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High anxiety

The High Museum won the popularity contest with its brand-name blockbuster shows, but at what cost?

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For the past 10 years, Shapiro's gained an international reputation for brokering spectacular partnerships with top-flight institutions such as the Louvre and New York's MoMA. He's also become known for advancing the museum as the regional destination for large, headline-making shows that originate outside of Atlanta, even as many High curators and museum supporters have pushed for riskier shows and more homegrown fare.

Shapiro dismisses the idea that the museum's so-called blockbusters make for overly conservative programming. "My job is to bring great art to Atlanta," he says. "And if that's determined by someone to be a blockbuster, that's fine. That's not the way we think about it. By definition general museums have a number of agendas, itineraries, programs that work simultaneously. One of our programs has to do with contemporary art. By definition, one can never do as much as one would like to."

He's got a point. Although inhabitants of Atlanta's art world never tire of pining for the greener grass of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts or Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, such comparisons are misleading. The High isn't a contemporary art museum. It's a generalist museum that surveys centuries of art across several continents and cultures. Contemporary art is just one concern alongside significant commitments to African art, decorative arts, folk art, and premodern European art.

To further complicate the museum's high-wire act, it's by far the biggest museum in the Southeast and has to serve a wide variety of constituents of a dizzying array of ages, ethnicities, tastes and geographic origins.

But if the museum faces external challenges, it also faces internal ones that weaken its programming in the eyes of some in Atlanta's art community. Museum insiders interviewed for this story describe a board of directors unwilling to question Shapiro's overall vision of the institution while being too willing to sacrifice the museum's artistic ambitions at the altar of its business goals. "Here, the bottom line is the bottom line," says a young staffer. "They don't promote a critical discourse within the administration."

The High Museum's not unique in this aspect. Museums across the country have been accused of focusing too much on the bottom line, particularly as the recession has prompted many to schedule an abundance of safe, likable shows. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter let loose on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, for "renting acres of Turners [and] Courbets," two extremely popular 19th century painters. And the Brooklyn Museum has been the subject of months of opinionating, also in the pages of the Times, as the museum reels from accusations that an exhibition of Star Wars props and a partnership with Bravo's reality TV show "Work of Art," among other recent exhibits, have been nothing but cynical grabs for ticket sales.

A seemingly similar focus on turnstile-friendly shows is in full effect at the High. "For Atlanta artists and maybe for the arts community, my sense is that the High is almost irrelevant, and that's a very strange thing to be true for a major art institution that gets the bulk of the funding in the city," says a high-profile local art collector speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A wide swath of current and former museum staff members agree. Many say they'd like to see the museum become the Southeast's standard-bearer for relevant contemporary art. They'd like to see Atlanta artists and the larger public gain access to cutting-edge artistic ideas, as well as for the museum to better represent the wider region. That can happen only if the rest of the world takes the museum seriously as a home for contemporary art.

Insiders say the museum's curators often fight an uphill battle when they attempt to show what they see as the most vital and relevant art for Atlanta audiences. They say there's no shortage of curators who propose contemporary projects and exhibitions based on input from the art community — only to find the proposals stall out in the face of funding shortfalls and lackluster administrative support. The result has been frustration and low staff morale.

"Look," said a former staff member who asked to not to be identified, "the museum reflects Michael Shapiro's vision and his vision is not very open to other ideas. Michael Shapiro is very good at what he does, but he brooks no opposition."

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