Campus & Community

Experts talk state of the art … museum

7 min read

Panel ponders role of museums, audiences, biennials, more

Emerson Hall was the scene recently of what Emerson himself always liked: a good conversation.


Also in this issue: Harvard University Art Museums names first full curator of contemporary art


Coming conversations this month, sponsored by the Humanities Center:

• 5 p.m. Nov. 21, in the Thompson Room at the Barker Center, Stanley Hoffman, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor, will discuss his recent essay, ‘The Foreign Policy the U.S. Needs,’ in conversation with six Harvard professors.

• 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30, in the Thompson Room at the Barker Center, Charles Fried, Beneficial Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, will discuss his new book, ‘Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government,’ with four experts in law, government, and literature.


The Humanities Center at Harvard on Oct. 25 hosted a “conversation” with Glenn Lowry A.M. ’78, Ph.D. ’82, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Seated with three others at a table onstage, he discussed the fate and future of art museums.

The resulting conversation – wide-ranging, informed, and with a whiff of discord – had the ambience of an exclusive dinner party. Listening in was an audience of about 200.

In conversation with Lowry were Homi Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center; Harvard art historian Benjamin Buchloh, Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of Modern Art; and Jill Medvedow, director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which opens its new Boston waterfront museum in December.

It was the first such conversation this semester sponsored by the Humanities Center, modeled on several give-and-take public discussions Bhabha had last year, including one with Salman Rushdie at the Harvard Book Store.

Bhabha called the conversational format an antidote to the traditional lecture – that is, “declamation, followed by polite questions.”

During the conversation with Lowry, questions from the audience turned out to be, in fact, polite. But the 75-minute discussion beforehand included the flash and boom of a freewheeling literate chat.

A few big questions emerged.

Will art museums survive? Whom do they serve, and how well? How are audiences changing? Will newer, bigger, and more naïve audiences challenge the museum’s pedagogic mission?

Buchloh, Lowry,
Having a short chat before their public talk are Buchloh (from left), MOMA Director Glenn Lowry, and Boston's ICA Director Jill Medvedow.

And how far back should collections of modern art go? As Lowry said: “How much of a past do you need to explain the present?”

One question ran as a thread throughout the 110-minute session, and it was framed by Bhabha early on: Are museums of modern art being challenged by international biennials?

These fairlike exhibitions of current art, also called “biennales,” are increasingly popular. By the end of this year, at least 27 cities in 21 countries will have hosted biennials. The biennials’ spatial fluidity and their temporary, marketlike atmosphere challenge the traditional idea of museums, with fixed locations and fixed collections.

Lowry, an expert on Persian art and director of MOMA since 1995, said biennials are “one of the big plays unfolding in the art world.”

To illustrate, he told of going in early October to Brazil’s 27th Sao Paulo Biennial. It was a cacophony of styles. One installation piece, by Cildo Meireles, was a 15-foot jumble of radios, all tuned to different stations – “utterly symbolizing,” said Lowry, “what seems to be happening in the art world.”

Short-term, city-based, and well-attended art events have captured the imagination of audiences, he said. “It’s where the contemporary art world seems to be headed.”

What is more, attendance is huge, at a time “when so many art museums are struggling to maintain their audiences,” said Lowry. Through mid-December, the Brazil event is expected to draw 500,000 visitors.

Medvedow called the big numbers “extremely provocative.” When Meireles had his first U.S. museum installation at the ICA, she said, “at best” 5,000 people saw it.

But Medvedow is not worried about art fairs competing with museums. “I’m more concerned with trying to make contemporary art relevant,” she said.

Biennials draw in a lot of viewers, said Lowry. But they also challenge the idea of a museum’s linear exhibits, where collections are based on traditional presumptions of hierarchy.

So biennials illustrate a divide opening up in the world of contemporary art. On the one side is a public that wants displays of art to be like a fair, said Lowry, “an open-ended experience without being compelled by someone else’s ideas.”

On the other side, he said, are museums. They continue to offer the public implicit judgments about what good art is, based on how collections are acquired and displayed.

That model worked just a decade or two ago, said Lowry, when “contemporary art was embraced by a very small few and disparaged by a very large majority.”

But audiences are now bigger and more diverse (MOMA draws about 2 million visitors a year). And a new generation of rich collectors are buying art without “predetermined hierarchies that collectors in the past had,” said Lowry.

A growing list of galleries – there are 350 in Manhattan’s Chelsea district alone – are also democratizing access to art, and showing the work of thousands of artists.

In this expanding artistic universe, another trend is emerging, said Lowry: a conflation of the experience of visiting a gallery with the experience of shopping.

“The commercial world has adopted the strategies of the museum world to promote its goods, and a lot of contemporary artists have appropriated commercial techniques and commercial ideas to make their own art,” he said. “You have a convergence of forces.”

Buchloh took a pessimistic view of the blurring line between mass culture and art.

“Massive artistic practices on a global scale,” he said, suggest that art is no longer the product of alienation, but a partner to commerce.

The optimism with which we greet the enormous output of biennials or art fairs, said Buchloh, “might occasionally need a moment of doubt.”

The crossover of art with the marketplace is more of collision than collusion, agreed Lowry. “I wouldn’t want to leave Benjamin (Buchloh) as the only naysayer here.”

He saw the need for museums “to resist the convergence of commerce and art.”

Art fairs may represent that convergence, said Medvedow – but they also have their place. “There’s something to be said for seeing a lot of things under one roof,” she said. “It’s a way to get a glimpse of a world where you see artists you wouldn’t see or galleries you aren’t stopping into. It adds something quite exciting.”

Real art will survive the marketplace, said Medvedow. That is, art which offers an “experience of authentic seeking.”

The convergence of commerce and art may not be the happiest circumstance, but it is reality, said Lowry. To survive as cultural institutions, he said, museums have to distinguish themselves from art fairs and other experiences.

In that way, museums are like universities, said Lowry. “The moment they become driven by their audience as a commercial entity they forsake the ground that they have.”

That ground, he said, is the capacity to “articulate ideas, to provide arguments, to demonstrate why certain works of art are more significant, even more important or more beautiful, than others.”

But any museum of contemporary art has a continual problem: How long should it hold onto older pieces? The danger is that a museum will become “so grounded in its history that it’s paralyzed,” said Lowry.

At the ICA in Boston, holding onto the past is not a problem. “We are putting all of our bets on art of the moment,” said Medvedow. “We are collecting young artists, and hoping for prescience.”