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Summer 2001

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Museum musings

     In a time of blockbuster art exhibitions and record-breaking museum attendance, a conference titled “Is this an Age of the Museum?” drew more than 200 participants to the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in April.

Writer Denis Wood debates the culture and role of museums at the Tang- and Salmagundi-sponsored forum.

     From artists to critics to curators, they proved to be an outspoken lot. (“Museums are theme parks of pretensions,” one participant fumed.) “The museum lately has become a contested site,” says conference co-organizer Robert Boyers, Tisch Professor of Arts and Letters and editor of Salmagundi, the journal that cosponsored the conference with the Tang.

     The event brought a dozen guest speakers, including Arthur Danto, art critic of The Nation; David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and novelist and essayist Susan Sontag. Also present were Tang staffers, artists from the museum’s mapping exhibition, and Skidmore faculty.

     Debate swirled around such questions as how museums reflect culture and define ideas like beauty and originality; how museums have changed over the past century; and what museums are and should become. Once dedicated to the preservation and connoisseurship of high art, many museums lately are being lambasted as entertainment-oriented and conceptually driven. Museum-goers who seek what Boyers calls a “transformative experience associated with the term ‘masterpiece’ ” find that popular shows draw crowds too large for lingering in front of any one work; such blockbusters may promote “a visual restlessness, a lower quality of attention,” as Harvard professor Philip Fisher charged.

     No matter, insisted novelist and art-lover Sontag: however it’s seen, shown, or experienced, “it’s amazing how much art touches people.” —BAM


© 2001 Skidmore College