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.

The Courtier On The Fifth Estate; Art Finds From Museum Storage

My sincere thanks to Jay Caruso and Neal Dewing of The Fifth Estate for inviting me onto their show last evening. We had a wide-ranging, amusing, cantankerously satisfying discussion about art, which you can stream or download later today. Be sure to check out their episodes with past guests, including Mike Rowe, Dana Perino and Ed Morrissey – wait, how did I merit getting on this show? – and take the time to leave them a review on iTunes, if you like what you hear. Podcasters really do benefit from your iTunes feedback, and it only takes you a few seconds.

One of the topics I touched on in passing during the show was the rediscovery of a lost painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690), which had been sitting in storage at the Louvre since 2008. LeBrun was the favorite painter of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, and one of the most important artists in French history. This particular work was so popular at the time it was painted, that contemporary copies of it were commissioned by several prominent European collectors. The original was stolen after the French Revolution, and ended up in a Trappist monastery for two centuries. It is currently being restored, and will go on display to the public later this year.

Regular readers may recall that another painting by LeBrun, “The Sacrifice of Polyxena”, was discovered in the Hotel Ritz in Paris a few years ago. It was later purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at the time only owned a single group portrait by LeBrun. Despite the dearth of LeBrun paintings at the Met, the painting is not currently on display there. Whether this is because the piece is undergoing restoration or, quelle surprise, the museum has nowhere to display it, who knows. 

The practice of large museums like the Met sitting on enormous quantities of art that never gets put on display is something that has bothered me for some time, and in the near future you may be reading some of my lengthier scribblings about that issue. In the meantime, over on Apollo journalist and artist Crystal Bennes has been writing a very interesting series titled “What’s In Store”, in which she highlights some of what is currently held in storage at major museums around the world. She has already visited both the Hermitage and the National Gallery of Scotland, and this month she writes about the Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.

A particularly stunning find is the “Bust Portrait of A Black Man” by the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér (1816-1853), who is known primarily for his somewhat kitschy scenes taken from Norse mythology. This painting languished in storage at the Ateneum for a century and a half until recently, when it was finally put on public display. I think you will agree that it is a haunting, beautifully executed work, in the best tradition of Old Master portraiture.