Potts: Beware The Inexorable Drift Toward Populism

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Timothy Potts, now on his way to the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, was recently the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, famous for its choice collection and its 1972 Louis Kahn building. Kahn's gem is soon to be joined by an expansion.

I'm one of the people who think that the mania for expansion has gone too far. In the sense that it's taken resources and attention and intellectual energy away from building the collections, understanding them, communicating their interest to their public, in favor of these mega-projects. Which are hugely distracting to institutions, not only for the years that they're being designed and constructed, but then in all the programming that has to go into them to justify their existence. You can get yourself into a spiral where, even if you didn't set out to be populist, you are drawn into it because that's the only way to survive the pressure of increased overheads, staffing and so on.

And populism can breed a way of thinking, particularly in government institutions, that the only measure of the worth of the program is the number of people who partake of it. And it isn't just public funders who have that view. When you engage a sponsor for an exhibition, and you say what attendance you estimate, if the numbers come in substantially lower they're inevitably disappointed. And you might have a harder time getting them back.

I think somewhat unrealistic expectations about attendance have been one outcome of blockbusters.

I can sit here with a straight face and talk about museum expansions and how they're often not such a good thing -- and yet here we are at the Kimbell doing one -- because in our case it's to solve a particular problem: for more than half the year, we have three-quarters or more of our wonderful permanent collection in storage, because the space has to be given to visiting exhibitions.

The fact that we have important exhibitions shouldn't compromise the display of the permanent collection.

A real issue that's much harder to come to a clear view on -- especially at an institution like the Kimbell, which has built its whole reputation, its place in the museum world, primarily on the quality of its acquisitions -- is the question of resources going into buildings versus going into continuing to build the collection. At a time when the window for buying great works of art is closing at a frightening pace -- (a) because prices private individuals are willing to pay are putting acquisitions out of range of museums, and (b) just because the availability of great works from anytime before, say, the 19th century is so slight compared to what it was even 10 or 20 years ago -- the chance to continue to really build meaningful collections is rapidly diminishing. Raising funds for acquisitions is so much harder than raising funds for buildings; looking back 20, 30, 50 years from now, the question will be asked, "Why weren't they more concerned about building their collections," and I'm not sure we're going to have a good answer. Haven't we lost sight of what is most central to why we're here and what we're doing?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company