Founded in 1916, the Association of Art Museum Directors began life as an informal fraternity of museum professionals dedicated to upholding (in the words of its mission statement) "standards of excellence in museum practice." What started with the directors of twelve museums gradually grew larger, formally incorporated in 1969, and now includes nearly 200 members. The aamd has tended to travel the high road. It promulgated a stringent code of ethics for museum professionals, warning against conflicts of interest, using one's position for personal gain, stipulating that "a museum director shall not dispose of accessioned works of art in order to provide funds for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the collection."
The AAMD has also been conspicuously on the side of connoisseurship and "standards of excellence" in the research, collecting, and preservation of works of art. In short, the aamd has been about quality—about the best that has been painted, sculpted, and drawn in the world, to adapt Matthew Arnold's famous formulation. It has stood for irreproachable professional conduct, on the one hand, and artistic and scholarly excellence, on the other.
It's been some twenty years since Michael Brenson, then a critic for The New York Times, informed the world that "quality" was an idea "whose time had gone." The imperatives of multiculturalism had, according to this scribe, rendered the whole issue of artistic standards otiose, branding the effort to distinguish the best from the rest as an outmoded "elitist" activity that was everywhere giving way to the demotic forces of a new populism. "Should the word quality be used?," Brenson wondered. "Probably not." The traditional concern with beauty, craft, and form had to move over. The new watchwords were "access," "diversity," and their cousins. In other words, art was to be regarded as a colony of politics.
It took a while, but the aamd is at last catching up with the tsunami of political correctness Michael Brenson celebrated. In a remarkable piece in The Wall Street Journal last month called "Museums: No More 'Cathedrals of Culture,'" Judith Dobrzynski provides an epitaph for this once stately organization. She reports on the new generation of museum directors and arts administrators for whom "standards of excellence" in museum stewardship are indistinguishable from an exercise in social work. "Many young directors see museums as modern-day 'town squares,'" Dobrzynski writes,
social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps [perhaps?], for conversation or music or whatever ["whatever," indeed]. They believe that future museum-goers won't be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it.
Horrible, isn't it? Why, you might ask, can't they use town squares as town squares and leave art museums alone? One of Dobrzynski's protagonists is Kaywin Feldman, who in June was elected president of the aamd. For administrators like Feldman, Dobrzynski shows, words like "standards" are the enemy, legacies of an outworn tradition in which art was inextricably involved with aesthetic achievement and museums existed primarily to preserve and transmit the cultural capital of the past. If museums were once "cathedrals of culture," administrators like Kaywin Feldman want to transform them into street corners of Pop.
In itself, Ms. Feldman's ambition to "democratize" art museums is nothing new. It has been the rallying cry of cultural vandals at least since the 1960s. Until recently, however, the aamd had been largely successful in resisting the assault. Ms. Feldman aims to change that. She has just the right talents for the job. Among other things, she specializes, as anyone who wants to excel in the new anti-cultural cultural world must, in the practical non sequitur: "We live in a more global, multicultural society that cares about diversity and inclusivity. We're thinking about how we increase our service to the community."
Service to the community," eh? Well, if you are President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, how about "serving the community" by making sure that museums are exhibiting the best art in the most appropriate way? Does every institution have to become a sort of social worker's outreach program? Can't we have some museums as repositories of politically correct thinking over here while still holding on to other museums as places where great art is treasured?
Judith Dobrzynski mentions that the aamd recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in order to "help document and publicize stories about its members' community-service programs. These include activities like bringing art to those with Alzheimer's or post-traumatic stress disorder, and farming crops for donation to local food banks. The goal is 'making art essential to everyone.'"
Farming crops? We suppose it's better to laugh than to weep. The absurdity is patent enough. If only we had an Evelyn Waugh or Jonathan Swift on hand to satirize it effectively.