Friday Tips on Monday: Museum Quality


Dear Readers:

Sorry I forgot to post Friday Tips last Friday.  Been traveling a bit, and focusing on two new large projects.  Also I’m bloody absent minded, and forgot to check my calendar.

The question below was sent in to one of the magazines I write for.  I hope you find it illuminating.




Q:  A comment was made in one of my classes about someone’s work being “museum quality,” so now I’m asking, what is museum quality? I’ve seen artwork in museums that left me saying, “Why is that in here?” Also, is there a difference between museum quality and gallery quality?
A:  Ah, this is a great mystery.  And like many mysteries, there is no simple answer.  The definition of “Museum Quality” has changed drastically in the past 150 years.  At one time it had its roots in the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age.  Turner, who I consider the first Impressionist, changed much of that.  The French Impressionists, Van Gogh, the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Abstractionists, the Minimalists, and Conceptual Artists changed the rest.  Now there are are few rules left, and anyone who has the audacity to challenge the new standard runs the risk of being labeled non-intellectual, so the door is normally left open. 

This mindset, which itself is rooted in history (different topic), led to the National Endowment for the Arts awarding a $20,000 grant in 1989 for a plastic figure of Christ immersed in a jar of urine, a piece otherwise known as “Piss Christ,” by Andres Serrano.  This brought about a huge controversy, unnecessarily pitted the NEA against reactionary politicians and religious groups, and caused a very worthy organization to lose much clout over a curious decision that many panel members later expressed regret for.

None of this disturbs me, as I consider myself more an observer than a critic.  I’m just laying this out is to let you know that virtually any approach in any medium could be considered Museum Quality these days, as long as there are enough authorities backing it.  Some of these works should certainly be acquired by museums.  As for those that seem to reflect a dubious level of talent, discipline and skill–I suspect history will solve those issues for us.

So in the end, what is Museum Quality now?  It depends on the museum, its curatorial staff, and the works that it values.  In some museums, this will be across the board.  In others, it will be more traditional.  In still others, it will be as radical as possible.  To me it’s all interesting.  But if you’re asking in regard to landscape and figure, I would say works that reflect originality, that are devoid of sentimentality and cliche, that are more painterly than illustrative, and that look as fresh on the hundredth viewing as on the first.  If you’re asking about conceptual work or abstraction, anything that is original, daring, minimal, shocking, surprising, or just downright intelligent. 

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