August 14, 2009

Reconciling the Local/National/International, Part II

These are some articles I’ve been reading as I think through the question of what, if any, responsibility for supporting local art practices ought to be borne by large, internationally-focused museums.

The Museum Bubble: Ben Davis points to some disturbing statistics that demonstrate the disproportionate resources going to the very biggest museums. I don’t always agree with his tone or with his conclusions, but I do think what he says regarding the concentration of resources in the field bears noting. We all acknowledge the fact that our treasured alternative spaces are struggling. Davis argues that many of the bigger institutions are equally mismanaged, but that disproportionate funding is propping them up nonetheless. If all of the funding is going to encyclopaedic, multi-national museums, how can any regional art scene survive?

America is Changing — But Are its Art Museums?: Martha Lufkin addresses the lack of diversity in curatorial and directorial hiring at big museums. She points out that, unlike many big corporations, most large museums do not reflect the diversity of their constituency (or the artists in their collection) behind the office doors. As such, they do not reach a diverse audience, however numerous it might be. Obviously, race and regionalism are not the same thing. Still, museums’ lack of awareness of this issue seems to me indicative of the same kind of systemic isolation that keeps regional investment from being a priority for big institutions.

Center for the Future of Museums: The American Association of Museums has set up an initiative to address these and many other issues concerning the field. It’s a noble effort, but I’m concerned about the direction the discourse is taking. Elisabeth Merritt is proposing that museums abandon degree certifications outright as a criterion for hiring. She argues that Art History and Museum Studies programs are not diverse enough to offer museums the variety of graduates they ought to be hiring. I actually disagree with a lot of what she says outright, and said so — but again, I take the view that the larger issue of diversity in hiring at museums and the localized issue of regional support are connected. In this case, I would argue that the position that states the museum’s purpose is to represent a categorical overview of some idea of universal culture that transcends the local, simultaneously rejects any possibility that cultural workers on the local level could be equipped to work inside those universal bodies. As such, institutions can only hire people who fit the established mold for that level and size of institution — thus creating a feedback loop of insularity that a more diverse workforce can never penetrate.

Ok, I’ve got my helmet on. Who’s up for a debate?

Comments (1)

  • Much has changed since these notes were posted two and one-half years ago. It seems that art practices in the San Francisco area have gained ground and have become progressively more energized as artists out of necessity have joined forces in new ways. The posited question is even more appropriate now.

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