Archive for January, 2009

The Source of Cultural Deaccessioning

January 29, 2009

As asserted in this space prior, art is our cultural patrimony. It is a critical part of our identity and history as a culture. The cultural objects of antiquity are held in particular reverence and some countries have passed laws that prevent private ownership of these works. These ancient objects were once new as well and contemporary artworks are the antiquities of the future. But, we are fortunate these days because much of our art is publicly accessible in near contemporaneous time, whereas many antiquities were objects of private use during their early existence.

Regardless, once they make their way into the public consciousness, revered historical objects become a part of the cultural identity and a source of common connection within society. When such an object is removed from public access, whether by destruction or other means, a palpable void can exist. For example, the removal of marble statuary and friezes from the Parthanon in Athens has left many Greeks feeling as if a part of their personal identity has been taken from them. (The marbles were removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and are now in the British Museum). Barring this type of separation or destruction, each generation serves as custodian of the cultural object and passes it along to the next, with the associations intact and perhaps further cultivated. In this way, art is a larger cultural version of the treasured objects that a pass down through a family, from generation to generation. These objects, sometimes just ordinary articles of daily use, are embedded with meanings beyond their mere physicality.

The situation at Brandeis University and the decision of the trustees to close the Rose Art Museum has been an ongoing point of discussion and seems to have developed broader significance. The museum accumulated a notable collection of contemporary art. As a whole, the collection represents a period of extraordinary growth in American Art. It reflects the social adjustments that occurred for women in the mid to late 20th century and also the ways in which Americans’ perception of the world changed during the time. In particular, many of the works in the collection are related to the self-reflexive perspective that American art developed in the mid to late 20th century. Regardless of the apparent subject matter of each work, this artwork is speaking to us about ourselves; how we perceive the larger culture. It is not unlike an antique family salt box. On the outside it is a only a container for salt, but it also represents the daily work of cooking for a family, and by extension the times when that accomplishment was a difficult one. It may represent, ultimately, the existence of the family by the continuation of salt and sustenance, in the form of the associated container. The function of art is closer to pure communication. Its function is to hold the thoughts and perceptions of a culture, and to some extent, its history. What value does such an object have? At what point does its monetary value exceed its more elusive value as a cultural container?

Consider if the Brandeis trustees found themselves, individually, experiencing financial difficulties like many people are these days. Tough decisions would have to be made; expenses cut, non-essentials deferred. When our trustee gets to the point where he needs to sell some of his property to meet his basic needs, then…if the monetary values were the same, which would he sell first, the new Mercedes or the antique family salt box? Which has more intrinsic value?

I argue that most people would sell the Mercedes first, regardless of which object brought in more cash. They may even sell their own home before the salt box, even if the box could fetch a fair price at auction. For many people, such objects have a clear value beyond the monetary. This is how many people feel about the Rose Art Museum and other institutions that have or are deaccessioning their artwork. The sale of these works are, in essence, the sale of a piece of the culture and contain the possibility that the object will be forever removed from public access. From this perspective, the sale of a museum collection should be a last option, not a first, as it appears to be at Brandeis.

Despite the existence of the art market, why is selling art that has moved into the public sphere an acceptable practice? As communication, the more people that have access to the work, the more effectively the culture can relate to itself. If the culture–and society–is to be healthy and progressive, then this communication should not be inhibited. My contention is that too many people in this society are unable to interpret the communication of art. Art illiteracy is, in some way, cultural illiteracy. Without art education, whether it is in the form of studio practice, theory or history, the voice of art is lost to many. The function of art theory and art history education is obvious, but studio practice is significant as well. The act of creating an artwork involves not just technical choices and skill, but also conceptual decisions. By learning about the conceptual decisions that artists make, one begins to understand that there are no true accidents in art. Everything and anything within the work is there with intent.

Art education, particularly studio practice and theory, introduces students to the process of multi-dimensional thinking. To understand a work of art, one must begin to think like the artist and consider the choices made in creating the work. The artist, of course, exists in a culture and must be understood within the context of that culture. By extension, art can take on additional meanings when viewed from an alternative perspective, another culture. Clearly, there are many flaws in the art education that does exist, but the near complete lack of it has, I contend, brought about the willingness to deaccession and sell publiclly accessible artworks–and result in the scattering of our cultural discussion.

 

19th Century image of the parthanon

19th Century image of the Parthenon, probably 1804 or later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just for reference:  

The New Acropolis Museum, opening in the Spring of 2009.

 

Thanks to those that initiated and participated in this discussion.

(Revised 1/30/2009)

 


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Art, the Easiest Target

January 28, 2009

The Brandeis University story has been gathering steam in the last few days, appearing for a time late last night as the lead story on the NY Times website, photo and all. As noted earlier this week (as an update to When Museums Sell Art) the university decided to close the Rose Art Museum and sell all of the works therein. Within hours of the announcement, petitions appeared online and blogs began to call for action. The Rose Art Museum is known for its collection, a tight survey of American contemporary art. Much of the museum’s artwork was purchased during the relatively early years of big-name artists when the work was relatively cheap. It appears that the trustees did not foresee the public reaction to the radical act of closing an entire institution and splitting up a notable collection of cultural objects.

A brief flashback to New York’s Guiliani administration…In 1999 the Brooklyn Museum, now rather famously, hosted the Sensation exhibit from the Saatchi Collection which included Chris Ofili’s Madonna image. Ofili’s artwork incorporated elephant dung, which in the artist’s perspective was a signifier of esteem, rather than disparagement of the primary subject matter. But that is really besides the point. Then mayor Guiliani, apparently because of lack of knowledge about the specific artwork, general ignorance about art, arrogance, or all of the above, perhaps along with political motivations, sought to remove Ofili’s work from view. The museum refused. Guiliani cut off government funding and cancelled the museum’s lease as retribution. (Funding was later restored by the courts and the lease was not cancelled).

In the context of the mayor’s involvement, this attempted action could be seen as a government intrusion into free speech, but besides that issue, art was an easy target. Perhaps he was bolstered by the reduction of NEA funding subsequent to political attacks on the agency based upon the alleged offensiveness or obscenity of the artwork made by artists that received its (nondiscriminatory) funding. From the perspective of artists, the NEA has never fully recovered as the beneficial organization that it once was.

However, the artists and art patrons of New York did not go quietly and the attack on the Brooklyn Museum resulted in an outpouring of speech and action in defense of the museum. Prior to the incident the Brooklyn Museum was not particularly known as the most challenging or eminent of New York’s art museums. Guiliani was not successful and the museum’s reputation and status was ultimately burnished by the attention (and the subsequent settlement). It didn’t, however, stop Guiliani from trying the same move, also unsuccessful, on Renée Cox’ Yo Mama’s Last Supper at the same institution.

The trustees of Brandeis University are not working as punitive agents, but they appear to have underestimated the reaction to closing a premiere institution like the Rose. No doubt that the university, as one of the many victims of the alleged Madoff scheme is in dire financial condition. In such situation, the arts are inevitably selected as the first neck on the chopping block. Artists and art patrons are, unfortunately, able to predict this with some regularity. There was a time when art classes, for example, were common in the public schools. By the mid 1980s they, along with music programs, were the first to be cut from curriculum in times of financial stress. This says quite a bit where we, as a culture, perceive the quality of value to exist.

A loss of the arts, whether in terms of access to recognized works of stature or in the form of educational instruction, is a loss to society and its future. Art is communication. When people, especially younger people, are not exposed to the arts, a vital experience is denied. A good education in the arts, whether formal or informal, can teach an individual to consider issues in a multi-dimensional perspective, formulate a critical analysis, and in consequence, make decisions that are well considered–in whatever context they may be made. The experience of art also provides lessons in cultural understanding, history, and human perception that are otherwise less accessible. In times like these particularly, we need to encourage this type of learning and experiencing, rather than curtailing it.

Brandeis is beginning the process of determining how to sell off its unique collection. A significant source of the Rose Museum’s funding for art purchases was a trust fund, along with donations of artwork. It is unclear as to whether the donations were made solely by collectors or if some donations may have been made by the artists themselves. Conditions in some of the donation agreements may serve as impediments to the sale of certain individual pieces. Regardless, the biggest impediment may be the public response to this nearly unprecedented action by an educational institution with such significant cultural holdings. Potential private buyers of the collection are not at fault, but it will be a major loss to the community, Brandeis’ students, and the general public if the collection is no longer accessible as a whole.

References:

Brandeis’ Press Release announcing closure of the Rose Art Museum

Insider Higher Ed January 27, 2009: Brandeis to Sell All of Its Art

The Rose Art Museum

A compilation of articles about the Brooklyn Museum versus Giuliani debacle: ArtsJournal

Brooklyn Museum Receives Support in Legal Battle With Mayor, NY Times, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum: Businessweek, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum: Salon.com, October 2, 1999

The Tilt of Public Art: Cultural Communication & the Removal of Tilted Arc

January 27, 2009

In 1989 Richard Serra’s sculpture “Tilted Arc” was removed from Federal Plaza in New York City. “Tilted Arc” was a 120 foot long curved slab of patina covered steel that was positioned so that it diagonally bisected the plaza. Serra had apparently been promised, and created the work in consideration of, its permanence in the location. Amid public outcry and a subsequent appellate court decision which found that the site specific work, and Serra’s speech, was not destroyed or limited by the disassociation of “Tilted Arc” from the plaza location, the piece was dismantled and removed. It is apparently still owned by the GSA and stored in a government facility.

Anyone who has visited Federal Plaza, perhaps waiting in the early morning lines for the now named US CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly INS) would likely have perceived the significance of Serra’s piece. In one aspect, it signified a certain impediment to the services rendered in the building, and perhaps of bureaucracy and policy as well.

The removal of “Tilted Arc” occurred before the U.S. adoption of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) which is our version of federally-based moral rights for artists. VARA was adopted primarily to comply with the Berne Convention treaty, rather than as an altruistic attempt to protect artwork that was unpopular, like “Tilted Arc.”

As Michael Brenson’s Art View column (published in the NY Times at the time) suggested, in the aftermath of the “Tilted Arc” episode, government sponsored public art has become skewed towards the pleasing, rather than the provocative. If this is true, then the policy certainly dampens a certain level of cultural communication that can occur between challenging public art and individuals.

More:

Read the appellate court decision that resulted in the removal of Tilted Arc: Serra vs. General Services Administration on Artuntitled.com.

PBS article on Tilted Arc

Images of Tilted Arc, Google search results

For more on moral rights, see The Value of Art and the Natural Rights of Artists: A Discussion of Moral Rights

The NSA and Consumer Privacy

January 23, 2009

MSNBC has reported, based upon the statements of a former NSA Analyst, that the National Security Administration used credit card purchasing records and financial transaction information in tracking surveillance suspects. According to Russell Tice, a former NSA Analyst appearing on MSNBC Countdown Wednesday, “National Security Administration had access to all Americans’ communications–faxes, phone calls and their computer communications.”

On his subsequent Thursday appearance, Mr. Tice also seem to indicate that there may be instances in which individuals were subject to governmental surveillance based upon consumer purchasing information. Referring in part to his prior interview, Mr. Tice indicated that profiles (“algorithms”) had been developed which may flag certain common activities, such as a brief telephone call, as a terrorist–pattern behavior. In his example, he explained that a 1 to 2 minute pizza delivery call could potentially cause this flag to be raised and instigate surveillance of the individual. He further discusses the use of consumer information by the NSA to monitor the behavior of individuals, some of whom may be ordinary citizens and journalists. This revelation stirs up a host of legal issues concerning privacy and the reasonableness of search/seizure. Mr. Olbermann characterized Mr. Tice’s Wednesday revelations as whistle-blowing. However, in regards utilizing individual consumer buying records, information about this practice by private industry and the government has been available for some years.

Robert O’Harrow’s book No Place to Hide describes the accumulation and sale of consumer buying information by private industry, the correlation of this information with other critical data (such as addresses, birthdates, personal relationships), datamining, and later collaboration between this industry and the government. The result is the potential for surveillance into the intimate details of any person’s life and presents serious questions about what the true and legal meaning of privacy may be. The technology developed to correlate this information is also part of the subject matter of O’Harrow’s book.

Credit goes to Professor Ralph M. Stein for recommending this book to me in 2006 when I was doing research on the topic of internet privacy and national security.

References:

No Place to Hide by Robert O’Harrow, Jr., 2005/2006 Free Press/Simon & Schuster
MSNBC Countdown, January 21, 2009, #3
MSNBC Countdown, January 22, 2009, #3

When Museums Sell Art

January 22, 2009

In the past month or so there has been a series of articles in the New York Times about the financial troubles of art museums. Some major catastrophes seem to have been averted for the immediate future, but the primary issue of concern is the practice of deaccessioning artwork. This is nothing new, but considering the times, it is likely to become more common. In the practice of deaccessioning, artwork may sold to ease financial difficulties or it may be sold for the purpose or raising funds to purchase other artworks. Deaccessioning is a controversial practice on several angles, particularly when works of art are sold for a reason less than the life-or-death of the institution.

When works are sold for the purpose of purchasing another–in theory, an artwork with a higher culture value–the decision is subject to the perspective of the times. How many times has an object been disregarding in one period, when its style is unfashionable, but is later understood to be particularly significant? It is something that happens with a certain frequency in the history of art.

When works are sold for the purpose of raising funds it brings into question the function of the museum. Museums, for good or bad, are increasingly more like commercial or corporate entities. American museums, unlike those in some other countries, typically charge a substantial entrance fee. Prominent museums may have trusts and other sources of relatively stable income. Of course, museums are under pressure from both external and internal factors to draw more visitors, and hence, ticket fees. Is the proper purpose of the museum, then, a source of revenue or that of a permanent guardian of cultural patrimony?

Regardless, there are several reason why anyone who cares about art and cultural heritage should be concerned about this practice. One, if the artwork is sold into a private collection, the public, in all likelihood loses access to it. Art is culture and it belongs to the world, particularly when it has reached the stature of a museum piece. It should be available for public access, even if it is not always on view.

Two, museums sometimes acquire work by donation. When artwork is donated to a museum, the probable intent was something akin to a public gift. (Okay, some people do it for the tax benefit). Some museum collections are enhanced by gifts given by the artist personally (who can only claim the actual cost of the materials for tax purposes). Artists may be less likely to donate their work, especially to smaller regional institutions, if the museum may later sell it off. Some donors, collectors or artists, may be able to circumvent to possibility of a later sale of the work by making a permanent loan, rather than a donation. Of course there is likely to be no tax benefit from such a loan.

Third, the deaccessioning of artwork seems to be simply counter to the role that museums are perceived to have in this society. The general belief is that museums hold a charitable position in society and exist for the benefit of society. Museums have a particularly important position in maintaining the cultural patrimony of the world. When bits are sold off, the institution itself is diminished…and historical communication of art becomes increasingly available only for the few.

References:

Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts

Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?

Branded a Pariah, the National Academy Is Struggling to Survive

National Academy Sells Two Hudson River School Paintings to Bolster It’s Finances

UPDATE:  January 27, 2009

The NY Times reports that Brandeis University will close the Rose Museum and sell the art collection.  The purpose?  To improve the university’s financial situation.  The museum contains numerous contemporary works including those of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Mathew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Helen Frankenthaler, Kiki Smith and others.

Read the Times article here.

The Rose Art Museum

At the time of this posting, neither the university or the museum has published a statement on its website about the closing.