‘You must see the Alice Neel at David Zwirner,’ someone enthuses, ‘It’s museum quality.’ ‘And Gagosian’s show of Picasso’s matador paintings is …’ Oooh, let me guess: museum quality? Close your eyes and, as those two words are uttered, you might also hear the quiet, confident murmur of conservators in their labs as they consider the correct chemical treatment for preserving the sculpture’s groundbreaking use of filo pastry. Concentrate hard enough on that little phrase and you might imagine serious-minded curators discussing where to hang that exquisite gouache the artist made during a little documented period in their life. ‘Museum quality’: it’s the art-world equivalent of those faddish adjectives ‘artisanal’, ‘grass-fed’, ‘vintage’; a prêt-à-porter phrase that perfumes the air with the scent of scholarship, timelessness and value for money.
The expression has found its way into the press-release lexicon of major commercial spaces over the past few years, growing in usage as powerful galleries such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner – moving at a far nimbler pace than actual, real museums – have brought notable exhibitions of significant works by major artists to their audiences. It’s become a badge of self-congratulatory praise, a shorthand way of saying that a given exhibition is not your usual commercial show, that it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to see landmark works together curated by someone – usually an art historian or pre-eminent critic – who really knows their stuff.
‘‘Museum quality’: it’s the art-world equivalent of those faddish adjectives ‘artisanal’, ‘grass-fed’, ‘vintage’; a prêt-à-porter phrase that perfumes the air with the scent of scholarship, timelessness and value for money.’
Often, these exhibitions do what they say on the tin, providing a special window onto an artist’s career. (The above-mentioned Neel show, curated by Hilton Als last year at David Zwirner, New York, was outstanding, and I learned a great deal from it about the artist’s relationship to her community in Harlem.) But think about those words: ‘museum quality’. What happens when you waft away the fragrant mist of connoisseurship they pump into the air? What are their implications? The first question that comes to my mind when I hear them is: ‘Which museum?’ Do we mean New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the UK’s Tate museums or the Louvre in Paris? When I think of the word ‘museum’, it’s places such as these that first come to my mind – all neoclassical columns, postcard racks and coffee shops – but it’s also worth remembering that museums range in size, scope and resources. For every encyclopaedic Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a smaller version, such as the Ashmolean in Oxford, or even lesser-known regional spaces that rely on good will and the hard work of volunteers to keep the lights on. And a museum of what? There are museums of design, cinema, childhood, war, transport, science, aviation, maritime history, natural history, anthropology: the work of each presumably sharing certain museological principles, but whose methodologies and ideologies must vary according to their subject. Caring for a World War II-era Spitfire aeroplane at the Imperial War Museum in London is not the same – practically nor philosophically speaking – as looking after a bronze ballerina by Edgar Degas at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Yet, even if, for the sake of argument, we take ‘museum’ to mean ‘art museum’, the words ‘museum quality’ suggest that the works in this exhibition should be in a museum. But they’re not. Why? Artworks circulate the world for a variety of reasons. Subject to the vicissitudes of private collecting, institutional budgets and auction sales, the majority of them never find their way into the Tates, MoMAs or Mets of the world, let alone into the public view. The phrase ‘museum quality’ is a sales pitch, a way to persuade someone to buy a work, to keep it shuffling through the world. These works, the phrase suggests, are good enough to be found in a museum of art, but the irony is that few pieces in a ‘museum quality’ show will see the inside of an institutional collection.
What gives the ‘museum’ its ‘quality’? When it comes to institutions, ‘quality’ – whether that may be a set of attributes or a standard by which we can make a judgement – suggests certain provisions, a range of expertise and services on offer. Helpful explanatory wall signage and a nicely produced catalogue featuring essays by noted experts – both of which you will likely find in a ‘museum quality’ commercial gallery show – are only a small part of what actual museums do. For instance, many institutions provide conservation services: highly qualified staff who know how to prepare a work for display, how to repair it, look after it if it’s made from unusual or unstable materials. Museums employ docents who can guide visitors and discuss the art on display. Visiting speakers might deliver lectures in auditoria that also provide a space for film screenings or performances. Museums may have an entire education department that caters to ages ranging from small children to the elderly, and teachers who might also be trained in art therapy for those with developmental difficulties. Indeed, issues around accessibility are of great importance to museums – whether that’s language, economics or physical disability. Museums provide a place to wander, to let your eye drift across its walls or to become familiar with works in a permanent collection and revisit them time and again, like old friends. They are social spaces, too: a place to take a date or the kids on a wet Sunday afternoon. A place that – unlike a commercial gallery – is not necessarily geared towards arts professionals, but a general public that might comprise anyone from art students to your Great Aunt Nelly, people who may be visiting a number of different events and exhibitions on offer on any given day. (Remember that ‘museum quality’ shows at commercial galleries follow commercial gallery schedules, rarely opening for more than a few weeks, in contrast with actual museum exhibitions that can last for many months, years even.) An institution may stage the same show regularly – the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial in New York or Tate’s annual Turner Prize, for instance – allowing audiences to see a broad sweep of art-making today. For city governments, museums draw tourists and are thus a source of income, bringing into town people who will also spend money on hotels and restaurants. Museums become emblematic of a city, a source of pride, part of the local fabric, perhaps providing space for events that may not have anything to do with art at all.
Commercial galleries – for all the useful work they do supporting the artists and estates they represent– rarely offer anything approaching what a museum does. What ‘museum quality’ really means is ‘museum-ish’; an opportunity to see a focused group of works by a marquee-name artist that, for one reason or another, won’t make it onto the slow-moving schedule of a museum any time soon. It’ll be accompanied by a decent catalogue, perhaps an illuminating talk by the show’s curator. Yet, the show will not exist for strictly scholarly reasons, nor purely for the benefit of a public. A private, commercial gallery is just that: private, commercial, catering largely to a professional audience. A museum is nothing without its sense of duty to a public, and that is where the quality lies.
Main image: Thomas Struth, National Gallery I, 1989. Courtesy: the artist