A view of Chicago’s Grant Park and the Art Institute of Chicago from above. (flickr.com/cpc-a-gogo) (click to enlarge)

Bouncing rapidly from state to state, city to city has a characteristic mental effect of simultaneously sharpening and blurring the distinctions between places. Anyplace becomes everyplace while something unexpected — a sobering walk uphill from a San Francisco bus terminal at 3 in the morning, for example — becomes iconic talisman, an event that boils off the homogeneous sameness of urban America to yield a reductive sliver of pure and undiluted place. Moments like these are the reason I travel – the reason, I think, anyone does it.

Boston’s MFA at night (Photo via Boston Explorer Pass)

Everything that is unique about a place (the climate, the topography, the accent, the languages heard on the street, the shape of the subway cars, the vernacular architectural ornament, the system used for intermodal transit transfers, the color of the street signs) sticks out as much as the nothing that is distinct (the frequency of a particular corporate chain, the shape of a telephone pole, a trash can). The subtle everything/nothing variation carries over into the big museums, too. Here is the big museum with its semiannual Japanese print show (Louis Sullivan themed; California themed; Japan themed, etc … ). Here is old art, here is new art; it even carries beyond to the very walls of the galleries themselves to the institutions and their location within the broader geography of the city itself.

Based on many of the big museums in the United States — the ones with the kind of expansive intercontinental collections that span “more than two million works of art” across “five thousand years of world culture” from prehistory to Damien Hirst — the all-purpose art museum location of choice seems to be a park. Why?

An aerial view of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which sits between Central Park and the Upper East Side. (photo via flickr.com/atomische)

My suspicion is that the choice has to do with an inherited British idea about greenspace, the influence — if not the explicit plans — of Olmsted or Burnham, and the influence of the City Beautiful movement. That special ingrained 19th century vaguely Anglo proclivity for the park that performs the appearance of picturesque wilderness for its urban adventurers. Build art its own fortress or five star hotel and put it on the (make-believe) urban frontier — from there, a person can take in the triumphs of civilization amid the unknown terrors of Central, Grant, or Golden Gate Park.

An aerial view of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park (photo via flickr.com/telstar)

Long trips into New York with my mom when I was a kid were formative in my understanding of art. She’d stick me in the car or on the train and we’d barrel down I-95 and through uptown’s scrunched collection of six-story skyscrapers (things look bigger at that age, and six stories is a lot to think about) to arrive at this fortress along the park. The Met.

Inside she’d hold my hand and walk me through the armor galleries for hours at a time and what I liked about suits of armor was the potential for deception: how did I know there weren’t just very still-standing people inside? The only way to know for sure was to engage in the childhood test of authenticity and willpower: a staring contest. If I could stare at them long enough and notice no movement, then they were special, whether or not there was a person hiding inside. Art was something made by a human that didn’t move.

A view of LACMA amidst the greenery (photo via flickr.com/elliotharmon)

Now, tracking down as much art on the move as I can, and stopping in at all these Big Museums in Parks has made me think about the way they make a public space for art. From the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim in New York to the Chicago Art Institute, the MFA in Boston to the M. H. de Young in San Francisco, from LACMA to the Getty-upon-a-hill, time, money, funders, and founders always seem to agree that a park is the ideal setting for an art museum that owns art from all ages. A jewel in the city’s public crown. Often, these museum are idiosyncratically free as with the Met’s ‘suggested donation’ policy, whereby entrance can be had for the low price of a penny and a sneer from the staff. The Getty, too, with its oh-so-very Los Angeles policy: free if you take public transit (which no one does) or $15 per Angeleno measurement of population — car — to park in the 7-story underground garage.

What the Met, Art Institute, de Young, and, to a certain degree, the Getty share in terms of their institutional vision is the idea that: 1) art is expensive and requires specialists 2) art, whether or not it imitates nature, should be enjoyed alongside nature and 3) it’s good for all kinds of people to see all kinds of art stuff, no matter what; hence the decision to locate these types of institutions in an environment that: 1) is expensive to maintain and requires specialists 2) is nature (modified) and 3) is good for people to do healthy outdoor stuff in.

The alternative?

Three museums of modern art in (left to right) Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. (photos via flickr.com/jchatoff, flickr.com/mon_oeil, flickr.com/wallyg)

If you look at location alone for modern and contemporary museums in these three cities, the answer based on several factors including institutional location, location, location seems to be: no. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (in LA, too), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA all argue by their location in midtowns, downtowns, and urban business districts that art has a lot more in common with commerce than with leisure.

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Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...

2 replies on “Museography: Why Are Big Museums Always in Parks?”

  1. Love reading your columns and hearing about your experiences with art and travel alike! If you make it down to Texas, you should really come visit Fort Worth…we have an awesome cultural district with 3 major art museums (the Kimbell, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Amon Carter) along with a few other galleries scattered around the city. It’s definitely one of the best locations for art in the southern US.

  2. Carol Duncan’s book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums actually discusses the museum/park issue at length. She’s trained as an art historian but also draws on anthropology and sociology, which makes it one of the better museum history/theory books out there. It’s been awhile since I last read it so I’m probably grossly oversimplifying, but essentially she argues that surrounding a museum with parkland (along with various other architectural markers, like the huge stone steps at the Met) sets it apart from the city, designating the building as containing a special kind of experience separate from everyday life/routine.

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