Roberta Smith continues her one-woman campaign (or so it seems—are there others on this bandwagon?) of bringing thoughtful and reasonable thinking to the world of art making, viewing and buying. Like so many other subcultures, this is one that regularly runs off the rails and into the hollers of ego, greed and elitism.
Her recent piece deals with the dicey challenge of museum expansion, in this case the Whitney Museum’s Renzo Piano project for the west end of the meatpacking district. But her article addresses the larger issue that sits right behind the Whitney’s expansion: Why are so many museums so poorly designed for art viewing?
Here’s her brief take on the uptown Whitney:
Its 1966 Marcel Breuer building has all the disadvantages of starchitecture and few if any of the rewards. Even in a country where museums are rarely designed with art in mind, it stands out as relentlessly unforgiving to works of all styles and periods. If the stone floor doesn’t kill, the oppressive overhead concrete structure almost undoubtedly will.
Unlike the Guggenheim, the Breuer building is not considered a must-see destination by tourists, regardless of what shows are on view. And Breuer’s Brutalist bunker is not getting better with age, or inspiring artists to come up with new, exciting uses for it as Wright’s spiral is.
The larger problem of museum design as Smith sees it is fundamental to the infrastructure of influence that seems to be de rigeur for most museums:
Not to diminish the financial and logistical risks of a venture like this, but New York’s recent museum debacles have taught us that space can justify the means. The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned. The idea that trustees have the final word on a museum’s design, considering all the atrocious buildings that have been erected in this country, is chilling. When will they ever learn to listen, and to people who have the right experience? They would get better spaces if they would loosen the reins.
A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles, as is the case with the Guggenheim (no disrespect intended). It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly. Its spaces set a standard for display that seems to have been lost in Manhattan, and it was lost, again, because of trustee arrogance and administrative mismanagement that put too many of the Dia’s eggs in its Beacon, N.Y., basket.
So what’s a step in the right direction? Common sense perhaps. Who should the museumologists listen to? Who knows how to make art look good? Clearly the answer is not architects nor is it the trustees. Smith suggests a well chosen committee of artists and dealers to review, comment and (hopefully) influence these projects. For the Whitney, she is quite direct: Hire Larry Gagosian as a consultant. After seeing the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibit of Calder’s work, that choice seemed intuitively obvious to her.
It’s a thought.
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