“The increased autonomy of the university art museum would place it out of danger of influence from corporate, private, and governmental financiers, and better insure that issues of academic and artistic freedom were safe-guarded from attack.”
- Taylor Horak
From counter-clockwise from top left: University of Virginia Art Museum Expansion plan, 20,000 square feet 4-level addition.
An important and necessary addition to any respectable campus, the university art museum is a combination of both the collegiate institute and the public repository. As such, it becomes a necessary asset to both the student body and the surrounding community. Placed in this position, the university museum holds at times a precarious post, subject to the strictures of both the academy and the general populace. The structure’s academic freedom as well as its artistic freedom may be challenged from both sides. It is the duality of its nature that makes the university museum such an interesting study; as it exists immediately, and how it will exist in the future are the topics of this paper. The necessity of coexistence within this dichotomy creates both unique liberties and limitations, and it is the purpose of this paper to expose the underlying conflict that exists in the university museum, a conflict growing more apparent with the rise in museum expansion on campuses across the country. Looking at examples from the West Coast as well as the East Coast, it is possible to see where university museums are, and where they are headed.
In an article published in the Journal of Cultural Economics, J. Mark Schuster writes about the ‘hybridization,’ which is the combination and utilization of funding, sponsorship, and administration from both the public and private spheres of the American museum. Drawing information from surveys performed by the American Association of Museums and the National Research Center of the Arts regarding museums’ governing authority, Schuster points to the stability of numbers throughout the three decades covered. The number of private and public museums has apparently remained about the same, with the former having the larger occurrence. However, Schuster is quick to expand his study to more specific observations, looking at everything from location of the museum to museum type. Inevitably he takes it farther by asking whether the ownership and/or operation of a museum differed in entity from the governing authority, and thereby may result in a public/private mix. The results seem to bring up more questions than answers; however, they do seem to point to hybridization over privatization.1 Tying this back to the issue at hand, if city and national museums like the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are experiencing trends of hybridization within their walls, inevitably this trend must creep into the campus museum as well. With decreases in public funding and the shrinkage of private endowments, university museums have to look to other options for funding, often turning to a mixture of both as a solution.
There is a general movement within the university museum community toward expansion. Within the last decade, plans, if not already implemented, have been formulated. From the University of Florida’s Harn Museum* on the East Coast, to the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum on the West, a trend of expansion to a modern facility can be observed.2 These new facilities incorporate old collections in new exhibition halls, increases in technological tools, and the development of state-of-the art study centers. With an emphasis on inclusion and education, these new buildings open up the university museum and campus to the public. The result of these expansions is both good and bad; and increased facility means a proportional increase in spending.
Using the University of Virginia’s proposed expansion plan as an example, the original 9,000 square feet of gallery will be expanded an additional 20,000 square feet, which will increase exhibition space by 64%. Within the new space, new research, education, and conference rooms will be added for the use of object study and classroom-styled lectures, along with new galleries for display of both the permanent collection and traveling exhibitions, as well as the creation of a museum shop and café.3 All of these additions are in line with the already completed versions of the modern university museum, which can be found on the UCLA and Florida campuses. To compensate for the increase in budget, it is becoming commonplace for university museums to offer membership opportunities along with benefits directed at potential corporate sponsorship. Examples of this can be seen on the University of Virginia campus as well as at The Hammer Museum which offer premium benefits, including hosting corporate events, signage in Museum galleries, mention on street banners, recognition in press and media campaigns, acknowledgement and links on The Hammer website, as well as onsite product placement and distributions. The last five exemplify a growing corporatism that seems to be creeping into not only the university museum, but the campus as well. This is disturbing on several levels, two of which will be touched on later.
It seems that the concept of the museum as an escape from the outside world is disappearing, as commercialism and capitalism enter into the mix through the seemingly necessary additions of cafes, shops, and advertisement to the plans for museum expansion. Returning to Schuster, this trend of encroaching corporatism is perhaps the epitome of the beginnings of hybridization within the university museum. Public university campuses are not alone, with private ivy leagues such as Harvard also implementing major expansion projects and calling for monetary support of corporations and alumni. The Harvard website is so good as to spell out all of the possible uses of donations, everything from increasing the collection to salaries for the staff.4 As a result of increasing reliance on corporate and private funding, coupled with the continued dependence on the state, the university museum inevitably have to answer to more people, the total consequences of which have yet to be fully determined.
Looking further into the influences of corporatism within the university museum frame requires also looking further into the duality of the institute itself. The effects of corporatism on the academic campus have been much discussed, as well as the status of academic freedom. Because it technically exists within the university, the campus museum must have a share in the debate as well. With the natural limitations of a museum structure, those relating to the collection, administration, and ethics, a university museum must also contend with limitations from another side: academic limitations.
As mentioned, a university museum must answer to a plethora of persons, academics, state politicians and bureaucrats, businessmen, as well as the public at large. Incidents of public scandal, discontent, and censorship are therefore unavoidable. That is, if the university museum is doing its job, it is presenting challenging and controversial exhibits and artists. Academic freedom for the professoriate of the university entails creating and maintaining free inquiry in research and classroom discussion; translated into a museum’s context, this ‘freedom of speech’ would be illustrated in exhibitions, artist and curator lectures, and educational programming. In cases of censorship, the limitations of this freedom are put to the test; colleges across the country have experienced incidents of censorship within their campus museums, including the University of Virginia in 2007.5 It is not the purpose of this paper to go in depth about the issue of censorship, only to cover the issue as it pertains to the overall topic of academic freedom within the university museum. Issues of censorship, free speech, and academic freedom crop-up amongst academic campuses, and are the cause of much debate.
In his book, The Great American University, Jonathan Cole points to incidents of both private and public “attacks” on academic freedom throughout United States history, most recently during the McCarthy era, and in the post-9/11 years.6 The resulting curbs on free speech and expression within the domain of the campus must also affect the campus museum. While extensive research has been published on academic freedom within the university, as well as censorship within the museum sector, it is hard to find articles that specifically pertain to examples of artistic and academic freedom within the university museum. Being both part of the university as well the public museum sector, it would seem straightforward to infer that the university museum must suffer the limitations of both institutes.
In a Q&A for Inside Higher Ed, authors James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar discuss the issue of the “corporate” university in their book Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, explaining the effects of the growing reliance that universities have on corporate sponsorship.7 Perhaps the most important of the issues mentioned is the ‘disengagement’ of students, which is reflected in the students’ declining interest in classroom dialogue and lecturing. With liberal education on the decline, an increase in corporate sponsorship, and policy driven teaching and research, humanities and art programs fall by the wayside.
If the university museum has found a potential way to counteract that, it is exemplified by the push for corporate sponsorship and interest in the museum itself; if The Hammer of UCLA is an example of the “modern” university museum, then places like University of Virginia and Harvard, who are still in the construction phase, will also be sure to implement some of the benefits offered to corporate sponsors by The Hammer. Campus museums will become places for the exposure of young minds to further commercialism. Museums and universities in general attempt to be politically correct, inclusive places; however, is the university museum really the place to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy? A university museum has a responsibility to engage students, staff, and the public in discourse, to pursue exhibits and lectures that inspire conversations, differing opinions, and in the end, academic freedom.
In terms of accountability, one of the main questions this paper attempts to answer is who does the university museum serve: the student body, the public, or both? If it seeks to serve both, whom does it serve first? While it seems natural to respond "the student body," the growing trend of expansion expresses the universities’ desire to serve the public. As mentioned before, expansion represents both good and bad things for the university museum: larger and renovated facilities provide the means to increase the size of the permanent collection, while more effectively maintaining, storing, and displaying what is already possessed. Most of the expanded museums offer new technologies that can be used in conservation, in research, and in the overall understanding of the artwork under study. Larger galleries with better lighting and security offer the opportunity for universities to host traveling special exhibits, while other space can be turned into lecture halls and study centers. All of these changes only add to the prestige of the institute, but at what cost?
With the expansion, is it possible that some beautiful intimacy is lost between the university and the museum? Facilities like those found at University of California Los Angeles and the University of Florida, and those planned at Berkeley, Michigan State, Harvard, and University of Virginia are so overwhelmingly modern and state-of-the-art, they could rival many state museums.8 As they expand, they also become more autonomous. Expansion also happens within the programming of the museum: bold and innovative lecture series, special exhibitions, children’s programs, internships, special membership access and events. All of these things make up much of the programming found in state and private museums. In the mission statements, all of the universities mentioned state a responsibility to serving the students and the public; but is there a shift in one direction verses the other, and what does this shift reflect in the future of the university museum?
Accountability goes beyond public or student service. It is also reflected in deferment of authority. Those who finance the building project--the academic administration, state bureaucrats, politicians, private donors--the university museum must answer to all of these people. Persons who support the museum financially or through donations to the collection greatly shape the course of each individual institute; they create the ethical guidelines that the museum must follow, they curb or expand the freedom of the curators and staff, they decide where parking is located, and whether entry fees are charged. By stepping off the campus and into the public, the university art museum is exposing itself to be a source of education for the community, but it is also exposing itself to a myriad of new authorities. Expansion may be limiting the university art museum more in spite of all the advantages it also offers. In no way condemning expansion, I wonder if the ideal university museum is an increasingly autonomous entity, or one that is firmly ingrained within the campus community? Some delicate harmony must be struck for this modern idea of an expanded and far reaching university museum to work; it must somehow remain a university museum, and not just a museum.
As mentioned briefly before, the possibility of an increasingly autonomous university art museum could mean many things. If a self-governing infastructure, containing financial and administrative bodies under the control of the museum director and staff could be realized, it is possible to see an independent institute capable of handling and protecting all of the interests of the university art museum coming into existence. Is this the future of the university art museum? Frankly, I hope it is; an autonomous being that has escaped the ethical controversies and complex demands that naturally evolve from relationships with public and private sponsors might actually be able to focus on something more than funding, it might be able to focus on art exhibition and student engagement.
The increased autonomy of the university art museum would place it out of danger of influence from corporate, private, and governmental financiers, and better insure that issues of academic and artistic freedom were safe-guarded from attack. In only having to answer to itself, the university art museum could more boldly expand its educational programming in directions that may have been shied away from previously; it can challenge the students, re-invigorate academic scholarship, and redefine its relationship with the public, all on its own terms. I firmly back this future for the university art museum above all others, because only this option truly offers the opportunity to maintain the individual nature of each institute and to allow these museums to remain in control of their respective destinies.
It seems necessary to cover in the conclusion of this paper one of the bigger over-arching issues of the university art museum. Above, the issue of accountability to the students and to the public has been discussed at some length; however, another issue not mentioned is the university art museum’s level of accountability to the philosophical aims of the art itself. In his paper On Museums, Raymond Geuss discusses the purpose of the museum as a source of “edifying knowledge,” which he defines and differentiates from factual knowledge by following tenets from ancient Socratic and Platonic traditions. Through the example of the Benin Bronzes, and the nineteenth century controversy that surrounded them, Geuss comes to a conclusion about the possible purpose of the art museum; he determines that the museum exist to challenge and to cultivate taste, “to make it more discriminating, polished, civilized, sophisticated.”8
In his discussion of the philosophical reasons behind the existence of the museum, Guess continues along this line, going inevitably into the “enlightenment” ideals that back the ‘illustrious examples of modern museums.” The ideal museum would form some balance between factual, historical information about the evolution of humanity and its cultures, as well as have an internal organization that corresponds with the edification side of enlightened thought. Guess goes further in discussing the needed focus on the ‘ethos’ of enlightenment:
Some of the powers that are associated with the ethos
of enlightenment are the exercise of analytic abilities, of the imagination,
especially the constructive imagination of alternatives to present ways of
doing things, of discriminatory skill, and of judgment. What I want to
propose is that there might be a post-Encyclopaedic notion of being “en-
lightened” of which Foucault’s “enlightenment ethos” was an essential
part, and I also want to suggest that it is difficult to envisage a realistic
ﬂourishing future for museums—or at least general survey museums di-
rected at a wide public—if we can’t see them as in some way oriented
toward fostering this kind of enlightenment. 8
According to Geuss, the real enemies to the future of the museum are use of the museum as a “heritage industry,” which is used as a source of self-identification, ethnic identification, and nationalism.
Tying this all neatly in with previously mentioned points, it must be a great cause of concern that current trends in university art museums led to the overt corporatism of the gallery space, as well occurrences of the university art collection as a source of potential revenue for the administration, as seen at Randolph College’s Maier Museum. There is a very fine line between the use of the museum as and a source of individualized ‘edifying’ education and the use of the museum for prejudiced and pre-determined communal education. As the contemporary museum faces the issue of legitimacy, and it must turn to elsewhere for structural and financial support, some sort of compromise must be made, and I fear that most often, it is the museum that is compromised. Looking again at the prevalent movement towards expansion within many university art museums, the issues of legitimacy, of ethos, and of integrity are called into question.
The new and updated museums might gain square-footage, however, they may lose integrity in the process. In the end, what is the purpose of the university art museum? It is the protection of the collection, the education of the public and the student body, nationalistic identification and propaganda, corporate advertisement, or is it some lofty philosophical ideal? Could it not just exist in and of itself? If all of the supportive buttressing fell away, all of the rationale that has been backing its existence for centuries, could the museum stand by itself? Perhaps this is the ambitious goal that university art museums should be aiming for, replacing the planned museum gift-shop with a life’s-breath and a soul of the museum’s own.
* The title may be roughly translated to mean “for better or for worse” (ad melius peius), while causatum is translated as “outcome” or “result.”
** Interestingly, the Harn Museum of the University of Florida has recently been forced to consider the further postponement of the opening of the newly expanded Asian Wing, due to neccesary budget cuts within the university. The announcement was made in a speech by university President Bernie Machen, in the university paper "The Gainsville Sun". Apparently, this was news to Harn Museum staff! While no final decisions have been made, and unfortunately, this issue is rather tangential to those covered in this paper, I thought it was worth noting. Here is a link to the issue of the university paper in which the President's speech can be found:
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5 Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art Exhibition Symposium, which was held March 13-15 in 2007, suffered an unfortunate censorship scandal based on the sensitivity of the subject of slavery that still remains imbedded in Virginian culture.
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