Collection Reform

Regional and world-class museums alike must daily contend with the same pedestrian woe: How can we show all this art? Limited by space, most museums manage to show only a tiny fraction of what they possess.

Mansion lake painting

Museums approach this problem in different ways, and in recent years a handful of novel methods of displaying what might otherwise spend most of its life in climate-controlled storage have emerged. Some institutions have turned to the Internet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has posted over 164,000 works on its website, far more than its galleries could ever hold. The Brooklyn Museum is going further still, cross-posting its digital assets into Wikimedia Commons. Still others, like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have asked artists and guest curators to cull through the unseen bits of the permanent collection to create new temporary exhibits.

“Shows from the permanent collection are a lot less expensive,” says Andrew Blauvelt, chief of communications and audience engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And they allow works excluded from the permanent collection on view to see the light of day.

Still other museums have forgone permanent collections altogether, instead employing a Kunsthalle model where borrowed art shows for set periods and the institutions are absolved of the burdens of caring for it.

“If you’re not starting with a great collection from a great collector, like the Whitney or the Guggenheim, it can be very hard to amass one,” says Connie Wolf, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The CJM is among a group of institutions, like the New Museum in New York, founded in the 1980s and 1990s as noncollecting institutions. “People sometimes ask, ‘Are you even a museum if you don’t have a collection?’ But you don’t need one to still talk about ideas and show art.”

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