A Contemporary Art Museum?

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The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, photo © 2012 Michael Maurer Smith

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which is located on the campus of Michigan State University, is, quoting their website, “Expressly dedicated to exploring contemporary culture and ideas through the probing gaze of international artists, the MSU Broad is a place where artists’ ideas, words, and actions create a vibrant center for questioning and understanding the world.”

Housed in a stunning building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the 2004 Pritzker prize winning architect, and financed by the largess of Eli Broad, the “Broad,” as it is called around here, has generated a vast range of reaction. Some people love it. Some loath it. But few who know about the place remain indifferent to it.

A museum, by definition, is a place in which objects of established historical, scientific and cultural significance are housed and exhibited. So then how can there be a museum of contemporary art? How can art being made in our current social and cultural milieu already be deemed worthy of preservation and veneration?

The Broad, in its current guise, succeeds in provoking thought—encouraging the visitor to ask such questions as:

  • Is what I am seeing/experiencing Art? Why or why not?
  • Am I open to seeing and perceiving in new and uncomfortable ways?
  • Does the Art reside in the object? Or does it reside in the guiding concept?
  • Am I, the viewer/experiencer, necessary to complete this art by my presence?
  • What knowledge of art should I bring to this encounter?
  • Do I need to broaden my thinking about what art can be?

The Broad, however, continues to struggle with its identity. Who is it for? What is its fundamental purpose? It calls for people to come and be culturally and artistically enriched, even as it confronts them with art that is often alien to their life experience, comfort level, knowledge, education, tastes and values. This, of course, is a good thing—provoking curiosity and learning—expanding the individual’s horizons. But it is also the privileging of the artistic values and tastes of the museum directors, curators, art collectors, dealers, investors and the art press who decide what will be shown and promoted and what they currently consider a good investment—but not art that has proven worthy over time.

In my opinion the Broad should not be called a museum or pretend to be one. It cannot promise that what it shows today will be remembered as significant one, five, ten or a hundred years from now. Instead it should call itself what it is—The Eli and Edythe Broad Contemporary Art Center.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

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