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Conflicting visions in American art museums


By their nature, American art museums are pluralistic institutions. They cannot be simply characterized as the hobbies of affluent amateurs, or ivory towers for research or, despite appearances, playgrounds for “the people”. To some extent they are all of these together, but with more or less emphasis on each, depending upon the support which each of the principal sets of actors is capable of mustering. Trustees, curators, and managers each possess a legitimacy which they have used to effect the pursuit of their unofficial goals, some of which converge with those of the institution itself. The level of success they attained is modified by trends external to the institution, including scholarly and professional developments, art market activity, pressure from aspiring elites, and the emergence of new funding sources.

Collecting involves the transformation of material into symbolic capital and is, therefore, a process in which museums play a pivotal role. Since trustees and prospective donors are continuing and even increasing their involvement in art collecting, whether from aesthetic interest or for speculative purposes, external processes of elite formation will continue to affect the art museum. Its aesthetic policies will result in gains and losses for particular individuals or groups, whether in the museum, or aspiring to enter.Footnote 1 As repositories of art, museums are, therefore, willy-nilly linked to an external market whose speculations impinge upon their collections and exhibitions. Since principal actors are never totally insulated from it, and are even recruited in part because of their knowledge of it, a position in a museum itself may advance the interests of the parties involved. This lack of insulation from markets and the relative accessibility of non-professionals to its information helps to explain why the parallels between museums and other institutions, such as universities and hospitals, are not more striking. Museum professionalism diverges from that found in educational or medical institutions, where laymen have a difficult time justifying their intervention in abstruse scientific decisions. Yet, in spite of their lack of expertise, occasions when they do intervene still occur.Footnote 2 If there is lay interference even where professionalism and scientifically validated criteria are entrenched, then it is all the more understandable that it would arise where external disciplinary canons are relatively less established, and the gap between laymen and experts is not so great. Though development of “scientific” scholarship created new reference groups for curators, they are still more closely tied to wealthy collectors than are their European counterparts who may be more research-oriented and have existing collections with little likelihood of donations, since structural supports for “altruism” (e.g., tax deductions for donations) are minimal or lacking.Footnote 3 Thus in spite of the existence of structures to isolate curators from trustees, they still compete among themselves for each other's support; the trustees for inclusion, the curators for pre-selection of works.Footnote 4

But curator-trustee relations are not the only sensitive spots in art museums. With the growth of external public subsidies from federal and state governments and with the likelihood of their continuation into the future, although not necessarily at as rapid a rate of increase as in recent years,Footnote 5 the balance of forces within the institution is likely to be shaken. Public support entails two requirements: organizational accountability and greater accessibility to large publics.Footnote 6 Both of these demands emphasize the rising importance of bureaucratic managers. Like curators of the past, they have been the servants of the Board. But just as curators grasped at external developments in scholarship and professional organizations on which to base their legitimation, bureaucratic managers are following an analogous path. Eschewing aesthetic expertise, they try to run museums as rationally as they claim modern firms function: introducing methods of membership development (including advertisement), gaining control of local patronage markets, and lobbying for and trying to monopolize governmental funding sources. On the whole they have no power base within the museum, since they are resented by curatorial personnel, and are viewed as mere technicians by trustees. But the expertise that they bring to bear on organizational functioning is becoming a necessity for efficient operations and justification of the public funds received. Not surprisingly, schools of business administration and universities are offering specialized training in arts management. But the newly trained managers are likely to differ from the older. Since they are largely self-selected rather than drifting into cultural organizations, they may be more committed to the arts from the outset than their predecessors. Impressionistic evidence suggests that they are more likely to include women than is true in other bureaucracies.

While it is impossible to predict precisely what the outcome of their entry into museums will be, it is likely that new alliances may emerge. If at the moment curatorial professionals are suspicious of administrators, preferring to cajole their friendly trustee to act on their behalf, they may find it in their interest to forge new alliances with managers, especially as managers gain influence through their ability to solicit government and foundation funding. Furthermore, managers are less tied to an institution than are curators, since their skills are more easily convertible to other organizations or government agencies, while curators face an overcrowded market in museums and universities. The post-professional era is shaped by their growing importance, but is not wholly determined by it. Rather, their presence heightens the perpetual state of tension inherent in the multi-purpose institution the art museum.

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  1. Aside from donors, art dealers, too, are said to want works they handle in museums. They used to encourage collectors to buy for eventual museum donation in order to get works off the market, thus creating scarcity. As long as museums were believed to retain works in perpetuity, the dealer was a supporter of donor altruism. Geraldine Keen, Money and Art: A Study Based on the Times-Sotheby Index (G.P. Putnam's Sons, (1971), 27, 29. There are, of course, other reasons as well, since dealer reputations are connected to their influence on museums, which gives both symbolic and material advantages.

  2. Perrow, 857-8.

  3. Netzer, 51.

  4. In one case, a curator persuaded a donor (who was a Board member) to fund the renovation of his own departmental gallery, even though the Board had not provided for it in its budget, had attempted to centralize all decisions on matters through the Director and Comptroller, and was anxious to avoid competitive fund-raising by internal components which might be achieved at the expense of the major institutional fund drive. An illuminating perspective on the internal dynamics of the art museum was expressed by a European who had become a curator. Rather than deal with French government bureaucracies, he was much happier with the informality and relative ease of getting things done through Board members. Situations vary considerably, however, since, according to a curator in a major Netherlands museum, it is the Director who deals with both government and donors, thereby shielding curators from these contacts.

  5. Netzer, 180.

  6. Coleman, vol. 2, 402.

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Zolberg, V.L. Conflicting visions in American art museums. Theor Soc 10, 103–125 (1981).

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  • Symbolic Capital
  • Donor Altruism
  • Modern Firm
  • Bureaucratic Manager
  • Aesthetic Interest