On November 5, 1913, Los Angeles inaugurated the Owens River Valley Aqueduct, ensuring the city its first dependable water supply. The following day, amid great ceremony, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art opened to the public. The businessmen behind the museum clearly saw the institution as the mark of a civil society, essential to attracting the talent necessary to turn a backwater into a thriving metropolis.
In 1963, when the National Endowment for the Arts was established “so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy,” the bill passed with strong bipartisan support; the country still saw the arts as a public good. By the end of the 1980s, however, the Endowment was under siege from the right and left, trying to sustain itself amid “culture wars” that focused on works such as Andreas Serrano’s image of a crucifix in urine and Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs. The vitriol camouflaged the Endowment’s broad support of US cultural traditions in theaters, symphonies, and museums in major cities and small towns alike.
Since then, the arts and arts institutions have frequently been lambasted as “elitist.” On October 1, 2007, Robert Reich, President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, declared in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, “a big portion of charitable contributions go to ‘culture palaces’: to the operas, art museums, symphonies and theaters where the wealthy spend much of their leisure time.”
Reich’s bit of stereotyping promotes ignorance about these institutions. Most museum visitors are certainly not rich. Repositories of the legacy of the entire country, museums belong to everyone. At Carnegie Museum of Art, our collections and exhibitions offer the opportunity to find meaning in contemplation and the essential human capacity to create something from nothing. We serve virtually every sector of Pittsburgh’s population, from school groups to seniors. There is little art in the public schools, so we teach teachers to teach art, promoting the creative thinking that our country needs to compete in the global economy. We work with medical schools to improve students’ observation skills, and have special programs for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Those with ACCESS cards can come to the museum for $1 and bring up to three guests. This program’s astounding growth over the last three years attests to the needs of people in difficult times for affordable, quality leisure-time activities.
Reich also proposed a tiered tax code in which a donation that overtly helps the poor, say to the Salvation Army, would get a full deduction, while donors to other nonprofits would earn deductions on only half their contribution. Reich makes a false distinction between “real” and “fake” charities, but recently, at an Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) meeting, I learned that the threat of a tiered system is real. In an overhaul of the tax code that could come before the end of 2012, museums could lose their tax-exempt status or see it radically reduced. This would be devastating, gravely curtailing our capacity to function at the highest level.
Today in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar, celebrity architects are building museums to help lure the shapers of a 21st-century world economy. Other countries are taking the initiative we took 100 years ago, while we regress. We can’t allow this to happen. Too often defined by others, our field must begin to craft our own public image, and we must act now.
Until next month,