Review: Deadly Docents, Dirty Varnish and a Big Educational Push at the Frick
The hardest thing to do in today’s internationalised world of museum administration is to stand still. A trip to New York always compels a visit to the delightful time-frozen art palace that is the Frick Collection but it would seem that, even there, maintaining the status quo there has proved unendurable. Madcap schemes to build new galleries for new exhibitions under the Frick’s garden have been drawn up. It is possible that the new director, Ian Wardropper (former chairman of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), has dampened ardour for the kind of curatorial and physical “bolt-ons” that have skewed similarly bequeathed jewels like the Wallace Collection in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington (where today the historic works and their period architectural setting have been swamped and diminished by curatorial and architectural expansionism; where today “Special exhibitions are a signature element …offering new perspectives on the work of contemporary and modern artists.”) The Frick’s director does however seem minded to expand the audio tours and “other educational programs” and a book prominently displayed in the Frick’s shop (see right) serves as explicit manifesto for Education’s bid to interpose itself noisily at the very centre of museums between art and its visitors. As the painter Gareth Hawker describes below, something vital and of the essence is threatened by the prospect. And, as the painter James Keul discovered on a recent visit, something similar is already up and running at the Getty:
“The docent in the Rembrandt room of the East Pavilion upper level, which covers art from 1600-1800, was speaking to a tour group of about 20 people, mostly middle-aged, and asking what observations people had made on the small painting of the Abduction of Europa. One member of the group asked why all of the paintings appear so dark. The docent answered that varnish and oils applied over the years had darkened, leaving many works darker than they were intended to be. Presumably, this was meant to plant a seed in peoples’ minds that all dark paintings are the result of a darkened varnish rather than an intended effect that was used, in this case by a Baroque artist, to provide contrast and thus bathe a picture in a divine light…”
Gareth Hawker writes:
Visitors who plan a quiet hour or so contemplating works of Art in an American museum risk being accosted by guides called “Docents” who intend to deepen their museum experience. Docents, according to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the authors of “Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience” (2011, Getty Publications – see Figs. 1 – 4), seek to enable the visitor to “make meanings”. The book’s purpose “is to explain making meanings – to open the world by means of art”. Although many readers might be baffled by such sentences as: “metacognition is a byproduct of practice and it facilitates profound experience”, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s respective positions as Head of Education at the Frick Collection, New York, and Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, requires that their campaign to help docents influence a whole culture by shaping the public’s attitude to works of Art be examined.
Docents are amateur enthusiasts, who have been trained to a high level – though not to degree standard – in both teaching and art history. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, and are of all ages. They probably think of themselves as more or less ordinary people who enjoy appreciating art and wish to help others to do so.
The position of the Docent was created in 1907 in response to a perceived need. Visitors to art galleries wished for a guidance in appreciating works of art which was deeper than that being provided by art-historical lectures. Docents were trained and appointed to meet this need by providing an education in aesthetic pleasure. Nearly a century later, there is no longer agreement about what might be meant by “an education in aesthetic pleasure”. So this book appears at an opportune moment, just when museum educators are seeking to clarify their roles.
In order to help redefine their objectives, Burnham and Kai-Kee refer to the work of the educationalist John Dewey who wrote in his classic 1934, Art as Experience, that “The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Dewey had identified an ideal response to a work of art. The visitor would begin by gaining an “experience” (that is, a sense of unity). A teacher might help the visitor in this, by stimulating and guiding his thoughts, but without ever imposing any view or judgement. In this way, “guided interpretation” might help the visitor to “make meaning” – to recognise relationships in many aspects of life and art. At its highest this process can generate a sense of over-arching interconnectedness which Dewey called a “culmination”.
In one exercise, students working in a group are encouraged to offer up any ideas and reflections which come to mind in reaction to a painting. These “thought showers” sound as if they could be open and productive, but, if a student asks an awkward question, the process seems to go into shut-down, as the following account (p. 71) may illustrate:
“The picture (the Frick Saint Francis by Giovanni Bellini) is beginning to cast its habitual spell. Suddenly, without warning, in a slightly confrontational tone, one man in the group asks, ‘What’s the difference between a work of art and a mere illustration? This might be just an illustration.’ [See Fig. 2] The question raises larger philosophical issues that are more difficult than he probably realizes and than I can accommodate in the context of a gallery program. I urge him to be patient. Perhaps the experience of the painting may begin to resolve the question, at least for him.”
The docent hopes that the student’s experience of the painting might begin to resolve his question – ignoring that fact that it was his experience which had prompted the question in the first place. Perhaps only certain types of experience are acceptable. (Dewey made a distinction between “experience” and “an experience”). The docent also suggests that the student’s question might be resolved, “for him”, as if his question were personal; as if he were troubled by a mental hang-up; and as if she were his counsellor. But his question was not personal. It was a general question about how works of art may be classified. An answer which was good only “for him” would not have addressed the issue – if indeed such an answer could have any meaning at all.
So, to summarise, the teacher has judged that her student has had the wrong kind of experience, but will not explain why; she judges that he is probably ignorant of issues which are connected with his question but she will not tell him what they are. This begins to look less like an application of Dewey’s theories and more like a power-struggle in which the docent issues a put-down and asserts her superiority.
As so often throughout the book, while the theories seem perfectly innocuous, even illuminating, it is the way in which they are put into practice which gives cause for concern. The authors seem to share a general squeamishness about talking about artistic quality. This is a mindset which is just as prevalent in Museum education in the UK as in the USA. While the authors appear to accept Dewey’s observation that works of aesthetic merit may be found at all levels of human endeavour, not solely in High Art, they apparently interpret this to mean that one must not point out the difference between good and bad.
The authors do mention the importance of looking and seeing, but by these terms they seem to mean finding and telling stories, rather than observing shapes and colours. Works are treated as objects to be read, like books, with stories to be discovered and assimilated. Looking at a painting for its artistic qualities is considered only as a small part of a student’s involvement, not of central importance. (Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lecture, with its concentration on qualities such as colour, tone and shape, would form a stark contrast to the narrative approach outlined here.)
For the authors, talking is an essential part of the process of experiencing a work of visual art. The authors would like to see the docent become increasingly prominent in museums. They wish to see teaching develop in such a way that, “galleries may be defined as places where dialogues take place around works of art” (p. 151). This means that galleries would no longer be defined as places where one goes to look at paintings. They would no longer be quiet. The authors envisage galleries “filled with the hum of conversation […as] educators move from the periphery to the center.” But this move may have harmful consequences. If visitors learn to think of the appreciation of works of art as a series of “experiences”, with little regard to artistic quality, their eyes will be closed to many fundamental aspects of the art of painting. Such visitors are unlikely to observe that some pictures are better than others. They will not notice when quality has been reduced over time: when paintings have been degraded by insensitive restoration “treatments”. Their non-judgemental, non-critical stance will make them easy prey for apologists who promote restorations with appeals to crude sensation such as, “now we can see what was underneath that dark paint!” or, “now look at how bright that blue has become!”
Works of art will be relegated to the status of tools which enable the visitor “to open the world by means of art.” Defining the function of art in this way is simplistic. Art can have many meanings or none at all, yet we can still recognise that it is “right” – if our minds are quiet. Yet the museum of the future which the authors envisage is hectic and noisy.
“Responsible for the continuing translations of meaning that occur in the new museum, the educators who teach are the most accomplished members of the education department, best qualified to shape and animate museum programs. They lead the department, define its philosophy and mission, and overturn the historical definition of teaching as a peripheral, volunteer, or entry-level activity.”
If, by “translations of meaning” the authors mean anything like the “guided interpretation” we have seen in the verbatim accounts of their teaching sessions, we know that it will involve subtly pressurising the visitor to conform to their view of art, “shaping and animating” his “experience”.
A quiet hour contemplating beautiful paintings looks likely to become ever more elusive if the authors get their way.
Above, Fig. 1: The cover of the 2011 book that has been published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Above, Fig. 2: The Frick Collection Giovanni Bellini “St Francis in the Desert”, 1480.
Art and its Appropriators ~ A Note on the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania (Michael Daley)
In “Teaching in the Art Museum” (p. 3), Rika Burnham describes the concluding essay chapter on the Barnes Foundation as “a special case study in museum education”.
The Barnes, as a foundation whose primary purpose was educational, rather than being a museum in which teaching happens to take place, appealed greatly to the author – even as its method was rejected. Invited in 2003 to teach as a guest lecturer (unusually, for one untrained in the Barnes method), Burnham came to appreciate how Albert Barnes had collected and assembled a collection to be continually rearranged “by the teachers” so that they might make visible a “continually evolving universe of art and ideas”. If outdated as a pedagogical system, the central role of the educator in the Barnes foundation’s mission was seen to offer “rich possibilities as a model for the future of our profession”.
Above, fig. 3: Albert C. Barnes with Renoir’s “Bathers in the Forest” (left). Photograph of 1932 from the Barnes Foundation Archives.
Barnes, like Henry Clay Frick, was a ruthless accumulator of wealth but where Frick amassed prime art specimens like some super-philatelist, Barnes was gripped both by specific artistic passions and generous democratising impulses. Above all, he was in thrall to Renoir’s late and summary, non-impressionist, nude paintings. An intimate of and close collaborator with John Dewey, Barnes bequeathed his stupendous collection (a thousand pictures with over one hundred and eighty Renoirs) as the tool of an educational method. Executed with his money, his works of art, and according to his and Dewey’s ideas, this unique experiment affronted many in the artworld. As the cash value and the esteem of the collection rocketed, covetous eyes grew impatient with the foundation’s high-minded purpose and began seeking ways to prise the art away from a distinctive teaching method that encouraged/demanded that the student make the great mental effort to acquire the specific habits of perception of artists so as to see as the artist sees.
Above, Fig. 4: Two of the original (now shamefully denuded) Barnes Foundation galleries, as published in “Teaching in the Art Museum”.
When Rika Burnham, the Frick’s present Head of Education and a former Getty Museum Scholar, undertook her teaching at the Barnes, she did so with evident trepidation. Her account (p. 134) opens like a Hammer horror film set in Translyvania:
“Darkness is falling in Merion, Pennsylvania, as I leave the station and walk slowly up the hill and turn onto North Latch’s Lane. The year is 2003 but it could just as easily be 1950. Unchanged, the Barnes Foundation stands silent, proud, only slightly faded by time and the endless controversies that have swirled around it since Albert C. Barnes died in 1951. The night watchman at the front gate pokes his head out and says they are expecting me. I walk up to the massive wooden doors and lift the large knocker, pausing for a moment to imagine the treasures inside. My knock sounds heavy and hollow. Slowly the door opens…my heart is racing. Twenty years of teaching at the Metropolitan have not prepared me for teaching in an installation like this.”
Burnham’s dilemma was this:
“Is it possible to teach with these works of art, I wonder, as my eyes adjust slowly to the complex arrangements, the soft but dim lighting? How could I teach in these cacophanous arrangement of art objects? How could I help my students see and make sense of the art in what appear to be overflowing, even hyperactive spaces?”
It sometimes seems that the default response of every museum employee and volunteer, when confronted by an old painting, is to complain knowingly about its “condition”. Perhaps in a field heavy with “conservators” it would be held professionally tactless or even provocative to entertain the possibility that non-treatment might ever be preferable to “conservation”? Burnham was first required to talk about two early Netherlandish devotional pictures given to the school of Gerard David, a “Virgin and Child” and the “Crucifixion with the Virgin, St John, and the Magdalene”. She immediately took against the two works and their setting:
“However, questionable attribution is only one of my concerns. Both pictures are darkened by varnish and surrounded by many objects and other pictures. My heart sinks. It is hard to imagine that we will be able to see much, let alone sustain study and dialogue.”
One senses on Burnham’s own account that the Barnes students may have come to the rescue of a disoriented teacher:
“This is a second year class; the students have spent the previous year learning the Barnes method of seeing. One is a psychologist, another a lawyer, and still others are artists…We sit and begin in silence. We search for words, describing what we see, at first hesitatingly, then with more confidence. Through our shared dialogue we slowly begin to unfold the small ‘Virgin and Child’. The students are patient and disciplined in their looking, persistent. The small work of art becomes large and radiant to our eyes, its spiritual mystery paramount, while questions of attribution and history, for the moment, recede.”
Such revelatory surprises were to come thick and fast. Not only was the varnish-darkened picture possessed of radiance, but Burnham was surprised by its ability to command any attention at all “given that it is surrounded by many other works of art, some large and imposing.” The teacher, already a veteran Metropolitan Museum Educator, came belatedly to the realization that “pictures can be part of their ensembles, yet still assert themselves…”
Week after week and, seemingly, against all odds, pictures were to come alive for Burnham. El Greco was reached.
Above, Fig. 5: El Greco, “Vision of Saint Hyacinth”. For its display context at the Barnes, see Fig. 4 (top).
For Burnham, the attributional quibble came first: “Perhaps painted by El Greco or by his son, Jorge Manuel, it is one of three versions of the subject.” Such doubts notwithstanding, “We look intently, searching for meaning and understanding, and again, the picture shines through its darkened coat of varnish.” A landscape by Claude Lorrain is at first seemingly inaccessible hanging over a glass case, but it too “triumphs over dim evening light and yellowed, aging varnish”.
Although her heart initially sank on entering the Barnes collection, Burnham now hopes that despite its enforced move to downtown Philadelphia, the collection may yet “inform our museum education visions…as we search for a pedagogy advancing our own questions, promoting freedom, and serving us as we seek ever-deeper understanding of the artworks we love”. One senses likely obstacles to this ambitious prospectus: there is an institutionally insurrectionary, anti-curatorial, anti-scholarly bias that, paradoxically, requires building an alliance in which curators must relinquish authority: “If education truly is central to the mission of art museums, as most have claimed since their founding, I believe that educators must collaborate with curators and conservators so that that objects can be free to engage in dialogues with one another that are not limited only by curatorial imperatives.” It is hard to see how – outside of the Barnes as it once was – it could be other than a daydream to call for a world in which throughout “museums big and small, works of art can be moved into surprising juxtapositions at the request of the teachers, to create new dialogues and open new horizons.”
Moreover, the Barnes’ enforced migration has had disastrous consequences for what might once have served as an educational beacon. Wrested from its bequeathed purpose-built beautifully landscaped and architecturally handsome home (with distinguished carved sculptural decorations), the Barnes collection has been deposited within a mean-spirited conservationally sanitised replication of its old interiors. Moreover, these are set within an ugly
, affronting, clichéd modernist mausoleum that in repudiating history celebrates nothing more than its own materials
and its tyrannical soul-destroying rectilinear aesthetic obsessions
– an aesthetic which nods derivatively and dutifully to the “signature” modernist roof-top glass box that has been defiantly bolted on to the top of Tate Modern’s own “modernised” historic building. Compounding the offences against art and generosity of spirit that this hi-jacked legacy constitutes, it transpires that the new building already serves (in flagrant breach of the terms of Barnes’ stipulations) as yet one more commercial “events venue”
with a “nice museum attached”
That betrayal has not gone unchallenged. In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer
, Nicholas Tinari, a patent attorney who studied at the Barnes from 1989-91 and later co-founded Barnes Watch in attempt to stop the trustees of the Barnes Foundation from altering the terms of its indenture of trust, speaks of his anger and sadness at the opening of the gallery in Philadelphia: “anger at the gross betrayal of Albert Barnes’ remarkable gift
and sadness “for something truly unique [that] is gone, not only an art collection in the perfect setting, but an original idea.”
Tinari’s heart-felt sadness is realistic – a dream has died. The Barnes experiment is not universally replicable and its high aesthetic demands could certainly not be met in the envisaged relativist talking shops when “In the art museum of the future, we walk into a gallery in which the hum of conversation fills the space”. In François Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ the “book people” are seen wandering around talking to themselves in order to keep alive the chosen book that they have committed to memory in a society where books are outlawed and destroyed as anti-social. In the transformed museum espoused by Burnham and Kai-Kee, the silent contemplation of a painting will give way to group inductions by educators who make themselves “responsible for these dialogues”; who ask to have a central place in the future museum. In practice, such a transformation threatens the greatest gift that a work of art offers: its implicit invitation to individual viewers to think their own thoughts, to have their own responses, to commune in tranquility directly with the artist. That is the great luxury and privilege that the museum makes possible to all comers regardless of wealth and ownership. Michelangelo once said that he was never less alone than when alone with his thoughts. Can art’s educators really not appreciate that guaranteeing to all the circumstances that permit vivid, living personal, one-to-one engagement with art – to the value of which the authors of this book themselves eloquently testify – should be the primary objective of all museum administrators? It is the art itself that is educational. We do not get waylaid in theatres and concert halls by would-be explainers, nor should we in galleries. Art appreciation classes belong in the class-room.
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