Can works by a living artist be in the museum? (Or just dead ones?)

April 13, 2020
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In our new segment Fearless Questions, Curina answers everyday curiosities about art - proving that simplest questions may yet be the most profound.

The moment you walk between the huge ivory pillars and carved walls of a big museum like the Met, you just know you are about to enter the valley of the dead. After all, it's literally known for the deadest of the dead, mummies.
But when you venture into the painting and sculpture sections and still face the stern, bearded faces of Greek philosophers and elegant Renaissance ladies, you start to ask yourself: why would museums choose works by predominantly dead (and often white) artists when there's hardly anything relatable about them? Is that intentional? And what’s the use? 
As we will see, this boils down to the question of who decides what gets to be in a museum. This decision is usually made by the board of museums. And yes, it’s as fancy as it sounds, composed of academicians, curators, and of course, donors. 

The Dead

[Fig. 1] Performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukules cleaning a female mummy (Image source: Columbia University)

It’s not a coincidence that most “traditional-looking” museums representing dead artists are ones funded by the government. Since these are public institutions - meaning tax dollars from the community feeds them - their mission is to benefit the community. Artworks within therefore should not only represent the city or country they’re in, but educate citizens on the history of their culture. So this is one reason why museums have works from dead artists - because you need a bit of time after someone dies to judge whether they were influential on a historical level. 

[Fig. 2] Visitors look upon the stark naked figure in Manet's Olympia - surprisingly unembarrassed.

In reality, the government may be the main donor for big museums, but this is just enough money to keep the place afloat, yet definitely not enough for the cost of creating a good collection. So the same way politicians are supposed to represent us but not always does a perfect job of doing so, the way museums choose which dead artists are worth remembering may not be everyone’s cup of tea. They will always reflect the most “official” or “proper” taste of the time, but may not necessarily reflect the developments happening in the art world IRL

One example everyone cites is Van Gogh, who was virtually nameless during his lifetime but became representative of the whole Post-Impressionist movement decades later. In fact, most pioneers of modern art now praised for their experimental spirit were ruthlessly put down during their own times, from Picasso being called “beastly” to Manet’s nudes being rejected from exhibitions because they were considered “too pornographic”. 

Let me tell you…even now, more than half of any museum’s total collection remains underground in the preservation rooms because they depict, ahem, “intimate moments”. All because we have to keep it PG for the schoolchildren who come for field trips. 

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Inversely, that proves how vague the definition of “art museum” is. I mean...if something was rejected from museums 100 years ago but is now included, that must mean standards will change another 100 years from now, right? There’s really no way to decide whether something will be “objectively” meaningful. We can only gauge its value in the present.

...and the Living

Luckily, there are a few ways the living get to share the glories of dead artists and still represent the society a museum belongs in. 

Since it is impossible to represent all the art in the world and across all ages, each museum has a mission and area of focus. New Yorkers are especially lucky to live in a city where the government provides enough funding for the arts that it can cover not only big museums and their task of providing an official face of the city, but other institutions with missions of their own. 

[Fig. 3] Audiences stare contemplatively at installations inside the new MoMA.


If it's a Museum of “Modern Art” from the outset, you will naturally expect more 20th-century figures, many of whom are still alive. Even among the modern art museums, ones like New Museum that focuses on new media (i.e. not just paintings and sculptures but video, installations, and digital art) have a much younger roster. An easy way to tell? Look at the museum’s building. That should sum up the aesthetic they’re going for. 

Look at places like Brooklyn Museum that has a very community-minded programming, but for that precise reason includes contemporary artists. About two years ago they had an exhibition about the color blue, and included medieval sculptures along with contemporary video works and photography. Recently, they were even planning to do a Studio 59 themed event in collaboration with local club scene legend House of Yes.

Also, there was a huge controversy surrounding why indigenous art is included in natural history museums instead of art museums, for example. If the deciding standard is for an artwork to be representative of a culture, and to be old enough that curators can evaluate its lasting influence, why should First Nations totem poles and Rembrandt paintings belong to different museums? What’s the difference between an artifact and a museum artwork? It's an ongoing debate - and one you should look for out for on our journal page in the coming weeks *wink*.

works from the artist

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