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America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat

Purely in terms of design, the Zumthor design looks restorative. Spanning Wilshire Boulevard, it’s low-slung, curvy, light. It’s a bridge, not one of the blank interruptive chunks or sky-reaching ladders that fill cities now. Also, the museum’s proposal for rotation and distribution looks, at least in the telling, like a sound and generous one. Its implementation will require continual work and experimentation. But if that results in more people seeing more art, in more variety, over time, some of it in places they might not have expected, that can’t be bad.

Institutional stresses, operational and political, are usually invisible to outsiders. Lately, we’ve been getting a look at them, especially the political ones, as we’ve seen poorly paid museum workers fight to form unions, and toxic sources of museum patronage — such as those who promote opioid painkillers — revealed.

It’s unlikely that such realities will ever again retreat from view. The days when museums could even hope to pass as morally exemplary, or even neutral, are over, and they know it. They’re under pressure now to change in everyday corporate ways — to more closely monitor sources of funding, to give greater voice to staff — and if the past is an indication, the changes will be slow, just as the curatorial embrace of inclusion and truth-telling has been.

Like all of us, museums are stitched tight into the fabric of a messy, venal, Darwinian world. The single thing that sets them apart is the art, the reason they exist, the thing they preserve and give us access to. Art can be a source of ethical instruction, too, as much for the museum itself as for its audience, a source of guidance, positive and negative, strong enough to insure survival for another 150 years. And now, with their operations stalled by the pandemic, museums should take the opportunity to ponder the great asset they share. If they’re going to present themselves as enlightened alternatives to that messy world they better get busy. Enlightenment is a hard-won fight, and alternative always starts as an inside job.

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