High anxiety

The High Museum won the popularity contest with its brand-name blockbuster shows, but at what cost?

Across the country, general-interest museums are finding ways to strike a balance between provocative contemporary art programming and bottom-line-boosting blockbusters. Take Salt Lake City or Houston. The premier museums in each of those cities will play host to important and provocative contemporary art exhibitions — the kind even New York might covet. At the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, a career retrospective of zany but transcendent Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s paintings, sculpture and installation will show off an impressive array of psychedelic visions and oversized polka dots. At the same time, a retrospective of Utah native son Trevor Southey will chronicle the artist’s dark, expressionist paintings, which paralleled the rise of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Likewise, a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston will get you a close-up view of a public installation by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that transforms the streets in front of the museum into a bold, graphic canvas of geometric patterns. Inside, balancing out a selection of Post-Impressionist drawings, a major exhibition of contemporary Latin American art will combine cutting-edge installation, sculpture and video projection drawn from private collections both local and from throughout Central and South America.

The majority of what you’ll see at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, however, are brand-name, mostly dead artists recognizable to anyone who’s ever flipped past a PBS station. Currently, it’s Salvador Dalí’s turn at the High. Unlike some of the museum’s other recent megashows, the fresh perspective on America’s favorite surrealist has been lauded by critics and audiences alike. The museum reached capacity at the opening and at several subsequent Dalí-inspired events. Patrons had to be turned away at the door. The man with the funny mustache, it seems, appeals as much to the suburban rank and file as he does to New York Times art critics. By all measures, Dalí: The Late Work has been a runaway success.

Unfortunately, Dalí’s the exception that proves a bigger rule: For every major name-brand exhibition that fires the imagination of the art world, a far larger number simply falls flat. Recent High blowouts of 19th century French Impressionists and works from Paris’ Louvre Museum have grabbed headlines but left many in the art community yawning. Even more poorly regarded by the art world (though well-attended by the general public) were big budget juggernauts such as 2008’s Terracotta Army and 2010’s Allure of the Automobile, which highlighted rare high-concept cars from the 1930s through the 1960s. Both broke attendance records but left some artists, art dealers, curators and others in the art community feeling that the museum’s primary mission is pandering to a public that generally prefers spectacle over substance.

The High’s series of big-budget exhibits over the past dozen years has unquestionably been a boon to the museum’s audience numbers and its bottom line, which perhaps has overshadowed the fact that the programming has felt alarmingly one-note to many Atlantans seeking more daring contemporary art. This is not by chance. According to some museum insiders, the High employs a museum director whose curatorial vision eschews riskier work, and the museum’s board has been reluctant to offer alternative visions. As a result, Atlanta’s contemporary art enthusiasts have been left hungry for the kind of dialogue launched by exhibitions showcasing contemporary artists such as Atlanta-educated printmaker Kara Walker, installation artist Olafur Eliasson, and Israeli video artist Omer Fast, all of whom have been at the center of recent spirited debates and have shined a spotlight on some of the most contentious problems around the globe.

Across the country, midsize, general-interest museums like the High face a similar balancing act. While many have likewise championed big-name shows, a few, such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, have won favor in their communities for deftly mixing the safe and proven with the risky and provocative.

Aware of criticism surrounding the High’s programming, the museum hired respected writer and community-minded curator Michael Rooks last January to helm its modern and contemporary art initiatives, and to help bridge the gap between the High and the local arts scene. But many in Atlanta’s art world wonder whether Rooks will be able to overcome the one hurdle that’s tripped up more than a few curators before him: museum director Michael Shapiro and what’s widely seen as his stranglehold on the High’s vision.

Michael Shapiro is a plump middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and the evenhanded demeanor of a college professor. Based on his experience, he seems to have learned the diplomatic work of a museum director in a trial by fire. After teaching art history at Duke and serving as chief curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art, Shapiro found himself at the center of management criticism in 1993, when he was the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Inheriting deep, countywide budget cuts, Shapiro’s troubles were compounded by accusations of staff mismanagement and changes to the museum’s schedule that worried some in L.A.’s art scene. He resigned his post at LACMA, saying his skills didn’t match the already financially troubled institution’s needs. He joined the High in 1995 as the director of museum programs and chief curator. He became museum director in 2000.

For the past 10 years, Shapiro’s gained an international reputation for brokering spectacular partnerships with top-flight institutions such as the Louvre and New York’s MoMA. He’s also become known for advancing the museum as the regional destination for large, headline-making shows that originate outside of Atlanta, even as many High curators and museum supporters have pushed for riskier shows and more homegrown fare.

Shapiro dismisses the idea that the museum’s so-called blockbusters make for overly conservative programming. “My job is to bring great art to Atlanta,” he says. “And if that’s determined by someone to be a blockbuster, that’s fine. That’s not the way we think about it. By definition general museums have a number of agendas, itineraries, programs that work simultaneously. One of our programs has to do with contemporary art. By definition, one can never do as much as one would like to.”

He’s got a point. Although inhabitants of Atlanta’s art world never tire of pining for the greener grass of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts or Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, such comparisons are misleading. The High isn’t a contemporary art museum. It’s a generalist museum that surveys centuries of art across several continents and cultures. Contemporary art is just one concern alongside significant commitments to African art, decorative arts, folk art, and premodern European art.

To further complicate the museum’s high-wire act, it’s by far the biggest museum in the Southeast and has to serve a wide variety of constituents of a dizzying array of ages, ethnicities, tastes and geographic origins.

But if the museum faces external challenges, it also faces internal ones that weaken its programming in the eyes of some in Atlanta’s art community. Museum insiders interviewed for this story describe a board of directors unwilling to question Shapiro’s overall vision of the institution while being too willing to sacrifice the museum’s artistic ambitions at the altar of its business goals. “Here, the bottom line is the bottom line,” says a young staffer. “They don’t promote a critical discourse within the administration.”

The High Museum’s not unique in this aspect. Museums across the country have been accused of focusing too much on the bottom line, particularly as the recession has prompted many to schedule an abundance of safe, likable shows. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter let loose on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, for “renting acres of Turners and Courbets,” two extremely popular 19th century painters. And the Brooklyn Museum has been the subject of months of opinionating, also in the pages of the Times, as the museum reels from accusations that an exhibition of Star Wars props and a partnership with Bravo’s reality TV show “Work of Art,” among other recent exhibits, have been nothing but cynical grabs for ticket sales.

A seemingly similar focus on turnstile-friendly shows is in full effect at the High. “For Atlanta artists and maybe for the arts community, my sense is that the High is almost irrelevant, and that’s a very strange thing to be true for a major art institution that gets the bulk of the funding in the city,” says a high-profile local art collector speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A wide swath of current and former museum staff members agree. Many say they’d like to see the museum become the Southeast’s standard-bearer for relevant contemporary art. They’d like to see Atlanta artists and the larger public gain access to cutting-edge artistic ideas, as well as for the museum to better represent the wider region. That can happen only if the rest of the world takes the museum seriously as a home for contemporary art.

Insiders say the museum’s curators often fight an uphill battle when they attempt to show what they see as the most vital and relevant art for Atlanta audiences. They say there’s no shortage of curators who propose contemporary projects and exhibitions based on input from the art community — only to find the proposals stall out in the face of funding shortfalls and lackluster administrative support. The result has been frustration and low staff morale.

“Look,” said a former staff member who asked to not to be identified, “the museum reflects Michael Shapiro’s vision and his vision is not very open to other ideas. Michael Shapiro is very good at what he does, but he brooks no opposition.”

Another high-ranking staff member agrees, accusing the “core leadership” of too narrow a focus. “Shapiro has built up a board around himself that insulates him from the outside world,” the staffer says, adding that when it comes to the museum’s programs, the board does little more than rubber-stamp Shapiro’s ideas. “The board hasn’t been asking those awkward questions. ‘Are we doing this the right way?’ Voices of dissent and critical discussion aren’t there. That’s not the environment that is encouraged.”

Museum sources name a handful of board members who are individually sympathetic to supporting more dynamic contemporary art, including Atlanta lawyer and board chair James Henderson III, as well as board members Elaine Levin and Paul Steinfeld. But they have not altered the balance of the full board and its reportedly compliant relationship with the museum’s director.

Shapiro disagrees that the museum’s curators face obstacles in mounting the kind of high-quality shows Atlanta’s contemporary art enthusiasts have been clamoring for. Citing former photography curator Julian Cox as an example, Shapiro says, “Julian was extraordinarily productive. If you got just the publications that he did in a five-year period it would be half a bookshelf. One of the things that a midsize museum like ourselves can offer are opportunities for rising stars like Julian.”

Cox left the High in August to become chief curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Michael Moon, Emory professor of literature and an expert on folk artist Henry Darger, says he believes the High has struck a proper balance of programs. He was impressed by the museum’s major Darger exhibition in 1998 and thinks the museum “probably does need to have some blockbusters” in order to stay in the black. He adds that he doesn’t fault the institution for having to “run as a business in the absence of government funding.”

Michael D. Harris, who served as consulting curator of African-American art from 2005 to 2009, says he wanted to accomplish more during his tenure but recognizes the fine line the High must walk. “The museum is poised between its community relationships and responsibilities and its need for funding,” he says. “It survives so much on private donations, so you have to serve that master.”

Rooks takes a similarly nuanced view of the museum’s programming. He says that when the art world calls for “risky” work, it would do well to remember that risk is in the eye of the beholder. “There is a misperception about the museum’s emphasis on big shows. To do this show of Titian paintings from Scotland — they’ve never left Europe. It’s a huge deal. And it’s not going to be the same kind of commercial success as Dalí. It just won’t. These things may not seem risky in a contemporary context, but they are.”

Artists born before Columbus who set foot in the New World are all well and good, but Rooks knows Atlantans don’t want to stop there. And he believes the museum will have to overcome a squeamishness about taboo subject matter, including works that deal blatantly with sexuality or politics, or works that push the boundary of what counts as art, such as performance artist Andrea Fraser’s critiques of museums delivered as faux lectures.

“The current curatorial approach at the High feels as though they are teaching art history,” said painter and SCAD student Brian Steele in an e-mail. “I want a living, breathing approach that feels like work that is reflective of our current times.”

Ruth Dusseault, artist-in-residence at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture and a photographer whose work is in the High’s permanent collection, says she and her colleagues have mixed feelings about what to do with visiting scholars who want a taste of Atlanta’s museum culture. “Sometimes the faculty tell the visitors to go to the High, but they tell them they’ll be disappointed. Sometimes they go anyway and come back disappointed.”

For his part, Shapiro asserts that the museum is as dedicated to contemporary art as ever. “We acquire it. We exhibit it. We have curatorial expertise in that area.” He pauses, then adds, “We would welcome financial support to do more than we’re able to do currently.”

The financial pressure on the museum’s bottom line comes as no surprise to long-term observers. Completing the 2005 Renzo Piano expansion doubled the size of the museum and also doubled the pressure to finance it and to showcase it. Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and the Whitney Museum of American Art told then-CL art critic Felicia Feaster in 2005, “What happens is that by building large institutions, there is a greater risk that organizations will drift toward providing programs that are solely intended to grow audience rather than thinking about programmatic quality.”

With that kind of do-or-die pressure, it’s an open question whether the museum’s leadership will follow through with the incentive to further diversify its offerings.

Rooks feels he’s off to a good start. He joined the staff with the understanding that part of his mission is to make inroads into local arts communities, a relationship that flagged under previous leadership.

“I’ve signaled my interest in getting to know artists, and art dealers and people in Atlanta,” Rooks says. “I’ve also been fortunate that the museum has signaled its desire for me to do that.”

Other High curators, including Harris and perhaps most visibly Carol Thompson, curator of African art, have been conscientiously turning up at community events, fundraisers and art openings for years. But Rooks seems to be the first in the museum’s recent history who’s doing it with the overt encouragement of the institution.

Rooks comes to the mission with a resume custom-designed to deal with thorny community relations with contemporary artists. He inherited a position at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago at a time when the institution was seen as disconnected from its community. In response, Rooks initiated the museum’s 12x12 program, a project space in which Chicago-based emerging and midcareer artists could pursue ambitious contemporary projects in a world-class museum setting.

His ideas don’t stop there. “I would like to do a show that reaches out to the gay and lesbian community in some way, because that’s an important constituency here as well. It’s important and relevant for me to think about people who live here in this city.”

Rooks has also taken on the role of shepherding a four-year partnership with MoMA, which he describes as “our platform for making a very strong and serious commitment to contemporary art and culture.” Rooks says the plans include several new commissions of contemporary art as part of the partnership’s programs, including works by Atlanta-based artists.

Outside of formal exhibition programming, a steady stream of art parties, lectures and other events appear to be part of a concerted effort to pry open the doors of the museum to an edgier crowd. A number of Atlanta artists even made it onto the official Dalí party program. Video artist Bean Worley projected work at the Mustache Party, and at the Surreal Soiree, Alcove Gallery’s H. C. Warner and YoungBlood Gallery’s Kelly Teasley, among others, contributed wearable Dalí-inspired art.

But Atlanta’s seen optimism like this before. When the museum’s expansion opened five years ago, Jeffrey Grove had recently been hired as the curator of modern and contemporary art. In a flush of enthusiasm, he told Creative Loafing that the museum was “becoming another institution” and that he planned a “Projects” series of exhibitions featuring emerging and local artists aimed at “a community super-hungry” for contemporary art.

Most of those intentions went unfulfilled.

Shapiro says he and the museum are open to input from the local art community and that he’s willing to host town hall meetings. “There are great opportunities if we found a way for those different constituencies to sit down together and discuss common barriers, common dreams,” Shapiro says. “There could be the artists, there could be the gallerists, there could be those who work in not-for-profit or other arts organizations. I’d certainly play a leading role in facilitating.”

Shapiro acknowledges that the institution has work to do, but adds: “We all want the same thing. We all would like art to play a more central role in the life of our community. And we’re all, I assume, mercenaries in that regard. That’s where I was driving in terms of getting people together to have some conversations, even if it’s stuff we may not want to hear.”