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Thursday 04.23.09

« On Museums and Users | Main | mp5+pmmnls »

Portland and Place

My second response to the meeting last night about the integration of the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Pacific Northwest College Craft (PNCA) was that art institutions should consider becoming more specific rather than more general in regards to their programming. It might seem counter-intuitive but there is a term used in retailing called "death in the middle". The term suggests that the way that most people shop for things today is very selective and generally at either the top end or the low end with rarely anything in the middle. The result is that one might see a $500 hand bag being carried by a person wearing a $5 shirt. Either someone really wants something and is willing to invest in it or they need it but are not really emotionally attached to it and therefore it should be as cheap as possible. In other words this is a good market for stores that sells things at the upper end that might be expensive and at the very low end where things are inexpensive, but for the stores in the middle, like department stores that try to be everything to everybody, it is a very difficult time. Just to be clear, these analogies are about the relative price of goods, and maybe the emotional attachments to some products, not indicator of friendliness or approachability. These stores are equally accessible to anyone. It is a good example that we all live in extremes, and that a general audience does not even really exist.

Since museums are not commercial stores, I think that the analogy is slightly different. For museums, I think that the questions become to what degree do they become specialists verus generalists. A similar question would be to what extent could a museum provide a unique and direct connection to the community and city that would be irreparably damaged if that institution would move to another city and a different institution were to take its place? For me this has to go deeper than just the collection, as we know with all of the travelling exhibitions, objects travel really well and objects made during one specific place in time might be relevant to a much later time in a different part of the world. Ideally, the connection would be so strong to place that it would be impossible for those institutions to function somewhere else.

A good example might be the Rothko Chapel. In a funny way, the Rothko Chapel would have only been possible in Houston. Even though Rothko was living at the time in New York, it would have been hard to imagine a project like that in the New York. Perhaps it would have been impossible to integrate a program like the Rothko chapel into any of the museum's programming and the possibility of it existing on its own was so outlandish as to not be considered. As we know, the De Menil's did make it possible in Houston. On a personal level, I am glad that the Rothko Chapel, and the Menil Collection, exist in Houston and I am very willing to travel to see them.

I would view the Rothko Chapel as a very specialized experience. It is not about the whole history of art, okay, part of it is, but people come in and make their own experience. Either it moves them or does not and either way it is without judgment like the old adage about Jazz. The important thing is that the De Menil's were willing to risk exposing people to a unique, personalized experience of art that is the antithesis of most experiences of art at museums. The pay off for the risk of exposing a potentially specialized experience to a general audience is that for a few of those visitors the experience might change their life. Even though I experienced the Chapel later in life, I would count myself as one of those people. Why would the Menil's do such a thing? It is simple, they believed in art.

I do not think that we need Rothko Chapels in every city but I do believe that we need specialized art experiences in every city. These experiences could exist within museums or outside of it. Unfortunately the specialized experience seems at odds with the way that some curators view the programming in their spaces. These specialized experiences should be as unique to the city as possible which means they should be created by local artists that are up to the task. The Menils believed that the best art was universal and that its value would be self evident to any viewer that could open themselves to the experience.

I left the discussion at PNCA with a deeper understanding of my own practice and why I go out of my way to visit places that will inform my experience. Portland has a wonderful art history that we rarely take advantage of. When I wrote about Donald Judd last year, it was about his work at the PCVA, which by looking at the slides, was a specialized art experience if there was ever one. I was interested in the way that an artist from outside Oregon would interact with the city and its resources. I am currently doing research on Mark Rothko's time here and how his experiences in Portland might have been carried with him when he left the city. In both cases, I have tried to see the city through their eyes. I now realize that at least on some level, these are ways in which I have been trying to come to terms with Portland as place.

Posted by Arcy Douglass on April 23, 2009 at 15:48 | Comments (0)


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