Charles Saumarez Smith served as director of the National Portrait Gallery in London from 1994 to 2002 and director of the National Gallery in London from 2002 to 2007. So he has had considerable practical experience in the workings of museums. The Art Museum in Modern Times is divided into two parts. The first four chapters provide a cogent survey of the modern art museum’s history, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And then he devotes 30 pages to a challenging discussion of the present problems of modern museums.
The historical portion of Saumarez Smith’s book presents a great success story. Since 1939, when the Museum of Modern Art opened at its current location in Manhattan, many completely new, highly ambitious institutions have been built, some in countries with little or no history of museum culture. In North America and Europe most of the older public galleries have expanded dramatically, attracting enormous new audiences. And important new private museums and innovative theorizing have provided different models for the presentation of and interaction with art. As he says, nowadays museums are both marketplaces and churches. These dazzling developments have been accompanied by the vast expansion of collections. Historical masterpieces of European art have been joined by artwork from non-Euro-American visual cultures around the world, and a great deal of contemporary art. Museums offer a lot of art to see — and many people want to see it.
I grant that now and then I wish that the museums I visit regularly (at least in Manhattan) were less crowded. (Who doesn’t?) But the crowds in our museums demonstrate the success of the educational system and of art tourism. Art history students who have taken our classes want to see the artworks. And much contemporary art is very popular. Some museums that Saumarez Smith discusses (for instance, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilboa, Spain, and perhaps also Richard Meier’s Getty Center in Los Angeles) function more effectively as architectural showplaces than as practical settings for the display of art. But as The Art Museum indicates, there are various satisfying alternative models at hand.
In the section “The Museum Reinvented,” which covers the last decade, he praises the Barnes Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art in its new location, and the Broad in Los Angeles. So it is surprising that after this historical discussion his book ends on a very pessimistic note. He says that “art museums are under attack.” Attacked because of public hostility toward their wealthy donors; attacked because a wider public is distressed about the “morally dubious circumstances” (as he writes) in which their collections were assembled; attacked because the classic Europe-centered canon is being called into question; and attacked because, as he says with explicit reference to the 2020 murder of George Floyd, they need “to respond in a systematic, rather than haphazard way, to the legacy of slavery.” The present uncertainty, Saumarez Smith concludes, “is more absolute than at any previous time, including the two world wars.” These attacks, he allows, reveal real problems; these concerns are indeed serious in his judgment.
Ideally, museums are intended to educate, entertain, and improve the lives of their visitors. But it’s not easy to succeed in achieving all of these divergent goals. Without significant holdings of work by people of color and women a museum underlines its status as a symbol of white male privilege. Many institutions have begun to making concerted efforts to reimagine and transform their collections. Just as the gender and racial composition of our elected figures should correspond to the composition of the electorate, so there is a passionate desire among many citizens that public collections and museum staff, extending to top positions, reflect the identity of the population of potential visitors.
Traditional museums were palaces. While it may be exciting to enter such institutions, they can be intimidating, hence the appeal that museums feel accessible to a broad range of people. Museum visitors, Saumarez Smith rightly declares, want “visual, aesthetic and often social experiences as much as intellectual ones.” Perhaps, I think, the present demand “to get a greater diversity of visitors,” and to make public art museums “places to hang out” in grand new buildings will make them more expensive to build and operate. But, again, these problems created by the need to satisfy such divergent goals arise because these institutions are very popular.
As I puzzled over the reasoning behind Saumarez Smith’s shift from a history to his concluding discussion, I turned my thoughts to my recent reading about an entirely different subject. After a long survey of the terrifying and shameful history of American racism, The 1619 Project concludes with an eloquent statement: “If we are to be redeemed, we must do what is just: we must, finally, live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded.” The critics who contributed to the project (conceived by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones) admire the founding promise of America. What’s required still, they assert, is that it be realized. For all of its moral failings, the art museum was founded upon a magnificent political ideal — that great artworks should be accessible to the public. Saumarez Smith recognizes the importance of this very traditional utopian demand. And he rightly recognizes that what inspires attacks is the general recognition that this ideal has not yet been realized. To survive, the art museum must listen to its most severe critics, who want it to succeed.
The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith (2021) is published by Thames & Hudson and is available online and in bookstores.