Sunday, 9 February 2014

SMALL MUSEUMS, BIG PAINTINGS, TERRIBLE DECISIONS?

BY: IRINA MIHALACHE

My title has a question mark because I am wearing several hats while writing this brief comment on a small museum – the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College), my alma matter, its big paintings (you will know what I mean by “big” in just a few lines) and some decisions which for now we will call terrible. Yes, about the several hats! Well, I write this piece as an alumna of R-MWC, who spent many of hours at the Maier, studying its collections, attending gallery talks, taking class trips and writing about its exhibitions and events in The Sundial (student-run newspaper). At the same time, I write as a professor of museum studies who is aware of the complex and intricate ways in which cultural institutions function, often not autonomous of significant decisions and their rather monumental impacts on local, national and even global communities. And, lastly, I write this as a lover of George Bellows, especially of one of his main works of art, “Men of the Docks,” which, until recently, was happily residing at the Maier.

Maier Museum of Art, Randolph College, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/06/randolph_colleges_response_to.html

For a small museum situated on the campus of a small liberal arts college in (yes, you guessed right) a small town in Virginia, the Maier has (or better said, had) an impressive collection. Besides “Men of the Docks,” the museum’s collection also included: Rufino Tamayo’s “Troubadour”, Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom” and Ernest Martin Hennings’ “Through the Arroyo”. In 2007, when R-MWC became Randolph College (and also co-ed) in order to survive financially, the Board of Trustees decided to sell the most famous (and expensive) paintings in the collection to various museums and private collectors. This decision caused many protests from students, professors, and members of the Lynchburg and larger art world community. In this rather painful and divisive context, Bellows’ work, which has been since 1920 one of the most loved and iconic objects for the R-MWC community, became a symbol for the worst that can happen when an educational institution decides that building a new state of the art field is, ironically, more important than art itself (it is the alumna in me talking now). Two days ago, the college announced officially that it has finalized the selling of “Men of the Docks” to the National Gallery in London. 

George Bellows, “Men of the docks” (1912)
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/07/arts/design/a-bellows-painting-
moves-from-virginia-to-london.html

So far, we talked about small museums and big paintings, but what do we make of the decision to sell one of the big paintings to one of the most renowned collections in the world? Is this treasure of American modern art better suited to be exposed in London, where millions of people would enjoy it every year? Does the promise of hosting Randolph College students for summer internship at the National Gallery in London make up for the loss experienced by the community of students, professors, alumnae? Is this a statement about hierarchies of knowledge in North American education? Regardless of which question you believe is more important to answer, this gesture and the grief, debates, protests and struggles it brought along show that objects (be they family heirlooms or paintings worth $25.5 million) are attached to place and to community, they are part of cultural heritage and they define personal identities. My own identity as a professor of museum studies was very much shaped by “Men of the Docks,” as I remember, as an undergraduate student, having a wow moment sitting in front of this painting. Coming from Romania, I knew very little about American culture, and Bellows gave me one of my first lessons about American history at the turn of the century. Further, it taught me about the importance of historical and cultural context when thinking about any object or work of art. It would be great to know that other generations of Randolph College women (and, since 2007, men) could have access to the same heritage and inspiration as I did. From this perspective, selling big paintings located in small museums is quite a terrible choice. 

For more information about this story, please find below a few extra sources:

2 comments:

  1. In the chaos and (often) controversy of deaccessioning artwork, I think that individual stories such as this one are not given enough attention. Your formative experience with "Men of the Docks" makes such a strong case for its importance at R-MWC. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    I also think that in its new home, much of the painting's history and context at the college will be lost. I was very struck by its origins at the college (as you mentioned and of which there are further details in the New York Times article you provided): that in 1920 students raised $2,500 to buy this painting, and that it was the foundational piece of the Maier Museum of Art. This investment and dedication to the painting (and its appreciation by students ever since) will not be remembered or enacted so vividly in its new home, I fear.

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