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Topics in Art

Museums

Did you ever wonder how art museums came to be? Though housed in magnificent, often "old" looking palaces of culture, they are in fact, a relatively modern institution. They are hardly more than two hundred years old. The first ones were usually private, run for profit, as in the case of the Peale family art museum in Philadelphia in the late 1700s and early 1800s. And while some Western governments instituted art museums in the 1800s, in this country at least, few exclusively "art" museums existed until the twentieth century. However when they did develop, unlike the Peale's, they were the outgrowths of private collections turned public, often as the result of the owner's death. The Mellons, Whitneys, and Rockefellers are, to various degrees, examples of this factor.

Up until the end of the Second World War, the wealthy were the great patrons of the arts, and strongly dictated artistic tastes. And, being a fairly conservative lot, they tended to keep artistic trends in this country fairly conservative as well. Their purchases, which often ended up in museums, tended toward the antique with special emphasis on dead artists. However, about mid-century a transition period occurred as the New York School was crowned "avant-garde" and critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg became powerful enough to dictate tastes and influence the purchase of works by these artists. Whole museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, both in New York, grew up to devote their walls exclusively to such art.

But the wealth of this country, toward the latter half of this century, gradually shifted from New York, diversifying toward the Sunbelt. Major museums sprouted from Florida to California all vying to acquire great works of art. As a result, prices escalated. From 1982 to 1987 for instance, prices for major Impressionist paintings soared 400 percent. Paintings by living artists such as Jasper Johns skyrocketed from a quarter million in the 70s to seventeen million during the late 1980s. Museums simply could not afford this market. The private collector once more began to dominate. And critics began to accuse contemporary artists of pandering to this new class of patrons. Then in the 1990s, the market cooled, private collectors who had bought overpriced art as investments, when forced to sell. frequently didn't make back their initial outlays. Downsizing corporations started divesting their art collections. And in the end, museums benefited, buying up these pieces at comparatively reasonable prices. Add to that, tax laws that made it profitable for the rich to donate their inflated art treasures to museums, and we find this exclusively (and peculiarly) Western institution once more flourishing.

contributed by Lane, Jim


21 April 1998
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