The Museum System:
Themes, Questions, and Issues for Art Museums Today
Museums, galleries, and the ideologies of art spaces and art experiences
  • The artworld institutions, professions, and economics of museums
    • The art museum is an an artworld sub-system with its own institutional structures and hierarchies of professionalism.
    • The curator and museum director roles have become linked to academic professionalism.
    • Museums and commercial galleries are part of the same economic system involving the circulation of both financial and cultural capital.
    • Professionalization of both the commercial and non-profit sectors means that the academic system is part of the larger artworld economy.

  • Two main vectors or force fields today: institutional art [funded, "non-commercial"] vs. commercial gallery art [art for a market, sales to collectors, institutions, museums]:
    • Grant-funded/ externally-sponsored/ museum/ academic art creates an image of art as act or performance by an inner circle of artists.
    • Funded art also provides an authentication or career positioning by an artist.
    • Art sustained by art market/ artists' and dealers' relationships/ auction house sales creates an image of art as artist-made product/ art as objects to be owned/ art as value created by a marketplace.
    • Museums and galleries often compete and cross categories in the financial costs of exhibitions and the commercial return to the art industry in related gallery sales.

  • The "burden of the past" and the newer social-economic-political environment
    • Museums deal with cultural legacies, museum history, national cultures: Louvre; Metropolitan Museum, NY; National Gallery, Washington; etc.
    • Cultural expectations of "heritage" and new social and economic demands.

  • "White Cube" issues
    Trying to see the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre
    • Isolation, dehistoricizing of art objects in seemingly neutral space.
    • Viewing and/vs. understanding: legacy of assumed immediate understanding of "timeless masterpieces" and existence of universal, transcultural meanings and values in museum works.
    • Museum as architected, pre-encoded space, the inside where art exists or appears, vs. the outside world, where art doesn't exist or is indiscernible. Comparisons with sacred space of temples, churches, shrines. Interpretive space of museum installations, special exhibitions, galleries.

  • Ideology of selection and classification, ideology of museum-going
    • Social class values in museum visiting: middle class and upscale identity includes appearing as the insider, in-the-know "connoisseur-consumer," one who feels at home in art museums.
    • Museums and galleries as "cultural capital" (Bourdieu), part of social class knowledge, experience, ownership.
    • Questions of ownership, censorship, institutional and curatorial prejudice, privilege in the museum business.
    • Construction of cultural narratives and promotion of the cult of the artist in exhibitions, catalogues, and textual commentary.

  • The Museum Effect
    • Museum aura and authority created by selection, isolation, implicit or explicit hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion, display, classification, archiving, storage.
    • "Museum Effect" means that some art objects become made for museum display (e.g., Koons, Hirst, Paik).
    • Institutional Critique: Hans Haacke

  • Debates about curating and curatorship
    • What is the role of the curator today? Interpreter of artworld and public interests?
    • Academic professionalization of curating in the past 20 years.
    • Curator as "auteur"--creating the show, not just presenting pre-exisiting works in a neutral context (see major art fair curating, the Whitney and other biennials, Documenta).

  • Museum missions
    • Traditionally, education mission for non-specialists, informing and educating audiences, developing new audiences.
    • American tradition of "art is good for you" (Puritan heritage): moral and esthetic instruction.
    • "The public is not invited" (Wolfe) in the artworld decision process.
    • Connection with conflicting subcultures of academic art history and the commercial market of art collecting.
    • Are the traditional missions still viable?

  • Museums and galleries competing for viewers, patrons, and donors in an "attention economy" of visual culture
    • Museums and entertainment: covered in the "Arts and Entertainment" and "Style" sections of newspapers and magazines.
    • Museum images and objects now coexist with others in popular visual culture, museum images and objects competing with TV, video, movie, and computer images (what can be screened) for attention and value.

  • Museum buildings as works of art in the own right: contemporary architecture for museums, architecture as sculpture, sculpture made for museum spaces (Wright, I. M. Pei, Gehry)
    • Richard Serra sculpture, Guggenheim, Bilbao
    • Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim
    • Competition for grand museum spaces, high design, star architects: museum spaces as destinations, local landmarks in their own right.
    • Global expansion of museums in the network of the museum system: Dubai, Beijing, etc.

Martin Irvine, 2004-2010