Are art museums still relevant? What role do they play in today’s society? Why should we even care?
These were the questions I was faced with after applying to an internship a few weeks ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and only now am I really considering the answers. Although the application formed these questions in a much more elegant manner, the prompt basically asked me to explain what value art museums have in modern culture, and why even the most historical museums have maintained relevance today. Plenty of answers came to mind: They facilitate conversation and learning about artwork that continues to influence our present society, they allow us to remember and revisit cultural aspects of our past, and they unite pieces from all around the world, creating a sense of global connectivity. They’re perfect for a class field trip, a first date, or the everyday individual who feels that he or she needs to “get cultured.” In other words, yes-they are still relevant.
Recently, I came across an article in The New York Times about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), called “Its Art Elsewhere, a Museum Tries to Stay Relevant.” The museum, which closed down last summer for major renovations, does not anticipate reopening until 2016, which has several San Franciscans and west coast modern art lovers concerned. Can a museum stay closed for that long and still keep its members interested? Does it have a responsibility to open a temporary location? Is a museum even relevant without a physical space for it to occupy?
The questions that I considered on my internship application were actually being addressed in a real-life, contemporary issue. It’s not a surprise that the museum’s membership has decreased by half-after all, why be a member when you can’t even get through the doors? As for the second question, the museum’s director decided not to open temporary exhibits in other locations, since this would deplete the energy and funds that would be better suited toward the renovations.
The museum’s initiative, “SFMOMA on the Go,” reflects an attempt to maintain relevancy by partnering with other arts institutes and engaging in public art projects. This desire to increase visibility is more open-minded, and it redefines the meaning of the word “museum”-it’s not just a physical building, but also an artistic movement in itself. Museums represent an idea that can be shared beyond the physical space they inhabit, and the notion that a museum can be “on the go” suggests a flexibility and modernity that contrasts with traditional perceptions of museums as being pristine, immovable establishments.
The efforts of the SFMOMA are commendable-art, like other aspects of our culture, should be adaptable and should connect with its audience in the most immediate and engaging way possible. In addition, I think there’s something to be said for a museum that wants to maintain its integrity and avoid dividing itself among temporary spaces. The SFMOMA may be losing membership, but at least it’s taking a creative approach to keeping itself alive while the physical space is closed down. The museum sees value in having a space to call its own, and it doesn’t want to prolong the attainment of that space. By completely closing its doors for a few years, the museum has gained value through absence-sad, but true. The SFMOMA was the first museum on the west coast devoted to modern and contemporary art, and now that the space it once occupied is under construction, people of the Bay area are starting to lament the loss and realize what a museum really has to offer: an opportunity for exchange of ideas and celebration of culture.
The SFMOMA’s approach offers valuable lessons for artists and museum curators alike-from global art institutes to Boston College’s own exhibition spaces, being able to claim ownership of a space is essential and should be pursued with determination. In the mean time, it’s all the more important to keep connecting with an audience, and to prove that museums, both in place and on the go, are still relevant.