An aspirational goal for teaching (more music)

Andy Narell frequently plays and teaches with young people. Here he is visiting with the UNT steel band, playing with their admirable jazz ensemble. Everyone here is making music at a high level, but compare the affect-expressions, body language, everything-of the kids on the left side of the screen (who are actually wearing uniforms, symbols of identity suppression and servility) with those on the right (who are not). Which would you like your students to display?

How do we make this happen in, say, a statistics class?

Museum outreach and accueil

Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome.  They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.

One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant. Continue reading “Museum outreach and accueil”

The art bubble

A David Hockney painting has sold for $90m , and it couldn’t happen* to a nicer guy. Actually I have no idea whether Hockney is nice, but he’s certainly an endlessly interesting, provocative artist with whose work I never tire of engaging.

*In fact it didn’t happen to him: I think he’s doing OK, but this sale was by a speculator/collector and it didn’t put this awesome sum into the artist’s pocket.

What, though, does this event mean? Philip Kennicott reflects on the event in WaPo. He explores two questions, one right and interesting (how can a painting be worth so much money?) and the other partly wrong (is it right to spend so much on a painting when there are homeless and all the other real needs?). Continue reading “The art bubble”

Museums behaving badly

I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures.  I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.

The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly  because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible.  This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.

A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept.   You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:

This is the entire label we were offered:

Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In  the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.

Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.

Nature imitating art

It always does; never perfectly but well enough to teach us something.  At the end of The Lord of the Rings (the book, but not the movie), the evil wizard Saruman and his nasty, slinking sidekick Wormtongue Cohen arrive in the hobbits’ peaceable shire and spread ruin, fear, and mistrust. Along the way they cut down trees, destroying nature, and try to make an industrial wasteland out of it.  Eventually they are overcome, and in a final squabble resulting from Saruman disrespecting Wormtongue and betraying him to the hobbits, Wormtongue kills Saruman.

For some reason I am remembering this episode lately.


Putting museum collections to work

Art museums keep almost all their art in storage and out of view, and then pretend they don’t have it, while charging an arm and a leg to get in to see what they actually show. Tim Schneider, whose weekly column on the business of art in ArtNet is worth following, joins the deaccession debate that has now linked two current controversies: the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to demand out-of-town visitors to pay the full $25 to get in, and the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell most of its collection to start on a substantially changed mission.

Schneider reports a commonly quoted 10% of major museum collections as being on view, but it’s worse than that: a decade ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts it was about 5%,  and at the Met more like 1%.  To be fair, these are object counts, and the artistic (and money) value of what is shown is a much higher fraction of the total, but there is still a Golconda of treasure that isn’t on view and will never be. An important enabler of the rampant misallocation of so much of the world’s plastic arts patrimony into storage vaults is museum accounting rules that permits them to leave the entire collection off the balance sheet, effectively pretending it just isn’t there and in particular, isn’t available to fund programs (and physical expansion) that could put more art in front of more eyes; Schneider admirably concludes “let’s at least seriously consider [emphasis added] how billions of dollars in stored art might be able to help solve some of the crises afflicting art museums around the world.” Indeed.

Glenn Lowry FTW

The top guy at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, than which there is no whicher in the museum world, has come out for managing museums’  multi-billion-dollar art collections as productive assets.  He wants more engagement, in more places, than their current practice of having almost all the art (i) in storage (ii) in the museum the works were first given to.

…one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming [emphasis added]….It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage….we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that [wealth] to…support public programs, exhibitions, publications.

I argued a couple of years ago that art museum managers had nailed their feet to the floor by a code of “ethics” that forbade selling for anything except buying more art, and an inexplicable practice of not telling us what their collections are worth while they beg for donations. Lowry is moving in the right direction and will make real waves among his peers.

Why does art stupefy otherwise smart people?

What is is about art, that when smart, tough-minded people get near it, their brains turn to mush? I’ve worked in a museum and universities, and studied the former professionally: while management of the latter is often very feckless and lax, museums take the cake. Most recently, but not exceptionally, a board of trustees starring the business élite of New York City has managed to let the Metropolitan Museum of Art go seriously into the financial toilet, despite having assets worth at least $100 billion.

Today we have a lawyer, apparently capable of actual research and inference from evidence and writing literate English, proposing that artists should have a full value deduction for the untaxed value of gifts of their own work, something we fixed fifty years ago.  He managed to get that truly loony and regressive idea (like all deductions, this one is only valuable for successful artists who are already rich) past the editorial page editors of the New York Times. I can see them now, looking at this piece of copy and going all gooey-eyed and misty…”Art! Awww…we love art! Let’s print it!”

OK, Mr. Rips and NYT tough-minded skeptical journalists, how’s this idea?

Janet Napolitano

President, University of California

Dear President Napolitano:

Because of my great love and affection for the University of California, I propose to give half my working hours to Cal as pro bono work, and only take a salary for the other half. Now, I will need you to double my salary rate for the half time I’m on the clock, but this won’t cost you anything. What it will do is enable me to deduct my unpaid time against my new salary under the new rules, which will leave me with no taxable income at all: we can stiff the taxpayers for my whole tax bill! Naturally, I’m happy to give you a cut of this windfall, shall we say 20%: you make money, I make money, the students still get their courses…who could object to this?

I might add, doctors in our hospitals can really clean up this way; in fact anyone who works for a nonprofit or a government agency is looking at a historic opportunity to rip off the taxpaying public, and surely we’re as lovable and deserving as artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and knowledge and health are as important as art.

Do we have a deal?

Very truly yours,

Michael O’Hare

[my coauthors and I get well into the weeds of this foolishness in Patrons Despite Themselves: Taxpayers and Arts Policy, if you want to follow up. Sheesh.]

The Arc de Triomf in Barcelona

An anti-militaristic arch.

Here it is in all its neo-mudéjar glory, the best money could buy for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.

Credit Wikimedia

Now wait a minute. A Catalan triumphal arch? Celebrating what victories? The whole shtick of Catalan nationalism, as of so many other varieties, is victimhood. We were betrayed, including by perfidious Albion in the form of the British Tory administration that negotiated the Peace of Utrecht in 1714 and let the Bourbons keep the Spanish throne, by every government in Madrid since then, and no doubt a whole list of local quislings. The last real triumph of Catalan arms was SFIK Jaime of Aragon’s annexation of Valencia in 1238.

In fact the Barcelona arch is entirely pacific. The friezes are so PC as to be nearly comic. This is “The Apotheosis of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce”, for which Antoni Vilanova was paid 1,530 pesetas.


The arch seems to say: look, never mind about the defeats, we have made a success in culture and the economy! Take that, you gun-nut Bourbons! It makes me feel better about Catalan nationalism, though I see no reason to take back my strictures on its extensive wishful thinking and bad faith about public expenditure.

Should we see the arch then as a clever piece of irony at the expense of the militarists? This is a much harder question, and calls for some digging. Continue reading “The Arc de Triomf in Barcelona”

Louder than a bomb

Is there a better way to try out my new 70-300mm lens than from the dark nosebleed seats at Louder than a Bomb 2017?

Spoiler alert: No there is not. There is also no better way to support this work than to donate here.

Veronica and I attended an event Thursday night at Chicago’s DuSable Museum. Performances at the boundary between hip-hop and traditional poetry poured out of these vibrant young people. These high school students had much to say about poverty, racism, sexual and community violence, the high school life of a heavy teenage girl, police misconduct, school underfunding, and much more.

Stephanie delivered “broken English” a loving tribute to her father, Mexican-born, who has worked so hard to support his four children: “In my father’s face, you do not see a criminal. You do not see a rapist. You do not see a drug dealer…. He might come from a different place, but he is right where he belongs. He is the best that Mexico has brought.”

Surprisingly, President Trump was not real popular with this group of Chicago young people. Stephanie reminds the President: “This land was never yours to begin with,” to cheers.


Anthony delivered a striking “Man-bot” meditation on masculinity and sexuality. “We are engineered for fake strength.” (Bonus badly-shot video below the fold…)

Continue reading “Louder than a bomb”