Art Historians, Artists and Museums. The Mystery Explained
Edward Hopper, White River at Sharon
watercolor (courtesy Smithsonian American
This week I had lunch with Joann Moser who is the curator for work on paper at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. She took me to a little Burmese restaurant where I can heartily recommend menu item #35 (for the curious it's a ginger salad).
We talked for an hour an a half about artists and museums and of the exhibitions she's worked on. Right now she has up a wonderful survey show called Graphic Masters II which is drawn from the SAAM's collection (through Jan. 10th). The above Hopper watercolor is in her show. It's a large show of mostly modestly sized work on paper. There was a lot to like including a fabulous Grant Wood of well-worn tracks in the snow to an urban outhouse (so well drawn that it was both funny but also curiously touching). And she included some strong pieces from the abstract expressionist period, my favorite being a delicate looping ink wash drawing by DeKooning.
Of course in a show of any size there have to be choices any particular visitor will question - "why did she include this one?" Had I been charged with organizing this survey show, it would have ended up comically too focused on just my favorite handful of artists. It got me thinking about the difference between artists and art historians. Generally art historians have a much bigger say in running museums than artists. I've yet to meet the artist who's entirely comfortable with that. The word museum comes from the Latin that means "seat of the muses." (Hint to museum directors- this is why you should have lots of comfortable benches in your galleries).
Here's a true fable: Once upon a time the Muse appeared. She gave each artist a tiny seed and said "see if you can make this sprout, water it, and protect it from all the hungry animals. Let's see how great a tree you can grow." Naturally the artists wanted to please the Goddess of Art and and devoted themselves singlemindedly to tending their particular little sapling. So much so that they all grew tall with arching limbs laden with foliage. The only problem was, the trees grew into each other and all the artists grumbled that "their" tree wasn't getting the light and air it deserved. It got so bad you could barely inch your way through the thicket of green.
Seeing the problem she'd created, the Muse then took a bunch of art historians and whisked them into the middle of a dense and impenetrable part of the forest. She turned to them and slyly said "This is the forest of art. Let's see which of you can draw a map to guide people out of here."