Museum Architecture and American Painting

Much of the best new civic architecture over the past generation has served to house art museums. Structures like I.M. Pei’s National Gallery East Building and Santiago Calatrava’s spectacular Quadracci Pavilion in Milwaukee have had enormous — mostly good — influence on the shape of modern architecture and, in particular, the cities where they sit. (At least one D.C. area shopping mall takes architectural cues from the East Building.)

Nominally, art museums build these structures so they can put more on display. And every significant art museum, it’s true, has thousands of pieces that aren’t on display at any given time. But curators rarely let on that most of the pieces off display are actually textiles, sketches, studies and other items unfit for long-term display. While this investment in spectacular architecture has raised art museums’ stature — they’re the only serious cultural institutions that have seen their status in mass culture rise over the past 50 years — I wonder if it’s been good for the display of museums’ own collections.

For all the hype, the investment in new buildings may actually reduce the average quality of what’s displayed. Given the enormous building boom, I doubt that any major museum in the country has any decent oil paintings from big-name artists (with the possible exception of the impossibly prolific Picasso) in long-term storage. Given extra space, in fact, I have the sense that many museums are now devoting far too much space to second-rate works that happen to have a famous name attached. The National Gallery here in D.C. sometimes seemed to suffer from that disease in spades. It has so little need for extra space for it has at least two “temporary” exhibitions (Matisse cutouts and Small French Paintings) that have been running for about 10 years.

And that brings me to my point: For the next year or so, the National Gallery will be remodeling the West Building Galleries used to house the bulk of its pre-World War II American collection. What remains, I think, brings out the major themes of American painting much better than the larger collection. All of the best paintings are there: Bingham’s “Jolly Flatboatmen,” the Bellows boxing picture like “Both Members of the Club”, Childe Hassam’s “Allies Day,” and Copley’s “Watson and the Shark.” Because the space is smaller, a lot of the second-rate work isn’t on display.

Instead, viewers get a bunch of gems and, with the detritus removed, it’s amazing to me how clearly the theme of freedom emerges. From wide-open landscapes to Flatboatmen themselves, nearly every painter seems obsessed with freedom. Even those clearly cynical of some elements of American society — Bellows most prominently — seem to place their cynicism in the form of denial of freedom.

The smaller show of American painting is actually better. Too bad that the Gallery, I assume, is going to put even more stuff on display.