Deep Thought Thursday: The Museum’s Responsibility to Local Artists

I spent the day after Christmas at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. It had recently been expanded and I hadn’t been down to see it. The experience–as usual–was a respite in the middle of the hectic holidays. And the expansion by Tryba Architects was just perfect for this historical structure.

What I noticed most was that the CSFAC does a fantastic job of showcasing Colorado artists. Not just from the Springs, but from all over the State. And not just deceased Colorado artists, but many who are still alive and kicking. I loved seeing this! I love getting local flavor when I visit a museum and hope that I do the same at other regional museums. However, I know this isn’t the case. In an effort to appear as a “big player,” most museums try to build up their collections to appear more national and international in scope. This often results in weaker collection. Not everyone can have the best examples from Mesopotamia, the Maya Kingdom, and ancient China. Those to hop on board the international train are often left with whatever is available, which isn't usually top drawer.

Why not be the BEST? Why not have a responsibility to interpreting and supporting the best artists in your community?

Admittedly, this was not my pure angle when I was a curator. I wanted to show the exotic and the new in my exhibitions. Collections, however, were different. I believe I was strongly supportive of adding local artists to the collections.

As a former museum professional, I must say that not every museum has (nor should they have) a part of their mission devoted to collecting and exhibiting work by local artists. However, we need some museums to take on this responsibility. What do you think?

(If you want to know more about how museums work, check out The Artist-Museum Relationship e-book and CD.)

PS: When will museum boards realize that if they have a Dale Chihuly chandelier in the entry they end up looking like every other museum entry in the country? I love a good Dale Chihuly as much as the next person, but let’s stop this cliché.

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9 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: The Museum’s Responsibility to Local Artists”

  1. Alyson, Your comments on museums make me want to shout YES, YES, YES! What does it say about our museums when they are being cliche and playing it safe? How counter productive is that? How does that serve the public? When living artists work is not shown it also continues the misfortune that the only successful artists are mostly dead artists. I would love you to share your thoughts with museums. Why not? What is there to lose and maybe there is much to gain. It would be a crowning service to artists among all your other wonderful coaching and encouraging services. Sincerely and happy New Year, Carol McArdle

  2. As soon as I recover from Christmas, etc., I’ll be getting this e-book from you. I like your take on museums and local artists. To be even more critical, I will say that some museums seem to have cut themselves adrift in a sea of nonsense. No collections at all; only traveling exhibits. But, then again, you are more generous to remind me that it’s OK for some, but that others should keep their office of collecting.

  3. When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 80’s, Henry Hopkins was the director of SFMOMA. It was such an exciting museum to me! They had lots of art from local living artists, & they actually had it on view! They had a free museum night on Thursday evenings that were a complete SCENE…….everybody went to see & be seen. It was fun & fabulous! Unfortunately, it has completely changed, and just as you said has tried to become a bigger player. I seldom go there anymore. And their bookstore, which used to be excellent, is now full of a bunch of tourist crap and mugs and uimbrellas. It’s very sad to me.

  4. I grew up with this very question. My father, Charles F. Keck, a California scene painter, often complained about the lack of a museum for LA artists. At that time, there was just one art museum in the area. It was in Exposition Park. It had changing exhibitions to supplement its collection. Later, the museum on Wilshire was constructed for that purpose. An additional facility, Barnsdall Art Park, on the grounds of F.L. Wright’s Hollyhock House, included a municipal art gallery. This smaller space initially expressed a desire to show the work of locals, but later became just another venue for more “important” exhibitions. I think that shows of internationally recognized art are important. I believe that art created locally is equally valuable. Art helps people to “see” the “places” where they live more clearly, both literally and metaphorically. Regional museum shows, especially when associated with studio tours and social events, also provide art-tourists with an insight into the uniqueness of a particular locale. Culture is becoming increasingly homogenized, flattened, and bland. “Originality” often feels trained, strained and artificial. “New” and “shock” art, for those of us who have been around for a while, looks too familiar to be exciting. Regional cuisines are popular for good reason. Revived regionalism could restore art’s relevance to ordinary people. I am kind of a rebel. I feel that one reason for the prevalence of drug addiction in this country is the abdication of art (including poetry, fiction, and serious music) from its spiritual duty to ALL people, not just MFAs.

  5. We have a wonderful small art museum here on Cape Cod begun by a few artists who felt the art of the area should be preserved and celebrated. In the beginning they played it sort of safe but in recent years have showcased many different local artists and have become a true resource and reflection for the entire community. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum also does a great job and has recently made massive renovations to their building. They focus on the Provincetown mystique and art connection so have a smaller base to draw from but a long and interesting history as well. Hopefully they will begin to showcase more current artists as time goes on. The role of local museums in community art seems to be growing and blossoming. Very cool. By the way, you can check out either of these places using Google.

  6. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Carol: Trust me, museums are very well aware of this criticism. Also, it’s often board members who run all over the staff when there is a weak director. I blame board members, not staff, for the Chihuly cliché. Casey: Yes, but you’re on the other side of the state. As I said, I really do like Chihuly. I was just so grateful when the new expansion of the Denver Art Museum opened sans the obligatory Chihuly chandelier. Christine: Yes, I was more impressed with the new de Young than SFMOMA. BUT, I did buy a really good book in the latter’s gift shop. Linda: Wonderful insight! I love the call to revive regionalism. But is that possible anymore? Now that everything is online and we have instant access to ideas from around the globe? It’s very important that museums serve more than local fare. Artists in the community need to be exposed to those outside of the community and to history and avant-garde ideas. Mary: You’re very lucky!

  7. I agree 100% that it is very important for museums serve more than local fare. I have heard complaints about the new Seattle Art Museum not showcasing enough local artists, but personally think that the curators are doing a great job showcasing great regional work in addition to international work. If curators were to show work just because it was created within a region, then everything would become inbred and stale.

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