On Hold: The Met Postpones Drinking The Art Kool-Aid

The continuing woes of The Metropolitan Museum of Art seem to keep on coming.  With continued layoffs, deficits, leasing the old Whitney Museum, and lawsuits about all sorts of things, the white elephant of 5th Avenue has been going through some hard times of late. Now, it appears that The Met will have to postpone the planned renovation and expansion of its Modern and Contemporary Art wing, in order to address more pressing needs, such as fixing the roof.

The problems faced by The Met are not unique. Similar issues have arisen for most of the world’s major art institutions, as they struggle to find an identity for themselves in the 21st century. Most seem to be suffering from a kind of institutional schizophrenia, as they try to appeal to as many potential visitors as possible, while at the same time hating themselves for doing so.

Contemporary Art is increasingly perceived as the solution to this existential dilemma. Covering the floor of a large room with thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds will attract more visitors to an art museum than a beautifully-painted, delicate landscape of olive trees by Corot. Thus, old-skool art museums like The Met want to steal some of the crowd from their expressly avant-garde sister institutions, and get some of that tourist lolly for themselves.

Long gone are the days when art museums were visited with some degree of circumspection, like libraries, with a quiet hush enforced by sharp glances and “shush!” from both staff and patrons. Today, the primary goal of the art museum is to get as many punters in the door as possible, like at a shopping mall or theme park. Groups of unimpressed school children and great swarms of foreign tourists all follow their designated guide, quickly passing over as many works as possible in the 1-2 hours they have been allotted, and all of them will have to pay an admission fee, get something to eat, and purchase a souvenir.

To do this, art museums have become fora for the airing of grievances, real or imagined, and the celebration of enshrined mediocrity in Contemporary Art. Even grand, old institutions such as The Met, which should know better, want to display the workings of utterly untalented hands, because this is what draws a crowd. It allows curators and directors to feel as though they have not sold their souls to Mammon, even if in the process they are selling them to Moloch.

Eventually, someone will come along and give The Met the cash it needs to increase its floor space for Contemporary Art, and display all sorts of awful things. It’s the nature of how museums work: just as the New York nouveau-riches of a century and a half ago built The Met in the first place, so too some 21stcentury arriviste will do the same with his or her fortune made from whatever the latest widget may be. Fortunately, unlike a magical baseball field in the middle of nowhere, if they build it, you do not need to come.

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7 thoughts on “On Hold: The Met Postpones Drinking The Art Kool-Aid

  1. Hi Wiliam,

    Great writing, as usual.

    I hear what you’re saying, but if that’s what it takes to keep the doors open for those of us who wish to go into the back rooms and quietly enjoy the wonder of great art…isn’t it worth the price? Or are we selling a piece of our soul?

    To play the contrarian…

    Isn’t there some beauty we can find in a floor full of ceramic sunflower seeds? If not beauty, then perhaps discussing the installation as a way of getting one to think about the seeds we plant by what we say and do every day…or coming to the realization that we are all just tiny specks in the universe…and for Christians bringing to mind the parable of the sower and the fact that God knows our name amongst all the seeds, and as we are getting stepped on by the culture we cling to that knowledge as we try to grow in grace….

    Love how you get me thinking!

    Best,
    Susan

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    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. In this case I was questioning the rationality of institutions dedicated to old art trying to make themselves contemporary. New York already has several museums of Modern and Contemporary art, so why does the Met have to compete? What is its ethos? That’s my concern.

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  2. What is there to say but, “Norton Simon.”

    Though for many, the opposite coast is too far, I find it comforting to know it’s there.

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  3. All art is contemporary at the time it was made. I relish the chance to see older art along with newer art since it makes more sense to me in an art historical continuum. Also, have you seen the Kerry James Marshall exhibit? That is not only a outstanding exhibit, but one that needs to be seen in an art historical context.

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