Why We Should Care About Institutional Failure
by New Dealer
“Why should we care, really, if a museum that’s a local institution fails? Of a symphony, or a ballet or opera?”
-Tod Kelly, on the failure of the Cororan
I should start off by saying that failure is inevitable in all human endeavor and at all levels. Not every business or attempt to start an institution will be a success and even very long-standing and successful institutions can fail. This covers for-profit and non-profit organizations. Institutions fail for all sorts of reasons: sometimes they get greedy and this causes them to make bad decisions like Lehman Brothers. Other times, there are years of dysfunctional business practices that finally catch up like New York City Opera, the People’s Opera. Other institutions become the victims of technological or cultural changes and the old guard does not know how to modernize or modernization might be impossible, this would seemingly include local newspapers like the Denver Post and Seattle Post-Intelligencer and others in the age of the Internet. New businesses fail all the time for a variety of reasons. Some geographic locations seem to feature one failed business after another. But I shall try and answer Tod’s question.
Some geographic locations will always be an embarrassment of riches in terms of cultural institutions. The Corcoran Gallery’s failure is not good but there are plenty of other Museums in the DC area. The same can be true of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and maybe Chicago. However other cities even major ones have fewer cultural institutions and the failure of one can be more dramatic and limiting in terms of access of art. When I visited Portland and Seattle, I noted that there was only one museum and it covered the entirety of art and culture from pre-history artifacts to Sol LeWit and beyond.
If any of these institutions failed, it would be a massive blow to local opportunities to see art and culture. The United States is a massive country and opportunities to see art should not exist for those lucky enough to live in a handful of areas. Books and the internet do allow people to view art from all over the world but there is a big difference between seeing art in a book or on-line and seeing it in person. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa a thousand times before I first visited the Louvre in 2002 and the first thing you notice about the Mona Lisa in person is the dimensions. It is a very small painting and very intimate. Previously I thought it would be a larger canvas. The smallness and intimacy of the Mona Lisa is at first disappointing but eventually adds to the beauty of the piece. It is like keeping a photograph of your in your wallet as opposed to an 8×10 photo in an album. The converse example is that you don’t appreciate the vastness of The Night Watch by Rembrandt by viewing it on-line.
Art can and does go on loan from one museum to another and this happens nationally and internationally. San Francisco and New York both received a tour of Vermeers, Rembrandts and other Dutch masters from the Mauritshuis because that museum was undergoing a tour year renovation. I think it is better if more locations in the United States were able to receive these tours than not and if the one museum in an area closes down, then a portion of the population is not able to have some of the most important pieces of world culture come to their doors.
The same is true for live performances. You can listen to the Metropolitan opera on the radio or recordings and there are attempts to record theatre and dance and simulcast them to movie theatres around the globe but there is a difference between watching a video of a production and seeing it in person. Live performance is more intimate even though you don’t get close ups. The audience of a live dance or theatre performance gets the full view of the stage and the bodies of the performer and this is ruined via close-ups that often accompany the live shootings of performances. There is tension that builds from seeing a full body perform a dramatic monologue or how the recipient of dialogue is physically reacting to hearing it over just a close up of a face. The companies that get the national broadcasts tend to be already powerful institutions, there is also a value in being part of an intimate audience of 50-200 people or so over being one of thousands at the Metropolitan Opera or a big Broadway theatre. The magic of theatre is often in the limitations of how to work on a small budget instead of a large one.
The Arts have always existed in a financially precarious place and artists are rarely good at balancing their books. The recent financial crisis took down or nearly took down many well-respected theatres like San Jose Rep, the Magic in San Francisco, Intiman in Seattle, and others. I don’t think that the failure of something to exist on a for-profit basis means that it should not exist. Art exists to do many things from education, to entertainment, to joy, to pushing boundaries. My favorite definition of theatre comes from the playwright John Patrick Shanley who described theatre as a “safe place to do dangerous things.” Does this square with making a profit? Maybe not in all cases but catharsis is important and places must exist for artists to discuss and show uncomfortable views and truths from Goya to Harvey Darger to Tennesse Williams to Sarah Kane and many others.
There are many other reasons why we should care about when an institution failed: plenty of people depended on it for their livelihoods and these people did not take part in the decision making (this also covers for profit institutions), local institutions can help support and encourage local artists. Local newspapers are necessary to uncover local corruption and a good local arts section can also help promote local artists to a national stage or at least more local recognition and respect, future generations will be inspired by local arts institutions into attempting to create art and this is very hard and takes a lot of dedication. More simply plenty of local people do care when an institution fails and they got joy out of it and it seems like the decent thing to do to care.