Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why is "World Class" so Classist?

This weekend, I heard a story on NPR that really rankled me. Jason Beaubien was reporting on the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, the gleaming new art museum built as a "gift to Mexico" by the world's richest man, Carlos Slim. The museum is free to all-comers and showcases pieces from Slim's extensive collection of European and Mexican art, including pieces by major international artists whose work is not easy to find in Latin America.

The news report, strangely, focused on the question of whether the Soumaya Museum is a rich man's indulgence or a truly "worthy" cultural institution. Slim's son-in-law designed the building. It's in a commercial district. And Slim's biggest offense? He could have bought better art. The news report heavily featured an art historian from Wellesley College, James Oles, who griped that the Museum shows art just because Slim owns it, not because it's any good. At one point, Oles said,
You know, he's one of the only people in the world who could actually afford great, great art at the cost of great art. I will tell you there are many works of art hanging in the Soumaya Museum that I could afford on my professorial salary.
At this point, I was ready to throw the radio across the room. Instead, I listened patiently until the infuriating final sentence:
While the Soumaya Museum has drawn criticism from some in the art world, it's been extremely popular with ordinary Mexicans. Admission is free, and tens of thousands of people have flowed through the museum's doors in the weeks since it opened.
From my perspective, the radio piece pointed the finger in the wrong direction. Why slam Carlos Slim for putting up a monument to his dead wife that also provides Mexican people the opportunity to experience a diversity of world art for free? Why not, instead, indict the "art world" that slams an institution for failing to live up to its parsimonious standards?

Stories like these give the art world (and the museum world, by extension) a bad name. They unnecessarily pit "ordinary people" against experts. They reinforce a fallacy that "world class" institutions are those deemed to be so by a narrow, mostly monolithic group of critics. And worst of all, they might make some "ordinary people" feel inferior about enjoying art in a non-world class setting.

Whenever someone tells me he wants his museum to be seen as world class, I get nervous. In museumland, "world class" has come to mean that an institution is part of a very specific club with its own criteria and rules, most of which are entirely divorced from the needs of the local community. It's ironic that the term "world class"--which should embody an international panoply of forms of expression, presentation, and exploration of museum content--is instead used to hew to a singular vision of excellence.

I want to reclaim "world class" as a term that can celebrate the diverse ways that superlative cultural institutions serve their communities. The Ontario Science Centre is "world class" for its approach to welcoming visitors. The Wing Luke Museum is "world class" for its ability to be a meaningful meeting place for community issues. The Columbus Museum of Art is "world class" for its commitment to inviting visitors to engage with art with all their senses. And so on.

Let's not let art historians and aesthetes give our world class institutions a bad name. What makes a "world class" museum in your book?
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