Most of us realize that the arts have being under threat for quite some time. Shows are cancelled and works deaccessioned in the interest of balancing a budget.
Some galleries are more subject to budget issues than others as endowments are exhausted.
Museums are now mostly dependent on the government for grants, and the general public for admission contributions.
But how do museums react to this situation?
While preaching the public necessity of art, they go out of their way to make visitors unwelcome. They maintain their own private domain while preaching art for the masses.
Last week, I visited the Philips Collection to see the exhibition “American Masters from the Phillips: Made in America”. Apart from the usual gems of the permanent collection, two works stood out in the show.
There was a beautiful lyricism in these pieces. They were different and yet of one mind. One piece was by John Graham, and the other was by another artist whose name I will never know because I did not go back. Both represent a stage in abstract art and neither is better. Both represent a personal vision and neither is judgmental of the other.
I know at times I can look like a slob. Visiting galleries is a reward for working in the studio and often I do not have time to shower and dress in a tuxedo before going to a museum. The gallery staff of the Phillips are very attentive to their jobs. They chastise at you if you dare to approach a work of art too closely as if careful examination may rob the work of its soul. They survey you to ensure that you are not a threat to their ideal world.
This is amazing since one would expect that having to pay to visit the collection would exclude any undesirables. The staff look you up and down, and give you a disapproving gaze. You must satisfy their concept of who should have the right to look at art.
The Phillips has always been a hidden gem for real art lovers as opposed to the casual tourist. Maybe the staff need to realize that the collection is available to the paying public and not just for their private pleasure.
So, just as I was recovering for this bit of Philips rudeness, for which it has a reputation, I decided to visit some galleries on the Mall.
The Hirshhorn is a fantastic resource for the study of the development of modern sculpture. It has the most cohesive collection of modern sculpture in Washington D.C. This is a permanent show on the inner corridor of the second floor.
I went to the gallery at the weekend to photograph these pieces from the permanent collection, which one is permitted to do. In D.C., one learns that nothing is ever permanent, and that galleries change with the latest whim (Oh how I miss the interior of the Arts and Industry Building). As I was photographing the works, a guard yelled at me that photography was not permitted.
“Photography without the use of a flash is allowed only in the Hirshhorn’s collection galleries and not within special exhibitions, unless otherwise noted. Flash photography is prohibited at all times.”
So much for being welcomed and being interested in an obscure museum.
Maybe, I should stick with the National Gallery of Art.
During the next week, I left work early to visit the study center at the National Gallery. The study center is only open during regular hours and therefore, not regularly available to the working public. So, I had no choice but to take time off work; a great luxury. I have done this on more than one occasion to see shows there.
I wanted to see the exhibition “In the Library: Deforming and Adorning with Annotations and Marginalia”
The exhibition includes important items such as John Rewald’s own annotated copies of his dissertation “Zola and Cezanne”, and John Ruskin’s annotated revisions for one of his books.
To gain access to the study center which is part of the library, you have to ask at the front desk and they dial 00 for approval. This is normally the process, and a bit intimidating, but once inside, you can wander at leisure.
On this occasion, one of gallery staff emerging from the elevator, scowled at us for daring to enter her sacred domain. She later reappeared and chastised me for taking photographs. I have done this there before, and since I assumed that the works were from the library (NGA collection), and there was no sign to the contrary, photography was allowed.
It reminded me of when the David Smith sculptures were on display in the tower. It was invariably empty and offered a great opportunity to enjoy the work at leisure. On one occasion, only I and the guard were in the tower. He made a point of making so much deliberate noise, that I left him alone to go back to sleep.
If galleries want to cultivate an educated public, and attract people interested in more than just the superficial, maybe they should make an effort to treat their guests as something more than unwanted interlopers in their sacred private domains.
Interestingly, I know a curator from the Hirsshorn and met a major art critic at the NGA. Neither possessed this meanness of spirit. Both were generous in their love of art.
One of the most generous artist and teachers I have ever known was Arthur Hall-Smith. I took a class, and unfortunately, only one class with Arthur at GWU. I remember when he saw a potential student wandering around the school one weekend. He provided her and her mother on a guided tour of the school. In the class I did with him, he was a delight. Whereas the other teacher concentrated on information, Arthur concentrated on the joy of making art. Arthur had been a curatorial assistant at the Philips before coming to GWU. He was a humble person whose modesty gave no hint of the brilliance of the man. His love of art was such that he saw it as his mission to spread this love.
There is a story about the proverbial ‘vestal virgins’ who sat at the front desks of art galleries of New York. The galleries found that they were actually costing the galleries sales. The young collectors who they snubbed ended up being the curators of major collections. When I was collecting, I actually had a gallery collector personally apologize to me for being snubbed by a junior assistant. In spite of the apology, I never bought there again.
In an era when the arts are fighting for support, the last thing any gallery needs to do is to alienate a potential donor or a registered voter.