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His critics call him too conservative. He says he’s “radical” and “polemical.” Since James Cuno left his post as director of the Harvard University Art Museums in 2002 to run the prestigious Courtauld Institute in London, he hasn’t left the art world’s radar screen for a moment.
A year into his role at the Courtauld, Cuno announced that he was leaving London and crossing the Atlantic again to take the helm of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the top U.S. museums. Meanwhile, he edited a controversial book, Whose Muse, concerning the role and fate of art museums. Cuno has defended his book on tour and on the radio—debating Malcolm Rogers, director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), on National Public Radio, and appearing at a Harvard Book Store talk at the Sackler Museum last week.
His book—a collection of essays by prominent art museum directors based on lectures they gave at Harvard during Cuno’s last year—responds to what he describes as the “hyped activity” of museums in the 1990s, with increasingly glitzy, popular temporary exhibitions and commercial partnerships. These exhibitions, Cuno says, are often “not serendipitous” the way a museum should be.
“It’s an artificial experience…To a great extent it’s programmed,” he says. “My essay was intentionally polemical, to offer an alternative to the experience which was being lost in the ’90s.”
Central to Cuno’s own essay in Whose Muse—as with most of the other pieces—is the idea that museums need to return to their roots as contemplative spaces that protect cultural treasures and promote reflective experiences.
“We could begin by clearing away some of the clutter in our museums, the many distractions we have introduced into them—the commercial, the alimentary, the promotional, the entertaining, even…the educational, and by weaning ourselves of our reliance on temporary exhibitions and all of their attendant hype,” he writes in his article. “We need to be more modest in our efforts, to once again regard as our most important contributions the acquisition, preservation, and presentation of research of our permanent collections.”
Cuno says that Harvard’s museums, with their intimate gallery size, minimal gift shop and well-staffed study rooms, provided the recipe that inspired the essay’s description of an ideal museum. By contrast, he worries that blockbuster exhibitions at other museums—which often have less of a focus on permanent collections than Harvard—can be too “discursive,” resulting in the curator constructing wall-text and catalogs for the show that obstruct looking at the actual pieces.
“The author of the discourse replaces the maker of the object as the primary agent in the experience,” he says. “We have to see that museums are not only places of learning…We shouldn’t presume that the only way to justify the museum experience is the extent to which you learn something.”
Cuno’s argument relies on the notion that museums operate on behalf of the public, and thus need to gain respect and a reputation of trust.
In his radio address as well as at his Sackler talk, Cuno questioned the MFA’s recent controversial decision to rent 21 Monets from its collection to a Las Vegas casino gallery. Cuno, who says he would have been wary of renting the valuable paintings, describes the MFA’s argument that they are bringing art to a wider audience as a “disingenuous remark.” Had that really been their primary goal, he says, there were far more effective strategies—like mounting an exhibition in Boston’s poorer neighborhoods.
“One has to acknowledge that there was profit to be gained,” he says.
Because they are funded through tax-exempt donations, Cuno argues that a museum is ultimately a public institution, with a collection “held in trust for the public benefit, upheld by the public purse.” Works that are acquired but not displayed can be seen as “preserv[ing] the cultural diversity of the planet.”
Though museums generally justify their temporary exhibitions and art loans as necessary to promote financial health in an era of reduced government funding, Cuno questions this logic, arguing that the resource drain and high “opportunity cost” of mounting such exhibitions add up, and that controversial loans can detract from the museum’s reputation and authority—an asset as important as money and facilities.
He points to the Guggenheim museum as an example of “expansionist mode” gone awry. Once the Guggenheim had solidified an international brand name for itself, it cut its staff in half, and saw substantially less growth in its endowment than other museums. By contrast, Cuno says, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have maintained high popularity while continuing to produce research and scholarship.
Cuno says he’s troubled by the increasing post-Cold War tendency of “nations claiming cultural property as theirs and only theirs at the expense of others,” with increased restrictions in trade in antiquities. “It will reinforce nationalist tensions and policies and play to the increasing strengthening of nationalism in the world,” he says.
He disagrees with the argument that museums are “identity-forming institutions” and that the most “authentic voices” to understand a work of art come from the artist’s culture. Citing Edward Said, he called this an unfortunate consequence of nationalism and argued that museums should represent a diverse set of cultures.
Whose Muse is replete with stories of the power of art museums when encumbered by commercialism and money. Neil MacGregor, who directs London’s British Museum, relates the powerful story of how, during World War II, the National Gallery—which had shipped its collection off to Wales for safekeeping—bowed to public pressure and hung a single Old Master painting each month.
MacGregor quotes a 1942 letter to the Times of London, which asks, “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things…Music lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good. I know the risk, but I believe it would be worth it.” Soon the trustees agreed, and brought out Titian’s Noli Me Tangere, rushing it downstairs for each bomb alert.
This belief in the innate importance of art drives Whose Muse’s argument. And Cuno is hopeful that the authors’ “polemical” ideas are returning to the mainstream. Since Sept. 11, with a downturn in the economy and diminished tourism, Cuno argues that museums have shown “a greater humility and sense of caution,” which will rebuild the sense of public trust in art museums.
“I think there’s going to be a lessening of hyped activity and a return to the collection as a public legacy,” he says. “You see less chest-thumping behavior on the part of museums.”
—Staff writer J. Hale Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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