Glenn Lowry FTW

The top guy at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, than which there is no whicher in the museum world, has come out for managing museums’  multi-billion-dollar art collections as productive assets.  He wants more engagement, in more places, than their current practice of having almost all the art (i) in storage (ii) in the museum the works were first given to.

…one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming [emphasis added]….It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage….we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that [wealth] to…support public programs, exhibitions, publications.

I argued a couple of years ago that art museum managers had nailed their feet to the floor by a code of “ethics” that forbade selling for anything except buying more art, and an inexplicable practice of not telling us what their collections are worth while they beg for donations. Lowry is moving in the right direction and will make real waves among his peers.

Perspective again

The best I can do this Christmas is to repost this effort of mine from six years ago. The theme of moral perspective is even more necessary today. As Dickens’ great fable reminds us, there are Christmases past and future as well as present, some for the worse, many for the better. Hold on.


For Kenneth Clark, it was ¨the greatest small painting in the world¨. It’s certainly a masterpiece – and a puzzle. Why did the Umbrian master Piero della Francesca choose around 1450 to paint an overworked stock subject, the Flagellation of Christ, in this extraordinary way?
(Warning: large page below the jump) Continue reading “Perspective again”

Worthwhile Papal initiative

Cecilia Bartoli sings in the Sistine Chapel.

Last Friday, a woman sang in the Sistine Chapel. Not just any woman of course, but a star operatic mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli.

This falls a long way short of the message of Michelangelo’s powerful Sybils on the ceiling, or my suggestion that Pope Francis appoint some women cardinals. Canon Law (which has required them to be priests only since 1917) would have to be changed to allow this; but he’s an absolute monarch and can legislate what he likes. Call them coadjutors or cardinal deacons or something. Still, Ms. Bartoli is progress, and as Michelangelo knew, cultural symbols matter.

The favour went both ways. By report, the Sistine Chapel choir sank to an embarrassment in the 20th century, and were labeled the “Sistine screamers”. Ten years ago, a leading professional like Ms Bartoli would not have wanted to sing with such a poor group. The revival is not due to Francis but to his predecessor Benedict (Josef Ratzinger), a reactionary but with German standards. In 2010 he appointed a good choirmaster, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest; and, more important, widened the pool of eligibility by a factor of 10,000 from Italian priests (n ≈ 45,000) to male Catholics from any country, boys and adults, married or not (n ≈ 600,000,000). The invitation to Ms Bartoli is surely Francis’ work.

The choir, with Bartoli, have released a CD of Christmas music, some of it recently unearthed from the Vatican archives. This looks worth a try as a seasonal gift.

The profits go to the Pope’s personal charity. This looks to be a small scale operation, largely among the street people of Rome. You get the cutting-edge accountability of regulations adopted in 1409 by Alexander V. Alexander was a Pisan antipope, whose main contribution to the end of the Western Schism was dying conveniently soon, thus reducing the problem of multiple popes by a third. Relying on his paperwork is, in American terms, roughly equivalent to having the statutes of your college signed off by Jefferson Davis.

Still, if you are going to contribute to anybody’s slush fund, Pope Francis and his almoner Konrad Krajewski are a reasonable bet.

Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum in Dresden in 2001.

What $450 million might have bought

Someone paid just $450 million for a da Vinci painting. OK, in principle it’s an investment. But basically it’s dramatic  conspicuous consumption by some oligarch or mogul who could have done something fundamentally more worthy with this money.  That same $450 million could have covered the World Health Organization’s TB, malaria, and reproductive maternal, newborn, child and adolescent programs for an entire year.

The only bright spot is that the payment is a pure transfer. I hope the seller picks this up.
Continue reading “What $450 million might have bought”

“Paint me betraying no emotion”

George Wesley Bellows, “Waldo Pierce”
Fancy art museums are juicy targets for caricature and satire in every form. Nowhere more so than in San Francisco, a natural ground zero of any Tom Wolfe-style takedown. That’s too bad, because many of the same museums are wonderful places that get many things right.

San Francisco’s lovely de Young Museum did something right with a simple idea: Let’s ask kids to describe what they see in the art.

The above painting by George Wesley Bellows is titled: “Waldo Pierce.”
About it, Ben Erickson of Ohlone Elementary School is moved to write:
Paint me sitting
on a wooden bench
holding a cane
Paint me with a dull brown 
overcoat and a turquoise
Paint me with a yellow hand
resting on a wine red hat
Paint me betraying
No emotion

The painting below the fold, Robert Henri’s “Lady in Black with Spanish scarf,” might inspire a similar poem.  But Sara Romeyn of Sharp Park Elementary School chose to take things in a different direction…

Continue reading ““Paint me betraying no emotion””

Rebel Plinths

A proposal for Confederate statues: bring them down to street level.

You wouldn’t get a blog post about plinths anywhere else, would you?

Hear me out. Memorial statuary normally consists of (a) a statue and (b) a plinth. The plinth raises the statue above street level, making it more visible. It also triggers instinctive associations of height with power, dignity and respect. It works even better if you throw in a horse, as with Lee at Charlottesville and Peter the Great in St. Petersburg.

The problem with the Confederate memorials is that they make a racist statement that the Confederate rebellion should not just be remembered, but remembered with respect and admiration. The statement depends as much on the plinth as the statue itself.

So here is a suggestion for dealing with the statues of Confederate soldiers, mass-produced in Northern foundries, that dot hundreds of public spaces in the old Confederacy:

Bring them down to street level.

In the street, they become bronze fellow-citizens, and the gullibility and racism of the men they represent can become as much a part of the civic conversation as their bravery and sacrifice. If they are unpopular, they will be defaced. If they become objects of ridicule, they will sprout frat ties, silly hats and dildos. Them’s the breaks. Let’s see how it works out.

That leaves an empty plinth or two. Don’t spend a fortune taking them away. There’s an empty one in Trafalgar Square in London: it is used for temporary exhibition. Or you can hold a competition for a statue of something or somebody that everybody wants to honour. The Northern foundries will retool to supply as many versions of Martin Luther King as the South commissions.

Footnote for art wonks

There is one striking exception to the plinth norm. When Auguste Rodin cast the famous group of the Burghers of Calais, he lost a battle with the city fathers to install them at ground level. What Rodin wanted was to replace the usual historical distancing from a tragic and violent event with immediacy, shock and empathy. He was rightly confident that the quality of his work would still make the sculpture effective. There is little risk that the mediocre Confederate statuary will compensate in the same way for being brought down to earth. The Burghers have now been brought back down, and stand on a compromise mini-plinth.