‘It’s Pretty Dead-On’: Curator Laura Raicovich on a 1954 Article About the State of Western Museums
Today, critics of museums’ values point to histories of colonialism and structural racism. Museums, they insist, are anything but neutral. In an essay titled “The Ideal Museum” in the January 1954 issue of ARTnews, British art historian Kenneth Clark considered the hidden politics behind Western institutions, exploring the ways that millennia-old collecting habits among the wealthy influenced how museums were run. ARTnews asked for a response to the essay from Laura Raicovich, the former director of institutions including New York’s Queens Museum and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art and the author of the forthcoming book Culture Strike: Art in an Age of Protest. Raicovich’s first reaction to Clark’s analysis: “It’s pretty dead-on.”
The splendor of the great princely collections [forerunners of modern museums] was … inseparable from an element of snobbishness. Like everything connected with princes and millionaires, they were sometimes no more than a buttress to vanity, and so they became swollen and sycophantic.
He’s acknowledging these standards of tastes as being highly idiosyncratic and not necessarily based in scholarship. He’s questioning the form of expertise, and that’s something I think is incredibly contemporary, in the sense that we need to be questioning the neutrality of the museum, in part because societal conditions are creating the desire to change. [Certain politics] are embedded in the structure of the museum, and undoing them requires acknowledging that they exist there.
[Read Kenneth Clark’s 1954 essay “The Ideal Museum.”]
[Architect William] Lethaby’s famous statement that “a great building must not be one man thick, but many men thick,” applies to a great gallery.
The great director, or the great curator, is exalted, and though there are many people who do day-to-day stuff, the people who are running the vision and making big decisions [receive praise]. It’s the great individual mind—usually male, usually white, usually well-educated—enacting some great form of visionary act. The reality is: museums are profoundly collective enterprises. What if we really imagined them that way?
The fact is that works of art are like wealth; they move about from one part of the world to another, and at first it seems very shocking; but after they have been in possession of one place or person for long enough, the situation becomes respectable, and people are scandalized when they move again.
I am generally of the opinion that changing things is good because we need to be thinking in new ways all the time. While I have certain favorite things I love to visit [in museums] and will be heartbroken if I can’t visit those, ultimately I’ll find something else to enjoy. It’s something I respect about what the Museum of Modern Art is doing to reinstall its collection. It’s trying to reimagine what change is and what storytelling can do for artworks that were excluded. If there is a desire for greater participation from a larger swath of the public, we have to address inequities and biases.