The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Back to the Ivory Tower (1990)

New York Times, July 29, 1990. Letter to the editor.

Arts and Leisure


Time to Go Back To the Ivory Tower

To the Editor:

In his article "Museums Hear a Knock oh the Door: Politics" [July 15] Michael Kimmelman quotes the director of the San Francisco Fine Art Museum to the effect that museums cannot be ivory towers.

This sounds practical and reasonable, but it is wrong. Museums came about to preserve, protect and exhibit objects treasured by a culture. That is their job. For years museums had the reputation of musty old fuddy-duddy places because the nature of their charge made them just that. About 30 years ago museums started getting into show biz under the guise of bringing art to a bigger audience. The Endowments were created. Corporations were enticed. "Blockbusters" appeared. Museums got hooked on Big Culture and dependent on the ever-swelling flow of cash surrounding it. They made themselves fair game in the political arena, and now they are taking the heat.

If the mayor of a city will call off a museum exhibit because it might displease a famous visitor who doesn't like where the sponsor of the show does business, it is time for museums to consider what they are doing to themselves by going public this way. If they have any sense of self-preservation at all they will stop trying to sell art like popcorn and get back into that ivory tower. Art may be for the few but it is denied to no one. An ivory tower is a fine place as long as the door is open.

W. D. Bannard
Coral Gables, Fl

The writer is chairman of the art and art history department at the University of Miami.