Gary Tinterow. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (via).
Here’s another report on a DeFINE Art lecture, Gary Tinterow on “Building the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Tinterow is the Engelhard Curator in Charge of the new Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art. His voice sounds remarkably like John Malkovich’s, but without the arrogance.
It’s interesting to hear how a museum established in 1870 carries out the mission of the founding members. Each slide presented a capsule of the collection’s evolution through time. The early galleries featured elaborately framed paintings stacked like puzzle pieces in salon-style displays, as seen in the homes of New York collectors in the 19th century—framing choices reflect their personal tastes. Tinterow says, “filling in the gaps between collections… is what we do at The Met.” It is apparent that curating is seeing relationships between the works. Today, the modern paintings are organized by artists’ rooms, but a glimpse through the doorway connects to another piece related to and honoring the collector/donor.
Tinterow describes the early history of the museum as a repository for the community’s interest in European art. Only recently has it started acquiring the works of living contemporary artists. Some work is too expensive to purchase with limited budgets. Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, for instance, was merely on loan for three years. He notes that borrowing is another way of displaying contemporary art if the funds aren’t available. Besides collectors’ bequeaths, The Met believes that deaccessioning funds allow for new purchases to fill in the gaps for a well-rounded collection. There is controversy surrounding deaccessioning, so the museum looks to this option only if the donor allows it.
Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge, installation view, 2006.
In recent years, Tinterow has invited artists such as Kara Walker to interpret the collection. Additionally, the rooftop provides a unique space for displaying and viewing contemporary art like the work of Jeff Koons, which Tinterow says is “appealing to the public.” As a curator, he focuses on the museum’s display patterns. It is clear that his curatorial practice considers that the collection is connected by place—whether to the artist, the work, the collector, or where it was made. One thing that struck me was the frequent comparison to the MoMA’s practices. There is a competitive tension between the two institutions that is worth looking into as a footnote.
While this is a nitpick, I found it surprising that Tinterow used the artist’s name in plural form to describe the number of works in the museum’s collection. Art historian Thomas Crow believes that this act does an injustice to the work. In The Intelligence of Art, Crow writes:
The simplest act of substitution is to put the name of a maker in the place of his or her work, which amounts to a paraphrase in itself … All paraphrase sets aside the original: To put the name in place of the painting is to remove it from immediate consciousness; to narrate the life of an individual is an act profoundly different from looking into a painting and one that cannot be conducted simultaneously with it. To substitute a temporal narrative, already present in a name, for the physical work of art is to give up those features of the thing that were transient and unrepeatable, bound to a moment that is irrevocably ended.
On the other hand, the lecture was directed towards Savannah’s art community, which is comprised of students, professors, and locals. Paraphrasing - though it is derogatory - is simply a way to communicate with the public.
In closing, I’m so glad I attended the lecture because it was a completely different historical and curatorial perspective of The Met than I am familiar with. Even my professor, Alexandria Pierce, was surprised because she couldn’t find an in-depth history of the material. Every tidbit of antiquity left his lips with a slight smile of passion. I wish the images from the slideshow were accessible because I would like to illustrate these points. Afterward, I very much wanted to wander the galleries again! But I’m still waiting for the accessibility of teleportation.