museums are our most conservative cultural institutions. How can they not be?
Their first job is to collect fragile objects and preserve them from harm. But
the conservatism is ideological too. Those objects, most of us are taught,
represent humanity at its best, its most heroic or refined. Museums preserve
that vision, which many of us have a big stake in holding on to. That's why they
are stoutly built, like temples and banks. It's the look of Classical.
WORLD At the Museum of Modern Art, a painting by the Venezuelan artist Armando
Reverón shares a gallery with sculptures by Giacometti, center, and Picasso,
But in the 1980's and 90's, a new kind of thinking - which was actually a
continuation of an old kind of thinking that started with the empowerment
movement of the 60's - began raising unsettling questions about all of this.
About the vision thing, for example. Whose vision of culture are we talking
about, anyway? Yours? Mine? Ours? Theirs? In the case of modern art, what makes
West best? In the case of old, traditional or non-Western art, who really
deserves to own these magnetic objects, the people who made them or those who
collected them? Who can rightly assign values to them: good, bad; major, minor;
worthy, unworthy? Who says that a Renaissance altarpiece is high art, while a
21st-century portable shrine from South India is folk art, or artifact or craft?
And, finally, who says that charismatic objects like these, once collected, have
lost their spiritual power?
Mainstream art museums say so, or rather the people who founded, supported
and ran them. On the one hand, these cornucopian institutions are an homage to
the richness of the human past. At the same time, they are advertisements for
power in the present: the power of wealth, the power of possession, the power to
enforce particular perspectives on the way history was and is.
In the world of politics, power is pretty upfront: you argue; you face off;
you declare war. In culture, the playing out is subtler, but can be, in its way,
no less ruthless and devastating. By excluding certain kinds of objects, or by
presenting them as relics of a dead past, a museum can degrade a culture just as
surely as time and weather can.
Fortunately, a museum can also reverse this process. And that has been
happening, sometimes with vigor, sometimes with foot dragging, in America over
the last 20 years. Whatever the motivating trend - call it postmodernism,
pluralism, multiculturalism - the status of non-Western art is beginning to
change in mainstream institutions, including sleeping giants in New York like
the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the recently repackaged Museum of Modern Art,
from obscurity to varying degrees of prominence.
Some of these changes are straightforward. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
among the most eminent of America's universal art museums, opened permanent
galleries devoted to the arts of Africa and Oceania just last spring, and hired
a curator to oversee them. The spaces are small, but the institutional statement
they make is not.
Exhibitions that would once have been confined to small or culturally
specific museums are appearing in mainstream venues. Last year, for example, the
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presented "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art
in Latin America," the first comprehensive exhibition in the United States
to address vanguard art throughout South America in the 1960's and 70's. For
anyone who assumed that great Latin American art began and ended with Frida
Kahlo, the show must have been a revelation.
As it would have been to those who assumed Conceptualism was a Euro-American
invention. In fact, some of its most important developments originated in South
America, Asia and Africa.
Avant-garde African art? For many people, African art still evokes
"tribal" sculpture, nothing more. But the reality is very different,
as was demonstrated on a colossal scale by "The Short Century: Independence
and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994," which traveled from Europe
to Chicago and arrived in 2002 at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, the Museum
of Modern Art's contemporary outpost in Queens.
Not only did the show offer largely unfamiliar painting, sculpture and
photography of thrilling range, it also departed from standard exhibition
genres, combining conventional fine art media and a survey of material culture
that included music, films, literature, design, advertising and theater.
And while certain mainstream museums are taking what for them are adventurous
directions, culturally specific institutions are demonstrating mainstream-scale
ambition. The Asia Society in New York has put together major surveys of
contemporary Asian art, in each case partnering with other institutions. In
1998, "Inside Out: New Chinese Art," also appeared at P.S. 1;
"Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India" is currently at the Asia Society
and the Queens Museum of Art.
And El Museo del Barrio, which began in the 60's as a
neighborhood workshop-gallery for Nuyorican artists, recently presented a
substantial selection of work from the Museum of Modern Art's Latin American
collection. This was followed by a historical survey, with substantial loans
from South America, of Latin American portraiture. Clearly, the major Latino
museum in this increasingly Latin city is looking to attract an audience beyond
the demographic suggested by its title.
Museum of Natural History
"The Sacred Arts of
Vodou" at the American Museum of Natural History.
Yet it is still our culturally specific institutions that are generating the
most innovative, even radical thinking about exhibition styles. Many of these
museums venture into cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary terrain that larger
institutions shy away from. And they tackle difficult subjects like the role of
sacredness in art that mainstream museums do not go near.
The Museum for African Art in New York, under the direction of its founder,
Susan Vogel, revolutionized the concept of what art institutions could be and
could do. In one show after another, beginning in 1984, she subjected
conventions of display to scrutiny, to suggest how the traditional museum, with
its controlled ambience and edited information, dictates and circumscribes
approaches to art.
Mixing fine art and ethnological resources - dioramas, films, field
photographs and theatrical lighting - Ms. Vogel attempted to convey the kinetic
dimension of African objects, which is all but absent in most displays. Her work
inspired many other curators in the field, including those who designed the new
African Voices installation at the National Museum of Natural History in
Washington as a dense layering of visual and aural elements, creating a total
immersion in African culture.
The National Museum of the American Indian, first at the George
Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan and now in its new home on the Mall in
Washington, seems to be on the same track. But in transforming its institutional
image from art museum to cultural history center, designed for American Indians
by American Indians, it pushed the ratio of object to context in extreme
To visitors familiar with the museum's fabulous collection of Native American
work, this de-emphasis on art was dismaying. Yet it makes some sense when you
consider that many of the objects in question don't conform to Euro-American
definitions of art as a passive medium of contemplation and exchange. In the
Native American view, as the museum explains it, the process of creation is more
important than the end product. And when objects are valued in themselves it is
because they have a spiritual potency that requires they be kept from public
Such beliefs make heavy demands on the average museum. But the reality is
that if you are going to seriously embark on the job of presenting non-Western
cultures, you are going to run up against fundamental challenges to your own
conventions. And how to be true to the spirit of religious art within the
secular precincts of a Western museum remains a question.
Again, the Museum for African Art led the way with one answer in its 1993
exhibition "Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African
Americas." Organized by the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, the show
examined the trans-Atlantic links between African and New World religious
traditions. And it did so by treating its subject as alive in the present rather
than locked in the past.
The museum invited priests from Brazilian and Afro-Cuban Caribbean religions
to build active altars in the galleries. The results were electrifying, not just
because some of the altars were gorgeous, but because visitors to the show
regularly included religious devotees. They came to look and to worship. Many
left money at the altars as offerings, which the museum staff periodically
collected to pay for refurbishing the ephemeral structures.
Some critics saw in "Face of the Gods" a new realness in art
presentation. Others detected a retooling of romantic exoticism. There was no
question of the show's impact, however, and it spawned some memorable
One was "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," organized for the U.C.L.A.
Fowler Museum of Cultural History in 1995. It, too, attracted religious
devotees. Another has been "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban
Senegal," also from the Fowler and recently at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of
Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In its original Los Angeles
setting, both Muslim and Buddhist visitors came to the galleries for prayer and
Nor is the interdisciplinary approach to display restricted to
African-related shows. In the past decade, several museums - among them the
Newark Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington - have been
presenting South Asian ritual art in a similar spirit, though usually in more
conventional look-but-don't-touch formats.
The painstaking creations by Tibetan monks of the sand mandala called
Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, also fall into this category. Several American art
and natural history museums have commissioned monks to produce a mandala on
site, a process that usually takes several days and is open for public viewing,
blurring the line between performance art and ritual.
A logical question is: Why aren't the exhibition principles used for
non-Western art also applied to showing Western Christian religious art? I'm
thinking of those sculptures and paintings originally in churches, where they
were actively worshipped, and in some cases still are. One obvious answer is
that such objects are still active in Western culture and don't have the comfort
zone of unfamiliarity that, say, African objects have. In a word, they're just
too "hot," and might invite disruptive responses.
There are exceptions. For a show on African-American religion at the
Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, which is
part of the Smithsonian in Washington, the curators created a chapel-like
setting with pews and piped-in music. To many of the show's black visitors, the
context was instantly familiar, and they sang along with Mahalia Jackson as they
absorbed historical information.
Such participation is never invited at a museum like the Met, though in
certain recent exhibitions of religious art, subtle efforts have been made to
acknowledge the work's nature and function. This was true in the great Tilman
Riemenschneider show in 2000, which, through a strategic positioning of
sculpture and the use of carefully composed object labels, evoked the specific
religious sensibility of the Northern Gothic. At the same time, the suggestion
of a spiritual dynamic was so discreet as to pass unnoticed unless you were
alert to it. So, the show both departed from and adhered to the age-old Western
museum ploy of cleaning up socially and ritually messy realities, of turning
lived experiences into art experiences.
And part of the museum audience wants it that way, resisting heterodox
intrusions on art viewing, which has its own devotional rituals. An exhibition
titled "Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art" at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art last year, which presented Buddhist religious objects from
the vantage of a practitioner, was accused in the local press of promoting
Buddhism as a religion. It is one thing for art museums to be Temples of Beauty,
but quite another for them to be religious shrines.
IN short, issues surrounding art and religion remain provocative, as do the
exhibitions that address them head-on. At the same time, certain museums are
tackling comparably radical ideas in more traditional forms. There is a growing
trend toward transcultural or intercultural shows that trace aesthetic
connections between far-flung cultures, and do so in ways that fit smoothly into
mainstream museum settings. And while such exhibitions may stick to old-style
display, they can turn history on its head. In 2007, the Museum for African Art
will have a show, organized by its new curator, Enid Schildkrout, of woven
baskets from West Africa and South Carolina. Shown together, these objects tell
a story of how rice-growing techniques were transported from Africa through the
slave trade to America. There, new research suggests, slaves were valued not
merely for their labor, but for their expertise in rice farming techniques,
which white owners exploited and sought to control.
This kind of focused, revisionist take on a specific history is still rare in
mainstream museums, which feel compelled to sell art through spectacle, and keep
complications and provocations to a minimum. Yet, changes creep in. A 2002 show,
"Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture," organized at the Met
by its curator of African art, Alisa LaGamma, included an ethnographic film of
sculptural headdresses being worn in performance, a modest "first" in
multimedia terms, but a giant step for the Met.
So was the inclusion, in another show, of African contemporary art with
traditional "tribal" objects.
But no need to panic. Other changes at the Met stop well short of revolution.
Object labels in galleries have been allowed to grow in length. And in general,
providing more contextual information seems to be the direction museums are
taking. To an older, more conservative generation of observers this constitutes
an erosion of aesthetic supremacy. But you don't need to be a genius to figure
out that people who don't like labels can ignore them; and those who want
information can now have more.
And where does the art institution of the moment, the new Museum of Modern
Art, stand on all of this? Well, of course, the new Modern is still very much
the old Modern. In its heart of hearts, it is still wedded to an
art-object-speaks-for-itself formalism. And it will surely be a very long
intercultural time before we'll be seeing an altar set up in its spanking white
Yet there is a huge revisionist task to be undertaken if the Modern is to
fully justify its name. I'm speaking of the need for a broadening of the
museum's past and present definition of Modern Art to include African, Asian,
Latin American and Eastern European modernisms; or, put another way, for an
institutional acknowledgment of a global modernism, of which Western European
and North American modernism were a tremendously important part, but only a
I wonder if, at this point, in fact, it might not make sense for the museum
to stop collecting vertically and start collecting horizontally, to stop
acquiring contemporary art and concentrate instead on filling out the yawning
international gaps in its 20th-century Modernist collection. Perhaps it could
then exhibit what it finds under a curatorial staff that would include African
and Asian specialists along with the Latin-American specialist, Paulo Herkenhoff,
already on board.
O.K., I'm dreaming. Meanwhile, though, redefining steps have taken place,
notably in the unruly reinstallations that closed the old 53rd Street building.
A residue of those experiments has been carried over into the new installation,
where a bit of African work is integrated into the photography collection, and a
handful of Latin American artists join some of their starry European colleagues.
It's great, in the new galleries, to encounter two utopians, the Uruguayan
avant-garde painter Joaquín Torres-García and Piet Mondrian, deep in
conversation, and to find the Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón sharing
cosmopolitan space with Picasso and Giacometti. Difference and relatedness,
that's what I see, and a mainstream museum that could change the course of that
stream. We just get a hint of that now. But the story can expand only outward