My day job (radio production) can complement my night job (arts writing), but there are times when weeks pass without the twain meeting. At our Los Angeles-based talk program, MOCA’s loss of former curator Paul Schimmel did not go unnoticed, but neither did it tantalize, at least not until my senior producer saw the following headline: “Museums Are About the Art, Not Racking Up Big Numbers on Crowds and Revenue.” The article, written by Blake Gopnick for The Daily Beast, rails against a recent op-ed by Eli Broad in the Los Angeles Times, in which Broad defends MOCA in the language of a business institution striving “to grow its client base” (Gopnick’s wording), or “make MOCA a populist rather than an insular institution” (Broad’s wording).
Gopnick argues “that museums should make [great] art available—to the absolutely largest number of people who are looking for that kind of thing, and not for something else.” And while Gopnick’s thinking has issues of its own (elevating some forms of art and artists over others), I agree with his overall point. Showcasing great artwork should be an art museum’s first goal, even if it draws fewer numbers and leaves the institution open to a charge of ‘insularity.’
I don’t think it’s the art institutions that are manifesting signs of insularity, however. Oh, sure, I understand and even agree with the logic behind wanting to make MOCA more “populist,” which for Broad apparently means accessible, but the adjective “insular” is misapplied. The word, from the late Latin insula, or ‘island,’ means “uninterested,” at least in cultures or ideas outside of one’s own experience. If anything, it is the population that MOCA hopes to attract which time and again proves itself insular, only interested in the most spectacular art exhibits, or exhibits immediately reflective of its own experience, instead of those that attempt to open a window into a different (and perhaps more challenging) way of thinking about the world and its surroundings.
Curators like Paul Schimmel are the middle ground, not a force for insularity. In fact, the saga of Schimmel and MOCA reminds me of another curatorial conflict from the early twentieth century, that between art historian Aby Warburg and his librarian and assistant, Fritz Saxl. The eldest son of three, Warburg was born into a well-to-do Jewish banking family in mid-19th century Hamburg. As such, his role should have been to take over the family business for his father, but on his thirteenth birthday, Warburg offered this position to his youngest brother, Max, in exchange for the promise that “Max would buy him all the books he ever wanted.” Max kept his promise; by 1914, Warburg had amassed somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 volumes, most of which were related to history, art, psychology, and religion. These volumes became the Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg – a research institute located in Hamburg that attracted scholars from all over Europe and America – and, eventually, the Warburg Institute, one of the more important art-historical think tanks of the last century.
Before Saxl stepped in, however, Warburg’s project was just too messy, too overwhelming – an unfiltered investigation of “the role of the coining of images as a process of civilization,” with no order outside of Warburg’s own “law of the good neighbor,” which he used to organize the thousands of texts in his library. “Although grouped under such general rubrics as anthropology and art history, both the various sections and the books within them were arranged according to their ability to engage with the books on either side of them. A line of speculation opening in one volume was attested to or attacked, continued or contradicted, refined or refuted in its neighbor. Each book was to answer or ask a question of the one next to it.” Warburg’s system — though inspired — was a nightmare to negotiate, and alienated many of his visitors until Saxl imposed a cataloging system of his own.
A romantic might read the tale above and extrapolate that I mean Warburg to stand in for Schimmel, but in reality, Schimmel has more in common with Saxl: known for shows that offered “critical, scholarly investigation[s] of contempoary art,” Schimmel helped provide context to contemporary art, arguing for its relevancy and providing the inroads that allowed visitors to make intellectual (and emotional) connections to the artwork on display. In these ways, curators like Schimmel are the true antidotes to the stubborn insularity of American popular culture. While I agree with Eli Broad’s desire to see a financially stable MOCA, he should be just as concerned with the museum’s potential to churn out less challenging exhibitions based solely on spectacle or supposed confluence with mainstream culture — while it might draw higher numbers at first, this kind of curatorial plan could also backfire, leaving the public even more disinterested in contemporary art than they are already. We haven’t run the piece on what museums are for yet, but based on past experience, I predict the sound of crickets from our phones.