Paul Mocsanyi introduces himself as the director of the New School Art Center and the moderator of this symposium. Mocsanyi comments on the considerable turnout and expresses appreciation for the New York Times’ advance coverage of the event, then proceeds to introduce the panel.
Mocsanyi asks August Heckscher the title question: “What do we mean when we say the museums are in crisis?” Heckscher begins by acknowledging that finance — specifically increased operating costs and public demand vis-a-vis decreased private giving and public funding — is a critical component to this crisis. He discusses his role as the commissioner of culture and subsequent involvement and engagement with numerous New York City cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Staten Island Institute. He also describes the changing nature of the art world and the challenges posed by the shift to conceptual and performance art.
Mocsanyi then asks how we arrive at this “pedantry” crisis. Thomas Messer concurs that money is also part of the museum crisis; however, Messer suggests that the Guggenheim has opted “to ignore it.” He eschews the term “crisis” and instead proposes that the American museum is instead experiencing “growing pains,” and implies that it is like an adolescent. Thomas Hess also describes some skepticism about whether museums are in crisis, and believes instead that perhaps the museum is subject to stresses and changes in “symptoms.”
Brian Robertson believes that the crisis lies instead with education, and that the expectations for art’s utility are set too high, and expresses concern that due to his British accent, he may be considered “snooty.” Robertson echoes that the crisis may be one of aesthetics and sensibilities rather than institutions. Heckscher advocates in defense of modern art, arguing that it enhances the relevance of older art and that all art was modern at one point. Robertson suggests somewhat humorously that prospective museum-goers should be subject to both a written and oral examination before entering the premises, but rigorously argues for the management of audience and patron expectations.
August Heckscher criticizes Robertson for his criticism of conceptual artists and discusses the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, currently under construction in Brooklyn, and emphasizes its participatory and innovative characteristics. Thomas Hess also expresses some concern that there is a glut of museums in the West while large swathes of the world have not experienced the same degree of culture.