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e-flux conversations

Museums and Universities


Having been educated in Latin America in the fifties, I was subject to two apparently contradictory premises. On the one hand, art was thought of as a weapon for social improvement. On the other, art was seen as the territory for individual freedom. Looking back at the past half century, it seems that my generation’s main task was probably to bring together both premises in one continuum. One way of doing so was to follow the process of institutional critique that had started in the university reforms in Cordoba, Argentina in 1918. The other was to think in terms of the distribution of power and the ownership of order. This second perspective in particular made it possible for us to see art as the territory where one explores alternative systems of order that enable critical questioning of the status quo, thus offering a glimpse of this sought-after continuum. Unexpectedly, I became very aware of all this during the controversy around the threat to close Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in January 2009.

Some questions immediately come to mind: What educational role does a university museum really play? What is the loss and what are its implications for the students if such a museum is closed? These questions were followed by potentially unappealing recognitions, such as the acknowledgement that if, for budget reasons, I had to choose between cutting a medical program or an art program, I would cut the latter. The thing is, I wouldn’t cut art over medicine because I believe that art is less important. I would cut it because, given the way art is placed in the educational system, the choice posed here is one pertaining crafts rather than substance. As substance, artistic thinking is more important than medical thinking, since art may inform and contribute to the latter, while the opposite is less likely. However, as crafts go, a surgeon is more important for society than a painter is. So, for a real answer about the elimination of an art museum from a university one would have to qualify the question in terms of what kind of museum we are talking about, and actually also what kind of university.

University art museums have a rather murky role in that they are closer to independent art museums than to universities. In fact, they tend to equate real life with the museum environment, since, educationally speaking, they are its corresponding labs. Rarely is the university art museum used to enhance what is taught in other disciplines in the university. Most educational programs in art museums (whether affiliated with a university or not) are conceived as appendices to exhibitions and organized in the rarefied spheres of scholarship and blockbusting, mostly with the intention of assisting the latter. The entrance of the public has a marked priority over their exit. Oddly enough, this commonplace problem for independent art museums carries on to university art museums. The educational component is defined by the way more curators are formed and by the refinement of the public’s appreciation of art, not by a more complex analysis of the possible purposes of education.

At best, the function of a university art museum can be translated as forming better salespeople and better-informed customers, with a prime concern for the maintenance and development of its own collections, added to the forming of personnel for the collections of others.

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