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The explosive international museum building boom of the last decade is by now very old news, followed as it was by a period of painful retrenchment. While the collapse of the 1990s bubble economy in the museum world continues to inhibit the artistic mission of countless institutions around the world, museum directors and boards continue to display an abiding faith in the so-called "Bilbao effect," the urban renaissance induced by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in the economically depressed northern Spanish industrial city of Bilbao. Art and architecture journals regularly report new museum building programs throughout the country, casting art museums as arguably the most prominent patrons of advanced contemporary architecture, particularly in the United States.
Driven by the ballooning financial demands imposed by their newly expanded facilities and programming (not to mention the debt service incurred by ill-advised construction bond issues), museums have experimented with management structures derived from corporate models. As such, they have also emerged as high-profile clients of a kind of product design through their aggressive appropriation of branding and marketing strategies.
The recent name change and launch of a new graphic identity by the Museum of Arts and Design, the former American Craft Museum, not to mention the high-profile controversy surrounding its plans to alter Edward Durrell Stone's Huntington Hartford at 2 Columbus Circle, has effectively drawn considerable public attention and debate to a significant, even radical, programmatic shift at this institution. The recent tweaking of the Museum of Modern Art's graphic identity through the subtle alterations to its typeface was deemed eminently newsworthy by the New York Times, which covered the minutiae of the changes in exhaustive detail.
Underlying all of these developments, however, is the widespread perception that design is somehow newly ascendant in American culture and in its museums, especially those devoted to the display of fine art. Newsweek Magazine, for example, devoted an entire issue to the topic in the Autumn of 2003.
There is also a pointed suggestion of increasing competition among museums covering design in New York City, where specialized museums like the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; the Museum of Arts and Design; and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to name only a few, collectively present a wide array of design-related exhibitions and programming.
Countless other museums have also entered the discussion, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem with its current exhibition "Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor," featuring the work of more than a dozen Harlem-based architects invited to examine the community's future. In recent years other specialized institutions have entered the fray, like the Jewish Museum with a successful display of Anni Albers's textiles and Scandinavia House with an Arne Jacobsen exhibition.
Finally, while the future of architecture and design programming at the Guggenheim is not clear, the expanding design collections and exhibition programs in the city's largest museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and of course the Museum of Modern Art, reinforce the sense that design in all of its disciplines is indeed central to the mission of art museums in New York and throughout the country.
Less understood, however, is the historical fact that the inclusion of the applied arts in North American museums is far from unprecedented. In a 1916 address to the American Association of Museums, John Cotton Dana, the visionary founder of the Newark Museum, called for "Increasing the Usefulness of Museums." Fundamental to his museology was his contention that collections and exhibitions must illustrate industries that served to advance and develop civilization; under his direction, the Newark Museum mounted displays of contemporary glassware, textiles, ceramics, and even plumbing fixtures, presenting them all as exemplars of common beauty available to all.
Another unlikely, though hardly unique, example is the Haggin Museum, a small encyclopedic museum founded in 1928 in Stockton California, which includes presentations of minor Hudson River School and French painting, period rooms, ancient Roman glass, European and Oriental decorative arts, agricultural machinery, Native American art and artifacts, photography, and so forth.
The recent profusion of art-making that takes architecture and design as its subject matter is an amusing coincidence to the current institutional embrace of design. This is an art that attempts to explore a vaunted intersection of art and design, even as it most often misapprehends the very process and purpose of design. Throughout the last half century, numerous artists have experimented with design disciplines, most notably Donald Judd's furniture-making. But Judd clearly understood his design work as distinct from his sculpture and took pains to explain what he was up to.
Today, the standard trope, a "blurring" of the line between high art and functional objects, as the movement was described in a recent issue of Art News, is by now a common critical dodge. Whatever else may be left behind after this blurring is complete, only rarely is it design. We may get, perhaps, a representation of a design object or a comment upon design, the most common an implied critique of the ideological failures of high modernism.
This current fascination with architecture and design corresponds to a broader art world enthusiasm for craft and bricolage; a physical "making" of works of art, that is nonetheless moored in the conceptualism that characterizes contemporary art. It is, above all, an art that aims to entertain and to please. Still, as witty and beautiful as these works often are, they offer at best a selective understanding of design. Museum curators have mostly accepted this "blur" uncritically, with the consequence that the supposed merger of disciplines has so far not occurred.
For the design professions, the art world critique offers little of use to the process of problem solving that remains central to the designer's practice. As always, technical innovation in the tools of design tends to drive progress in formal expression of design. The innovations of "blob" architecture, to cite the most obvious example, are the direct consequence of a revolution in computer-generated design. For its part, the art world appears concerned only with the impulse to adopt the look and style and even the glamor of high modernism, offering little more than nostalgia, a wistful retrospective gaze at the failed utopias of the last century.
More troubling, this enthusiasm for design on the part of museums has exposed numerous internal contradictions, and not just the confusion over the interplay of art and design in the culture. A sometimes virulent resistance to the presence of design in the art museum persists. The forthcoming display of fashion photography at the Museum of Modern Art is most notable for the fact that the Modern has never before deemed fashion photography-let alone fashion-worthy of display.
Much more disturbing though is the often earnest and sanctimonious debate within the museum world about questions surrounding the funding of design exhibitions. Recent shows on the work of Charles and Ray Eames and the Japanese cosmetics firm Shiseido, both extraordinarily penetrating, contextualizing examinations of important 20th-century visual culture, were openly faulted at a curatorial conference organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2000.
Not only were these shows attacked for their presence in the art museum, as horrifying as that was for these critics, but the role of exhibition funders and their interests were consistently misrepresented. Participants uncritically cited, for example, a Los Angeles Times account of sales by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shop of Eames-design objects during the run of that show as an unqualified evil.
Much like the "Sensation" controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the conflict predictably degenerates into a deeply confused and moralistic debate over who pays for presentations of art and design and who benefits - and how - from its public presentation: exhibition funders, artists or designers, their estates, manufacturers, retailers, or even curators, collectors, and museums themselves.
One supposes that we are expected to believe, professionals and the public alike, that an exhibition of an artist's works in a prominent museum does not somehow validate the artist's reputation and career, with happy consequences for the value of the art. It is no wonder, then, that the issue can be so readily exploited for other ends.
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Thomas F. Reynolds is a museum administrator who most recently worked for the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. He was also an assistant to counsel for enforcement at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.