Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Plea for Permanent Collections

Last night I attended a members-only exhibit opening at a museum here in town. I had been cautioned to arrive early as typically these events result in huge entrance lines around the block. But when I arrived, there were no lines to be seen anywhere, despite the fact that the booze was flowing, the DJ was spinning, there was at least one famous person in attendance and the art itself was phenomenal. What was going on? I'd like to think that the reason for the relatively low attendance was the fact that tonight there will be another big gala museum event catering to a number of the same patrons and trustees, however it would be naive of me to overlook the fact that the opening last night was for an exhibit from the permanent collection.

Arriving early and leaving late, I had the pleasure of wandering the exhibit halls twice--once on my own in a happy art-induced fog, lingering over the pieces that simply made my heart stop and eaves-dropping on conversations about other works I didn't care as much for, hoping to learn why other people loved those pieces. The second time I accompanied a few friends I met up with there, watching to see what caught their eyes and chatting merrily away about the art, the party, the outfits people were wearing and museums in general.

My friends were blown away by both the breadth and the depth of the collection, with frequent exclamations of, "I had know idea they had Diebenkorn/Jasper Johns/Pollack/Rothko/Rauschenberg/Ruscha/Diane Arbus etc.!" At one point, one of my companions finally turned to the rest of us and declared, "Wow, with all these amazing famous pieces, this place must be rich! They sure don't have to worry about money!" I explained that no, that was not necessarily the case at all. Most art in museums is donated rather than purchased--just reading the label copy closely will tell you that. And the cost of caring for such a vast and important collection is fairly steep.

Another friend chimed in, "Is that why they usually have traveling exhibitions from other places? To bring in more money?" Exactly. Traveling blockbusters are sexy. Given the opportunity to catch a fleeting show dedicated to Monet/Warhol/whomever and seeing an exhibition based on a museum's permanent collections, the public will jump at the limited engagement show in a heartbeat. The relatively low numbers last night are living proof of that fact.

The question then arose, "But if the permanent collections are never shown, why bother having them at all?" Sigh. Yes, that's exactly the dilemma, isn't it? Audiences don't value what they perceive as mundane, and what is actually owned by museums is often perceived as mundane in comparison with something exotic from someplace else that is only available for a limited time. The fact that pieces from all sorts of celebrated artists were present in the exhibit didn't seem to matter. Or maybe it would have mattered more had the marketing really played up the magnitude of the collection, perhaps even giving a nod to the sorry reality of the public perception of permanent collection shows: "Yes, it's a permanent collection show, but you know why it's as thrilling or more so than a traveling exhibit? Because we have the goods and we *own* them--and you almost never see them!"

Again, the public perception seems to be that all the best goodies in a museum's holdings are on permanent display and anything dredged up from the basement for a permanent collection show must therefore be dreck. What they don't realize is that a museum is lucky if they have enough gallery space to show off 5% of their entire collection; most can only exhibit 1%! That means that there is an awful lot of good stuff hiding in the back storerooms and I for one think it's great when some of those works get to see the light of day and strut their stuff.

But it's true, as I shared with my fellow attendees, that exactly because of this permanent/traveling debacle that more and more museums--not just science centers--are moving away from collecting and instead are devoting all of their gallery space to traveling shows. I understand the financial reasoning for this change, but I think it is important to remember that there is a reason why museums have been largely collecting institutions, holding in trust items of cultural value for the public. Perhaps rather than abandoning our collections we should instead be finding ways to make them more enticing and exciting for visitors, reminding the public exactly why we are holding these objects in trust in the first place.

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