Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tell Me You Love Me. Please. Pretty Please?

WHEN YOU GO TO PARIS, you visit the Louvre. You have to. It's an obligation like gazing at the Eiffel Tower or sitting in a French cafe. You just have to. In Madrid, you see the Prado. In London, you have to see the National Gallery.

In Philadelphia, the tourist obligations are less sophisticated - the only mandatory experience is that you eat a cheesesteak sandwich, complete with a gooey, cheese-like, orange substance.

Nonetheless, I usually take out-of-towners to the Liberty Bell and the Art Museum. Philadelphia has to be more than sports hooligans, bad schools, violent crime and political shenanigans. Please?

On my recent trip to the Art Museum, my Japanese guests remarked that the pride of our art world was like a small version of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. How cute!

I swallowed my pride. But it did raise questions, like, how do you define/ quantify a good museum? What makes one better than another? And, should a museum reflect the citizens' interests or should it present what the museum staff consider to be presentable art?

Stephen Weil's book, Making Museums Matter, addresses these questions and many more.

At first, I feared I wouldn't like Weil. He begins his collection of essays with a proposal for a museum score card of sorts. He establishes four criteria for museums (purpose, capability, effectiveness and efficiency) and assigns weight for each criteria - a rubric for the museum world.

As I believe that each museum is different, and to compare them is rather irrelevant, I disliked his rubric. But I understand his point - museums need to establish and constantly be aware of their mission. Then, they need to set goals to ensure that they live up to their mission. Museums, like people, need to be loved and appreciated. We need assessment tools to tell us we are good and relevant.

Weil seems far too interested in the business of museums for my taste. But again, I understand his point. There is a financial reality for these institutions, and competition for funding can be intense (especially given the current economic situation). A museum that can assess it's own worth - especially in comparison to other institutions, is going to fare better financially (assuming they score high).

That rubric won't necessarily prove the museum's worth, however. Some museums will recognize the proper criteria and design exhibits to satisfy those demands. They can artificially reach target numbers. It reminds me of No Child Left Behind requirements, or Temple's system for faculty earning merit raises. Play the game right and you get paid.

Ugh ... money matters just make me sad.

Anyway. Weil is an enjoyable, intelligent writer, though I didn't realize he was enjoying himself until I learned that Ferd Threstle is a fictional character.

I can't help but now think about whether the Philadelphia Museum of Art should change, grow, maybe take chances with art by lesser known, local artists. Maybe our museum is a little Met, and maybe we need something that more closely represents this city.

The problem is that if you let the people decide, will Rocky hold court in the grand staircase, and will galleries be dedicated to Cheez-Whiz collages?

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