The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The Artist in the Museum Organization (1979)

Published in "On Trusteeship," Art Galleries Association of Australia, Adelaide, Australia, 1979.

Museums must defend what they are, not try to be what they are not. The museum is like the artist in some ways: isolated by devotion to high standards, suspicious of intrusion from the outside, dependent on its own defense. But it is also a public body. An artist may be expected to be a buffoon, which is unfortunate but need not interfere with his work. But the museum is expected to be all things to all people. It cannot be. The purpose of the art museum is to bring the best art to the public in the most efficient manner - and by that I do not necessarily mean the most economical. Everything must be measured against this principle. Just as the artist must put away the false image of the lonely bohemian, so the museum must learn the lessons of survival and the perils of popularity. It must not be done at the expense of integrity, real integrity, integrity of high standards, of freedom, and conscience working together.

Our principle of standards and efficiency says that the artist, as such, has little to offer a museum by working within the museum organization. There is one exception, to be mentioned later.

The artist in museum administration:

The psychology of the artist is not fitted to work well within an organization. Actually, I think it is too bad that so many of artistic temperament do work for museums. The art museum is the public agent for the arts, not an "artistic" organism. Those responsible for museums must be good organizers, tactful politicians, and shrewd fundraisers. They could learn from businessmen, lessons taken from the remorseless marketplace, where bad management is repaid by insolvency. The Harris report "Americans and the Arts" gives clear evidence that museums misjudge, misunderstand, and mishandle their huge constituency. It states, for example, that 93,000,000 Americans would be willing to add five dollars to their income tax if it went to support the arts. And museums are crying for money! We must organize; we must become more realistic. Hiring artists will not help.

The artist as trustee:

I can think of three reasons to put an artist on the board: one, because he could give money or art or something else the museum wants; two, as a token gesture to the art community; and three, because he has a special feel for art which could be instructive to the rest of the board, guide them into an aesthetic viewpoint, which trustees usually lack, and help bring the board closer to the objects, and the spirit of the objects, which are the reasons for the museum's existence. But the first reason has little to do with the artist as an artist, the second is cynical and merely appeasing, and the third presupposes a person who would be valuable to the board, artist or not. The reason for taking on a trustee is that he will be a good trustee. Everything else is secondary.

The artist on an advisory committee for exhibition or acquisition:

I know I put myself out on a limb when I say this: artists are notoriously bad critics. Art history is studded with examples. It is hard for an artist to be objective. This is understandable. Objectivity, balance, fairness - these are qualities which must be worked on and sustained, like physical condition. As I evolved my own paintings over the years, I was attracted to and used many "ideas" I saw in other artist's work; much of that work was not first-rate, but that did not matter - it had something I liked. When I write about art I must force a distancing, another way of seeing. The best judges of art have been persons who love it, are sensitive to it, and are "once-removed": writers, collectors, dealers. Artists are too "deep into" art. And there are the natural jealousies and allegiances. And too, there is the matter of conflict of interest. All in all, it is not a good idea.

The artist as explicator:

It has been my experience that artists do have something special to give by teaching and by talking about art. This is more true of successful artists. They are not more articulate than others, but they, have forced their feelings into materials, put their work out against the work of their colleagues, and can refer back to what they have learned. Not every artist will be a good teacher or lecturer, of course, but the chances are good. And successful artist will have the initial respect of students and audiences.

Museums are not tied to that great anesthetic monster, the education establishment. They can set up art education as they please and hire whom they please. And they have real art right at hand. It is a wonderful, open opportunity. Here is the place for intelligent innovation. Young artists could be given rigorous training in their craft, which includes the dynamic understanding of art as well as how to stretch a canvas. Most art schools are either frozen academies or chaotic playgrounds. Museums could do it well, and artists could be a valuable part of this. I would like to see it happen.