How To Start a Museum

  • If American museums had to subsist on Government money like the Louvre or the National Gallery in London, all would shrink, and many of the best would never have got started. Names like Whitney, Guggenheim, Phillips, Freer and Frick attest to the role played by the private collector in creating the public institution. Today more than ever the one-person museum, named for the man or woman who assembled it and put it in its own building, is a ruling fantasy of the ambitious collector. Why settle for your name on a plaque in the Met when for a few extra million you can have the Ira D. Rumpelstiltskin Museum, all your own?

    So far this year, at least three American private collections have gone public, with their own buildings and curatorial staff. One, the Menil Collection in Houston, is a triumph. The others, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington (based on a collection put together by Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay) and the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, are rather less than that.

    The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a virtuous bore. Until ten years ago, with a few resolute exceptions like Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassatt and Louise Nevelson, women artists were shabbily treated by American museums and either omitted from their collections or treated as token presences. The idea that art by women was necessarily second rate lingered discreetly in some quarters through the '70s. Today it is gone, at least in America. Apart from political enlightenment, one of the things that killed it was the growth of the art market. Now that any list of collectors' favorites in current art would have to include Nancy Graves, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Jennifer Bartlett, Cindy Sherman and Joan Snyder, it is fatuous to talk as though women in 1987 formed an oppressed aesthetic class. About half the substructure of power in the art world, from museum curators and dealers to critics and corporate art advisers, is female. No talented woman has real difficulty getting her work into a serious gallery.

    What is true, however, is that most female artists, like most male ones, are not very talented and live ill-known in a catastrophically overcrowded art world. Thus it is easy for Ms. Anybody, M.F.A., to blame the obscurity of her work on sexist machinations against her as a member of a class and plangently call for redress in quotas and affirmative action. Hence the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a grimly sentimental waste of money, an idea whose time is gone.

    Did any American couple ever assemble a worse collection than the Holladays? Perhaps, but none that got their own museum. It is short even of major works by women whose historical significance has been admitted for decades. Its inaugural show, American Women Artists 1830-1930, consisted mainly of loans; but even so, except for some paintings by Cecilia Beaux, Romaine Brooks and, of course, O'Keeffe, it was a dull florilegium of derivative kitsch. Who would waste ten minutes on these sub-Sargent portraits, these mincing imitations of Childe Hassam, these genre scenes crawling with dimpled rosy brats, if they had not been painted by American women? And what serious artist wants gender to be the primary classification of her art? Lee Krasner did not want to be in a ghetto with "women artists" -- she wanted to be seriously compared, as she now is, with men like Jackson Pollock and Andre Masson. Most living artists feel the same way, and this fact alone will guarantee the irrelevance of the National Museum of Women in the Arts for years to come.

    In Chicago, the Terra Museum of American Art has a different agenda. Daniel Terra, 76, head of Lawter International Inc., the Illinois-based manufacturing firm, raised millions for Ronald Reagan's campaign fund and was given the Ruritanian honorific of "Ambassador-at-Large for Cultural Affairs" -- as though culture, to an Administration that spends virtually as much on military bands as on the National Endowment for the Arts, were a foreign state. Ambassador Terra, as he likes to be called, is an enthusiastic buyer of 18th, 19th and early 20th century American art.

    His collection has some indubitably good things in it. Its highlights run from Rembrandt Peale's stiff but historically interesting Porthole Portrait of George Washington and Samuel Morse's The Gallery of the Louvre to a good Eakins, a vigorous Mary Cassatt of boaters feeding ducks, and a set of admirable monotypes by Maurice Prendergast. There is also some very minor work by famous names (Homer, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett) and a plethora of those 1890s contre-jour pictures of nice Boston girls in flowing chiffon scarves -- genteel provincial salon painting that has been revived as a market craze for investors now that the supply of Childe Hassams and the like is running out.

    A collection, in short, more notable for size than quality. But Terra has big plans for it; he says it will be the nucleus of a $75 million museum development whose first stage, two gallery buildings designed by Booth/Hansen & Associates, opened in April with a loan show of American historic paintings from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, along with some of Terra's own holdings.

    There is nothing to be said for the buildings; the main one is cramped and coarsely detailed, and the retail boutique that fills its entrance makes it feel like a small, sanctimonious department store. But there is no mistaking the patriotic zeal behind it. The project arose from Terra's twofold conviction that American 18th and 19th century art was as good as any in Europe, and that snobbery keeps this from the public, so that Americans do not know their own artistic heritage. The first proposition is flat wrong, granted a few exceptions like Copley, Homer and Eakins; the second is dubious.

    Terra has voiced distress that kids come out of high school knowing more about Cezanne than Samuel Morse. But so what? One is fundamental in a way that the other is not. People should know about both, ideally; but they should know more about Cezanne. Certainly there is a need for broader and more discriminating knowledge of American 18th and 19th century art, but the present danger is overvaluation: the assumption, dear to cultural jingoes, that premodernist American painting and sculpture is a special case whose merits cannot be judged fairly by the general standards implicit in European art of its day.

    The way past this is to see the two together, to compare them, and this can best be done under the roof of a great encyclopedic museum. Hence it is a pity that Terra did not give his collection to the Art Institute of Chicago. Much, no doubt, would have gone into storage, because much is not of museum quality. But that is not what the new Maecenases wish to hear. There is vanity museumship, just as there is vanity publishing. Can it be that America now has too many museums -- and that the Terra Museum is a sign that the saturation point is here at last?

    Well, yes and no. There is always room for a really fine museum, and the proof is in Houston. The Menil Collection, which opened in June, houses the works assembled over the past 45 years by Dominique de Menil and her late husband John, who was chairman of Schlumberger, the giant oil-field services company. Through the '70s, as American museum and collecting habits became encysted with hoopla, glitz and architectural manipulation, Dominique de Menil remained absolutely committed to the ideal of art as art, of a museum whose discretion and neutrality would release the eloquence of the work it contained.

    The Menils saw things on a wide intellectual scale and had a genius for combination. Their collection of some 10,000 objects was formed, in the fullest and not the decorator sense, by taste, and by reflection, cross- reference and an impassioned dreaming about what culturally disparate objects might have in common. It is not the result of a stamp-collecting mania, the desire to complete a series or make programmatic points about art history; nor is it designed to be "educational." Rather it sets up objects of connoisseurship, a rebus of delectation to be read.

    It is very strong in three areas: surrealism (it has perhaps the best Magrittes of any museum in the world), archaic Mediterranean objects and African tribal art. But everywhere in the collection one encounters images, large and small, whose intensity comes fairly burning out of the vitrine or off the wall, from a horrendous stone Celtic effigy of the Tarasque, or earth demon, to a gold Byzantine reliquary in the form of a miniature sarcophagus. Their vividness is helped by the subtle and often witty installation carried out by the Menil's director, Walter Hopps. It is not "systematic," presenting objects by period or, rigidly, by style. It tries to reverse the overcategorization that afflicts the presentation of art as a subgenre of pedagogy in many American museums. In short, it treats the visitor as an adult and lets him draw his own conclusions.

    Between them, Dominique de Menil, Hopps and the architect Renzo Piano have got it exactly right: this building, and the thinking behind it, comes as close to the musee imaginaire of one's hopes as one has any right to expect in America today. As a privately funded museum it is free to avoid the cliches of its bigger brethren. No boutiques, no blockbusters, no sense of competition with other museums. No sense of the sealed-off art bunker, either, with overlighted objects caught like startled animals in the glare of spotlights. Above all, none of the grandiosity and architectural euphuism of the American "signature" museum.

    The Menil is a two-story building some 400 ft. long, clad on the outside with wide-board gray swamp cypress in a white steel frame. Inside, there are black-stained pine floors, and curved concrete louvers that admit a changing wash of daylight through most of the roof. It is plain and delicate, and it sits in its frame-house district of Houston with a perfect sense of context -- which is no surprise, since the Menil Foundation owns most of the houses around it, all of which have been painted the same warm gray. (Gray is to Dominique de Menil's cultural activities what orange is to Hare Krishnas.) Unexpressive, inviting, distanced: the color declares a policy, or rather an ethic.

    Most of the art is in storage on the floor above, accessible to scholars but not overcrowding the walls below. There is no sense of display, no anxious signaling about peak experiences. Piano's design eschews the high-tech theatrics that made such a mess of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which he co- designed a decade ago. If ever one building in an architect's career made amends for another, it is this. Imagine something akin to the Frick Museum, but with fewer masterpieces and devoted to the juncture between modernism and the archaic, a place where disinterested aesthetic experience can be enjoyed without coercion or surfeit. One would then have the Menil.