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An art critic views a lithograph by renowned artist Edvard Munch, titled "Madonna" during a press viewing at the Royal Academy of Art in central London, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2005. (Sergio Dionisio/AP)

When respected art critic and MacArthur “genius” Dave Hickey stepped off his writing perch recently, he did so with a zinger of a parting shot, sharply criticizing the art world for its smug bureaucracy and the undue influence of money.

In an interview in the Observer, Hickey said his decision occurred when he was asked to sign a 10-page contract before he could sit on a panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Most damning was his comment that “art editors and critics — people like me — have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”

Art editors and critics — people like me — have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.
– Dave Hickey, art critic

Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, shares Hickey’s frustration.

In the same Observer article Gompertz said, “The current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists [is] quash[ing] open debate on art.”

Gompertz added:

“Money and celebrity have cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore … At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the 19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things.”

I’m sorry to say museums are not exempt from this biting commentary. Too often, the competition for art, money, donors and attention obscures and, worse, corrodes the core values of most museums as well as the sheer pleasure of loving the company, questions, discovery and inspiration of great works of art.

Fortunately, there has been some recent good news to counter the din of penetrating criticism, and remind us of the optimism that motivated many of us to enter the art world in the first place.

In New Haven, the newly expanded Yale University Art Gallery opened its renovation of three historic buildings into one unified museum. The new space, which is filled with an extraordinary and encyclopedic collection of objects and is free of charge to both Yale students and residents of New Haven, is one example of museums at their best. It is a place where access to artists, scholarship and extraordinary works of art for the Yale community and the broader public sits on the highest rung of the value system.

Like the Impressionists who challenged the status quo over a century ago, many artists at work today deliver a similar message to privilege ideas over power.

In several Massachusetts communities, the school day will be extended so students may participate in art and music electives (this is part of a national pilot program funded by the Ford Foundation).

Boston’s Orchard Gardens K-8 pilot school, named a Turnaround Arts school by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, will now receive two years of extra federal money devoted to the arts.

And in November, the Teen Arts Program at the Institute of Contemporary Art (the museum where I work) received the nation’s highest honor for arts education — a 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. At the White House awards ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama expressed the importance of the arts for the nation’s youth. She reminded the audience — and the 11 other award recipients — that if the arts are good enough for our kids, they are good enough for all kids.

Like the Impressionists who challenged the status quo over a century ago, many artists at work today deliver a similar message to privilege ideas over power. Civic leadership that recognizes the importance of arts and museums that embrace a healthy dose of independence go a long way to balance the excesses Dave Hickey so accurately describes. As a museum director, I take his words seriously and stand reminded: It is our responsibility to ensure the strength and rigor of the arts for the next generation.

Tags: Fine arts

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