American Art from 1676 to the Present Day
Patronage of New York’s foremost modern museums is vested in a few plutocratic families like the Whitneys, Guggenheims, Rockefellers, and Burdens. In addition, foundations great and small help with benefactions, while collectors, dealers, and art fanciers are under incessant pressure to help with donations, subscriptions, committee work, and alms. In the last resort, however, the costs of housing, stocking, and running these private museums are the responsibility of a small group of enormously rich patrons. That they have been generous and progressive no one would deny. They have seldom interfered more than they could help; they have deputed power to museum staffs; they have financed not only the wholesale acquisition of modern works of art but scholarly exhibitions, costly catalogues, and multi-services, as well as the lives of a great many artists. Lastly, for better or worse, they have encouraged their minions to impose a taste for modern art on Manhattan’s formerly tasteless middle classes.
On the face of things, capitalism would appear to have done well by modern art. However, the present system of private patronage is bad in that it lends itself to abuses of all kinds; it puts museum personnel at the mercy of the millionaires, condemns curators to act as fund-raisers, to wander, cocktail glass in one hand, begging bowl in the other, from one identical Park Avenue collection to another. It also encourages the obnoxious dispensation which permits richer citizens to accrue kudos, tax relief, and immunity from guilt in exchange for expendable works of art. The result is that museums risk becoming the clearing-house of the tax-evader; social operators and smart dealers are hailed as modern Medicis. Given the dangers of this system, it is surely time to see whether this absolute reliance on private enterprise could not be replaced by some enlightened form of public—or semi-public—patronage. The Museum of Modern Art is rumored to have toyed with the idea of going public a few years ago. That the Trustees would not hear of it is sad but predictable.
SUCH THOUGHTS are suggested by the opening of the new Whitney. Breuer’s blockhouse is handsome, practical, and economical. The architect has taken a form like a block of steps and stood it on its head, thereby reversing its meaning. Insofar as this conception reflects the modern artist’s concern with the semantics of form, it is admirable. The only trouble is that, as a form, it lays itself open to an unfortunate interpretation: the inversion implies that instead of going forward and up as steps normally do, the Whitney goes backward and down. This is a bad omen for a museum whose function has become more and more anomalous with the years.
When in 1930 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney turned her collection of American Painting into a museum, native art was at a low ebb. Mrs. Whitney’s patronage was all there was; it is hardly surprising that her museum on Eighth Street soon became the power-house of American art, such …