The Future Of House Museums

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The New York Sun

Philanthropists such as Dr. Albert Barnes, Henry Clay Frick, and Isabella Stewart Gardner are known to the art-going public for creating institutions that reflect their personal tastes and visions as collectors.

House museums by these and others are both private, domestic spaces and public meetinghouses. But in practical terms, is this an oxymoron? How does a house museum balance obligations to both donor intent and fidelity to the founder’s time and taste, while maintaining access for scholars and the interested public? Can one retain the flavor of a private space while satisfying public curiosity?

These were among the issues raised last week at a panel presented by the Frick Collection in association with Knoedler & Company, the gallery that Henry Clay Frick relied on to improve his collection. The panel was part of the Frick’s “Dialogues on Art” series.

Addressing these questions in a wide-ranging program, “The House Museum: The Intersection of Public and Private Art Collecting,” were leaders from notable American museums: the Preservation Society of Newport County chief executive officer, Trudy Coxe; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director, Anne Hawley; Norton Simon Museum senior curator, Carol Togneri, and Tufts University art history professor, Andrew McClellan.A senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Joseph Rishel, moderated the discussion.

Some of the discussion focused on differences from the “encyclopedic” collections in larger museums, which often tend to categorize objects chronologically by country or type. This can seem “ripped out of context” one panelist said. Period rooms are a way of restoring that context.

The Knickerbocker spoke with audience member Sara Griffen, who is president of the Olana Partnership, the nonprofit support arm of Olana State Historical Society in Hudson, N.Y. She said it shows in a way how rare such discussions on house museums are that so many who work at them leapt to hear what their counterparts were saying.

She particularly responded to Ms. Hawley’s comment that Isabella Stewart Gardner built the house as a work of art. Likewise, Ms. Griffen said, Olana is considered to be Frederick Church’s greatest work of art. The building sits amidst 250 acres of property. Church, she said, once noted he could make better landscapes through designing that property than with a canvas and paint.

She also said it was interesting to hear that other museum houses were dealing with the issue of relevancy. “Each generation,” Ms. Griffen said, “changes in the way it perceives the house and what they respond to. How much can they or should they change in adapting to reflect different interests” over time is an issue.

The panel – the proceeds of which benefited the Frick Art Reference Library – reflects the library’s interest in the subject of collecting. It has recently established a Center for the History of Collecting in America.

One speaker described the domestic interiors and otherworldly luxury as “a cross between ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.'” Another said after leaving the Frick, you leave guilt free because “you’ve seen it all.” Whereas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s always something you missed.

Ms. Hawley talked about educational outreach to five neighborhood schools within walking distance from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She also brought up the artist-in-residence program.

They are “trying to do what Mrs. Gardner did – support young artists when they need nurturing.”

Ms. Togneri said she came from the Getty, with a staff of about 1,600, to the Norton Simon Museum, with a staff of about 50. She said the Norton was also working with schools, trying to become more “curricular based.” With nearby colleges such as Claremont College and Occidental College, the collections can be useful to students who can look at art instead of just Power Point presentations or slides in classrooms.

Ms. Coxe raised the issue of relevancy: “Are we reaching the public without dumbing the message down?”

One study found that visitors are more interested in practical realities: How did the home run? What was the cost to heat it? How many people did it take to run a house?

Ms. Coxe said her museum is adapting its walking tours and using selfguided audio tours that allow visitors to stay in rooms for as long as they wish.

The New York Sun

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