Cooperate -- or Die?

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.

If institutions alone, however, can't drag us all to the Promised Land, the answer isn't simply to divvy up the turf. For the average American has begun to disrespect art -- or have we always regarded art as a social trophy rather than as integral to a pleasurable life? Why else does art fare so poorly in our public school curriculum, and why is our federal appropriation for the arts the lowest in the developed world?

Speaking in a debate last year about the death of the museum audience, Whitney Museum of Art director David Ross waved farewell to his own job, allowing how the museum might very well disappear, just another road kill on the data highway. Indeed, the state of things seems ripe with tragedies, ironies and oddities. How, pray tell, does culture locate itself in the visual arts? Indeed, the nation's overall mood seems dazed and confused, so it's not surprising that the climate for art, even the whole art system, is suffering from economic and emotional malaise. Over the past few years, a fascination with the pathetic, with the abject, has cut across American culture. From high theory in the academy to TV talk shows, a celebration of trauma seems to rule the day. An aesthetic of the victim -- an ethic of the down and out -- has similarly emerged in contemporary art.

Most people, I think, would agree it's a little difficult to focus. Just about everyone is grappling with the question of where we are right now. Nobody can really come up with an answer. No wonder our own institutions have opted for a unified front, a safety-in-numbers strategy that leaves no one set adrift. Those who sense a sea change in Houston is under way can point to the changing roles of our museums -- both subtle and operative measures -- that seemed to commence in the early fall.

In danger of losing its art public after months of dry, insular exhibitions, CAM trustees last year convinced the affable Marti Mayo to leave her position as director of the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery and assume the task of providing -- with limited resources -- broadly based and speedy access to CAM. One of Mayo's first steps was to fling wide the CAM's gates by presenting the shamelessly appealing "Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal," the first major exhibition to examine the impact of these two quintessentially American figures on art and culture.

Not only are Houston audiences able to see work by more than 100 important international, national and regional artists, but they've been entertained by a flurry of connected programs, which began with a derring-do act designed to reel in the public hook, line and sinker: members of the E-Team from Memphis -- three white-suited Elvis look-alikes and one voluptuous Marilyn -- last Saturday parachuted into Rice Stadium.

Meanwhile, at the MFA rumors persist that director Peter Marzio is being courted for posts in major museums throughout the country, even as he works steadily to strengthen the museum's magazine format with shows that present a broad expanse of art from all continents and major civilizations throughout the centuries.

In Marzio's view, people need art, and it's his job to provide them a variety. In an attempt to help the public look upon the MFA as a reliable source of outreach, Marzio has been consistently pulling together and rotating areas of the museum's vast permanent collection. It's no secret that Marzio regards that collection, most of which remains in storage, as the driving force in a multimillion-dollar building campaign. To be sure, Marzio's urge to grow fits neatly into his vision of the MFA as a museum of world art. But he also knows that the increasing size of contemporary artworks and demands of donors to have their gifts on display require more and more exhibition space.

Access. Service. Engagement. Information. Cooperation. Chatting up such buzz words is all part of Houston's growth process. But it's more than coincidence when all three of our major art institutions implement them into long-term plans. In December, just a few months away from opening the Renzo Piano-designed Cy Twombly Gallery, the Menil Collection rocked the art community by announcing staff layoffs, a budget reduction and increased fundraising efforts to avoid a projected deficit.

Susan Barnes, appointed as the Menil's chief operating officer, has the task of diversifying the museum's base of support to insure a sound financial future. Although the Menil layoffs and restructuring was devastating to the tightly knit and dedicated staff, the fiscal realities demanded that the Menil take a hard look at the organization to remain strong for future generations. For while the Menil has nurtured an almost spiritual philosophy in stimulating audiences, it's also stood for conviction and a steadfast belief in the power of communing with a work of art.

How is that accomplished? Menil director Paul Winkler maintains the exchange occurs through intimate engagement and resolute permanency, such as that invoked by the Rothko Chapel and now the Cy Twombly Gallery. To ensure those aspects can be received by anyone who seeks them out, Winkler knows that the Menil must reach a wider public and get them to participate not only in the Menil "communion," but as funding resources as well.

All of this, of course, is being played out at a time when many people don't want a single penny given to the arts, the most obvious example being the recent call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which for some 30 years has been a brilliant and often controversial success. Locally, the abolishment or a severe reduction of the NEA could greatly impact our institutions. CAM received important NEA support for its Dennis Adams exhibit last fall as well as it's upcoming Art Guys: Think Twice. And the MFA's Marzio said recently that in addition to a $200,500 grant that's included in his museum's $18 million budget, the NEA supplied two grants that saved the MFA hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance costs.

Still, would abolishing the NEA inevitably add momentum to a downward spiral in art support? The three directors have somewhat different views on this issue. "I think the NEA issue is important short term, but I don't think it's significant long term," says Marzio. Instead, he insists, the real issue is what happens to the tax code, because "that's where the significant money is located. And people aren't talking about that yet. If there's a failure in the dialectic that's going on, it's in looking hard at the tax code and its ability or inability to encourage philanthropy." During the Reagan administration, Marzio says, philanthropy was actively discouraged; the trick now is to redesign the tax code to encourage philanthropy. But as for the NEA, he's sanguine. "Sure, there might be a little hiccup in the system anytime there's a change," he says, "but I'm just not that discouraged."

Marzio may have a point. But perhaps what he's really asking is, if the NEA is a lost cause, then why are arts advocates all barking up the wrong tree? At the Menil -- which the NEA hasn't played a large part in funding, though it has helped make sure that certain exhibitions were realized and catalogs published -- director Winkler also wonders if the focus on the NEA is advisable. "It's such a minimal amount of funding -- not like France or England, where an extraordinary half-billion is given to the arts and the cultural life of a country," he says. "Maybe if it always has to come up against these ridiculous fights, then there has to be some more creative thinking of how to get even better funding in a sense. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by always having to come up against these same stupid arguments?"

CAM's Mayo, however, feels that the idea that the private sector will take up the slack is erroneous. "The private foundations and dedicated supporters are stretched to the limit," she says. "It will be harder. It won't be good for anybody, but it's not the end. We've made a huge mistake in emphasizing what the NEA means to us. What we really need to be thinking about is what the NEA means to the people. And, in fact, I think there is a political pall over adventure of any kind -- whether in the literary arts or the visual arts. People are unsure, in general, what's next in life and it's more difficult for them to buy into a future which seems so uncertain. But I've never known a real artist who stopped making art because there wasn't an audience in sympathy with it that minute or because there was not financial support for that work. I'm not expecting bleak times ahead. I'm a big proponent of the idea that a rising tide takes all ships. If we all do great work, we'll all get better support."

Perhaps partnerships, then, are the only way to survive in the next century. The overriding theme among the three directors seems to be, "We're all in this together, so let's make the best of it among ourselves." But missing in the NEA debate is the higher value issue. If we lose the NEA, we also lose the symbolism of the federal government buying into the cultural life of its people. Sure, art will survive. But what will this country have to offer the world -- Pop culture? Talk show TV? Baywatch? Museums aren't always tasteful affairs, but it seems to me that the most vital ones present tastes you can argue with while aspiring to do something besides affirm the fashions of the art majority.

Do we expect too much from these art institutions? Far from the wildcat organizations we once knew, our museums often function like echo chambers rather than laboratories that give rise to distinct voices. Institutions frequently slip into thinking of themselves as the principal providers of culture, but they're not; individual artists are. And a truly meaningful engagement, one that merits being described as an authentically lively cultural life, can only occur from the bottom up. From the artists, not the institutions.

Still, for some reason we expect our museums to be leaders of the vanguard. And there's really nothing wrong with the spirit of cooperation, inasmuch as our museums are doing what they're supposed to be doing -- keeping their institutions afloat. But in the end, will Houston become a city of originators or receivers? So far, the upcoming John Biggers exhibition is one of the few MFA organized shows slated to travel. And while it'll play big -- vital and exciting, with distinct connections to our community -- it's a show that should have been done years ago.

Times have changed in Houston and we seem to be smack in the middle of yet another phase of maturation. Still, by taking less risks and by becoming more cooperative, do the institutions place more pressure on artists, alternative spaces and free-thinking galleries to distinguish themselves? Do we need to be reminded that artists have always worked against a unified institutional front? In their bid to reach out to a larger community, will the museums become increasingly wary of the art of the moment?

An art scene is a complex ecology. Artists and their work stand at its center, around which revolves a system of collectors, dealers, museums, foundations, critics and audiences. But the art itself, which can help us cope, can also help us understand one another.

At issue, then, is the tentative and contentious way in which serious visual art always grips and moves the world. Keeping a proper perspective on the whole affair, of course, means training your eye squarely on the old artball. At the same time, however, you just might witness the closing of one chapter in Houston's art community and the opening of another.


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