Twenty-first century institutions of art are spaces in which compassion, empathy, and institutional responsibility must be carefully balanced. Those who choose a career in the arts must be particularly responsive to the changes in cultural expectations while still remaining creative and a part of the art world writ large. Creativity comes with responsibility, and creative leadership requires a high degree of engagement with the world outside the institution. It necessitates being available to the community in which the institution sits, close listening, and responsive citizenship. The institutional stewardship of art involves constant adjustments to achieve equity of all kinds and to create a space for viewing and learning that resembles the populations such institutions serve in a rapidly changing contemporary culture. Those who lead institutions such as museums, work hard to make the case that the arts are ready to collaborate with their communities; that the arts matter, and that what we do as teachers and as facilitators of creativity matters greatly as we move toward the future. One of the things we know is that with resources, the arts can flourish and our students can flourish. A baked-in responsibility of leadership in arts administration is to work diligently to accumulate and steward such resources, and a realistic version of leadership, to me, in this context, requires making the case for the arts, consistently and without apology. We in the arts are empathetic to issues of diversity and gender and the need to be inclusive and to think globally. We have always known that and have practiced that within arts culture. However, the narratives of art history were not necessarily reflective of the holistic nature of arts communities throughout a modern and postmodern timeline. That is something that we must be constantly aware of; continually amending the story and making space for everyone who aspires to be a part of the story. When we tell the story, we necessarily flesh it out with a more vibrant and inclusive picture of who practices and what such diverse practices look like; how such knowledge changes the story and asks us to rethink the possibilities of art in its relationship to humanism and to the culture at large.
As an example of institutional responsiveness to the changes in the global realities of arts communities, the Museum Of Modern Art in New York will close for four months this summer and fall “to reconfigure its galleries, rehang the entire collection and rethink the way that the story of modern and contemporary art is presented to the public.” They will be adding 40,000 square feet of additional space in order “to focus new attention on works by women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans” and other marginalized artists who are re-shaping the field in the present.
In a recent New York Times article, the museum’s chairman Leon Black noted, “We don’t want to forget our roots in terms of having the greatest Modernist collection… but the museum didn’t emphasize female artists, didn’t emphasize what minority artists were doing, and it was limited on geography.” He added, “Where those were always the exceptions, now they really should be part of the reality of the multicultural society we all live in.”
I make these observations here to note that it was not so long ago that art in its institutionalized setting of the academy found itself trying to catch up for the real-world changes in how art was considered and practiced. Artists were the avant-garde, museums such as the MoMA in New York were built to create spaces for the public to view their work and history did what is supposed to do; it moved on. Such institutions have to re-calibrate their mission in the present, as the art they were originally built to serve is no longer contemporary. In this instance, MoMA is leading by example and taking a time out to survey the landscape of contemporary art practice.
And isn’t this the responsibility of a contemporary public institution? To lead as much as possible, or at least, to catch up to the rapidly changing culture around us, as quickly as it can, and to remain a part of the discourse.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department