What Do Museums and Dinosaurs Have in Common?
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Since World War II the number of new museums in the United States and Europe has multiplied and it seems that no museum--either old or new--is safe from the seemingly never-ending expansion with the name of a famous architect attached to the project. If you believe that with tens of thousands of artists being churned out of art schools every year there should be enough good art to fill all of these museums, in that case, you have no reason to be skeptical. For myself, I believe that no matter how many schools and museums we have, the number of great artists is limited. Gods and muses are very undemocratic in distributing talent among mortals. A small country like Holland in the 17th century enjoyed a disproportionate number of amazing painters but then, for the next two centuries, it's hard to think of any artist of distinction coming from there. These days, with its year-round stream of international art fairs which requires a frenzy of schlepping hundreds of thousands of artworks around the globe, one would expect the emergence of hundreds of superstars but, alas, the pool of top talent, as has always been the case, is limited to a few names. Meanwhile, the army of professional curators is obliged to fill museum galleries with exhibitions and so many of them are just mediocre. Sometimes, observing the contemporary art scene, I think about the famous 17th century tulip mania that swept through Holland and then burst, similar to the hi-tech bubble of Silicon Valley.
If you ever have a chance to see what some museums keep in their storage facilities you will be surprised to learn how much of even first-rate art is not on permanent display. Even the recently expanded MOMA with its exhibition space almost doubled cannot show all of its treasures at the same time: neither can the Metropolitan, the Louvre, nor the Hermitage. However, the idea of further expansions of such huge museums simply frightens me: I can see the next generation of visitors being ferried around the miles of museum galleries in mini electric cars. So what's the solution? The Louvre in Paris has implemented a program of sharing its treasures with a number of regional museums throughout France and a few other museums have developed similar strategies. The Hermitage decided to send some of its art on extended loans to Russian museums located thousands of miles away. During my recent trip to St. Petersburg, I was invited to see the impressive new storage facilities that the Hermitage has recently opened in the outskirts of the city. The unusual thing about these facilities is that they have been designed to allow the public to visit them and to see a huge number of paintings and sculptures, tapestries and furniture. All this material is stored on shelves or hung on huge, rolling racks. Visitors don't have direct access to the work but they can see it and begin to understand and appreciate the complexity and mind-boggling logistics that go into taking proper care of a museum collection.
Here in LA, we are in the midst of a big expansion and remodeling at LACMA, while the Getty recently celebrated the reopening and expansion of its Villa in Malibu and MOCA, with its three locations, has similar plans brewing. But, none of these museums are planning to build open storage facilities to allow us access to more of their permanent collection. The Metropolitan Museum has most of its collection of American decorative arts kept in storage that is open for public viewing. Why not develop a similar approach for our museums? Bigger museums are not necessarily better museums. After all, what happened to dinosaurs? According to my sources, they collapsed under their own weight.....
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