Where are the paintings?

February 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Youth | Arthur Mathews | Oakland Museum

The remaking of the Oakland Museum’s art department continues to spark considerable discussion. What was previously a chronological hanging of California art has given way to a more multidisciplinary approach. This exchange of correspondence between artist Jeff Bellerose and chief curator Philip Linhares offers two prevailing viewpoints.

On 2/7/11 5:03 PM, “jeff bellerose” wrote:

Dear Mr. Linhares:

I was given your email by one of the art guides at the Oakland Museum and I wanted to write to you concerning my visit to your museum. I have long been an enthusiastic supporter of the Oakland Museum, but it is difficult to express my profound disappointment at the new renovation.

The history floor, to start nicely, is very well done — interactive and intriguing and a fine design to try and include and involve kids and adults in the recreation of historical moments. However, the art floor, which has always been my primary reason for visiting, was lacking in, well, art. Where are the paintings?

To be specific, the Oakland Museum has one of the best collections of California art in the world. But the new design seems to prefer hiding all of the works in storage rather than showing them to the public. First off, the layout is more like an amusement park than an art museum. I understand the idea of trying to make the art accessible to kids and trying to pull in greater attendance, but the way to improve the appreciation of art is by having people look at art. Currently, there are so few paintings in your art gallery you should change the name. Plus, they are hung such as to completely discourage looking at them — crowded in corners, stuck in mock rooms behind ropes — everything feels like it is placed in a hallway, where it is never comfortable to stop and examine a work.

But that isn’t even the biggest frustration. You have most likely the greatest collection of Arthur Mathews paintings in the world, and you have what, 3 hanging? No Maynard Dixon, one Hill, one Keith, almost no older work, etc. I understand that museums always have most of their stuff in storage, but you have probably one-tenth of the paintings on display that you had BEFORE the renovations. This is a travesty. I literally have more paintings hanging in my tiny, crappy, poorman’s apartment (this isn’t even a joke). And moreover, you have what, 1% of your overall collection out? I have always felt that museums have an obligation to the public — if a private organization is to consume all of the great works of art, than it is imperative that there is some access to it for the public, but the new museum has removed almost all of the work from view. These are important cultural works. Art is a subversive text for people to study and learn, it is about the history of ideas, culture and insight and the museum has chosen to remove most of these works from view. The guide I spoke with mentioned that there was an intention to rotate the works more frequently, but unless this means you are rotating paintings every 10 minutes, I and everyone interested in art will have to wait another 40 years to see any portion of Mathews work (or anyone else, for that matter).

I don’t want to sound like I am just complaining, but I feel this is an extremely important issue. If you look at the books for comments that are placed around the maze, they are full of kids comments. Not a single one actually mentions the art. How are planning on establishing a sustaining interest in art when the museum has chosen to create a space design for flippant viewing. There is no place to actually look, to commune with the work, to feel comfortable studying the paintings. The only gallery in the whole museum that suggested any incentive to look at the walls was the Diebenkorn section, which was nice, but it still felt like an airport, a place to pass through with minimal focus on the art.

I mean this email in all due respect. I understand the difficultly in balancing works of art with public interest and ticket sales, but I completely fail to see how designing an art museum that places so little significance to the art can possibly achieve anything but a lack of interest. And I write this not comparing the Oakland Museum unrealistically to the Met, but to the Oakland Museum of a few years ago. I feel that the Bay Area has lost a significant piece of its history and its culture and it is upsetting in an almost unspeakable way. Recently, both the De Young and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts underwent renovations, and in both cases, they created spaces to look at and engage in the study and learning of art. The Boston MFA in particular build a new wing doubling the size of the museum solely for the purpose of displaying more of their permanent collection. How is it that Oakland could under appreciate so greatly what it had and chose to continue the removal of art from the public by design something so disrespectful to the work?

Jeff Bellerose

Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2011 13:00:23 -0800
Subject: Re: Oakland Museum: paintings
From: plinhares@oaklandnet.com
To: jeff_bellerose@hotmail.com
CC: LFogarty@oaklandnet.com; cnewell@museumca.org; rdeguzman@museumca.org; bhenry@museumca.org

Dear Mr. Bellerose,

Thank you for your heartfelt and thoughtful comments regarding your recent visit to the Oakland Museum of California’s Gallery of California Art. While we do receive thoughtful comments in our kid-scrawled visitor comment book, I appreciate that you have taken the time to send a detailed response to your visit.

The recently completed major renovation, the first in the museum’s 40 years, was carefully planned with the consultation of artists, scholars, educators, architects and designers, standing advisory committees, and members of the museum’s guilds, board and staff. We wanted to take advantage of the museum’s unique mission as “the Museum of California” with an interdisciplinary approach, integrating objects and interpretation from our History and Natural Science departments in the art reinstallation.

The renovation brought the following advances: new sections for Folk Art/Self Taught artists, Studio Crafts, Counter Culture, Modernism, Dorothea Lange, F 64, ceramics and three changing exhibition spaces and two areas for film and video. It also provided space for the Diebenkorn collection; formerly only 3 works were on view, now there are 12.

And it provided 3,000 square feet for our turn-of-the 20th-century works, including Mathews, where before we had only 400 square feet. The gray concrete walls were clad with sheetrock, allowing for more frequent changes and a brighter, more adaptable environment for the art. In order to provide an environment for the contemplation of art we provided more and more varied seating than most museums have. Recent surveys show that our visitors spend twice the time in our galleries than the national average for museums of similar size.

Currently we have on view 154 paintings representing three centuries, installed among over 800 works in all media and complemented with objects drawn from our History and Natural Science Departments. There are perhaps fewer paintings you wanted to see on view at present, but those paintings will eventually be rotated back into the galleries as we schedule gallery changes. The new integrated, interdisciplinary installation works extremely well for most visitors and school groups, and was purposely designed to address the general art educational needs of the public as opposed to satisfying connoisseurs, collectors and scholars seeking specific subjects. Major grants from the Irvine Foundation allowed us to research the art educational needs of the public, and the new reinstallation reflects our findings. We do not feel that our work has resulted in a lack of respect for art or its significance in our culture and the response from the public and from colleagues in the museum field has been overwhelmingly positive.

The best way to enjoy and appreciate what we continue to do is to visit the museum often, taking in a newly installed exhibition and observing the changes of works rotated into the galleries. Over time you will see many of the works you currently miss and may eventually better appreciate the design and thematic format that we have chosen to present. I do appreciate your comments and criticisms and encourage you to write again.

Best Wishes,

Philip E. Linhares
Chief Curator of Art

On Feb 9, 2011, at 1:13 PM, jeff bellerose wrote:

Dear Mr. Linhares,

Thank you for your in depth response to my email. I appreciate that you would take the time to consider my response and it is nice to hear the specifics involved in the renovation. I did have just a few comments that I would like to make. My main frustration with the renovation was that the museum houses less painting than it did before the renovation. I am happy to hear that there was increased square footage, but the actual allocation of art has been diminished. It is not that “There are perhaps fewer paintings you wanted to see on view at present,” but that there were fewer paintings period (significantly fewer, it seemed). I wanted to make a few points about this.

First, let’s look at the history floor. I would venture to guess that this is a large part of the reason that your statistics show that people spend so long in the museum. It is, as I mentioned in the first email, very well done. There is simply tons of information and historical objects. And it is laid out in a way that benefits both major parties of interest — educational groups (it is interactive and intriguing and fun to wandering through the time period details) and the collector/historian (the sheer volume of artifacts makes this certain — any collector/interested party in California’s past can find almost endless relics of Americana and time-based memorabilia). I mention this because it is exactly what the Art Galllery fails to do. There, the layout and design has been reconstructed to benefit educational groups at the expense of those more vested in the interests of art. I imagine that the overwhelming positive responses that you get are in part because those unhappy with it don’t wirte — I say this based on the fact that literally everyone that I know that has been to the Oakland Museum since the renovation has been disappointed with the lack of art work. Granted, these are mostly artists, gallery owners and patrons of the arts (those that you state have been chosen against in “as opposed to satisfying connoisseurs, collectors and scholars seeking specific subjects”), but I would think that these groups of people make up quite a substantial percentage of the museums visitors and contributes.

You mention the Diebenkorn room and the expansion of square footage for turn of the century painters — as for Diebenkorn, I mentioned in my first email that I felt that was the only noticible improvement. It is wonderfully to get more Diebenkorns on the wall, and particularly ones that are rarely seen (the large nude against the black background and the brownish abstraction I’d never seen before). Plus, considering the historical significance of the Oakland Museum in the recognition of the Bay Area Figurative movement, I wholeheartedly support more space allocated to them. But I don’t see why the rest of the collection needs to be removed (it is clearly not an issue of space, since the problem, I felt, was that there was an absence of paintings, not an absence of footage). Even the guide that I spoke with at the museum told me that there are in-house, staff jokes about the lack of paintings on the walls, so I think my point is a valid one that should be considered. You state that you have 154 paintings up, but what percentage is that of what used to be up? (and in a quick morning counting, I have 108 paintings hanging in my apartment, and although they are small works, the whole of the apartment could fit inside your rain room). The main issue is that I feel since you are such a museum that “want(s) to take advantage of the museum’s unique mission as “the Museum of California,” then how can it be arranged such that you satisfy your desire for enticing educational groups (which I agree with) with the interests of a large group of people interested in the significance of your collection?

And this brings me to the main point of this email. I am not writing because I want to disagree with you or work up a rebuttal, but I want to see if it is possible to find a solution for the interested parties out here to see paintings. How about this for an idea — an idea that I think is a good one, easy to accomplish, extrememly cost-efficient and you would be the 1st museum that I am aware of to do it. Why not take one smallish section of the floor and dedicate it to short shows. 2-3 month exhibitions that are very low-scale. In it, you could feature a specific artist or theme for each 2-3 month duration (like a gallery does), and it would feature only your own collection (so, unlike the extravagant design of the Mathews show from a few years ago — which was completely amazing, by the way — and without the need to draw from other institutions, you could save immensely on costs and time). If you wanted product, you could even compile the shows and sell one book at the end of each year called “From the Collection” and it could feature all the 4-6 shows from that year. You could have a Diebenkorn show, a Bay Area Figurative show, one on the Tonalists, on Arthur Mathews, on Lucia Matthews, on the Society of Six, on William Keith, on Thomas Hill, a show on the National Parks of CA, on the coasts of CA, works on paper, etc. That’s 2 years right there, and it could be fun and creative to find themes within the collection of works. And I mean smallish shows, one or 2 rooms worth — it would hardly impact the current layout of the museum so the vast majority of the space would be as is, plus these smaller, collection based shows for those interested in seeing more work. You still have the larger shows (like Pixar and what-not) to draw in crowds, but this would keep a regular group of interested supporters of the museum returning on a regular basis. I imagine this would be highly appreciated among many interested in the arts.

Again, I thank you for the time you take to consider my (rather lengthy, I admit) emails. I hope that something can be worked out so that people like me and the people I know can again enjoy the Oakland Museum.

Jeff Bellerose

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