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Is Bigger Better?

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Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 2:00 PM

For The Washington Post's special section on museums, art critic Blake Gopnik weighed the pros and cons of expansion projects for art museums.

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"To fill and fund the new buildings," he wrote, "museums can become addicted to crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibitions. Smaller and maybe smarter shows, with the potential to teach us to love something other than Monet and mummies, can get elbowed off the calendar. And the permanent collection becomes at best a poor stepchild."

Gopnik was online at 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

The transcript follows.

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Blake Gopnik: Hello museumgoers - Thanks for joining me ... in my FIRST EVER Web chat! Afraid I'm not much of a typist (I'm not quite at "two fingers" yet) so please be patient as I get to your questions. (A few of you sent in questions in advance, so at least I can get us started with my answers to those.) Meanwhile, I'll throw a question out to you: Is there anyone out there who PREFERS to spend more time with lots of art, instead of the same amount of time really digging into a few works? I'm always trying to convince museums, and my editors (and, in a sense, myself) that a show with 20 works can be a better, more newsworthy exhibition than one with "all 767 Rubens nudes" or whatever other big number can be atttached to art. Less really IS more, when it comes to looking at art ... or not? Let me know your views.

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Oceanside, Calif.: Some years ago I had a chance to visit the original Newseum. I found it interesting. A few weeks later I had a chance to visit the Arken museum outside Copenhagen, a museum pre-built to hold the art created in the 21st century. I found the building fascinating. What little art I found in it, I found boring. And now we have to deal with a new, high-tech Newseum, with more bells and whistles than anyone should have to endure. And so it goes across Washington and the rest of the country. We're spending all this money to create Taj Mahals to hold stuff that would better be left to Waste Management. What does it matter if we build wonderous monuments to hold all matters of literary garbage if our young people can't even read?

Blake Gopnik: Hi Oceanside. Thanks for joining from California. I've got a funny feeling - but I could be wrong; I'm just reading between your lines -- that we might not agree on what counts as good art. There's plenty of contemporary art I think is very fine. (And, as always in the history of art, plenty that will turn out to have been a waste of time.) I agree, though, about bells and whistles and fancy buildings. Part of the problem, I think, is that we've got this one category -- "museum" -- that includes very different kinds of places. There are the art museums where the objects on display are what really matters: So long as they're out there to be seen, the art museum has done 90% of its job. (I think we need to go back to thinking of museum as "libraries of art," whose job is mostly to give access to what they collect and care for.) And then there are all the other museums -- history museums, commemorative museums, etc. -- where the objects (if there even are any -- think of the Newseum) are just illustrations for some point that's being made or lesson that's being taught. Those HAVE to have "bells and whistles" to keep the visitor's attention, because their objects are rarely up to it. My worry is when an art museum gets "infected" by a bells-and-whistles approach, so that the focus turns away from its objects. If you really BELIEVE in a work of art, you have to believe that it can do its job, without "enhancement."

As for the other kinds of museums ... I worry that you could learn more from two hours with a book than two hours being belled-and-whistled in many science museums!

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Syracuse, N.Y.: I agree that the size of museums are starting to get out of hand, but should we really be complaining? At least there is money and interest going into museums rather than having them sit empty.

Blake Gopnik: Well, I don't know that the only choice is between museums on steroids and museums that are empty and ignored. There is LOTS of stuff to spend money on in museums, other than buildings. As some of my interviewees pointed out in Sunday's package, money going to buildings is being taken away from acquisitions and staff etc.

And once again -- I bet I'll be saying this throughout this chat -- we're hooked on the idea that bigger attendance is better. (I'm always finding myself thinking that way.) Of course, an EMPTY museum isn't good, but can't a museum be TOO full? Especially if it's being run for the sake of those numbers, rather than for the sake of the art experience. I can guarantee crowds in any building in the world -- but not necessarily with significant, important art shows.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is "popular" a bad thing? Shouldn't art museums have a balanced approach to expose all kinds of art to the public that they serve?

Including artwork that is "popular" with the public as well as a venue for new, perhaps not so pupular art?

Blake Gopnik: Well, I guess I'm not sure that I believe that some art is "naturally" popular, and other art is naturally esoteric and difficult. I think any art that's really worthwhile is fiendishly difficult, if you take the trouble to go below the surface and really try to figure out what makes it tick. When I spend two or three hours in a show, I walk out feeling like I've been hit by a Mack truck. All art is really, really weird stuff -- why do we make it, anyway? -- so none of it is easy. And let's not forget that many of the artists who are now "popular" -- Monet, Renoir, Picasso, even sometimes Old Masters like Titian and Rembrandt -- could be seen as absurdly difficult and esoteric to their contemporaries. Good museums will help their visitors dig deep into the art, to understand its complexities; they don't want visitors to leave with the same comfort level they had when they came in. What we don't want, I'd say, is museums so desperate for ticket sales that they can't afford to challenge us when we go in. THAT's the kind of condescending "populism" ("Hey Bozo -- we think you're too dumb to deal with art that challenges, but we'll take your money, anyway") that hurts us all. It makes me very sad when I hear a curator say (or imply) "Well, I know it's not much of a show. And I can't say it interests ME. But Joe Public will flock to it."

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Art History Student: While I agree that many museum expansions are unwarranted, I am very excited about the plans for an annex to the Textile Museum. They have a wonderful collection, but none of it is on display as they only have room for two exhibitions. I think that their decision to expand will prove to be a good one.

Blake Gopnik: I couldn't agree more. Anyone who reads me knows how much I LOVE decorative arts and design, and that I lament how much less seriously they are taken -- especially in Washington -- than so-called "fine art." (Which I also cherish, obviously.) The Textile Museum is a particular fave of mine -- especially the (many) shows they mount which draw from the permanent collection. My understanding, so far, is that they will be using the new downtown space for temporary exhibitions, and the old "mansion" north of Dupont Circle will be (more) devoted to permanent collection. Two worries about that: 1) I'd hate to see too much of their attention being distracted into splashy temporary exhibitions, at the expense of the perm. collection; 2)I'd hate for them to join the movement toward shows that are designed to draw crowds, rather than inspire them with things they've never seen before. The Textile Museum's recent show on tent bands of Central Asia was a stunner -- and was that, no matter how few people might have seen it, because of its esoteric subject.

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20008: You offer your chat-leading-off question as an either/or, when it's no such thing. No, no one wants to see 300 Rubenses in a show. But the Kimball having the opportunity to show more work from its permanent collection is absolutely a good thing.

Blake Gopnik: There's absolutely something to be said for museum expansion when it's needed to house the permanent collection properly -- as Timothy Potts of the Kimbell made clear in his Sunday interview. But let's not forget that the Kimbell, for instance, has to expand because space originally set aside for perm. collection is now being used for temporary exhibitions -- only some of which have been truly worthwhile. (Look back at their roster, and it's easy to spot plenty of filler shows.) There's an addiction to permanent collections that almost EVERYONE believes is having pernicious effects.

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Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Gopnik: Thanks for your insightful article. Do you have any insight into the opening and rapid closing of D.C.'s City Museum, in a wonderful location near the Convention Center? I read that the timing was bad -- and that 9/11 didn't help tourists flock to the place, but I felt this wonderful resource didn't get the chance it deserved.

Blake Gopnik: As I said in an article some time ago, my worry about the City Museum was that its objects were all ILLUSTRATIONS for a history lesson. They weren't given room to speak for themselves, and to let visitors come to grips with them as they pleased.

That said, I sure didn't want it to close. Only one reason for that: Money. And the notion that huge attendance is the only measure of success. (OK, I guess that makes two reasons.) THere are lots of great little museums all across Europe and Canada that stay open because "We the People" -- via our governments and the tax dollars we give them to spend for us! -- decide that they are worth having around, even if we only get to them once a decade. Or never. (I'd happily have my taxes go to a museum of football art. Even though I' be unlikely to go. And wouldn't understand a thing if I did. Talk about an esoteric artform! -- football makes radical conceptualism look lightweight!)

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Bethesda, Md.: What is the role of a city's commercial art galleries and art dealers in the development of that city's art museum(s)?

Blake Gopnik: I think I'd come at the issue the other way around: It's the museums that are so crucial to the rest of the art scene -- to the making and the selling and the buying. Museums are (or should be) enough above the fray that they can attend to one thing, and one thing only: Looking for the best and most interesting art out there, and putting it on display. That's how the rest of us -- artists, dealers, collectors, critics (ESPECIALLY critics!) -- are most likely to learn what really good art is. So then we can go about our business of making/selling/buying/writing with a better sense of how high the bar can be set for art. Washington is unbelievably lucky to have the museums that it does -- there's not another city its size that can come close. Art scenes where the "Washington model" gets flipped, with a hot market LEADING the museums -- as maybe in New York right now -- get in trouble. Because the fact that an artist sells tells you ZERO about how good their art is. (Cezanne didn't sell for years; In those same years, Bouguereau -- naked girls with wings on puffy clouds -- was a market darling. 'Nuff said.)

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Alexandria, Va.: Why can't art museums also utilize their wonderful collections to introduce/discuss an interesting idea? Why is the art collected in the first place -- because it is a primo example of a technical idea or a social movement or a result of a certain perspective (100 years ago the Mona Lisa wasn't popular. Today it is -- that is fasinating -- can we use art exhibitions to explore this idea?)

As to bells and whistles -- the average museum goer is familiar (and has grown up with) being able to manipulate data in a way our grandfathers could never have percieved. Bells and whistles teach nothing -- but placed correctly and put in for the sake of helping the learner -- opportunities for audiences to learn from the works is a reason for museums. All museums -- art included.

Lastly, you can read a book in 2 hours and learn something from it because you are sitting down. Far more comfortable than walking and standing for two hours. Books and Museums are complimentary -- not either/or -- learning experiences.

Blake Gopnik: Art-museum curators can and almost always DO use their collections to explore ideas. The thing is, the art works do that, even if the curators aren't trying. I like to think about art works as, in a sense, tools for thinking. (About art, and about other things. Tools for feeling and seeing, too, of course.) So once you've got those tools -- just by being put in a room full of art -- you're doing pretty well already.

And an art work in itself is almost never dumb -- I'm not even sure what it would mean for it to be so. But boy-oh-boy, have I seen some dumb things SAID about art, in museum wall texts and elsewhere. (Sure, I know. Some of you would say I've said plenty myself. And I'd agree with some of you on that, some of the time.)

So by NOT using art as illustration for lessons, you're guaranteed one thing: A lack of real stupidity, and the possibility, at least, of a VIEWER finding something interesting to think, all by themselves, with the help of the art.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Blake,

This is more a question about the old Arts & Industries building and what to do with it.

It's a grand museum building with architecture that reminds me of the grandiosity and wonder of the Natural History Museum in London.

It would be a shame to not find a proper use for it... how about as a war museum similar to the Imperial War Museum in London and the Musee de l'Armee in Paris? Maybe not with tanks, trucks, jeeps, and other heavy military equipment, but it could tell the story of America at war from Colonial times through the present.

D.C. doesn't have a war museum, and American History needs the space.

Blake Gopnik: I'm close enough to being a pacifist that I'm not sure I'd want Arts and Industries to be a war museum. (And we've got an awful lot of war-themed museums and monuments in the area, already.) But I'd (almost) rather see it be a war museum than stand empty. (Anyway, I spent many fond afternoons, as a child,in war museums in Paris and London. They DO give a great sense of history, if of a bloody sort.)

The only way that Arts and Industries, or the rest of the Smithsonian, is going to get back on its feet is if WE THE PEOPLE tell our representatives in Congress that we want to spend OUR taxes on it. I'm happy to see my taxes RAISED, if I know they'll go for culture rather than weapons (except for the knights-in-armor kind).

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Blake Gopnik: Just ten minutes left, folks. So I'll try to give shorter answers. Boy, can you guys sure pile on the questions!!! And not a single curse word among them. (Oh. Right. The online editors cut those before they get to me.)

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Annandale, Va.: The problem with blockbuster exhibits is that they are so crowded, the art becomes impossible to see. I was at the Hopper exhibit this past weekend, and it was difficult to really experience his works -- it was so crowded I wasn't comfortable getting close to see his brush work and then retreating to see the painting cohere. I would either be blocking the painting from other gallery-goers, or bumping into folks left and right. It was a nice exhibit, but so crowded that the experience was unpleasant. And I went early on a Sunday! I am reminded of my attempt to view the Leonardo drawings at the Met -- after a 90-minute wait, the galleries were so crowded and the works so small that I abandoned the exhibit after one room.

Re small exhibits: once of the best recent museum exhibits was MOMA's exhibit devoted to Manet's Execution of Maximilian. The exhibit was all of one gallery, with all 5 of the works Manet produced on the topic, with background material. It was a fascinating, engrossing exhibit that allowed one to consider Manet's creative and artistics processes in the context of his politics and the French empire. Such an exhibit would never be a blockbuster, but was informative, provocative and engaging.

Blake Gopnik: You and everyone else who agrees with you (which includes EVERY museumgoer) has to send that message VERY loud and VERY clear to museum directors everywhere. Tell them that you simply refuse to attend overcrowded shows.

The other thing you have to do, of course, is open your minds to unfamous art. Why is Hopper so much more crowded than the superb show of Central European photography that recently closed at the National Gallery? Because people go to shows they ALREADY think they'll like, rather than to shows they DON'T know about, and might have to learn to love.

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Wheaton, Md. : I think it is too bad that D.C. doesn't have a museum dealing with classical antiquity. Do you agree?

Blake Gopnik: Sure. You got a Venus de Milo to donate?

Seriously, the collection would have to come first -- and where is it going to come from?

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Boston, Mass.: Is there a finite amount of art? If yes, wouldn't that necessarily limit museum sizes? Because if every city in the U.S. wants to have an art museum, and, say, only a limited number of contemporary artists are currently appreciated/trendy/whatever, and the push for countries around the world to recover antiquities starts to seriously succeed... Is it possible for there to be too many museums and not enough art? Or would it result in increased interest in artists of all eras that are currently underexposed?

Blake Gopnik: There's so much art out there, we're in no danger of running out. Question is, is all of it worth showing?

Though I'm all for showing unknowns who may turn out to be the next Vermeer. (Anyone for Andrea Schiavone? -- google him, go on...)

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Blake Gopnik: I think I just ran out of time.

Thanks all for coming, and the interesting questions!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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