing a 100% cut would no doubt spur art museums toward utilizing art exhibit curators from various backgrounds of social, political, and religious thought. Again, I’m talking about museums and other public funded art exhibit spaces that don’t have a specific social, political, or religious direction as supported by the mission of the museum or alternative exhibit space in general.

* There should be a stronger focus on exhibiting regional significant artworks with the same acknowledgement and respect that is shown to nationally significant works of art. In other words, if you want the public to be excited about visual art you must tap into their surroundings. Devoting more art exhibits to ‘local’ artists-- or acquiring local art for the museums collection-- would no doubt foster a stronger bond of communication about art within the community itself.

This approach would also be of historic and cultural relevance since it would document the visual history of specific areas while making artists who may have otherwise been unknown into household names within their surrounding communities. It would foster a sense of pride about art and the exploration of art in general.

Obviously key professionals within the mainstream art world don’t want this change in what is expected from art museums and other public funded art exhibit space to occur. After all, I’ve mentioned this form of balance with colleagues during online debates and it almost always results in someone stating that my opinions-- if made a reality-- would “destroy art” in some manner. I’m not sure how a greater depth of how viewpoints are explored in our museums would “destroy art”. In fact, I’d suggest that the strict devotion to one-sidedness has done more to “destroy art” in the eyes of the public than I could ever do on my own. That said, the open-mindedness of acknowledging that opposing viewpoints deserve to be seen within our public funded institutions should not be as feared as it is.

I honestly think that some of these individuals are more worried that the mainstream art market (specifically in New York City) would be destroyed-- or the validity of their views on art would be questioned-- if my opinions were to become the status quo. I say this because many of them-- including art critics, gallery owners, curators… and even artists-- appear to be more concerned about the mainstream art market than they are concerning the impact art can have in national debate on key issues that spur opposing views. In other words, they are content with their social, political, and religious viewpoints dominating art museum culture because it strengthens their own validity and bank account. If the shoe were on the other foot I’m certain that they would support my call for balance.

I realize that with a new year hot stories from 2010 often start to dwindle out-- especially within the context of the short-term nature of our online information driven lives. That said, I don’t mind being the one standing with match in hand in order to spark further debate. We need to tackle these issues while the topics still have momentum. For me it is not an issue of one social, political, or religious agenda dominating art museum culture-- I’m not suggesting that specific extremes should dominate over all others within our museums-- it is about expecting room for various viewpoints to be explored visually within our public funded art spaces.

In closing, our art museums-- and other public funded art spaces-- should strive to represent the public as a whole by having the courage to explore opposing views visually instead of catering to specific percentages of the population. The key to public support for art is found in compromise-- in a balance of viewpoints explored visually and exhibited-- which is a pure reflection of our liberty.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. Thank you for stating so clearly an issue which if handled properly could help in the healing of the political/social/religious vitriol that has been pushing our country to an impossible brink which I doubt only the most seriously of “misfits” would want to experience. Perhaps (sadly) the attack on Congress person Gabriell Giffords and the questions news sources are asking about the need (or not) to have a more careful/considerate/polite use of tone and words in the political theater of our country will aid in moving us towards more inclusive uses of our public Art Museums..
    Being a 40 year art veteran , a self-supporting and self-educated artist with the added (still at times) detrimental label of being a woman artist; I’ve faced my own closed doors and narrow mindsets.
    As an artist (in this recession era) who has had to go back to her roots ( a Street Artist in San Francisco, 1970 ) as my Galleries and Agents have closed their doors; I’m back interacting with the public directly. I will be adopting your thoughts and words to share (with your permission)…“that art is one of the purest displays of our personal liberty….to view art as a symbol of the freedom we all share“.
    Education is in my opinion part of an artists responsibilities, especially in a society at large that has put such a small value on it. Thank which ever “God” you wish (or not) that we live in a country that allows us to express ourselves as freely as we wish (aside from censorship issues…).

  2. I think your analysis and comments are spot on! I am an artist and I agree with your assessment and with your suggestions. I hope the changes you suggest come about. Perhaps, then, the public will be less disdainful of funding art in public museums.

  3. Hello Again, Mr Sherwin.
    This time I will pipe in on the ideological representation of art in publicly funded collections. Here in Quebec, the French state has the tacit consent of its population to be 'representative' in its artistic expenditures. Not representative in the sense you use it- (inclusive), but rather that the public should see an idealized art of the French-Canadian (a kind of romantic imagery). Diversity and tolerance here are barely considered virtues. Diversity dilutes the French population and frighteningly threatens the 6 million French Canadians with cultural extinction on the North American Continent. A continent that they feel they civilized in the first place. And they aren't just talking about it. They spend state cultural funds as if they are building a wall.
    A frequent 'howl of protest' is "ce n'est pas a notre image" ( "this doesn't represent us.") - frequently aimed at international commercials that are poorly translated. Would you believe that is no RAP played on Montreal's 10 radio stations (what a relief). The need to attenuate art, music, pageantry etc, to this nationalistic agenda- takes on interesting twists here- such as same old same old, or re-adaptations of foreign classics into French- to give off 'european' airs. New original work usually resembles like the old.
    In the end- the state must make choices. A national collection is unlike a private one. On the other hand- the funds ought to be used to gather a freeze frame- or point in time documentation of what's actually happening in the art world - in that nation. But what if it stinks. A recent exhibit of native aboriginal art was soundly criticized as being, well - retarded. So there is always the risk of collecting really bad, shitty art - using the 'representational’ formula. Since much art PRECEDES public taste trends - sometimes by decades- this is a tough gig for a curator. Do we go high brow, or pop culture (velvet paintings anyone?).

  4. continued

    My impression is that there are art colonies- and art colonizers. The colonizers originate- through funded, delibertae publishing programs, a propagation of art or any other cultural product. The rubes are just the consumers. If an identifiable art trend, by fluke, should percolate upwards from the 'unpublished' community at large, it is then absorbed or appropriated, modified, bleached and re-published in a more conventional, unchallenging manner. This happened recently to 'grunge' music, it happened to charismatic outbreak cults of Catholicism, it is happening to the counter-culture of the computer geeks, and the fashion culture of the Goths (it is now high fashion - and very chick), and of course- to loft living (now unaffordable for bohemian and bourgeois alike). The graffiti artists are slowly being reigned in. They are being 'approved of'. There goes the revolution!.

    So to reverse the point of view of your blog- think of it from the ‘selected artist’s’ perspective. Being in a 'national' or 'state' collection, for the artist, can have the perverse meaning of having been assimilated. Deemed digestible by the yokels who put up the cash. Like WalMart food- ya know- everyone shops There- right? So it must be art. Now don’t get me wrong- we all want approbation! But those committees- aren’t they oh so cheap with dispensing it!

    In the end- like your preceding blog post indicated- 'getting published' is a sign (or market signal) of approbation. Getting 'selected' is also. This possibly unfortunate situation seems to me like the pathetically sad image of the artistic, athletic, costumed, choreographed figure skater- doing a gig with a big f---ing number pasted on her back, nervous that she shows just enough (yet not too much) tutu to get a cheery applause from the dowager judge for repeating a figure 8..

    I think 'selected’ art of all types- including public collections- will not survive the test of time. It’s not like these are modern equivalent of The Uffizi. The art in medieval national collections are valuable today because we saw them in books, and were and are the EXCLUSIVE record of the times. Today- there is way too much art chasing way too few (and illiterate) public selection committees. The 'meaning' of being selected and presented in such collections is a sad simulacrum for being patronized by Lorenzo the Magnificent. More kudos would come your way by being on the cover of a magazine. Many, many more people saw Roy Liechtenstein’s pistol picture when it ran on Time Magazine's cover- than would ever see it live in a public collection. So if the aspiration of the artist is to have his or her images seen and known- try that on for size. By the way- Picasso's fame is due- in no small measure- to his regular cover art for huge run socialist publications in the mid century. Don't blame it all on talent.

    Should the taxpayer pay to be offended? It’s his/her buck- let ‘em chose a celebrity purveyor of public approbation to redistribute his cash the way he wants. She/he will get the art they deserve. We already see it everywhere- bland- unchallenging lumps and splatters in every modern public building on the continent. The citizen selection committees will not allow the taxpayer (gravy train) to be challenged or offended. A safer route is to please with easy stuff. But a way safer route still: select art that says nothing.
    So personally- I don’t fear the censorship of the state. What we actually see all around us is artists self-censoring, in order to get the public gig- by making unchallenging and non-specific statements that allow the selection committees to save face.

    Robert Mazerolle, sculptor