Art museums have never been more popular, rivaling professional sports in their ability to pull in huge audiences.
But with that increased popularity have come problems. Museums have been criticized for harboring Nazi-era looted art, displaying sexually explicit or politically offensive material, acquiring illegally exported antiquities, entering into inappropriate commercial relations, and dumbing down their exhibitions to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
Recently the opening of a new art museum on the Las Vegas strip – a collaboration of the Guggenheim Foundation, the Russian Hermitage Museum, and the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino – has prompted the art museum community to intensify its self-scrutiny.
Many are asking: What is the place of the art museum in our culture? What is the nature of its public trust? Who is its audience? Are there limits to the museum’s popularity? And are there risks not worth taking in pursuit of record attendance?
Now a lecture series at Harvard is contributing to this debate. “Art Museums and the Public Trust,” sponsored by the Harvard Art Museums, began last fall with talks by Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, London, and James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums.
The series continues through the spring with lectures by directors of some of the world’s great collections of art. Participating speakers include: John Walsh, director emeritus, J. Paul Getty Museum (Jan. 23); James N. Wood, director and president, Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 27); Anne d’Harnoncourt, The George D. Widener Director and chief executive officer, Philadelphia Museum of Art (March 13); Glenn D. Lowry, director, The Museum of Modern Art (April 10); Philippe de Montebello, director and chief executive officer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (May 22).
The series will culminate in a roundtable discussion among participants in summer 2002. The lectures will take place in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum Lecture Hall and will be free and open to the public.
“No university has been more influential in shaping museum leadership, in this country or in many other countries, than Harvard,” said Cuno. “The creation of ‘Art Museums and the Public Trust’ builds upon our commitment to equipping art museum professionals with the skills needed to meet today’s challenges and to inspiring these individuals to assume positions of leadership within the profession.”
“Art Museums and the Public Trust” is one component of Harvard University’s and the Art Museums’ training programs for individuals who are pursuing or who have already established careers as museum professionals in areas of conservation, curatorship, and museum administration.
“Art Museums and the Public Trust” is complemented by the Harvard University Program for Art Museum Directors, which helps develop the leadership skills of museum professionals. The Art Museums are also home to a curatorial internship program that provides students with access to state-of-the art facilities and trends in university-based art history teaching and research.
The Art Museums’ legacy of shaping generations of leaders and scholars in the museum field began with the pivotal “museum course” at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. The museum course was created in 1921 by Paul Sachs, the Fogg Art Museum associate director, who led the course for 25 years.