Art in the Heartland, Traditional and Idiosyncratic

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (1884/86) by Georges Seurat (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
It’s worth leaving the Acela corridor to see museums in Chicago and Indianapolis, but skip the light show in the park.

America has a vibrant and richly varied visual-arts scene. While New York is without doubt the art world’s capital, it does not drive American museum culture. Paris, for instance, dominates the French museum system, if for no other reason than the fact that almost all museums in France are owned by the central government. Most European museums are government-owned, which means they’re sodden with bureaucracy.

Many museums in America beyond the Acela corridor are strong in regional art, but wealth in this country is broadly distributed, so dozens have internationally famous collections built by smart local people. Americans often look at their local museums as sources of intense city pride. Almost all are privately funded and run, too. This in itself fosters difference, idiosyncrasy, and daring.

I visited two big  museums in Midwest cities last week. Both have strong, encyclopedic collections, which means they both cover the ages and the continents, often in depth. Both have great buildings. They’re very different from each other, mostly because of choices that trustees, directors, and curators of each place have made over many years. In walking through the Art Institute of Chicago last week, I felt it was a museum confident in its identity. The collection is big, but its galleries are intimate and beautifully installed. There are showstoppers everywhere — Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is eternally splendid — but the place doesn’t feel overbearing or overcrowded. Some big museums are obsessed with crowds, splash, and dazzle. Clearly, the Art Institute values contemplation. It’s always a delight to see a grand permanent collection reign supreme.

I didn’t sense a rat race of empty, opportunistic blockbuster shows. I’ve written often about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which does very good shows but too many of them. For me, this is different from fiscal abandon, though the Met’s exhibition overload costs tons of money and is ultimately the source of its spending woes. Its shows compete against one another and undercut the museum’s permanent collection, arguably the world’s greatest. Many of these galleries at the Met are invariably empty. The Art Institute strikes the right balance. It does superb shows, but there’s enough oxygen for the collection to draw lots of visitors.

James Wood, its longtime director, and the trustees added a big modern-art wing a few years ago. It’s handsome and practical. I saw a great show there of new work by Dawoud Bey, an artist with a Chicago base but national renown. I loved a show of abstract painting by the German artist Tomma Abts. James Rondeau is now the Art Institute’s director. He was a curator of contemporary art there for years. He’s smart and balanced in his interests. Leadership makes a huge difference. The museum is doing a new strategic plan, which will probably mean a capital campaign.

The American wing superbly and subtly merges painting and decorative arts to convey a coherent, sumptuous story of national style. The museum has beautiful Whistlers, sensitively installed to show how pivotal he was to so many movements. The medieval galleries were reinstalled in 2017. This collection, mostly Spanish art, is historically significant. It came to Chicago at a time when few Americans collected Spanish things, especially Spanish art before the Renaissance. These galleries strike a good balance between presenting very striking art — Spanish art is always distinctive and quirky — and providing religious and chivalric context. The arms and armor collection is smashing.

I then went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) for the first time in years. When I was a curator, I found the museum a weird, insular place, not necessarily conservative but with little ambition or imagination, voids of which it seemed proud. I offered the museum a very good Whistler show years ago. In talking to the old-timer curator there, I felt I was communing with an extraterrestrial. The museum had an identity crisis about ten years ago, occasioned by a financial crunch and followed by a trustee mandate to create a new thing, possibly a monstrosity, called Newfields.

The 150-acre park is now marketed with the art museum as a total experience with a beer garden, light shows, beautiful gardens, and performances. The place is immersed in branding. There’s a visitor-services czar. Hefty admissions became a key source of revenue, as did big attendance. Would it become an amusement park? Or a mall? A museum romance with customers of the paying kind can slip into a rarified form of prostitution.

It’s been controversial. As the makeover unfolded, a critic wrote, “Where the Indianapolis Museum of Art strove to challenge its audience, Newfields pats their heads.” That was one of the kindest comments. Since I never thought much of the museum as a scholarly place, I don’t think anything was lost in the transition.

The museum looks wonderful, though. I’ll rough it to look at great art, but it’s nice to see beautiful objects in a setting where everything, from a visitor’s point of view, works smoothly. It’s a very comfortable place. The trustees made the decision to adjust the place’s mission to bring more people in, certainly, but also to use its unique qualities, among them multiple auditoriums, gardens, and historic homes. It’s becoming a performing-arts venue, which is not unique in America. That’s their prerogative, and they’ve stuck to it to the point that I’d like to see how it develops. It’s a virtue of the American museum world that experiments in one big museum can’t sink the entire system.

The Art Institute and the IMA use their permanent collections differently. Both are presented with elegance, but Indianapolis subordinates its wonderful collection to its gardens, house museums, and paid events. The art is there and looks good, but do the trustees care whether or not anyone looks at it? I don’t think they do, and that’s embarrassing. The museum has a collection of work by Turner, better than anything outside Britain, but it’s not well used. This doesn’t happen by accident.

The museum has a George Platt Lynes retrospective that was very good. Lynes was a gay photographer so focused on sex that Dr. Alfred Kinsey enlisted him in his landmark research. I’m sorry it didn’t have a scholarly catalogue. Homosexuality and male nudes in art are still edgy subjects beyond New York, New England, and California, so the show was something new and brave for the museum. It featured the big collection of Lynes’s work owned by the Kinsey Institute, based at Indiana University. It made sense for the museum to use this important locally held art, definitely a niche collection.

The Art Institute’s curators are similar to professors. They’re scholars and teachers. Their shows have made giant contributions to scholarship. The IMA has never tried this. Its future scholarly programs still look like a barren desert. I hope the Lynes show promises a pulse. Indianapolis is a high-spirited town. It’s a real place. Its museum can do so much more, without spending lots of money. My one suggestion is to aim high, not low. It’s a place for art, and art covers lots of territory. It isn’t Disney World on the prairie.

The director, Charles Venable, is a serious person. I admire perseverance and clear thinking, and he has both. The place is doing a campaign to raise money mostly for museum-focused projects such as endowing curators, which is good. I think over the years the museum vastly over-expanded and is still adjusting programmatically and financially. It’s doing things differently, and I hope it succeeds.


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