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Cuno describes challenges, importance of art museums

Eileen Duffy | Friday, February 11, 2005

In his talk entitled “Why Art Museums are Essential: the Challenges and Opportunities of Directing an Art Musuem,” James Cuno, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, offered insight into the roles art museums play in society and the importance of sharing art on an international level.”I am going to talk seriously and passionately about a topic which means a great deal to me: the role of art museums in civic life,” Cuno said at the beginning of the speech. Cuno listed various expectations society has placed on art museums, believing museums should serve in many capacities including “shopping, dining, musical and educational.””Art museums are different things to different people,” he said. “Often sitting unhappily in this mix are the works of art themselves.”For Cuno, art museums are public, social institutions.”Like a land trust, they set aside things of public value and seek to preserve them forever,” Cuno said.He also compared art museums to agencies for the protection of endangered species, as they seek to protect something vital to people.”Works of art are important for the understanding of humankind, for the understanding of its past, present and future,” he said. “Like a rich natural environment, art is good for us too.”Cuno said an incredible burden lies on an art museum’s staff.”People who work at an art museum have the responsibility to choose things they think are worthy of spending the museum’s current money on as well as spending the money to preserve [these works of art] for all of time,” he said. “It’s an enormous responsibility.”Cuno then addressed an argument he very much disagrees with.”Some say museums are ‘identity-affirming institutes’ where, if a patron does not ‘see himself’ in a work of art, he’ll be intimidated,” he said. “Nothing in my experience suggests this is true.”Recalling his less-than-privileged childhood in a military family, Cuno noted that in art museums, “nothing seemed inaccessible” to him. He remembered looking at and appreciating pictures of Catholic saints (though he wasn’t Catholic), portraits of rich people (though he wasn’t rich) and Chinese and African artifacts (though he wasn’t Chinese or African).”Nothing was beyond my reach,” he said. “Rather, I was inspired by the visual appeal [of the object] to step outside myself and appreciate the object itself.”For Cuno, as a young child, looking at art was a way to connect with earlier humans.”They, too, cared about creating and protecting beautiful and fragile things,” he said. “I was, in no small way, a part of something larger.”Thus, Cuno said, art museums have the power to expand, rather than narrow our view of the world. The visitor can focus on what unites the various cultures of the world rather than what divides them.Cuno expressed his frustration with the growing trend for nations to ask for an end to the international trade of antiquities, saying these goods should remain in their original countries. For example, both Italy and China have recently requested that archaeological and artistic goods spanning hundreds of years of their history be banned from entering the United States.Cuno is a major believer in “partage,” or the sharing of archaeological findings in order to promote international unity.”The benefit of a museum’s permanent collection is just that: it’s permanent, available for visits throughout a lifetime. Sure, some people could go to China to see such objects, but for what percentage of U.S. citizens would that be likely?” he asked. “Besides, there is a distinct benefit of seeing these goods in the context of other cultures’ works.”Cuno emphasized the idea of preserving the world’s common artistic findings and rejected an idea offered during the question-and-answer session about a constantly touring international collection of pieces.”First, there is an inherent risk to the objects themselves – they could get lost, damaged or even destroyed,” he said. “Second, over the course of a lifetime, many people could miss it – they might not be in the right place at the right time.”Cuno’s idea of frequent access to works of art was a common thread throughout the lecture, and he touched on it again to reject the idea of a touring collection of priceless international works.”We wouldn’t be able to return to the pieces frequently,” he said. “Art museums are a means by which to break down simplistic notions of other people’s. You can’t come to that understanding all at once – you need frequent access.”