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museums for a self-interested millenium

Post #110 • September 19, 2003, 4:47 AM

I just received the press release for “Museums for a New Millenium: Concepts, Projects, Buildings.” The headline of the press release is “Miami Art Museum Sets the Pace for Expansion with Museum Architecture Show.” Here’s an excerpt:

Contemporary art museums are not only among the most important and noteworthy building tasks in the public domain, they also frequently act as catalysts for redevelopment in the communities that build them. Museums thus become effective tools with which cities project a definite profile when competing for new investments and tourist dollars. “This show provides MAM with a wonderful source of inspiration for our own vision of Miami’s future,” said MAM Director, Suzanne Delehanty. “In addition to the beauty of its form, the museum of the 21st century must function as much more than a repository for art. It also plays key roles in the community; as civic institution, educational resource, economic engine, and more.”

Despite the next-to\\-last sentence, it is otherwise clear that the purpose of this show is to propagandize the value of an expanded MAM. There’s something to be said for candor, even if it’s galling.

But this is having the reverse effect on me. I used to think that the expansion effort was flawed. Now I think it’s wrong. Not only should MAM not be expanded, but any new museum ought to be built with private money on private property and someone besides Delehanty ought to direct it. Bayfront Park should be made into a classical Chinese garden.

“Museums” is going to be MAM’s show for Basel. A knockout art exhibition, something that people would have reminisced about, would have best promoted Miami’s standing in the world’s art community. There’s pressure to do so, because after December 2004, Art Basel might decide to trade us in for a younger, cuter city, and we ought to make a case for our staying power. Instead, we’re going to get this gigantic sales pitch from a museum whose exhibitions never travel outside the provincial safety of its own walls.

At one point I was willing to believe that the museological evolution from the Center for the Fine Arts to the Miami Art Museum to the Miami Art Museum on Steroids was natural and desirable, and that hinderances to this evolution were being generated by misinformed parties. I now think that MAMOS is a twinkle in the eye of a director whose ambitions outstripped the mandate of her original institution, and the problems the institution is encountering are self-inflicted.

I was still at RISD when the CFA became MAM. In order to be a museum, you need a collection, and I remember Delehanty praising some of the new acquisitions, during which she proclaimed Jose Bedia to be the most important living artist in America. (De Kooning was still alive at the time.) I called up a couple of friends from school to ask if any of them had ever heard of Bedia. None had, of course, and I learned an important lesson for dealing with the art world: keep your shovel handy at all times.

MAM has always had trouble articulating why it needs a new space (with occasionally amusing results; see the last paragraph of this.) I used to chalk it up to the same kind of diplomatic tone-deafness we see in our current president. I now think it was trying to talk around the simple truth, which is apparent by replacing the royal “our” with the standard “my” in the press release:

“This show provides MAM with a wonderful source of inspiration for my own vision of Miami’s future.”

Delehanty wants this museum for herself. Not for art, not for the art community, not for the art-viewing public – for her. But that sounds bad, and there’s no concept in circulation downtown that the art is good to have around for its own sake, so the justifications involving tourist dollars and education resources and whatnot have to get trotted out. But it’s all just more load on the shovel. Miami deserves better than this.

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