11 June 2015

My Favorite Rant: on Education, Restitution and the Culture of Museums

by Ori Z Soltes

One of the questions that, as a former Museum Director and Curator I remember having frequently asked my staff, my advisory board and myself is: what is the purpose of our museum? Clearly the raison d’être that every visitor observes in visiting a museum is the ingathering and display of objects. But why collect objects, besides, in the case of many of them, particularly in art and ethnographic museums, the fact that they are simply beautiful? There is no question but that most viewers’ eyes will be challenged in the most positive of ways and even, perhaps, their souls softened, by standing before Michelangelo’s David or before a handful of Monet’s explorations of the Rouen Cathedral in different kinds of light. One of the fascinating things about us as a species is that we respond differently to the same work of art and are moved by some works and not by others—one individual’s hour-long meditation before a Rothko painting is another individual’s swift passage by that painting in search of the Bernini sculptures on exhibition three galleries away.

Art museums presumably need and want to take cognizance of these differences and, as far as possible, provide an enjoyable viewing experience to as wide an audience as possible. More than that, though, they should want to help the viewer understand how Michelangelo’s statuary derived from and differed from the sculpture that preceded it and how it led to and yet not necessarily to Bernini’s different sort of visual vocabulary; why and how Monet’s vision offered such a revolutionary departure from the vision of Leonardo and in turn how Rothko, differently, continued that revolution—and how others since Rothko have further shaped the history of how art is made and seen. We want, that is, to educate our audiences—for a better-educated audience is likely to be both a more appreciative audience and one more capable, on occasion, of responding to exhibitions in ways that may lead the Museum itself to think differently and more deeply about the cultural world it engages.

So we don’t collect just to hoard and we don’t collect just to beautify the spaces devoted to what we collect. Museums are an essential part of the ongoing mechanism of not only preserving human culture and its concomitants but of exploring and explaining how civilization has evolved—what human culture is. Our raison d’être is to teach how the paths of art have diverged and converged, again and again across human history and geography; how our vocabularies of style and symbol have interwoven our aesthetic impulses and have articulated our need to access feelings and thoughts beyond the verbally expressible.

With the history of human culture—twisted in a particularly painful direction during the middle of the last century—as a focus, my HARP colleagues and I have been beating on the doors of our museums for nearly twenty years to be educated and to educate their audiences from a particular angle. We have pushed them to be conscious of provenance possibilities for works of art that have made their way into museum collections with certain holes in the accounts of their ownership histories. The results, as readers of the plundered art blog are aware, have been mixed at best. Most recently, of course, the case of Leone Meyer’s claim against the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma for her father’s Nazi-stolen Pissarro has revealed that the museum has never done provenance research on its collections, within which a goodly number of works may well have experienced the same sort of depredational fate that La Bergère experienced at the hands of Alfred Rosenberg’s ERR. They failed to research La Bergère’s ownership history even when specifically warned by a colleague from another museum that it might have been stolen by the Nazis from its pre-war owners.

The point here is not to focus on whether or not La Bergère will end up restituted to the family from which it was taken. That outcome, morally unquestionable (that it be returned to Leone Meyer) remains invisible (due to the vagaries of our law courts), unless one is a prophet, and I am not one. The point, however, is to focus on what lies behind the museum’s failure to inquire into the painting’s ownership past. Appropriately enough, this focus is tangent to the comment made by Eric Sundby, President of the student-run Holocaust Restitution and Remembrance Society at the University of Oklahoma, toward the end of his speech supporting the Oklahoma legislature’s proposal of a bill, HR 1026, that would compel the university’s Fred Jones, Jr. museum to fulfill the provenance research obligation that it has steadfastly ignored. Sundby commented that, as students, he and his organization want their tuition dollars to go not to high-paid lawyers who will defend the museum and university from those demanding restitution of Nazi-plundered paintings, but to education. The point that runs tangent to Sundby’s comment is that every museum, and not only those located on college or university campuses, should be committed to education—that this should be a raison d’être, a priority of museums.

One of the obvious contexts for this priority is, to repeat, the explanation and exploration of the aesthetic developments that connect and disconnect Leonardo and Rothko or Michelangelo and Bernini. Important in quite another way is the information—the explanation and exploration—provided by provenance research, whether in the Holocaust or other contexts. Art has never existed in a vacuum; it has always intersected religion (depicting or exploring or addressing divinity, from Egyptian statuary to Leonardo’s Last Supper) and politics (from the depiction of the pharaoh, Khafra, as god-like, to Jacque-Louis David’s painting of the coronation of Napoleon’s wife by the hand of the self-proclaimed Emperor himself)—and economics (without the financial resources, neither Khafra nor Napoleon could have commissioned the works that immortalize them). Without patronage, artists starve (and many have starved precisely for that lack).

Knowing who has owned a work throughout its history is not a footnote to history but essential to understand the work’s place in history: when all those crowds flock to the Louvre to stare at Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, if it does not occur to them to wonder how that Italian girl painted by that Italian man ended up in Paris, the museum is failing its role as an educational institution if it does not provide that information—clearly, simply, right there, for all who choose to do so to be able to read it, and with that reading, to be able to gain some insights into the history of that era and the art that reflects the era.
La Bergère, by Camille Pissarro
ERR card for La Bergere

The essence of history, well-explained, is, like the root of the word itself, story. This is what humans are all about. This is what works of art so often can be, aside from and in addition to their role as sources of visual pleasure. The story of Leonardo’s dying in the arms of his last patron, the French King, Francis I, to whose court he had come with, among other things, his Mona Lisa as a prized possession, is an important part of understanding who Leonardo was, who Francis was, what Italy and France were and are; it fills in an important as well as compelling part of the picture (pun intended) of the human experience. The story of Leone Meyer’s father’s Pissarro and that of others whose art was plundered, whether by the Nazis or by Soviet trophy squads as the war wound down; the story of what American galleries were doing with regard to plundered art during and after the war—like the story of what and how Napoleon dragged back that obelisk from Egypt that graces the Place de la Concord not far from the Louvre, or how the Romans eighteen centuries earlier dragged obelisks back to Rome—matters, if we wish to have a deeper and broader understanding of what we are as a species.

Leone Meyer
It should matter to museums above all. If our collections are not mere eye candy or mere symptoms of an obsession with hoarding or mere bait for tourists willing to pay money to see what we have gathered within our walls—if we are to be what we claim to be, protectors and preservers of culture (which is why some museums argue that Egyptian or Greek or Turkish antiquities are better off, because they are better protected and preserved, within French or English or German or American museums than in their own original countries; and also why, at the outset of the push during the past two decades to garner cooperation from museums regarding research within their collections with an eye toward the matter of Holocaust-era plunder and restitution, there was such stiff opposition within the museum community: they often asserted that, as bastions of civilization it was unthinkable that they might have ill-gotten gains within their walls)—then museums must exhaust every possibility and extend every effort to educate, teach their audiences and not just show them beautiful works of art.

Stroll through some museums and consider how much information regarding ownership history is available—particularly works that came into the collections between, say, 1935 and 1965. Examine the label next to paintings, perhaps some of those at the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum gifted to the museum by the Weitzenhoffer family and purchased by them from the David Findlay gallery in New York, as they had purchased La Bergère from that gallery and gifted it to the museum; or the label identifying Egon Schiele’s Dead City III, hanging on a wall at the Leopold Museum in Vienna;
Dead City III, by Egon Schiele
 or the label discussing the pastel, Landscape with Smokestacks, by Edgar Degas, at the Art Institute of Chicago;

Landscape with smokestacks, by Edgar Degas

or the label next to that beautiful set of Louis XV furniture at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris that belonged to a Jewish family before the war still struggling to gain acknowledgment of its claim—

Musee Carnavalet
or better, examine the labels of paintings and statuary that have not been claimed by Holocaust survivors or their heirs, that have not made the news, the recent circumstances of which have not forced the museums to think about the information that they provide to their audiences. How much do you get from this examination exercise?

Ask yourself—and if the answer is too minimal and unsatisfactory, ask the museum—what is the story within the history of this painting and who owned it? How did its ownership change, particularly in the last century—particularly between 1930 and 1945? Do it! If the Museums don’t educate the public and if the public doesn’t push the museums to educate them more effectively with regard to this, among the myriad aspects of interest in the discussion of art and culture, then what is the purpose of the museum experience beyond aesthetics? How is civilization being preserved when the key details pertaining to the history of objects created and enjoyed by and bought and sold by or stolen from fellow humans disappears from our telling and our understanding?

If it is to matter, our museum staffs must educate ourselves and care about educating ourselves as much about this as about other aspects of the works that we collect and study; and we must further the educational process by educating our audiences—so that they will continue to press us to be more educated in order to educate them better.

In the realm of Nazi-plundered art there is a further turn to this screw. The educational process—even more than the occasionally achieved restitution of cultural property to its pre-Nazi owners or their heirs that research may yield—is also part of another key aspect of human experience and a facilitator of education regarding civilization (indeed an integral part of the process of shaping civilization): memory. In learning and teaching about Raoul Meyer, or the Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg (no relation to Alfred, of course) or the Dutch banker Fritz Gutmann, we remember those who were an important part of the patronage and ownership of classical and modern art—those whom the Nazis sought not only to divest of their art and their lives but whom they sought to de-humanize and efface from human memory.

Museums’ failures to educate themselves and their audiences regarding those whose works now grace their galleries mark a continuous, posthumous fulfillment of Hitler’s goal of obliteration. Those who make a real effort to learn and teach about those patrons and collectors—often (not always) champions of modern art that had only small audiences in the first third of the twentieth century—offer an ongoing challenge to everything that Hitler and his minions stood for. To offer that challenge is a modest enough and fulfillable goal for institutions claiming to be bastions of civilizations and preservers of human culture.