Interviews

Glenn Adamson on New York and London’s Distinct Museum Cultures

Glenn Adamson in repose. Photos by Sipke Visser courtesy of Glenn Adamson
Glenn Adamson (photo by Sipke Visser, courtesy Glenn Adamson)

Glenn Adamson recently stepped down from his directorship at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, after serving that position for a little less than three years. He had been the head of the research department at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, where he worked from 2005 to 2013, when he received his appointment at MAD. Having had central management roles in significant art institutions in both New York and London, Adamson is now in the unique position of being able to decide where he wants to live and work while pursuing his next major project. As a museum scholar who has also had experience in both New York and London, I wanted to ask Adamson about his experience working in the two distinct museum environments and found that he has key insights on the challenges and benefits particular to each context.

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Seph Rodney: How’s it going? How was your trip back to London?

Glenn Adamson: It was great, really good. Of course it was raining the whole time, but …

SRThat’s London …. That can actually lead right into our conversation about differences between the two museum cultures. On the one hand, London, where you spent quite a few years …

GA: Yeah, eight years.

SR: And then your stay here in New York, in the US, at the Museum of Art and Design. Maybe we can start the conversation by talking a bit about how you think the different cultures might approach collecting differently.

GA: I think the biggest difference in general, which applies to collecting as well as other issues, is that in London and in Europe broadly, museums are considered more of a civic property — and this is obvious, but important to say — funding is largely governmental with some contributions from private citizens and corporations, and that’s growing as a kind of Americanization process unfolds. In America, though, you have a much longer tradition of private philanthropy and I think that also applies to collecting, in the sense that you have many more private collectors, active in the art, design, and craft fields in this country than you do in the UK. That really does change the landscape of artistic production and creativity. In Europe, it’s probably more difficult to become very financially successful as an artist, but there’s a safety net.

In some places, including Scandinavia, there is such active support for artists that they are almost insulated from the market entirely. Whereas in America, artists tend to be exposed to the market very suddenly and sometimes brutally, but then they can also become much more successful here than they would have a chance at being in Europe. It’s a much more high-stakes, more capital-intensive situation here and that definitely plays out in terms of collecting.

Maybe the last thing to say about that is that also means that museum collecting in this country tends to be led by private collections. Often you’ll see that museum collections are little more than accumulations of private collections that have come to that institution over the years, and the most you could hope for is an institution that has funds that are provided by private sponsorships that can then be spent at the curator’s discretion. Obviously, unless it’s an endowment, it’s still going to be very subject to individual patrons’ choices; it’s much more individualistic.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2010. Photo by Tony Hisgett via Flickr
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010 (photo by Tony Hisgett via Flickr)

SRDo you think that by having this heavier emphasis on private philanthropy, and having collections essentially build up through private patrons, you end up with a handful of people being taste makers?

GA:  I think historically that was the case. But it seems to me the culture of philanthropy has broadened quite a lot. Whereas in the 1960s and ‘70s you would have had a fairly narrow bandwidth of collectors and therefore philanthropists affecting museums, I think now you have many more people at the table, including some people whose philanthropy is motivated by quite specific ideological reasons. The example that leaps to mind for me is Patricia Cisneros, who has forwarded the cause of Latin American Art at MoMA. Ironically, it’s possible to diversify more quickly when you have a private funding base, because all it takes is one person with a check book.

Now, of course, we have the internet, a kind of radical broadening of the message with all the problems and opportunities that that entails. Whereas I think in England, it’s a much more gradual process, perhaps, of broadening, and there’s still a lot of gate keepers — it’s just that the gate keepers are configured differently: bureaucratic. They’re based in grant giving, they’re academic often, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that the American situation’s less diverse.

SRPerhaps we can talk about publics. I studied in the UK and my sense of living there for five-and-a-half years, while doing my PhD, is that the publics there are slightly more literate and interested in public visual art than they tend to be in the States. Would you agree with that?

GA:  I would totally agree with that. I think that statistically borne out, people in the museum sector would often cite that, in the UK, more people go to museums than to football matches. I can’t believe that would be true in this country.

Partly, that’s a difference of the education system, and also partly the ways museums are set up. Because of their funding structure, I think they’re obligated to be more general in their address, and particularly when you go to the regional museums. For example, if I were to compare the way that a museum in Liverpool and the way that a museum in Milwaukee feel, I think the museum in Liverpool has a much more intense obligation to serve the entire public — not that Milwaukee doesn’t try, but I think Liverpool has a reporting structure where it’s not option. It’s not like they are just being motivated by a sort of public spiritedness; they are actually held to account.

Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 2012. Photo by Tom Bastin via Flickr
Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 2012 (photo by Tom Bastin via Flickr) (click to enlarge)

But underlying that, there’s definitely just a totally different level of cultural preparedness in the British museum-going public.

SRI think that’s an excellent way to say it: “cultural preparedness.”

GA:  In some ways, I still think that in the educational system in the UK, by the time you’ve come through it, I feel most people have been left with some expectation that they’re going to be involved with culture, and that’s not necessarily true with the American educational system.

SRWhat other differences strike you about publics?

GA:  The other thing I would say perhaps is that, like a lot of things in America, we tend to self-identify, as being interested in particular things and have less of a general-type museum-going activity. For example, I often find people in this country who are interested in contemporary design, but not at all interested in 18th-century objects, and vice versa. That is not so true in England. So people who are interested in contemporary design are interested in it, but they’re also interested in lots of other things, and they are able to talk about those different things in kind of equal measure whereas here, you’re more likely to get somebody who’s really had a lot of in-depth knowledge in one area, so it’s a bit more specialized. I would say this isn’t on the public side, not necessarily the curatorial side.

SRAt the end of the day, where do you think you would most like to direct your energies?

GA:  Probably teaching, but you know a lot of that stuff is transferable. It’s all ideas.

Glenn Adamson is the curator the exhibition Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years, opening at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) (2 Columbus Cir, Midtown, Manhattan) on October 18. His book, Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials, from the Studio to Crowdsourcing, coauthored with Julia Bryan Wilson, will be published in June.

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