Monday, July 13, 2009

Museum Monday--What to See and Where to See It

students in front of island of la grande jatte Photo by tlindenbaum

Every Monday this month, I'm doing a post on museums to encourage people to visit one during their summer vacation.  Last week, I talked about how to navigate through a museum.  This week I decided to focus on where to go to see the art you're interested in.

The following list contains museums you might want to think about visiting if you have an interest in a specific area of art.  It is not a comprehensive list by any means, and (for the purposes of not driving myself insane) includes only museums in the continental US.

Ancient Art (incl. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Near East)

Compared to European museums, American collections of ancient art can be pretty sparse.  However, you can find Greek and Roman sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and the MFA Boston recently signed an agreement with the Italian government to have pieces on loan to the museum.  The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has an absolutely amazing Ancient Near East and Egyptian collection; as does The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which houses art on loan from the Philadelpha Museum of Art.  The MFA Boston also has several key Egyptian pieces in its collection, like King Mycerinus and His Queen, which is a must-see.

Asian Art

Asian art is very well-represented in American art collections.  The Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC are part of the Smithsonian and contain an absolutely fabulous collection of art from all over Asia as well as Latin America.  The Norton Simon in Pasadena, CA, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka LACMA) also have great Asian art collections.  The MFA Boston has the largest collection of Japanese art under one roof in the world.

African Art & American Indian Art

I grouped these two categories together because African and Indian Art has often been considered anthropological, and is not traditionally represented in art museums.  Also, because of repatriation, many museums have to (or should have) returned a large portion of their American Indian Art and artifacts to the proper tribes.  Thankfully, however, attitudes toward African and Indian Art have changed significantly in the last decade or so; and the Smithsonian has both a National Museum of African Art and a National Museum of the American Indian, which contain large and varied collections.  I haven't been to the National Museum of the American Indian yet, but the National Museum of African Art was great--very fun and interactive, and interesting.

Modern and Contemporary Art

The Twentieth Century was "America's Century" (or so I've heard on PBS), so it makes sense that American museums would have great twentieth-century art collections.  The National Gallery of Art has several huge Pollocks that are worth a look; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, also in Washington DC, is a beautiful museum that focuses entirely on modern and contemporary art; and of course there's the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in NYC.  If you love Surrealism, you should check out the Philadelpha Museum of Art, which has the greatest State-side collection of Surrealist art, including Duchamp's last work, Etant DonnĂ©s (rumored to have been inspired by the Black Dahlia murder).

Latin American Art (especially Mesoamerican and Aztec)

The LACMA has a nice collection of Mesoamerican art, but for the really good Latin American collections in the US, think universities.  U Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Princeton University Art Museum both have very nice collections.  Most of Harvard's Latin American Art collection is on loan to the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

Nineteenth-Century Painting (American and European)

Well, this is a HUGE category and there are a lot of great museums in the US you can go to to see nineteenth-century painting.  Why?  Because most of the big museums (The Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, the MFA Boston, etc.) were founded in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.  And the art in them was collected by wealthy Americans who bought paintings both here and in Europe.  The Art Institute of Chicago is known especially for its collection of Impressionist paintings, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art also have very notable collections.  The Frick Museum, just a few blocks from the Met, is a historic home that specializes in 19th-century painting.  It's one of my favorite museums in the world; I highly recommend it!

The slave ship by turner

Because of a question from Jemima, I'm going to highlight the collection of two museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  Paintings you should not miss at the MFA Boston include Slave Ship by JMW Turner, who is one of my favorite artists.  Simon Schama called Slave Ship the most important British painting in history (or something histrionic like that).  It depicts an actual event where a slave ship threw sick and dying Africans overboard in order to recoup costs, sending the "cargo" cruelly to their deaths.  Critics said it looked like a kitchen accident.

Gauguin Where do we come from what are we where are we going

Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is probably the museum's most famous painting.  It shows the progress of life, from birth (the baby at the right), to youth, to death and despair (the old woman at the far left).  The gods, represented by the blue statue in the background at the left, watch human progess indifferently.

The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is a lovely house museum in Boston that is most famous for the left of thirteen paintings in 1990 valued at over $500 million--the biggest art left in history.  The empty frames from which the paintings were cut out continue to hang on the walls of the museum, as per the instructions in Gardner's will.  Despite the theft, the collection still houses many fine pieces, however, including works by Botticelli, John Singer Sargent, Turner, Degas, Manet, Raphael, Fra Angelico, van Dyke, and Rembrandt; as well as many fine tapestries, books, furniture--basically anything that struck Gardner's fancy as a collector.  It also has a garden that's a great place to take a time out for a few minutes.

Western American Art

Do you like Western Art?  (Just say yes.)  The Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, has a great collection of Western American Art, as does The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY, and the Denver Art Museum.

Don't forget about special exhibitions!

Most museums host special exhibitions every season in addition to their pernament collection, which is a great way to see new art without traveling all over the freaking place.  Check their website or newsletter to see what's on or coming up.

Problem:  I went to a museum to see a specific piece of art, but it was on loan!!!!

Yeah, that sucks. :(  Museums usually don't loan out their key pieces, but they might for a major exhibition.  Also, even key works are occassionally taken down for cleaning and maintenance.  The Mona Lisa is taken down for two days every few years for cleaning, which is a major bummer for everyone who just happens to be visiting Paris on those days (yes that happened to me).  The only thing you can really do is check the museum's website to make sure the piece you want to see is on view.  If you're really gung-ho about it (does anyone still use that term?), you can e-mail the curatorial office.  They don't bite... usually.

That's it for this week's edition of Museum Mondays.  If you have any question about museums, specific or general, feel free to message me on twitter, email me at [kitty fischer at gmail dot com], or leave your question in the comments.  I will try to answer it either in the next museum posting, or by e-mail (or both). 

Also, if you have recommendations for great museums, please mention them in the comments.  Until next Monday!

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