The Curious Case of the Caring Curator

A not-infrequent criticism I raise on this blog has to do with museums, and the fact that so many of them seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to be.  So it was a real pleasure this morning to read this interview with Luke Syson, the chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  While I can’t say I agree with him on every point he raises in the article, I can see that he’s coming from the right starting point, both in how he’s looking at the art under his care, and the purpose of the institution he’s working for. Some highlights:

Should we be looking at contemporary and historic art side by side?

Works from different periods and different places are best shown together in people’s houses, but in museums, I like to keep them separate so that everything doesn’t become some mushy whole. The museum’s task is to present the works of art from the past as a product of their particular time, but also as timeless.

This is a blessed relief to read, particularly from someone in a curatorial position.  Over a decade ago, certain museums and galleries in this country began re-hanging their collections in seemingly arbitrary ways, copying some of the damage done by Sir Nicholas Serota and others in positions of curatorial authority who suffer from exceedingly poor taste.  My personal favorite was the major American (taxpayer-funded) collection which decided to install the works in its permanent collection in groups of “feelings” selected by the curators.  Fortunately this trend seems to be reversing itself of late, as the new director of Tate Britain demonstrated recently.

You are refurbishing the Met’s galleries of British sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. What can we expect?

What we have had on show in the past is a history of aristocratic British patronage, and that is very important, but we also want to look at the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through British art. This is a country without a dominant court in the way that the French had Versailles. Although the monarch was important, he wasn’t the person dictating all trends. Similarly, London’s Royal Academy of Arts comes late in history. Arguably, the establishment of factories by [ceramic manufacturers] Bolton and Wedgwood is as significant as the Royal Academy.

This is a spot-on observation.  There’s a reason why Napoleon famously referred to the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”, with somewhat mercantile tastes.  This is not to say that there are no grand houses in Britain, for there certainly are.  Rather, the level of show and luxury is, when viewed as a whole, not quite as ostentatious as one would have found in France or Italy during the same periods of time.  Moreover, there is a perennial British fascination with collecting large amounts of smaller objects and cramming them all together onto shelves, mantelpieces, and so on, whether you are an earl in a stately home or a pensioner in a terraced house.

You are one of a number of curators who have left British museums for US institutions in recent years. Why has there been such an influx?

Perhaps it sends a message to museums back home that they need to value their curators more.

Shhh….keep this to yourself.  We want them here to lend a bit of style about the place.  Hopefully Mr. Syson’s plans will bear good fruit over the coming years.

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?


If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out.  No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission.  However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table.  An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.

News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy.  Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out.  There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers.  Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.

Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard.  A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well.  Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.

Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:

  • Louvre: Allowed
  • Metropolitan: Allowed
  • National Gallery (US): Allowed
  • Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
  • Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel

There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself.  Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography.  Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles.  Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.

As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does.  Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse.  This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art.  Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.

The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem.  On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible.  On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.

From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I.  At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends.  So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.

What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums?  The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers


Sacred Art in Profane Institutions

This weekend while reading a book about the development of the major art museums which we enjoy in America today, I was struck by something which always bothers me about the nature of the institution of the art museum itself.  Many of the objects we see on these shores were purchased by the American nouveaux-riches to give themselves some polish, so as to make up for the smell of their very new money.   They went about despoiling European churches, convents, and residences of spiritual objects to use as status symbols or expensive playthings, in a millionaires-only game where religious institutions lost out to profane ones..

For example as the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt went about aiding the Havemeyers, a sugar baron and his society wife, over the course of several years in seeking out and purchasing a work by El Greco, there was a noticeable lack of interest both on the part of her patrons and of Cassatt herself regarding the religious aspects of the pictures under consideration.  In a letter to Mrs. Havemeyer, Cassatt describes a 13-foot-tall altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, which the Havemeyers were considering buying but which was too tall to fit inside their Fifth Avenue mansion [N.B. the piece later ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.]  In writing about it Cassatt notes nothing about the theological truths or spiritual virtues contained in the painting, but rather concentrates on the brushwork, the lines, and gives her verdict that it would be a good buy because the image of the Blessed Mother featured “a good head.”

If that’s all there was to recommend it, wouldn’t such a painting have been better-off being left in the church for which it had been painted? The counter-argument is, of course, that many objects such as these are better-preserved and cared for in museums, than they would have been had they been left in situ; in many cases such an argument is correct.  However, I can’t help but feel that the forest is being lost for the trees, in such an argument.

A similar back-and-forth over artistic  merit (and price) went on over the purchase of two of Raphael’s celebrated devotional images of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child, acquired by J.P. Morgan for the Morgan Library.  The issue in obtaining them was never about what such images of the Madonna and Child were supposed to teach the believer about the Incarnation.  Rather, the goal was to see how much Morgan could show off, when he would hold meetings with these private devotional paintings hanging on the wall: a more expensive versions of deer heads stuffed and mounted following a successful hunt.

Sometimes the unwillingness or inability of many of our great museums to wade into issues of Catholic theology – since the overwhelming majority of Christian sacred art in American art museums is Catholic in origin – is almost embarrassing, at times.  Placards and catalogue entries go into raptures over color choices and brushstrokes, linear perspective and chiaroscuro, and say little about the theology portrayed – often getting it wrong when they do.  Images before which generations of people brought their hopes and fears, to help them focus in their prayer life with God, are admired not for their ability to move the viewer to piety, but because of how bright the blue is, or how skillfully the tiny landscape behind the holy figures one is supposed to be concentrating on is painted.  There is a pointless superficiality and emptiness in this sort of collecting.  It is as if one was allowed to walk into the butcher’s shop and admire the marbling and the trimming of all of the fine steaks on display in the case, but one was never allowed to actually eat any of them.

This is not to say that one can never admire or appreciate an art object for its own intrinsic beauty.  However when it comes to the sacred art of the West, created by centuries and centuries of Catholics, the danger of allowing a secular museum to tell you what you ought to think about such objects lies in forgetting to question those secular shrines, and assuming their neutrality.  In realizing that profane institutions have many merits, but they are not the most trustworthy of guides, the smart museum visitor is the better-prepared visitor.  Learn what you can from these sources, but make sure you take their pronouncements about the art you see with some reservations.

"The Assumption of the Virgin" by El Greco (c. 1577-1579) The Art Institute of Chicago

“The Assumption of the Virgin” by El Greco (c. 1577-1579)
The Art Institute of Chicago