From the Curator's Desk

The Origins of Museums

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 31, 2020

The history of the genesis of museums is a fascinating blend of passion for all things handmade and for the beauty and strangeness of nature. This blog will introduce the motivating impulses of education and conservation that began museums and continue to inform museums today. 

The Cedarhurst Center for the Arts and the Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park are a part of this history. Our institution was shaped by this history and reflects the highest and most current best practices of that history.

It is innate for humans to collect. It’s how we teach ourselves to learn about and live in the world. There is speculation that the earliest known organized manifestation of this innate need may be Neo-Babylonian Princess Ennigaldi’s “museum” from 530 BCE. The site was discovered by Ashmolean archaeologist Leonard Woolley in 1925. Other early candidates are the Capitoline Museums, Rome, 1471; and the Vatican museums, 1506. 

I will use these five museums to chart our short history: the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England. Contemporary black sculpture Taichi Arch by Ju Ming, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and Creative Commons 

The Ashmolean Museum may be considered the first public museum. It opened in 1683 on the campus of University of Oxford, England. Founder Elias Ashmole stipulated that his collections (cabinets of curiosity) form the basis for practical research and education. Collection highlights feature archaeological objects and fine art from ancient Egypt, Greek pottery, English silver, paintings by Peter Paul Reubens, Picasso, and John Singer Sargent, and drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The British Museum, London, is like many museums with its conglomeration of styles and additions. The neoclassical facade marks the entrance. The modern green dome and roof were added in 2000. Significantly, the dome covers the Reading Room, 1857, highlighting the history of the museum beginning as a library.  Photo courtesy of Luke Massey and Creative Commons.

The British Museum opened in 1759 and could be described as the oldest independent museum in the world. Interestingly, the British Museum for its first fifty years housed no art, but instead books and manuscripts. Early access was restricted to “learned gentlemen.” Access followed royal court protocol and aristocratic etiquette. Not until the 19th century did access become more accommodating to the public. Collection highlights feature the still controversial Elgin marbles (Lord Elgin removed half the Parthenon sculptures in 1801-1811); the Rosetta Stone; a 600-year-old bust of Ooni, leader of the West African Kingdom of Ife; the Aztec turquoise double-headed serpent, 15th century BCE; the Sloane Astrolabe, medieval, c.1300; and the gigantic granite bust of Ramesses the Great, 1250 BCE.

The Louvre, Paris, on the banks of the Seine. I. M. Pei’s landmark glass Pyramid, 1989, marks the museum’s now famous underground entrance. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and GNU Free Documentation License

The Louvre origin story is the most unique of all museums. Originally, the site next to the Seine River in Paris began as a fortress in 1190. In the 1500s the site was remade as a royal palace. Prior to the French Revolution, which was a ten-year affair from 1789 to 1799, the idea was discussed to turn the Louis XVI palace into a public museum. But it took the Revolution for the Louvre to become a museum. In 1793, the former palace was formally decreed by the new government a public museum. As might be expected, the new museum became a symbol of revolutionary achievement. Collection highlights include the Mona Lisa,1503; the Venus de Milo, c.100 BCE; the Nike of Samothrace, 190 BCE; and the Medici Cycle by Peter Paul Rubens begun in 1622.

The Prado, Madrid. Designed by architect Juan de Villanueva in 1785, its original residents the National History Cabinet, then the Royal Museum, and finally the Prado. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Emilio J. Rodriguez Posada, and Creative Commons.  

The Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid opened to the public in 1819. The Prado’s collections began with art from the Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs. The royal holdings were strengthened by the famed artist Diego Velázquez—the court painter of Philip IV (1621–65)—who traveled Italy seeking worthy paintings. The Prado boasts the most complete collections in the world of works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya. The Prado’s highlights are found in most art history textbooks: The Annunciation by Fra Angélico, 1431-35; The Descent from the Cross by Roger Van der Weyden 1436; Self-portrait by Dürer, 1498; The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch 1500-1510; The Cardinal, by Raphael, c.1510; Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Tintoretto, 1547; The Emperor Charles V by Titian, 1548; The Three Graces by Rubens, c.1639; Las Meninas by Velázquez, 1656 (meninas here means young ladies-in-waiting or personal assistants to the queen); and The Third of May 1808 by Goya, 1814.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, Manhattan. The majestic Fifth Avenue entrance by Richard Morris Hunt. Famous for many landmark buildings, and as Cedarhurst Book Club members know, Hunt also designed the Biltmore House for George and Edith Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Arad, and Creative Commons.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated in 1870 and opened in 1872. (An aside: other earlier established US museums include - Charles Willson Peale’s Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 1786; Peabody Essex, Salem, MA, 1799; the Smithsonian, 1846; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1870; and the Chicago Art Institute, 1879.) 

The Met founders were John Taylor Johnston, railroad executive of the Central Railroad of New Jersey; George Palmer Putnam, book publisher; Eastman Johnson, artist, best known for his scenes of everyday life in America; Frederic Edwin Church, best known as the key landscape painter of the Hudson River School; Howard Potter, industrialist and banker; with various (and apparently unlisted) other founders making contributions. J. Pierpont Morgan played a significant role in moving the fledgling institution forward. 

The museum buildings are a conglomeration of styles: High Victorian Gothic with some modern glass structures on the sides and rear. But it is famed architect Richard Morris Hunt’s Fifth Avenue facade that has become the iconic representation of the museum with the Beaux-Arts style. The Met is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere. It is perennially the third highest attended museum with around 7 million annually, behind number one the Louvre, and number two the British Museum. 

The Met collections total over 3 million objects managed by over 100 curators with several hundred thousand objects on public view. The former director Philippe de Montebello noted in his 1983 introduction to the handbook that “several of the departments could and would be major independent museums almost anywhere else.” 

Rather than suggest collection highlights, I offer alternative benchmarks. The Met employs over 2,200 people. What follows are some of the Met’s departments: Conservation and Scientific Research, Digital Asset Management, Media Installation, Media Production, Imaging, Advanced Imaging, Libraries, Internal Communications, Market Research, Tourism Marketing, Email Marketing, Social Media, Engineering Management, Carpentry, Electric Shop, Engineering Shop, Horticulture, Machine Shop, Paint Shop, Plexi Shop, Plumbing Shop, Rigging Shop, Roofing Shop, Instruments / Electronic Shop, Locksmith Shop, Counsel, Printing Services, Government Affairs, Information Systems and Technology, Infrastructure and Technical Support, Server and Desktop Administration, Enterprise Applications Management, Constituent Systems, Retail Computer Systems, Research Scholars, Staff Organizations: Forum of Curators, Conservators, and Scientists. 

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic caused the Met to close; this was the first time in a century that the museum had closed for more than three consecutive days.

Throughout their long history museums have been seen either literally or figuratively as schools, civic centers, economic engines, refuges, and town squares, and I’ve referred to them as places for democratic forums. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art thought of his museum as a laboratory. All these conceptions emphasize the multi-faceted ways museums serve their communities. 

Primarily, art museums are institutions that collect, exhibit, conserve, and educate about culture, values, and history through carefully chosen objects from the many fine art disciplines. Cedarhurst focuses on American national and regional art. 

Today, the visitor is at the center of all a museum does for a community. Collecting, exhibiting, and educational programming drive the mission, with all events organized and presented in order to have meaningful conversations with visitors. Art museums today are complex institutions with diverse demands, that nevertheless focus that complexity on serving visitors and satisfying their curiosities about the worlds and pleasures of art.

Thinking through History

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 24, 2020

History is the story of how and why we came to be at this present moment. Thinking through History is the detective work that understands how opposing points of view changed history and behavior. To study History is to begin to make sense of the world. 

To live well and thrive in the modern-postmodern world, it is crucial to understand the history of one’s country and the world. 

The teaching of History in American public schools has been in a long decline. A 1985 article in the New York Times, “Decline and Fall of Teaching History,” reported the gradual lessening of the amount of time devoted to teaching world and US histories starting in 1960. Students that are not exposed to history remain a major concern today. 

I believe art museums have a role to play in showing the value of history and showing how to read and analyze cultural documents, including paintings, sculpture, as well as, the news, social media, and fake news. 

Art history practices the careful analysis of visual evidence. 

There is a misconception circulating today that truth or facts are not possible. Practicing careful visual and linguistic analysis of visual and written documents can foster consensus. Bias enters into any social process and can be negotiated though consensus. 

A major misconception is that History is a cut-and-dried affair with only names and dates to memorize. New scholarship in History is alive with new voices and viewpoints that have broadened horizons. 

“History is hard to teach,… because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identity, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society.” See Edward Ayers, New American History, University of Richmond. 

Celebrated historian Peter N. Stearns, who taught History at the universities of Chicago, Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, and George Mason, wrote an essay on the values in studying History. My summary follows. 

The study of History is indispensable. Reading history is the study of human aspirations, motivations, and behavior. It is the best evidence for how complex human societies interact with each other and the environment. The human struggle constantly strives to improve and learns best from past experiences. 

The present today was shaped by the past. Historians, and those who read their writings, study the psychological and sociological factors that allowed monumental change to occur. Historians also study the logics that resist change. Together, the stories of change and resistance are weighed for the social values which motivate the human condition. 

History reaches a degree of understanding about the complex lives we all lead and share. The stories of history are often beautiful and worthy of emulation and moral contemplation. History teaches by example the stories of ordinary men and women who against all odds achieved extraordinary results. 

History is the source for identity. All modern nations promote the study of history. The digital revolution has made genealogy for families a more accessible resource for identity. Institutions, businesses, ethnic groups, and communities also use history to build and maintain continuity and identity. 

History provides data for the review of the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values. History collects evidence of how nations have interacted and compares perspectives. Knowledge of these national and international relationships is a hallmark of good citizenship. 

Benefits from the study of History are many. The experience of assessing the evidence is foremost. This parallels analyzing a painting or reading the news or deciding what is fake news. 

Another benefit is assessing conflicting interpretations. The central goal of historical study is an understanding how societies work and this is inherently an imprecise project. Evaluating conflicting interpretations is an essential skill of citizenship. 

Another benefit is assessing past examples of change. This benefit is essential for evaluating change in society today. The study of historical change lends perspective and objectivity regarding the potential magnitude and significance of change in today’s world. 

The study of History builds knowledge on how to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. It provides factual information about the background of our political institutions and the values and problems that affect our collective well-being. The study of History reaches for a shared understanding of how the world works.

Reading Memes

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 17, 2020

This post uses slides, images, and examples to introduce critical (thoughtful) reading strategies for art and even the news.  

According to lexico dot com, a meme is an element of culture or system of behavior that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, typically by imitation.

Discerning what is legitimate is particularly difficult concerning social media where the authors of memes are not included.   

My metrics for evaluating works of art: FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, PERSONAL and SOCIAL VALUES, and the most important HISTORICAL CONTEXTS.  

Thomas Jefferson, as a man of the Enlightenment, knew well the power of art and the importance of symbolism. For the fledging country, Jefferson wanted the symbolism of Neoclassicism symbolically embedded in new architecture. This is a positive use of ideology.  

Jefferson’s use of Greco-Roman architecture to symbolize the new country and its ideals is one of the defining moments of the new country and its positive and uplifting ideologies.  

Greco-Roman architecture embodied the Enlightenment ideals of balance, restraint, unity of design, clarity, and proportion. These were the values Jefferson and others wanted the new country to aspire to.  

This is the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. What does the Greco-Roman architecture symbolize for museums?

Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City?

Or the public buildings in St. Louis?  FORM embodies ideological content.

Can you imagine the shock of the artist George Bellows when he learned that fellow artist and colleague Marcel Duchamp submitted the urinal as his art entry to the competition? What did Bellows recommend for Duchamp’s entry?

How a work of art is meant to FUNCTION can be key to its meaning and social values.

Here are Damon Davis’s building posters during the Ferguson protests after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. What might the hands symbolize? Can you come up with more than one interpretation for the hands?

Here are Davis’ All Hands on Deck installed in our galleries in 2016. How has their FUNCTION been altered?  Is their symbolism any less significant or has it become more so?

In this painting from the Saint Louis Art Museum the FUNCTION of the painting was to advertise the prostitute who is holding a meme showcasing her services.  A 1625 Dutch painting titled A Courtesan Holding an Obscene Image.

Personal and SOCIAL VALUES influence one’s opinion regarding a work of art, a social media meme, or the news.

In this detail of Bruegel’s 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs, foolish behaviors and popular beliefs are called into question by the artist. Throughout History, serious artists were never solely interested in painting pictures to merely replicate the world; philosophy and world-views were always being explored visually and metaphorically.

HISTORY is the most important of my five metrics of visual evaluations. History is the most important because the context can alter all of the others - FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, VALUES are changed over time to some degree. However, some values change very little over time or even cultures. Valor and heroism are admirable in any time period.

Picasso Guernica 1937 is one of the epitomes of anti-war statements by an artist. Here, Picasso condemns Spanish dictator Franco for having had the Nazis bomb the Spanish people.

Andy Warhol proved many times that he was more than a mere disinterested commentator. Here in this eleven foot tall painting Warhol has made a very strong civil rights statement against police brutality. The black and white photo is from LIFE magazine. Red Race Riot, 1963; Germans recognized what Warhol was accomplishing and the Ludwig Museum in Köln scooped up this masterpiece. How might we discuss this political work of art in our museum?

Media messages are constructed, but that does not mean all of the constructions are meant to mislead.  

Who created the message is the most important. Consider how much effort the FBI put into trying to find the origins of the social media posts maligning our elections.  

Consider how African Americans view confederate public works installed during the Jim Crow era. What public work might offend you or worse, make you fear for your life? Art forms carry and delivery the content. I think a Nazi statue in an American public park would be of concern.

Brugel, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559.  

Goya, Third of May 1808, 1814 condemns the French occupation of Madrid and murder of Spanish citizens.

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1919, condemns the atrocities of war.

Diego Rivera, The Detroit Industry murals, 1933. 27 fresco panels portray automotive, industrial, and agricultural industries.

A political cartoon by Jacob Burck, The Lord Provides, 1934.

Walker Evans, Portrait of a Sharecropping Family in Alabama (1936).

Builder Levy, I Am A Man / Union Justice Now, 1969, silver gelatin print.

Robert Longo, Master Jazz, 1982, representing the angst and turmoil of the early 1980s.

Félix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled, early 1990s.  The artist specifically posed the work's meaning as open-ended and encouraged viewers to come up with their own. Often considered as a memorial to those who succumbed to AIDS in the 1980s.

Jefferson’s use of neoclassical architecture with its “built-in” or inherent symbolism of order, logic, and clarity is the best example of how content is conveyed by a society’s art works.

Today, it is perhaps, much harder to discern fact from fiction. But with the study of art, looking closely at who made it and why and in what historical circumstances, it can become much easier and rewarding.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.  Barthes explores topics as diverse wrestling and soap detergents identifying culture's supporting connotations and themes.

Mary Ann Staniszewski, Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art, 1995. Staniszewski tracks how the meaning and value of "art" has changed over historical periods, and what it means today.

Brian Wallis, editor, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, 1984. A superb anthology of contemporary art by such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, Craig Owens, and Martha Rosler.

What is Art Conservation?

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 10, 2020

Conservator and art restorer Vlad Zhitomirsky studies a work of art similar to a curator. Vlad and his business partner, Mikhail Matveyev, begin by determining the forms’ various origins and histories. They determine what construction techniques were used.  They evaluate the condition of each section of the art work examining every square inch, inside and out, for surface integrity and decay.

With our Gorilla, Vlad and Mikhail also try to determine how many different kinds of chrome bumpers were used by the artist John Kearney. Each chrome bumper may have a different chrome process depending on maker and year made.

Restoration of the outdoor sculpture Gorilla, inside and out, means removing all rust, flaking chrome, cleaning, applying several chemical treatments, and final cleaning, waxing, and polishing, all involving the investment of many hours of sweat equity.

Vlad’s restoration also requires knowledge and experience of metallurgy, chemistry, welding, art history, science, studio art, and a fundamental understanding of the history of automobile bumpers. Chrome bumpers were phased out in the early 1970s.

Their careful and painstaking conservation processes restores art works for future generations.

The photos detail some of Vlad and Mikhail’s procedures and techniques.

Conservation preserves a community’s cultural heritage. Vlad’s work on Gorilla, Bull, and Kimball are part of Cedarhurst’s Kimball’s Habitat, our long-range plan renovating the Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park. Kimball has become a community symbol of the museum and sculpture park.

Conservation in general has many aspects to it including examination, documentation, treatment, preventive care and maintenance, all supported by curatorial research and education.

All conservators follow clear ethical obligations when preserving a community’s cultural heritage. Their work reflects expertise, professionalism, and commitment.

The conservators’ work is often not realized by the many visitors who will see, but not know, their work. This is as it should be. The reward comes in the generations of children who will grow up and bring their own children to see the parents’ favorite works of art. This family sharing is one of the values of a community’s cultural heritage that has been preserved.

The Role of Museums in Democracies

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 03, 2020

Regarding democracies, according to Pew Research, “Concern has been growing for the past several years about the future of democracy, and there is considerable dissatisfaction in many countries with how democracy is working in practice. But public support for democratic ideals remains strong, and by one measure, global democracy is at or near a modern-day high.” Maintaining a democracy means more than staying informed and voting. Civic research and participation are necessary and practical ways of ensuring that as many voices as possible are heard and thoughtfully considered. Democracies since Athens are known to be fragile and stand or fall with civil participation.

Museums have a role to play in democracies. Art works are historical artifacts that document the past’s social and cultural values. The best of these objects resonate for future generations. (Museums are not perfect and like society itself, constantly working to understand and embrace the evolution of cultural values.) 

Significant historical visual art works add depth and weight to the conversion, and may join with other important modes of culture in conversations on social and moral values.

Such modes of culture include the writers of novels and movies, but also television and comedians. Consider movies like The Black Panther and the 1977 television series Roots. I am thinking of writers and comedians who have impacted culture like Jonathan Swift to Ambrose Bierce to Will Rogers to Lenny Bruce.

Writers, comedians, movies, and television speak in a language easily understood. The best grapple with serious issues and more often than not open complex social issues from differing points of view. 

O. Henry wrote short stories about ordinary people bringing a certain juxtaposition of ironic fate and affection for his cast of characters — tramps, shop girls, the lowly and humble — who were often overlooked in society. Henry’s subjects echo his contemporary the Ashcan School leader Robert Henri. Recognizing the ordinary man and woman is something Henri, Cassatt, and O. Henry shared.

Short-story writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce specialized in critiques of frauds of all sorts and stories revealing the accidents and coincidences of life. Bierce was a contemporary of the painter and teacher Thomas Eakins. Eakins likely read Bierce and appreciated Bierce’s perspectives on life. During his time, Eakins was forced to hide his love of Samuel Murray.

The visual arts joins these various modes of culture offering differing perspectives on a host of important issues. In Cedarhurst’s own collections, Mary Cassatt, Henri, Eakins, George Bellows, Paul Strand and others from time to time have pointed out the social inequalities in life.

In 2015 I wrote an essay for the exhibition Representing Labor which examined how the visual arts play a role in representing civic discourse and museums functioning as a democratic forum. Some excerpts follow below.

"This essay explores how images establish identity in social and cultural contexts by examining art’s functions with Representation, Democracy, Empathy, and the Museum as Public Forum.

Through our cultural processes we create, perhaps the most important meaning, Identity, both for individual selves and the communities we live in. How culture creates identity is a process that can be studied through the visual arts.

What museums do best is present and evaluate how the signs and symbols found in paintings, sculptures and other works of fine art accrue meaning, value, and social significance. Examining these social mechanisms by which art works become imbued with meaning may be useful for examining how meaning accrues elsewhere in culture [such as memes in social media].

Democracy is the quintessential civic forum where the meanings socially constructed in Representation can be negotiated. The raison d’être of a democracy is to have collective rule by the people who consider, weigh, negotiate, and finally compromise on differing viewpoints. The synonym for democracy is compromise.

Empathy is the moral engine that drives social relationships and keeps democracy vibrant. Empathy is less about “wearing the other person’s shoes,” or feeling sorry for the disenfranchised, and more about recognizing the value one has for oneself and in turn seeing that self same value in every other human life.

It is within these social apparatuses—Representation, Democracy, Empathy—that museums may strive as public forums for discussion of the social issues of the day.

One of the ways museums address cultural understanding is through the art exhibition. The exhibition is the presentation of voices through the visual arts.

By encouraging visitors to regard any exhibition as a public forum, the power begins of the visual arts as catalyst.

Museums have long been functioning as micro-forums of democracy.

Because museums have historically shown [the] art dedicated to social change, it may be that in the early 21st century with the shift towards the needs of the audience, that museums become more involved as social agents of change.”