Tag Archives: Seattle Art Museum

In tough times, SAM’s calculated gamble

By Bob Hicks

The "Art Ladder," the main staircase of the original Robert Venturi portion of the Seattle Art Museum. The visible statues are Chinese funerary statues: two rams and a civilian guardian. May 5, 2007. Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street cowboys keep whoopin’ it up with other people’s money, the Dow dips and rises like a desperate trout on a line, the economists crunch numbers and announce happily that the recession’s over.

And in the real world, people brace for the worst. Jobs disappear. People take pay cuts and thank their lucky stars they didn’t get pink-slipped. Workers go on unpaid furloughs but keep the same old workloads. Basic benefits get deep-sixed. People simply drop out of the job market.

The state of Oregon trembles at the prospect of a half-billion-dollar shortage — a budget hole that will mean extraordinary cuts that are bound to include deep whacks in state cultural spending. This year’s crisis could make last year’s $1.8 million raid on the Oregon Cultural Trust seem like a mild practical joke. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Doors will shut.

Up north, they’re starting to swing already. In a bold and risky move, the Seattle Art Museum has announced that it will shut down most of its operations for two weeks early next year in a bid to cut costs enough to balance the budget. Janet I. Tu has the story in the Seattle Times. The cuts will also include a seven percent reduction in staffing and hefty salary cuts for top administrators.

“We are taking steps to remedy a tough situation,” said museum director Derrick Cartwright, who plans to take at least a fifteen percent salary cut. “I hope it will not impact the public.”

It will, of course. People will show up during those two weeks and the doors will be locked. Some people will be confused or disturbed or angry. Others will shrug their shoulders and possibly never show up again.

SAM and other major regional museums hold special roles in their communities. Even more than a symphony or opera or ballet or theater company, all of which routinely take breaks between performances, an art museum is looked on as a bulwark of reliability and stability. It’s expected to be open, except on Mondays. Only shutting down or curtailing a public library or a public school system — realities that more and more communities face — has a greater potential impact on a city’s sense of its cultural self.

On the other hand: When times are lean, what can you do but take extraordinary steps? SAM’s move is a calculated gamble. It’s more than budget-balancing, it’s shock therapy. Will potential donors see the move as tough, hard-headed pragmatism, or will they see an organization in trouble and tiptoe away? Obviously SAM is counting on the former: People will see an organization willing to make tough but necessary decisions and will want to put their money on the group that willingly faces reality. SAM could end up a “winner” in the increasingly difficult nonprofit funding race — but at what cost?

What do you think? Is this a smart move? How will it turn out? What can other cultural organizations learn from it, and is Seattle’s situation a harbinger of things to come in Portland? Let’s get the ideas rolling. Comments, please.


PHOTO: The “Art Ladder”, the main staircase of the original Robert Venturi portion of the Seattle Art Museum. The visible statues are Chinese funerary statues: two rams and a civilian guardian. May 5, 2007. Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons.

Repatriating art: SAM gives something sacred back

Nothing Sacred, the title of a 1937 Carole Lombard screwball comedy proclaimed, and Ben Hecht’s hilarious, hardboiled movie script pretty much summed up the American attitude on the subject: There is, indeed, nothing sacred — nothing not fit for examining, dissecting, debunking, putting on display for the amusement or edification of the curious public.

National Museum of Australia Director Craddock Morton greets Paula McClusky, curator of African and Oceanic art at Seattle Art Museum, as she returns an aboriginal object. Phot: Lannon Harley via Artdaily.orgWhy not turn cadavers into posed objects for museum display, as hugely popular shows such as Body Worlds do? They’re only mummified skin and bone. Any resemblance to any actual living human being who once inhabited this “plastinated” shape is purely on the surface, and inconsequential, anyway: It’s not as if the stiff is alive.

It’s all so rational. And, yes, there’s so much to legitimately poke fun at (Elmer Gantry and his heirs) or fear (suicide bombers stoked on righteousness). Faith, or its misconception, has made a mess of a lot.

And yet, much of the world simply doesn’t agree with modern rationalism and the intellectual assumption of superiority that so often accompanies it. And much of the world has a point. Do we keep getting into these foolish, messy wars partly because we find it hard to imagine that belief is important — that for some people, the sacred trumps self-interest? In snickering at the earnestness of evangelicals, does blue America simply mock something it hasn’t even tried to understand?

The question becomes fascinating when you extend it to indigenous cultures, where so often “sacred” and “secular” don’t really exist as opposite or even separate categories. It’s here, especially, where Western ideas of science and art run into troubles. Tenets that make perfect sense in the European tradition simply don’t apply. So we get a battle, for instance, over the remains of Kennewick Man.

In the museum world, repatriation is a hot, hot issue. It has to do with history, and the spoils of imperialism, and national pride, and the disputed rights of original ownership. Originating countries such as Greece, Italy and Egypt are firm in their demands that looted or casually sold artworks be returned (even if, sometimes, they simply land in the basements of already overstocked home-country museums). Art stolen by Nazis from Jewish collectors or sold on the cheap to finance escape from the Nazis is going off of museum walls and into the hands of the original collectors’ heirs. Now that Athens has a top-rate new museum at the Acropolis, repatriation advocates are arguing that the last remaining excuse for keeping the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum has crumbled away.

In the murky world of rightful ownership, repatriation isn’t always the clear-cut issue it seems at first glance. Issues of availability to a broad audience, of ability to display objects in a broader artistic context, and of the ability to keep objects in a safe environment and care for them adequately also are legitimate parts of the debate.

But what if the work in question isn’t even considered art in the eyes of its originating culture? That twists the argument in intriguing ways, and in one case this week, with a surprising result: The Seattle Art Museum has returned a sacred Aboriginal object to Australia — and SAM initiated the repatriation. Australia’s National Indigenous Times tells the story here, and Artdaily.org also reports.

You can’t see the object in the photo above, because the object isn’t meant to be seen by a general audience. SAM has had it in its collection since 1970, but it’s never put it on display. It’s being called a “secret/sacred object” that would be used by an Aboriginal man in religious ceremonies. And that means that, although from a Western viewpoint it might be an interesting anthropological and aesthetic object, from an Aboriginal viewpoint it’s off-limits to anyone but its owner/user.

In other words: It’s something sacred. And SAM — especially Pamela McClusky, the museum’s curator of African and Oceanic art — decided that that meant it doesn’t belong in an American museum. It belongs back where it began.

Regina Hackett, the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic who now writes on her Art Journal blog Another Bouncing Ball, has a good insider’s take:

A student of Robert Farris Thompson‘s, McClusky is not your ordinary art curator. Like Thompson, she embraces the meaning first peoples give the objects that they create. She is far more likely to see the central Australian Aboriginal object in question as elders see it, rather than in purely aesthetic terms.

Once the object came to her attention, it was as good as gone.

“It’s something that is not to be seen by men who have not been initiated, by women or by children, and it’s intended to be kept in a relatively sacred, secret place, usually a cave,” ABC Canberra quotes McClusky.

The network further quotes her:

The museum has been displaying Australian Aboriginal art and a lot of Australians had been coming through and I would always say “do you want to come down to storage and see this material we have” and they would say “not a stone, that shouldn’t be here.”

Now, it’s not.

As Hackett reports, the object isn’t quite home yet, wherever “home” might be: “The National Museum of Australia will store the object temporarily while consultations proceed regarding its final repatriation.”

It’ll be fascinating to see where this object finally lands. Except that maybe it’s none of our business, and we just won’t find out. And maybe that’s alright.

More about money and art: Lehman Brothers, Seattle Art Museum, Oregon Symphony and Brad Cloepfil

So we will continue our meditation on the connection between art and money. Which really, we hate to do — the connection makes things messy in so many ways, and when we are thinking about the connection we aren’t thinking about the art. But we are thinking about the conditions that make art possible, for better or worse, so we will persevere, at least through a series of related links.

First, of all, Bloomberg’s Lindsay Pollack notes that bankrupt investment bank Lehman Brothers has something on the order of 3,500 contemporary art works in its collection and wonders what will happen to it now. There must not be an accessible list of the art, because Pollack’s own list is rather sketchy — though it includes work by Louise Nevelson and Jasper Johns, not to mention Damian Hirst. But the article does give us a sense of the long history of the Lehman name in art circles — there is a Robert Lehman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after all, named after the grandson of the founder of the bank.

Closer to home, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Regina Hackett notes the VERY close connection between the Seattle Art Museum and Washington Mutual, the huge savings and loan which is both under great financial pressure and looking for a buyer as we type this. The two share a building in downtown Seattle in a complex arrangement that the museum used to finance the extension, designed by Portland’s own Brad Cloepfil. The museum says it has its bases covered, no matter what happens to WaMu, but Hackett has found some folks who aren’t so sure.

Closer still, Art Scatter friend David Stabler, at The Oregonian, found out that the Oregon Symphony hasn’t detected any deterioration in the financial commitments of its patrons. This could be a “Planet Arts” phenomena (see post below), but it is encouraging, nonetheless. And he found the silver lining in all of this:

How many times have we heard that the arts should be run more like businesses? Well, Brian Dickie, General Director of Chicago Opera Theatre in Chicago (the small company, not Lyric Opera), hopes he never hears that again, “given what CEOs with MBAs from the major business schools have managed to do to some of the country’s largest financial institutions.”

All we can say is, sweet!

And finally, speaking of Brad Cloepfil, he’s at the heart of the beast in New York City, where his redesign of 2 Columbus Circle is unveiling. Another Scatter friend, Inara Verzemnieks, is there and she’s been posting about it on OregonLive and had a front page story about it in today’s Oregonian. For us the key quote came at the end (consider this a spoiler alert):

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at Cloepfil’s building is that it is not bold enough, not enough of a break with the past. But this blurring of past and present seemed to be what Cloepfil wanted. He seemed to like playing with the tension between what you thought you remembered — is that the lollipop building? — and what you now see. That it was possible for the two to occupy the same space.

“The ambiguity of memory,” he said. “Isn’t that sometimes the nature of cities?”

We’d much rather end with the ambiguity of memory than the ambiguity of money.