My last three posts have been drawn for my deep-seated suspicion of people who tell artists what they should be or do. I’ve already cited Orson Welles in my earlier post “W(h)ither Art Criticism?” but I want to elaborate a bit, especially in regard to art museums. A clarification: I’m speaking of museums that are not limited in scope, such as the MFA Boston, the Met in NYC, or any other that is designed to show all varieties of artwork from all periods. There are a lot of fine museums that are limited in their scope, and many of those do a fine job. I spent a lot of time attacking Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book “Art as Therapy” for its premise that museums should be turned to a single purpose, one for which they are hardly equipped to handle. But of course museums have purposes, missions, and obligations to the public. The question is, can or should these purposes challenge or conflict with popular opinion? In an artistic sense, the answer is yes. In its educational capacity, art that is important but not popular deserves a place in museums. Museums are not the leading edge, so some avant-garde works must wait before they can be put into context, but the average art museum, to be reasonably comprehensive, should show works from both past and present. To be engaged with art of today is to be engaged with the issues of today, even if it is on an academic level. Now to specifics. A so-called ‘religious objection’ law has been passed in Indiana, and signed by the Governor. Other such laws are under consideration in Arkansas and elsewhere. A museum, to properly serve its communities, must not discriminate; neither would I expect any museum to do so. But is that enough? Museum Directors and Boards of Trustees are notoriously absent when it comes to speaking up on sociopolitical issues. Will we hear from the Director or Board at the Indianapolis Museum or Art (IMA), or Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, both of which could find their attendance affected by protests against laws in their states? For me, I cannot see a downside for a museum to defend its own mission and encourage that mission world-wide. Oh, there will be pushback from some, but a museum in this world today must inherently have a broad based, liberal mindset, or else it will be unable to clearly express the breadth and depth of contemporary art. Taking a stand is a brave act, and museums are often not brave, which is in some ways defensible in art history terms, but in terms of the public who are served and the artists who are the museum’s subjects, no other stand is possible. I have queried both the IMA and Crystal Bridges about their official positions on these laws; no response as yet.
UPDATE: March 31, 2015. IMA Director Charles Venable and Thomas Hiatt, Chairman of the Board of Directors, have commented on the situation in the Indianapolis Star. As you can imagine, they see only harm coming from such a law, and are already seeings its effects.