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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About Museum Design and Self-Promotion

November 17, 2010

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About Museum Design and Self-Promotion

In his weekly column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to artcritic@nymag.com.

Dear Jerry,

Last week you wrote about how you love getting to the Met’s permanent collection right after you walk in the front door. (So do I.) You alluded to other New York museums that don’t work so well. What about them?

—Kent Conaway

Dear Kent,

New York being what it is, our museums are vertical, not horizontal. That means the stumbling blocks to architectural clarity are unavoidable — but certainly surmountable. I have to admit that I was being circumspect about other New York museums because one of them is just so bad.

Let’s take the big institutions one at a time, from north to south. Even if you don’t like seeing art at the Guggenheim, you have to admit that it’s breathtaking to walk into Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical interior tornado. The instant you enter, the space corkscrews, contorts, zooms away, gets bigger than it looked from the outside, evokes nostalgia and failed utopias. Strictly speaking, however, the Guggenheim isn’t primarily a museum with a permanent collection. It’s more of a Kunsthalle for rotating exhibitions. The former director, Thomas Krens, spent much of the past two decades developing branches rather than creating a guiding vision, and it hurt the institution. However, he had one strong suit: If Genghis Krens said something should be done, it got done, no matter how craven and confused. The new director, Richard Armstrong, might want to take this one page from Krens’s evil playbook and make more bold decisions. (At the moment, the Guggenheim is in the same position as the Mets: once great. Will the board do what the Mets did, and give their new general manager total dictatorial powers?)

We’ll skip the Whitney for now, because it’s in flux. The new downtown building is still somewhat mysterious, and if it’s designed even half-right, the Whitney could easily up being the art world’s favorite museum. Fingers crossed.

Which brings us to the museum I didn’t want to mention last week: MoMA! Oh, MoMA! Our MoMA! I love you. We love you. MoMA is our Garden of Eden, the place we all come from and must to return to, to commune with our ancestors. And it’s infuriating when we do. Setting aside the major issue that there’s not enough space in the new building for the permanent collection of painting and sculpture: To get to said collection, you enter into a lobby that’s so institutional and nondescript you could be anywhere. It’s a block-long squished corridor filled with people and TV monitors, like a high-tech subway station. You line up, shell out twenty bucks (!), and wait in line to check your coat. After passing the ticket takers, you go up some stairs, then up some more stairs. You turn a corner, come upon a bank of mall-like escalators sequestered in a darkened busy corridor. The place is jammed with people going in every direction, elbowing their way through crowds. The experience is like changing classes at school. And you’re nowhere near the permanent collection. There’s not even a vague vibration of where it is.

From here you go back and forth up the escalators until reaching the fifth floor. You get off, turn a corner, go through a narrow hall, over a narrower walkway that looks down at the boxy atrium below, then pass a restaurant where there’s usually a line snaking around another corner. Welcome to the entrance! Once you’re inside, the conditions are so crowded and cramped that … well, good luck.

Dear Jerry,

I’m an art dealer. Last week you freaked out about a hundred of us when you wrote about not wanting us to talk to you about the art in our galleries. Should we keep our distance? Not talk to you at all? You seem pretty talkative to us.

—OneOf100s

Dear OneOf100s,

I got a lot of e-mails from irked art dealers on this one, so let me explain. I never said dealers shouldn’t talk to me. I’d be crushed if they didn’t. I wrote “I love dealers. Art dealers are my favorite people in the art world,” and added that the one thing I don’t want dealers to do is guide me through their shows, pitching me. When they do this, it destroys the experience. After I finish looking at a gallery show, I love chatting about exhibitions we’ve seen, news, gossip, Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch’s latest zany idea, and how annoying curators can be. Yes, the dealer-critic relationship is tricky, and I know that many critics want to be told by dealers and artists what the work is about. I’m not one of them. I like to look on my own.

Dealers, please don’t stop talking! Your galleries are special to me: They are wormholes, time machines, matter transporters, gardens of delight, shtetls, hellholes, mediocrities, meritocracies, Dixieland tunes, places to get to the bottom of things, voting booths, fun fairs, tranquilizer bullets, big trees, missing links, states of grace, secular temples, travel bureaus, shallow ends of the pool, deep ends of the ocean, shelters from the storm, nails in your back, stones in your shoe, vicious circles, and burning rings of fire.

Read more at: Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About Museum Design and Self-Promotion

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