View of Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) in “Surrounding Bacon and Warhol” on view at Astrup Fearnley in Olso, Norway (all photos by author)

Every time a museum comes up with a creative and intelligent way to take advantage of their own permanent collection, an angel gets its wings.

Do not get me wrong; traveling blockbuster exhibitions are not all bad. But, bear in mind that when they hop from museum to museum, countless masterpiece works from esteemed permanent collections are shuttled off to dark storage rooms hidden far from public view.

In recent years, the economic downturn has made expensive traveling exhibitions less appealing to (or, in some cases, flat-out unfeasible for) a number of museums. One recent high-profile victim of this trend was Jeffrey Dietch’s popular (if not popular with the critics) mega-display “Art in the Streets” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which was set to travel to New York next year but was scratched by the Brooklyn Museum, who cited “unfortunate” budget concerns relating to the show’s high price tag.

Instead, museums are turning more, and with more creativity, to their own permanent collections. Is necessity the mother of invention once again, or is there a common interest among museums to breathe new life into their own holdings? (Or both?) Either way, the public is reaping the benefits. Today viewers have more opportunities to see important works recontextualized by enterprising curators who are themselves reexamining the ways we construct and perceive our art histories.

Take the Whitney Museum’s Singular Visions, a rotating exhibition begun last year that seeks to reintroduce viewers to works from their permanent collection, some of which have not been seen for decades. Last month, the New York Times quoted the Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo as explaining that:

the impulse behind ‘Singular Visions’ is to keep calling attention to our collection…We are not only rediscovering forgotten masterpieces but also giving artists of our own time the opportunity to be seen in a highly focused manner.

The first descriptive lines of the exhibition’s website make clear that Singular Visions attempts to position works from previous decades against a backdrop of today’s cultural and media landscapes, opening up fresh contexts and new points of entry to artists like Willem de Kooning, Eleanor Antin, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris and others.

Or how about over the summer in Minneapolis, when the Walker Art Center enlisted John Waters to mine their permanent collection for an idiosyncratic exhibition titled Absentee Landlord, where Waters imagined the galleries as ‘rental apartments’ and explored which works made for the best ‘roommates’. Even more explicitly than Singular Visions, Absentee Landlord uses works from the past decades to touch on issues of the day, with references to shifts in the housing market, for example, embedded in the exhibition’s premise.

Andy Warhol,” Hammer & Sickle” (1976)

And no, the bump in creative turns to permanent collections is not just an American phenomenon. Currently on view at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum is a prime example titled Surrounding Bacon and Warhol. Curated in-house by museum director Gunnar B. Kvaran and staff curator Grete Årbu, this exhibition is an attempt to assemble disparate post-war trends in Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism into one more or less unified picture by (literally) surrounding works by Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol with others by artists like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jim Dine, Martin Kippenberger, Odd Nerdrum, David Hockney, Larry Rivers, and more — all from their permanent collection.

Sigmar Polke, “Apparizione” (1992)

It is worth noting that Surrounding Bacon and Warhol, similar to the others, is best taken less as an argument and more as a thought experiment. The show makes no news in staking out Warhol and Bacon as influential icons of twentieth century painting. But its curated presentation of the idea that these two otherwise very different artistic visions exerted a shared influence over post-war painting proves surprisingly fresh and compelling.

And this is what can make a museum’s turn to their permanent collection so favorable for the viewing public. By virtue of being constrained to the masterpieces they have, curators are taking the opportunity to get creative with works that in some cases wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.

Here’s to putting that overwhelming mega-blockbuster exhibition on hold for another year.

Singular Visions is ongoing at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue at 75 street, NY). Absentee Landlord is on view at the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota) until July 29, 2012, and Surrounding Bacon and Warhol will be open at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, Norway until Ocotober 23, 2011.

Benjamin A. Snyder is a freelance writer based in San Diego, California.

3 replies on “Museums Get Creative with Their Permanent Collections”

  1. From personal experience, having worked as a curator whose primary job was to curate exhibitions from the permanent collections, it’s mainly a budgetary concern. However, I do think the one positive benefit from curating out of the permanent collection is that it forces museum staff to take a look at the hundreds and thousands of works literally kept in the museum basement. 

    To this article, I’d add that instead of the example that traveling exhibitions cause “countless masterpiece works from esteemed permanent collections [to be] shuttled off to dark storage rooms hidden far from public view,” the fact is that most of a museum’s collection is in storage at any one time. I’d guess that it’s no more than 15% of a museum collection that’s on view at any one time. Traveling exhibitions do very little to affect this negative trend and instead, it’s due to a combination of limitations: available gallery space, lack of staff, and a lot of bad artwork that the museum’s been given over time by collectors. 

  2. just to remember… the collection of the astrup fearnley museum will travel to São Paulo  at the Bienal building:

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