Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sarasota Museum of Art Defines Itself

Sarasota High is being converted into the Sarasota Museum of Art
Despite being in the midst of moving madness, I couldn't resist a lecture about the new Sarasota Museum of Art entitled "Building a New Museum: Vision, Criteria and Strategy."  After all, how often do you get a peek inside what goes into creating a museum from the ground up? (The expression's not quite accurate, since the old Sarasota High is being renovated for the primary space, but I'm sure you get my drift.)

Executive Director and Chief Curator Anne-Marie Russell gave a high energy talk about the process. She posed a seemingly basic question: What is a contemporary art museum? But the answer is not so straightforward. Russell broke it down for us by parsing each of these words.

Alfred Barr "torpedo" model
In art history terms, "modernism" is essentially the period from 1850-1950.  That makes "contemporary" art everything from 1950 to the present. Russell talked about the role of the Museum of Modern Art in establishing a contemporary museum. The original intention of Alfred Barr, MOMA's founding director, was for the museum to exhibit only contemporary art. Barr envisioned MOMA as a torpedo, a 50 or 100 year arrow shooting through space, always moving forward and dropping off works that no longer fit the "contemporary" rubric.

But here's the rub: That model means the museum would have to de-accession works once they age out. What, then, should MOMA do with Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" once the cut-off date rolled around, be it 1940 or 1990?  (Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" in 1889.) Sell the painting off to fund truly contemporary work?

MOMA's solution was to affiliate with another established contemporary art museum--P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. MOMA PS1 now fulfills Barr's original intention of displaying cutting edge contemporary work, allowing MOMA the latitude to continue to show works like "Starry Night."

Matthew Barney
With this background, Russell brought this philosophy home to the mission of the Sarasota Museum of Art. On the curatorial side, the Museum's framework will be "Then/Now," with "Then" being 1950-2000 and "Now" being the 21st century. Her split slide on the concept featured a de Kooning under "Then" and a Matthew Barney image under "Now." 

Educationally, however, anything will be fair game for the Museum. "Always and forever!" will be the Museum's mantra, as its team goes about educating Sarasota art lovers about the foundations of contemporary art.

Next Russell was on to the question of what constitutes (quality) art. Like most most contemporary museums, the Sarasota Museum of Art will adopt the Bauhaus model, which encompasses all variety of media and disciplines. Russell noted that video and performance art will be included under this umbrella.

Christian Sampson Color Light Projection on display
As to who decides what art will be exhibited, the responsibility lies with the curators. Russell's background leaves no question as to her qualifications. Before turning to art history, she studied anthropology and thus prides herself on being able to take a "big world view." While at Christies' auction house, she designed an object-based master's program on connoisseurship. Instead of developing their ability to evaluate art based on reproductions, these students went on field trips to museum basements to study works not currently on display and to artist studios to learn about their art. So she's had an opportunity to delve in a unique way into the question of what distinguishes a great work of art from a merely good one. Russell also believes her experience as a teacher will help her define both the scope of an exhibit and what artwork will best advance the theme. (Teaser: The Museum's inaugural exhibit will be Color Theory + B/W, an accessible theme with countless educational avenues to explore.)

Finally, Russell arrived at the question what constitutes a museum. The American Alliance of Museums has a long definition that includes objectives like exhibition, conservation, research and education. The Sarasota Museum of Art is three years into the AAM's eight year accreditation process. (Note: The Museum is planning to open in late 2019, before accreditation is in place.)

But we all know more or less what a museum is. What was interesting was learning that the Museum will be a kunsthalle, or non-collecting museum. The reason for this choice is simple: money. Russell noted that the costs associated with maintaining a collection go well beyond the dollars required to purchase the art. You have to house that art permanently, whether on display or not, and develop a lending program. A massive endowment--beyond the Museum's initial reach--is required in order to operate a collecting museum properly. Russell optimistically said, "Maybe in 10 years we'll be there." For now, though, the Museum will bring in the artwork for its exhibits and bid the works a fond adieu at the end of the show.

Russell's talk was a fascinating look into just a sliver of what is happening behind the scenes as the Sarasota Museum of Art moves towards opening its doors.  I can't wait to learn more.


  1. Very informative, Nanette. I had actually wondered about MOMA and how they maintained a museum of "modern" art, so it was very interesting to read the answer to that question. Sounds like the Sarasota Museum will be a must-visit for our group when it opens and throughout its lifetime. (Diane)

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