a smelly topic no one dares to touch anymore

Do art museums have too much art?

Contribution by Kate Van Genderen

In the otherwise liberal-minded art world there are only few taboos and profanities. One is a question rarely being asked:

Do museums have way too much stuff?

Limits are everywhere, but not by choice. The human mind enjoys the thought of unlimited space, a vast emptiness. The wealthy build infinity pools on rocky edges just so that their mind can be tricked into thinking it keeps going.

Art unlimited

However, what happens when limits constrain the ability to be effective? The art world has hot spots in the globe where art is central, but perhaps not well displayed, or effectively used. Storage units, and space enough for all the stored art is scarce. Besides the modern way of displaying pieces is not necessarily effective. Increasing global communication potentially outsources the need for large, established museums to have the thousands of pieces they do, and the efficiency of their display can be called into question.

Max 10% in public view-the rest in storage

Starting off with a grand bang is The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, one of the world’s oldest public museums. Three million pieces reside inside ten various buildings, but how much of that is actually visible to the public? Probably somewhere between 5% and 10% of that is actually available for the public to view. Queen Catherine of Russia, the one infamous for poisoning her husband, did the public a favour by opening up the Hermitage in 1764.

The Hermitage today is the world’s largest museum. To be frank, this seems like a rather selfish practice, with so much art and so little available for viewing, however. It’s owned by the Russian government as a federal state property, and is a necessary destination when traveling to St. Petersburg. This is a prime example of perhaps a bit of excess regarding the size of a collection. The number is large, yes, but is it sensible? Is this museum doing what museums were intended to do? Aside from the fact that it began life as a private collection – it has long since turned into a museum, and with that public expectations to manage.

One of the most loved art museums is also source of great frustration

The Louvre is probably the most famous area of frustration with size. Multiple blogs and traveling sites tout the work inside but rant about the maze-like layout. One blogger, under the pseudonym NomadicMatt describes, with some humor, how after 7 hours and two maps he felt he had seen nothing.

“Even with two maps, I got lost wandering the hallways. I had to double back a few times because I ended up in random rooms.”

After seeing what felt like nothing, the blogger posted the Louvre as overrated. For many, it’s overwhelming and sometimes feels useless visiting large museums. One leaves feeling unaccomplished. What exactly went on in that museum? The visitor went through a metal detector, paid money, and was then set loose with lofty goals- then, has to discover that unless they become regular visitors it is impossible to cover any significant amount of ground within the hallowed halls of a large museum. The first major museum I ever encountered, the Uffizi, had several floors, multiple entrances, and felt like a complete dream. So much was going on, and it was overwhelming. The main rooms were crowded to capacity with large tour groups all huddled, looking over each other, peering at dimly lit and fragile Botticelli’s and straining to see Fra Filippo Lippi’s Virgin Mary’s. Memorable, certainly. Efficient-not likely.

Is spreading it all out and visiting more frequently the name of the game?

There is an opposite effect, though, that if one does indeed have the privilege of being close to a major museum, the whole idea of a museum can be appreciated in an excellent way. No doubt fortunate New Yorkers often find themselves on bad or rainy days wandering around the Met or the MoMA, among Mondrian and Van Gogh. Carole Duncan has much to say about the museum as a space for contemplation and relaxation. She divides up museums into two sections, as aesthetic places and as educational ones. In the aesthetic museum, the pieces have a void around them, allowing for contemplation without feeling crowded. This is the “elitist” view, while the educational museum is deemed more democratic, almost with a warmer heart.

Any museum, though, is a solid space where nobody rushes. Nobody would confront a patron or viewer and tell them to shoo, and there isn’t a timer waiting to tell anybody to move along. This form of reliability is a part of any museum’s identity. Anonymity may also play a role. In a museum, solitary people aren’t questioned. In a restaurant it can be judged that one is alone because they are lonely, in a museum it’s for any reason at all, and questions aren’t raised immediately. This form of mystery and freedom is highly appealing to many, and a museum is an open door.

Aesthetics aside

The open door can swing shut with a gust of inefficiency. The modern museum is organised poorly, space wise. Masterpieces are surrounded by a usually white background, and a couple of feet, sometimes more, surround the painting, framing it in its own little bubble.

This may help visitors and patrons appreciate that singular work, but that results in more paintings in storage, hermetically sealed. To combat this, some museums incorporate “visual storage” of their lesser known pieces. The Brooklyn Museum, the Anthropology Museum in Wisconsin, and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver are three examples of small, but noteworthy museums that are doing so. The old method was displaying multiple paintings in large class cases as a compare and contrast method. Visually, “both over-whelming to the visitor as well as being mind-numbingly boring”, this display system nonetheless can be interesting. One can compare two landscapes instead of gazing at one or having to move to the other room for it. In smaller galleries and museums this isn’t needed as much. The Swiss National Museum in Zurich, however, compiled entire rooms of books for comparing, and had a giant glass case full of shoes so that the eye could recognize differences, train the viewer. They could have each been given a glass case and a separate space, but were instead charmingly situated, with a full mirror to boot to admire the details.

Relatively speaking

Instead of thinking of a museum as too small or being too large like the Louvre, what about having too much art? Seeing it from the other way around may be a potential solution. The Vogel’s collection of art is being spread across all 50 states…even Alaska and Hawaii, usually the odd ones out, get in on the art. Yes, this makes it harder for the main branch of tourists to see every piece, but art is not a scarce commodity. Old Masters may not abound, and anything before Post-Modern in museum quality is getting thin, but art is not something rare, unless a narrow and selfish view of art is taken. Seeing as sharks, leather jackets tossed in corners, and pyramids of edible cookies are being sold for sky high prices, a narrow view is not as common as it once was. There are museums in New York that cannot expand further, such as the Guggenheim, because of Central Park, but the Guggenheim decided to both spread out its art and its influence by opening up various global branches of itself, among them the wildly successful Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. This idea that a global perspective is needed has worked out fairly well, and the Guggenheim is still an extremely well recognised museum, and has marketed this global spread to some success, even though the Guggenheim brand is now plagued by financial woes.

The cult museum or the smaller museum clearly determines whether your art donation is being displayed

Yet another possibility is that patrons are leaving too much art to certain museums. The pride in boasting “Why, yes, I did leave all of those pieces to the MoMA” might be spectacular, but the chances of them actually being displayed are slim to none. Branded museums create a buzz, a cult like want to be included in the club. If one doesn’t have money to give to the museum, maybe a work of art will do. As Don Thompson puts it, “Every time a patron donates a work of art…there is one less wall space available for non-donated work. Money rather than curatorial preference dictates some of what you see on a museum wall.” These people, with their goodwill, need to put their art somewhere else. The Vogels, once again, have their collection going to all 50 states, and if other persons were to participate in spreading out their art, museums could receive more visitors without ruffling the feathers of the big, branded museums like the Guggenheim, the Frick Collection and the Getty in Lost Angeles.

Megatrends in the art world are shifting

Globalisation also plays a vital role in the art world. Today, art often goes to people from outside the Western bubble that used to encompass all. Russian oligarchs, wealthy Chinese buyers, the spread of technology and speed have all made keeping the art in centralised locations less important. When transportation was difficult or communication weren’t effective, having a large and thorough collection was effective at keeping visitors. The museum as a place of education had a duty to house it all: natural pieces, landscapes, portraits, sculpture, among other things. Large collections, though thorough, aren’t nearly as necessary. Any good museum has ties with other museums. Collections and exhibitions travel, revolve, and get exchanged. Even small local museums get exhibitions and collections from other similar-sized galleries. This interconnectedness makes some changes to the way that the art world views marketing, selling, and even the structure of museums themselves. The Guggenheim felt that the proper way to expand its influence was to literally open up other branches, and the Louvre recently sold a museum in Abu-Dhabi the rights to its name for US$520,000,000 and lent them a couple hundred paintings, all for the cool price of 1.3 billion dollars. The collections aren’t as massive, but this is expensive to maintain. Museums would often rather hold on to their collections. It is interesting to see that four of the top 10 art museums in the world are in the United States alone, which shows just how Western oriented the art world remains, despite the changing times.

Maybe it is not a question of too much art per se, but how concentrated it is in some places

The idea that museums have too much art is not well researched, but one conclusion is that the top 10 museums in the world have all been around for a while, with the one exception of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is only 36 years old.These museums have established credibility, large collections, and have changed with the times to maintain their funding, sponsers, and popularity. They are branded museums, well researched, where people have spent hours in various rooms. They have cafes inside, gift shops, and a prestige that allows them security. Their name alone is an investment and a guarantee. Their collections are massive, however, without a justifiable reason for them to be. Yes, there are a certain number of works that will be circulated, traded and such, but thousands still remain out of sight. I am not suggesting that museums sell the art they aren’t actively displaying; I’m saying that the mold needs to be broken. Museums aren’t the highest bidders for hot pieces, but still acquire good paintings every year. They’ve sucked a lot of the market dry – try finding an Old Master of museum quality today. They’re mostly in museums! Museums should be more liberal with applying a global perspective to their art and make it more available to the world. If they are low on funding they can auction off some more pieces, as they have before, and it is not uncommon for them to just sell some of the pieces that are left to them by various patrons. This is a steady stream of revenue, and it seems that even today in the global recession that cutting back when it comes to art isn’t happening nearly as often as we would think.

Art is something that conjures up emotions. Simply, you cannot look at a painting and feel nothing. Even when the viewer finds a piece dull, they had a reaction. Sometimes the reaction is outrage, sometimes its shocking praise. The overall feel of the museum, though, is what brings most people back or urges them to talk to others. Upon hearing about a visit to the Louvre, countless times I’ve heard people telling their friends and family to skip the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, and to have a map on hand. Every person who enters the Louvre leaves having seen barely a fraction of anything. Is it possible that they would appreciate the same style of art in smaller setting, one not so monopolized by wood floors, geniuses in the corners, and barreled ceilings? There is a preparation article on how to go to a museum successfully that had some further elaborations on my thought.

Give me solutions — not problems

One website suggests purchasing postcards of the works that one would like to see, so that the museum visit seems like a strategic battle. Operation Get It and See It involves flashing the postcard with the work of art you want on it to any member of the museum staff and then being immediately pointed that way. It’s strategic, it allows you to feel accomplished, and it ends when you are done seeing the works you want to – all on your terms, and afterwards there are lovely postcards as a visual reminder of what you did see, not a ghastly hole in your mind that unwavering wails that you saw nothing in there. This is a cheap and easy solution to feeling positive after having been through the often mind-numbing experience of a major museum anywhere in the world.

Solutions for the visitor are necessary, as it is not probable that museums will stop receiving and hanging art even if they’ve already got basements and storage units full of pieces. The visitor has the duty to make their museum visit what they want, and must see the glass as half full. There are factors that are out of the control of anybody in the museum. The number of people in front of that statue will wax and wane, but if curiosity is satisfied, one should feel elated, not saddened by the fact that they didn’t see that whole trove of sculptures over there. A museum, no matter what size, has something to offer, no matter the occasion. A backdrop for a bad day that needed fixing, a quick visit while in the area, anything at all. Knowledge and taste can be discovered and refined at any museum. Make it what you want it to be. Daunting as entering the Louvre may be, there is always a rush of excitement and mystery that will plague the visitor. What about the less visited halls? They certainly exist. One must still see this mystery with a positive light to make the trip worthwhile.

Testing the hypothesis and the antithesis

Other things that an art lover can do is compare and contrast different museum experiences. The Seattle Art Museum, say, compared to the collection inside the Palazzo Vecchio. At the Seattle Art Museum, I emerged confident and proud, and had spent 6 hours wandering in and out of each room, and was allowed to get so close to pieces that it made me rather nervous. The Palazzo Vecchio was all frescoes, beautiful floors, wavering glass and beautiful furniture and sculptures. They were different, and interesting when compared. Seattle and Florence don’t really seem compatible, but both had some ancient Grecian and Roman sculptures that I was able to admire . necessary, and with an increasingly interconnected globe, large museums are no longer as necessary as they were. Control factors also affect visitors. It is a visitor’s responsibility to make a museum visit enjoyable, and to be positive about what they saw, not what they didn’t get the chance to see. Art museums have become increasingly massive, and though they will not stop adding art, they leave questions open as to the future of the large, branded art museum.

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