Do We Need a Museum of Art Museum History?

There are art museums and there are history museums. But maybe there should be a new kind of museum— a Museum of Art Museum History.

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click to enlarge Memory Palace at the Contemporary Arts Center
Memory Palace at the Contemporary Arts Center

There are art museums and there are history museums.

But maybe there should be a new kind of museum — a Museum of Art Museum History.

The idea struck me while touring the Contemporary Arts Center’s current Memory Palace exhibition (it’s up through Feb. 22, 2015), which celebrates the institution’s 75th anniversary by using the event to examine how the process of remembering can be a creative act. It’s a pretty esoteric concept, although the art is often excellent.

But a section of the show is a straightforward presentation of select artifacts — correspondence, posters and more. The curator, Steven Matijcio, takes pains in accompanying wall text to postulate that this is more than a “conventional commemorative exhibition of archival materials,” but he’s really too defensive. This “conventional” presentation is fascinating, especially the correspondence related to events in the CAC’s history.

What’s here is just a small sample — and there may only be one or two examples from a particular strand of communication.

At my request, Matijcio has sent me additional letters to supply fuller strands for some of those communications. Here are a few examples:

Robert Christgau, long known as the Dean of American Rock Critics and still going strong at age 72, in 1968 wrote catalogue notes for the show Gordon, Lozano, Ryman, Stanley at the request of one of its participating artists, his friend Bob Stanley. He was not happy, to put it mildly, with what was printed. Here is a short, edited excerpt from his indignant letter to the CAC’s then-director William Albers Leonard:

“I worked hard — and not with complete success — to free what I wrote of [art-criticism] jargon and to give it an unorthodox, assertive, somewhat vulgar tone. Apparently, it was just this tone that bothered whoever butchered my piece.”

He goes on to say the CAC violated the agreement to print his essay as-is or not at all, and that the catalogue should be reprinted. Ultimately, Leonard agreed to stop distributing the existing catalogue, but not to reprint a corrected one.

(Reached via Twitter, Christgau said, “My recollection is I got higher on my horse than appropriate.”)

Taking a somewhat gentler tone with a request, back in 1959, was Jane Durrell (now a CityBeat arts writer) in seeking publicity for an upcoming Modigliani show. She wanted Kenneth Stuart, art editor at Saturday Evening Post, to feature a photograph about it.

And she had a fascinating angle. In the 40 years since Modigliani had painted the lovely “Woman in a Red Necklace,” his model had married a Cincinnatian and moved here from Paris. And unbeknownst to her, a Cincinnati collector now owned the painting. They were to be reunited at the show’s opening.

“She brought with her [to Cincinnati] a black-and-white photograph of the Modigliani portrait, and that photograph still hangs on her living room wall,” Durrell wrote. “A few miles across the city, the portrait itself hangs on someone else’s wall.”

The angle was too good for Stuart to resist, but it came to naught. The photo didn’t work. “I am afraid we fell flat on our face,” he wrote back. “…When you work with such mercurial subjects as people and lenses, everything has to jell at the same time.”

(Durrell says she was surprised to be included in the CAC exhibit.)

From the CAC’s eternally momentous 1990 exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment is a letter in advance of the opening to the museum’s board and friends from director Dennis Barrie, advising them of building tensions. He notes of cautionary efforts undertaken in advance, such as school tours of the CAC being canceled during the show.

I first started thinking about a Museum of Art Museum History — or something like it — when writing a 2007 story about a Cincinnati Art Museum painting by Gustave Courbet, “Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland.” It was on loan at the time. It was the first Courbet painting to enter a U.S. collection, back in 1887, because a liberal Ohio governor sympathized with Courbet’s radical politics. The French painter had backed the Paris Commune of 1871 and then served a jail term. (The historic painting is now on loan again, to a Swiss museum.)

I don’t want to see any art museum start to divert its precious gallery space toward display of such “ephemera” as correspondence, records of provenance, histories of patrons, posters of old shows, etc. But if there were a separate museum devoted to that, with changing exhibitions, I’d certainly buy a membership.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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