The Public Museum

The purpose of the public museum is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art.

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June 26, 2017 – Free MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

The purpose of the public museum is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art. With his first sentence, Chris Dercon, soon-to-be-former director of Tate Modern, had already lost the argument. Back in June last year, Dercon gave a speech as part of a symposium made up of international art-museum big-cheeses, at the private Louis Vuitton Foundation, to consider such burning questions as ‘What are the challenges facing public and private museum collections today?’, ‘Who makes art history now?’ and ‘What is the impact of the growing role played by the art market in this field?’ In his speech, recently published in The Art Newspaper, Dercon rehearsed a well-worn case for the superiority of public-museum values over the apparently more dubious motives of the private collector and the ever-encroaching ranks of private museum foundations. Speaking darkly of ‘the new pseudo-philanthropists’, Dercon warned that ‘we public museums cannot afford to give up to them the production of memory and the writing of art history’.

Perhaps a little jaded by his own experience handling the tricky interface between Tate Modern’s public role and the private interests that enter it, Dercon tried to reassert the authority of the public museum over the demands of private interest: ‘I feel that we must establish new standards for cooperation between private collectors and public museums… The collector who works with a public museum must accept the museum as a place of symbolic value – in the long term – for art,’ Dercon finger-wagged sternly.

What’s interesting about Dercon’s defensive and rather schoolmasterish chiding of all those naughty collectors and private art foundations out there is the complacent sense of assurance that the museum does, in fact, hold the rights to the ‘production of memory’ and the ‘writing of art history’, and holds the sole licence for being a ‘place of symbolic value’. Demanding that museums claim the supreme right to decide what is of quality, rather than a different bunch of private institutions, doesn’t even start to acknowledge that, perhaps, the museum’s role in monopolising value judgements is itself a bit of a problem.

After all, if museums make qualitative judgements about what should be kept in their collections, what should be shown and how it should be understood, they are making claims about the artistic and cultural value of some works over others. And yet no one form of institution should, in a healthy public culture, believe itself to be the prime mover in that process of evaluation. And indeed, up until only relatively recently, big public art museums did not wield such great authority over contemporary artistic activity. While museums traditionally employed curators to preserve and research the knowledge of historical collections of art, those artworks were produced and given value outside of the machinery of the museum. What was of value was determined elsewhere – in the enthusiasms of private collectors, in the response of the public to exhibitions and, especially in the modern era, by the independent activities of artists setting up their own exhibitions, and their own relationships with patrons and publics. Museums, charged with preserving the art of the past, always lagged behind – the Tate included. Half a century went by after Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) before the Tate Gallery gave the Frenchman a retrospective.

Dercon seems to forget that many big museums like his were established on the basis of the enthusiasms and interests of private collectors. The process of becoming more ‘museological’ is a recent innovation, especially as curating has become an ever more active and interventionist occupation, and the museum has come to see itself as a key site for the production and presentation of contemporary art, rather than simply a custodian of the art of the past.

Really, Dercon’s opening assertion that the museum’s function is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art is now the least of it. If this were truly its purpose, it would accept and declare that its choices of presentation, especially of contemporary work at the moment of being produced, were only provisional, subject to multiple voices and different interpretations, and endlessly open to revision and rethinking. At the core of that, however, would be a faith in the notion that art’s value can only be determined by open, critical discussion among a diverse and often fractured public – not a bureaucratic arrogance that declares that value should be assigned by internal committees of career curators with art-theory degrees.

Ironically, while Dercon and no doubt many other of his art museum colleagues will decry the cynicism of collectors who understand that museums add cultural value so that they can add monetary value, it is only because museums have cultivated the status of legitimiser that this can happen. So why not build your own art foundation? Doing so only mimics the monopolising effect of value-making the public museum never had a right to in the first place.

Adapted from artreview

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Jack Westin
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22 Comments


  1. Author does not agree with D museums shouldn’t have priority over PC on art. They monopolize etc

    Reply

  2. The author is skeptical of Dercon’s view that the museum is supposed to ensure the long-term availability and display of art. The author thinks that they are actually doing the opposite because museums were created for the interests of private curators, and by disregarding any other opinion besides a select few as to what is to be shown, is monopolizing the industry.

    Main argument: “Demanding that museums claim the supreme right to decide what is of quality, rather than a different bunch of private institutions, doesn’t even start to acknowledge that, perhaps, the museum’s role in monopolising value judgements is itself a bit of a problem.”

    Reply

  3. The author doesn’t agree with Dercon view about the purpose of museums and believe that art should be discussed openly and not by curators.

    Reply

  4. author is critical of museum director’s assertion that public museums should have priority over private collectors for art. museums are actually monopolizing the industry, so not different from private collectors

    Reply

  5. Public museum are being look down upon by the author because Dercon
    1. Trying to a dominance against private museum and collectors
    2. Defining public museum as a “cultural value” by only displaying significant works but no all types.

    Reply

  6. Author disagrees with the view that public art is something that represents the past rather than the present/contemporary art. Formed an argument against Dercon’s negative view towards private collectors being the sole purpose for museums.

    Reply

  7. The author argues again Dercon’s statement. He undermines the role of public museum and made comparison of the similarities between the public and private practices that demantle Dercon’s justification of why public museums better.

    Reply

  8. MI: Some like Dercon, who was director of the Tate Modern, believe that private collectors and galleries should have limited input and influence with the public art museum. Instead, a select few affiliated with the museum should determine what is displayed.

    Author tone: negative, criticizes view calling it superior, exclusionary when museum and art display often built on collaboration between different members of art community.

    Reply

  9. museums shouldn’t evaluate art

    Reply

  10. Museums = no right to be a prime judge of value of art, art must be judged by multiple people. Museum is not above private art collectors.

    Reply

  11. MI: CD argues against private art collections, Author does not agree with CD

    Reply

  12. MIP: Derconds demand for public museums to hold bureacratic authority is not a good move, and private collectors and other diversified people should help make decisions within the museums.

    Reply

  13. MIP: Museum function =/= availability & display + value determined by everyone; negative towards public museums deciding everything

    Reply

  14. MIP: Public museum monopolizes value judgements = problem, Tone = negative

    Reply

  15. Public and private museums are both selective and discriminatory in their selections of art. Author’s tone is negative, especially toward the public museums and pretty much implies that Darcon is a hypocrite.

    Reply

  16. Public museum values = superior = problem

    Authors tone is negative

    Reply

  17. public museum = art display = wrong, public + private = cooperation, musuem = value judgement + problem

    Reply

  18. MIP: Dercon claims public museum > private institution/collection. Museums should not dictate value, or be the only ones to do so (this is against Dercon’s claims).
    Tone: negative

    Reply

  19. Public museums should not judge the art. Cooperation b/w private and public collections must be reached.

    Reply

  20. MIP: pubic museum> private ( Decron) , museum monopolize and define art which is wrong

    Reply

  21. MIP
    (1) Public museums > private collections (Darcon) | author disagrees w/ Darcon
    (2) Museums judging art = problematic (au)
    (3) Museums =/= judge value of art; should be the public (au)

    Tone
    Negative towards Darcon

    Reply

  22. Hypocrisy is the main theme in this article and author is obviously dismissive and contemptuous of Decron for his arrogant disdain of private collectors who presumably monopolise valuable art while he himself is guilty of dictating the type of art that should be exhibited in museums. Decron doesn’t practice what he preaches (lost the argument) and he feels that private collectors are depriving public museums the opportunity to display valued art by holding on to their collections (museums should be have the right to display art for the long term, superior and just of them to do so) and museums should be given this authority and special privilege (production of memory and writing of art history).

    Decron wants the authority of museums to be recognized and private collectors to collaborate with museums (donate their private pieces). Only museums should be the designated curators of art. Decron appears to be very domineering (defensive….schoolmasterish chiding…demanding that museums claim the supreme right…rather than a different bunch of private institutions). Author is peeved by Decron’s insistence on monopolizing judgement over the value of art. He feels that no one institution should monopolies claims on artistic and cultural values on art and it is only recently that museums have become domineering. Previously, value judgement was determined outside the machinations of the museum and it was based on the judgement of private collectors and the artists, Museums had lagged behind and oftentimes the last to show recognition to a good piece of artwork. Without private collectors and artists to lead the way, museums would probably not be that established.

    Museums are no longer contend with just curating art, they want to play a more active role and decide on the quality of art. Author feels that art should be open to everyone’s interpretation and its value should be constantly revised to reflect the current attitudes and perspectives of the people at that time (open critical discussion among a diverse and often fractured public) and not be subjected to the bureaucratic arrogance of a small group of people. Museums have no monopoly over the value judgement of art. Even if they accord themselves this right to do so, they cannot blame private collectors for amassing “valuable art” for their own selfish gains as they were the ones who wanted that right in the first place.

    Reply

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