“Classical music is like a museum,” people say. It’s a frequent complaint, even if it’s wildly inaccurate, especially now.
Indeed, if classical music were more like a museum, it would be doing a lot better.
Yet classical music institutions have a built-in challenge in trying to arrange exhibits for the public: Their default archival documents tend to be just the kind of dusty memento the stereotype is describing. When you’re documenting the history of a place like Carnegie Hall, for example, you’re mainly restricted to manuscripts and photographs, posters and concert programs — the kind of document on display at the hall’s Rose Museum, which since 1991 has had a dedicated space in an upstairs side lobby to exhibit the history and highlights of Carnegie Hall’s past, along with rotating exhibitions about selected luminaries. (The current one, on Andrew Carnegie, is up through the end of October.)
A ticket to an actual performance seems like a much more vivid introduction. But such exhibitions aren’t necessarily designed for intermission audiences. Carnegie Hall is, after all, a popular tourist destination as one of New York’s landmarks. For anyone buying a ticket to a guided tour of the hall, which sometimes includes a glimpse of a rehearsal, the Rose Museum provides augmentation and context.
The Metropolitan Opera’s recent goals for exhibitions have been more aspirational: less focused on what the institution has been than about what it wants to be. When Peter Gelb became the Met’s general manager in 2006, part of his vision was to have rotating displays of contemporary art, commissioned by the house and relating to the season’s works, in a space off the south lobby dubbed Gallery Met. The first exhibition included some heavyweight names from the contemporary art world: Cecily Brown, John Currin, Makiko Kudo, Richard Prince and others. The idea was to demonstrate that the Met has vibrant connections with contemporary art, continuing the tradition exemplified by, for instance, the Marc Chagall murals that dominate the facade.
Gallery Met’s physical space, however, was out of the main foot-traffic flow for Met audiences and never seemed quite integrated into the theater. It’s now being renovated as an entrance for patrons and subscribers.
The Gallery Met concept continues but without a dedicated space. Currently, there’s an installation by Brown that’s been up since the start of last season — two large paintings on the Grand Tier and Dress Circle, called “Triumph of the Vanities I and II” — plus some other works by Brown scattered around the house.
In its Founders Hall galleries downstairs, the Met mounts rotating shows on the Rose Museum model: beautifully displayed documents about events of the past. The exhibition that’s there now, “Black Voices at the Met,” spotlights a history that is illustrious but could and should have been longer. It wasn’t until 1955 that Marian Anderson became the first artist of color to sing a leading role at the Met.
The Met has carefully curated “Black Voices” and accompanied it with a wonderful audio recording that can be purchased on its own. It’s an important gesture, but also comes at a time when classical music institutions are keenly aware of how slowly they’ve moved to become more diverse and are anxious to catch up.
Museums haven’t always done better in this regard.
The important thing, in looking at the past, is to document history — not rewrite it.
The Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. metopera.org.
Carnegie Hall, 154 West 57th St., New York. carnegiehall.org.