Quietly, without much notice or outcry, our art museums have morphed. Temporary, contemporary programming has gained a dominant upper hand, commandeering the preponderance of exhibition space and institutional resources. Historical programming is on the wane.
This shift in emphasis didn’t happen overnight or without cause. Strained budgets force museums to continually jockey programming to engineer the ‘right’ mix that will serve their diverse audiences and honour curatorial integrity, while driving attendance and a positive bottom line. Over time we have witnessed a pervasive drift — museums are abandoning the primacy of long-term installations and collections development in favour of temporary programming. By now it has evolved into mission creep. Some larger institutions, chameleon-like, embrace the territory previously the domain of the non-collecting, alternative artist-run centres: hosting projects sometimes exploratory, esoteric and transitory.
Many will cheer, believing that it is well overdue that museums champion challenging contemporary art and socially relevant current topics. Others, including myself, are taking note of the unintended collateral damage. The public collection and its permanent galleries, once the workhorse and mainstay of museum programming, have been slipping from prominent view. Too often, the gallery’s artistic treasures can only be encountered through a visit to the gift shop to peruse the collections’ guidebooks and postcard racks.
Few western Canadian public galleries currently employ full-time curators of historical art. The Winnipeg Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria are notable among the handful to consistently dedicate space to an inclusive storyline ‘representation’ of art history. The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) retains Emily Carr as an ever-constant presence, yet to the disproportionate exclusion of her western counterparts: Lawren Harris, F. H. Varley, B.C. Binning, E. J. Hughes. We no longer expect to encounter the art of Charles Scott, Walter Phillips, Illingworth Kerr, Marion Nicol or H. G. Glyde at institutions named in their honour, so best of luck searching out the work of the legions of artists who have made important contributions within the last 50 years. Previously, a museum acquisition was a career-defining milestone for an artist. Today, it can be the equivalent of receiving a life sentence — the near certainty that a seminal art work will, as consequence, disappear out of sight, consigned to the vault, retained for some prospective future use, yet with little chance of re-surfacing during the artist’s lifetime.
If museums can’t or won’t, then who will passionately advocate the value of an encounter with the objects of consequence from art’s history? Who will, with pride, meticulously build exemplary collections, ‘arks’ of knowledge, to steward subsequent generations of art enthusiasts along historical paths? Will responsibility for scholarly research fall de facto to commercial galleries and auction houses?
Galleries are purpose-built facilities, outfitted at considerable expense with sophisticated environmental and security systems to safeguard our collections for posterity. With increasing frequency, museums forego utilizing these specialized buildings to support the functions and capacities for which they were designed. Instead, they play host to a whole new class of artworks that pose entirely different physical demands (eg. the necessity to build entirely new black box rooms customized to match the specifications of each temporary multi-media work).
Problem is, if our museums don’t provide the superlative access we need to the public’s collections, then who else will they permit to provide this crucial service? Understandably, museums approve loans only to facilities capable of maintaining stringent museum-standard environments. But hey, we’ve already had to contend with the madcap plotline equivalent of the movie Freaky Friday: the Royal Ontario Museum presents the art of rising contemporary international superstar, El Anatsui, a sensation at the Venice Biennale; meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario headlined King Tut.
The Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery recently concluded significant expansion projects. I find no fault whatsoever with the excellent programming selected for their inaugural exhibitions. However, it speaks volumes that upon these auspicious occasions no space was set aside to herald their own institutional collections: neither historical nor contemporary.
As VAG lobbies for a new building, it is well to remember that the entirety of this particular shortfall won’t be rectified simply by enlarging museums. It comes down to priorities, institutional vision and choices, as the Barenaked Ladies remind:
If I had a million dollars...
We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner...
But we would eat Kraft Dinner...
Of course we would,
We’d just eat more!
We need both aspects: history plus contemporary, not either/or. The news is not all grim for enthusiasts of historical art. There is plenty to cheer about, highly notable among them: the exemplary William Perehudoff retrospective organized by the Mendel, the little gem of a show at Simon Fraser introducing Walter Tandy Murch, the 1970s conceptual art exhibition (organized by a consortium including AGA and VAG) and the forthcoming Walter Phillips project at AGA. So we don’t yet need villagers with torches to storm our museum bastions. Just drop them a note; history and collections matter.