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NEW YORK'S BIZARRE MUSEUM MOMENT
BY MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

July 11, 2004 Sunday Correction Appended Late Edition - Final

SUDDENLY museums all across town are suffering identity crises. Just as New York is shaking off its sorrows and crawling out of debt, making new claims on the world stage with a bid for the Olympics, our museums seem to be going through weird convulsions, falling apart, abandoning their collections, being hijacked by trustees or suffering delusions of grandeur. This is their most precarious moment in many years.

The Whitney -- oh, the poor, perennially insecure Whitney, which can never get its act straight -- is going through another of its periodic upheavals. Its last director was pushed out, a new one was hired, the old staff gracelessly purged or induced to quit, yet another curatorial crew brought in. The Whitney has become like Stalin's politburo. The only long-term survivors are the people everybody in the art world knows really need to go: the trustees.

Cash short as always and feeling inadequately loved by the Manhattan art world, the Brooklyn Museum seems virtually to have said to hell with it all. Raising a fortune for a glitzy new facade, it has at the same time been shopping or thinking of shopping parts of its great collection, renting exhibitions of ' 'Star Wars'' costumes and cheapening its venerable permanent displays, all in the name of community outreach. ''If that's not significant to critics,'' its director, Arnold Lehman, told The New York Times last April, ''you know -- and you can quote me -- I don't care.''

The New-York Historical Society, the city's oldest museum, is in turmoil again, scaling back local-theme shows, firing experts, betting questionably that expensive blockbusters will save the place rather than destroy it.

The once high-rolling Guggenheim, which a decade ago was expanding in New York and around the world, is now crumbling, literally, the facade of its landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building cracked and peeling. Its SoHo satellite is, like SoHo's heyday, a dim memory; the dream of a Frank Gehry-designed palace on the East River in Lower Manhattan has gone the way of the museum's intemperate scheme to bank its fortunes on a branch in Las Vegas.

As for the Museum of Modern Art, its new building opens this fall, a sprawling megastructure in Midtown. Will bigger be better? Born a frisky place, it became increasingly defensive and constipated as it grew. Now we'll see whether it becomes what it promises -- the ultimate treasure house of modernism, rejuvenated, majestic and frisky again -- or just a bloated, super-size custodian of its own self-importance. And at $20 a ticket, who will go?

Even the Met, the gold standard of museums, is in some transition. A reshuffling of its European paintings and modern-art departments sounds eye-glazingly irrelevant. But it may be lousy news for anybody still hoping that the museum will fulfill its decades-old promise to deal properly with the art of its own time.

At the Whitney, the most recent director to get the boot is Max Anderson. He wasn't perfect -- he'd staged his own messy staff turnover and miscalculated the quality of some curators and exhibitions -- but he brought in a bunch of good shows. Attendance and membership were up. A team of curators he put together staged the recent Biennial, a good one for once. The permanent collection and art conservation were getting professional attention, finally.

But the place remained dysfunctional at the top. The chairman, Leonard Lauder, who has given millions in cash and art, and the president, Robert J. Hurst, were instrumental in bringing on as trustees Jean-Marie Messier, the subsequently indicted chief executive of Vivendi, and L. Dennis Kozlowski, the Tyco tycoon, also later indicted. Mr. Hurst is the former vice chairman of Goldman, Sachs, which took Mr. Lauder's company, Estee Lauder, public -- and which has several executives on the board. Even after Mr. Hurst was investigated and found to have evaded millions of dollars in taxes on his art collection, the Whitney kept him on as president.

Meanwhile, the trustees were shoving vanity shows into the mix -- an Agnes Martin display, for example -- and were overheard grumbling that the place should be more fashionable, should reflect their own tastes in collecting, should expand but with an architect they liked now as opposed to yet another of the ones they thought they liked before, and should compete with the Modern, which just happens to be run by Mr. Lauder's younger brother, Ronald.

So Mr. Anderson had to go. The first move by his successor, Adam Weinberg, was to fire a curator who was on leave to care for her seriously ill child. After that public relations debacle, the subsequent turnovers were handled more discreetly. The latest to call it quits is a Biennial curator.

You can bet she's not going to be the last. At most museums, curators stay put when directors change, as professors do when college presidents go, because the affiliation is with the institution and its permanent collection. At the Whitney, they come and go like Yankee managers in George Steinbrenner's early days.

Over at the Met, the director, Philippe de Montebello, has appointed a seasoned expert in Impressionist art with a background in Cubism, Gary Tinterow, to oversee the museum's 19th-century European paintings and its modern and contemporary collections. Even some Met curators are baffled by the logic. Why European but not 19th-century American art or photography? Anyway, the larger question is whether this fuzzy reorganization means the museum will finally do better by contemporary art or even worse. The prospects are not great: the curator in charge is intelligent and resourceful but not a specialist in the period; his mandate is exceedingly broad and Mr. de Montebello has made many statements to the effect that he himself has little interest in the stuff.

Why should the Met bother with what's contemporary? Because history doesn't stop. Under Tom Hoving, its former director, the museum started collecting and showing new art more aggressively. It briefly became the anti-Modern, a troublemaker and alternative voice with special authority behind it.

Now it's the sleeping giant of contemporary art. Every modern curator in the world knows its enormous potential. Its resources and audience are peerless. One hundred percent of that audience is contemporary. Artists consider the museum a second home. Other great historical museums, even those without any new art in their collections (the Louvre, the National Gallery in London) collaborate with living artists, who bring in new audiences and put the older art in fresh perspective. But the Met's outgoing modern-art chief kept the place in limbo; he brought in gifts but mounted hardly any shows of new art, bought tons of junk and displayed the collection badly. An overhaul is due. A further retreat is not.

A friend called me the other day. Browsing through art sales catalogs, he came across a painting on the block at Skinner, a Boston auction house. The picture was by a once-fashionable, occasionally stylish Viennese-born society painter, Emil Fuchs, an acquaintance of Sargent's, who became popular in New York after World War I. The catalog identified the sitter simply as John McCormack.

My friend knew that McCormack was the great Irish tenor. But the catalog didn't mention it: apparently the seller had shipped the painting off for auction without bothering to figure out what it was. The estimated price: a few hundred bucks.

The seller, it turns out, was the Brooklyn Museum. Fuchs had bequeathed the museum all the art in his studio in 1929, shortly before he killed himself. He chose Brooklyn because he loved the place. My friend bought the painting for $360 (including commissions), which is exponentially less than what he has been told it would sell for had it been properly identified and auctioned more auspiciously by the museum.

This was alarming news. But not surprising. Curators at Brooklyn have said that their director, Arnold Lehman, has them scouring the whole museum for art to sell off or otherwise get rid of. A spokeswoman for the museum, Sally Williams, said it's just ''business as usual,'' that museums always assess their collections. ''Collections are always being reviewed with an eye toward gaps and duplications,'' she said. The Fuchs was just part of housecleaning.

A century ago, an ethnology curator named Stewart Culin collected American-Indian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern European and Indian objects on expeditions for the University of Pennsylvania and for the Brooklyn Museum. This was the sort of museum Brooklyn was: a broad-minded and far-reaching place. Thanks to Culin, it even opened a study room for artists and designers to view the ethnographic materials he acquired. Pairing the art with fashion and textile designs it inspired, the museum arranged exhibits at department stores and elsewhere around town. That was outreach.

The ethnographic clothes Culin amassed ended up, along with who knows how many of the fashion designs, in the museum's costume collection, a populist gold mine full of high fashion but also dresses that real middle-class Brooklynites wore when the Brooklyn museum was in its heyday, throughout the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

Now museum officials are talking with the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Met about taking all or part of the costume collection. That would at least keep it in the city and in public hands. But it's appalling to think that Brooklyn might squander or give up on one of its defining assets just because it costs money to maintain.

And in favor of what? In favor of a pandering overhaul: Brooklyn's landmark gallery for American-Indian art, full of Culin's treasures, has been repainted with cheesy eagles and sunsets on the walls. Pseudo-Egyptian props in the Egyptian galleries, which are presumably supposed to make the rooms more accessible, cheapen a world-class collection. The American galleries are crammed distractingly with wall texts and videos. Brooklyn clearly believes that people weaned on television and the Internet need that kind of stimulation. Art isn't stimulating enough, apparently.

That's the heart of the problem: that museums don't all still trust art to excite people on its own; they increasingly think it needs to be packaged, marketed and diluted. Does the public also think so? How popular was that ''Star Wars'' show, anyway? Back across the river at the Modern, where a different sort of overstimulation may become an issue, the museum that started in a modest gallery space, then moved into a town house, is soon to become so vast it could qualify for its own ZIP code. Here's hoping it will be spectacular, but the Modern's entire temporary space in Queens, which demonstrated what could be done with a small gallery at an obscure location, would fit into one of the bigger rooms in the new building.

To explain the planned $20 ticket price, the Modern's director, Glenn D. Lowry, said ''it's a more expensive museum to operate'' (no surprise), and he compared it to ''other leisure activities'' that charge the same or more. But is that what a museum is?

Reducing museums to nothing more than a leisure activity would obviously be insane. So would consigning them to an ivory tower: part of their beauty is their hubbub. ''Dream houses of the collective,'' the phrase Walter Benjamin concocted for the Paris arcades, suits museums today, with their shops and their mobs who go to flirt and eat and pose. But museums are also our traditional palaces of rational entertainment, places for people to discover something they didn't already know, or didn't know they needed to know. They are sacred spaces, too, no matter how unfashionable that may sound: we expect to have in them encounters with authentic objects in a context that is respectful of our intelligence.

People go to museums, in the end, to have an experience unlike what they can get elsewhere, because works of art are not like everything else in life.

For a variety of reasons, many of the most important museums in New York find themselves simultaneously in the throes of transformation. Collectively they are grappling with identity, and some of them clearly have begun to lose track of their priorities. But their crises are also an opportunity. These institutions should seize the moment to interrogate their role in this swiftly changing culture -- to recognize what their function is and get to it. Part of that function does not change: unlike ''other leisure activities,'' museums still set standards of aesthetic quality, not equivocating but declaring what we should value about our culture and standing by those convictions. We can decide for ourselves if we agree.

To do so, however, they must attend to one profound obligation: to cherish and preserve culture for posterity. Museums are our only institutions to do that, and the museums of this city set a standard. It's time for them to live up to that responsibility.

CORRECTION-DATE: July 25, 2004

CORRECTION:

   An article in Arts & Leisure on July 11 about problems facing some New York museums misstated the outcome of an investigation of Robert J. Hurst last year concerning sales taxes on the purchase of paintings for his private collection. Mr. Hurst, president of the Whitney Museum, concedes that he paid the taxes only after learning that L. Dennis Kozlowski, a fellow Whitney board member, had been indicted in a similar case. But there was never a finding that Mr. Hurst had ' 'evaded millions of dollars in taxes on his art collection.''

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