Cooperate -- or Die?

Houston's major art museums map a road to partnership, and worry about survival

Get ready for the Greater Houston Partnership -- and I'm not talking about the
chamber of commerce. Never before has there been such a public display of camaraderie between our three major art institutions: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Menil Collection. For starters, CAM recently inaugurated a series of exhibitions that focus on the collections of Texas museums. Each will be curated by an arts professional who will choose significant works from his/her institution and supplement them with local loans. The kickoff show was organized by Alison de Lima Greene, curator of 20th-century art at the MFA, and includes several works from that collection.

"California Light" features nine paintings by Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, and Bischoff's evocative Interior with Two Figures -- owned by the MFA -- is being showcased as the seminal image of the CAM exhibition. Moreover, CAM asked Greene to write a catalog essay and lead gallery tours through the show. CAM has also begun discussions with the Menil Collection about a similar participation. Additionally, in conjunction with the opening of the Menil's new 9,300-square-foot Cy Twombly Gallery, the MFA is co-sponsoring the installation of Twombly's monumental (52 feet by 13 1/2 feet) painting Untitled (On Wings of Idleness) in Cullinan Hall from February 4 to 19. Heck, the MFA is even providing the transportation to view the Twombly installation in Cullinan during an upcoming media tour at the Menil.

It's not unusual for museums to loan a work for exhibition, or for its staff to participate in conferences and panel discussions. For the most part, however, institutions usually reflect the specific interest and expertise of their directors and curators. But now, it seems, those same institutions are reexamining their mandates, perhaps even accommodating their exhibition schedules to include their colleagues across the street and down the block.

So whatever happened to the "friendly" sparks of competition? What's going on? The operative phrase in this scenario is cooperation and partnership. As museums scramble to realize their missions in difficult financial times, they are increasingly aware that communication is more imperative than ever, because in the end, everyone's neck is on the line. While each museum has a different point of view, the goal is the same -- a community that sustains art and artists in a meaningful way. Like other large urban institutions, our museums are assuming a more aggressive role in engaging and serving a broad public.

The issue, we must acknowledge, is what it always is; the issue is access. How does a museum deliver art to the people? How does art become part of the fabric of daily life? How does an institution obtain access to finances? What about educational access? Creative access? There are plenty of reasons why museums should band together, economic vicissitudes of the day notwithstanding. For how a museum interprets art is at least as critical to establishing its profile as the kind of art it interprets.

The "how" gives the institution its character -- put simply, how it builds bridges from one audience to another. And museums are the most visible bridge between the circumscribed world of art and the generalized society. Museums hold the promise of transforming an art audience into an art public. They can be pivotal institutions in the production of social ideas. But even though an art audience and the art public both go to museums, they're not one and the same. An art audience seeks entertainment and diversion -- it's always prepared to move on to the next event. An art public, in contrast, is actively engaged and participates in the production of cultural meaning.

Yet the existence of a gregarious art audience is essential to a healthy art community. It's the pool from which an art public emerges. The bigger the art audience the better, because the greater the chances for a lively and contentious art public to break through. Think of it this way: a museum is engaged in "selling" itself to a wildly variegated public, and the product it "sells" is made by the staff (artists make the art, but directors and curators shape museums). And while a museum director's job cuts a far wider swath across society than it did a generation ago, a director's commitment to art is still a more crucial qualification than fundraising ability or business skills.

A good director has more than a general enthusiasm for art, more than a gut level empathy that's deep and unshakable. A good director also needs to possess the ability to make that passion infectious. Maintaining artistic passion and the skill to spread it around, however, are becoming increasingly difficult for a single individual. More and more, directors are being pressured to have their institutions sport a public face that meshes with and gives shape to the distinctive dynamic of the community in which it resides.

Over the last two decades, the art audience in Houston has grown steadily, as has the art public. Even so, I wouldn't say that the art public here has reached critical mass. And among relevant agencies of local government, art is not often enough the focus of attention. Indeed, culturally engaging the civic life of Houston is a pretty tall order. For our directors, access now means finding a convincing, coherent, imaginative focus for their institutions -- that is, an invigorating image wholly integral to the multiple voices of Houston, one that is both local in its commitments and international in its appetites.

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