Boston Area Museum Directors Discuss Civic Institutions at Radcliffe

Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff PhotographerPhoto by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
The Harvard Crimson
October 2, 2017
By Rick Li

To say that Boston is a cultural center might be an understatement. Home to around 50 universities and collections of fine art, the city hosts institutions with missions of both education and expression. “The Museum, the City, and the University,” a panel discussion between local art museum directors, grappled with those ideas. Moderated by Harvard art history professor Yukio Lippit, the panel sought to explore how museums, universities, and cities come together to generate a broader sense of civic engagement.

The Sept. 25 talk featured five directors from Boston art museums: Peggy Fogelman of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Paul C. Ha of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Jill Medvedow of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Martha Tedeschi of the Harvard Art Museums, and Matthew D. Teitelbaum of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Though diverse in experience and expertise, the five speakers have been united on some key issues. Earlier this year, the group signed a letter to the Trump administration defending the National Endowment for the Arts. Months later, they say that this feeling of urgency has remained strong: the panel often referenced the current social and political landscape as well as a larger attack on the arts.

The conversation began with a discussion of the museums in the larger context of metropolitan Boston. Considering the impact of physical space, Medvedow characterized her institution as one of many small breaks in a corporate urban landscape. In this vein, she said, the way we construct our limited living spaces reveals much about what we value.

Other speakers chose a more demographic lens through which to analyze their museums. Fogelman, commenting on the rapid development of Boston and its transformation of everyday life, honed in on the idea of sanctuary. In her eyes, museums in the city serve to provide much-needed repose in the high-stress, productivity-dominated culture we live in.

The speakers also emphasized the relationship between museum and viewer. Tedeschi, director at Harvard’s own art museums, was acutely aware of the need for these spaces to cater to the desires of their visitors. With students in mind, she said that there is no single way to experience or interact with art and that each visit must take into account the specific motives the visitor has for coming to the museum. In a city of diverse individuals living in the age of quick information, museums must provide audiences different options for interaction if they wish to create satisfactory experiences.

The speakers were not in agreement on all fronts, however. Teitelbaum, expanding on the relationship between museum and audience, shared his reservations with the idea of museums as simply protective. Deeming the position too passive in scope, he instead proposed the image of a museum as an open forum for approaching new ideas. “I think museums more urgently than in my experience need now to create enlightened citizens and create activity and action in our communities,” Teitelbaum said.

The statement is particularly fitting in the context of Radcliffe’s focus for this school year, which is the theme of citizenship. And indeed, the conversation always came back to the idea of civic engagement. Universities and museums are not meant to be insular institutions, according to the panelists. Rather, they must look outwards. As Ha said, “[The museum’s] duty is to present.”

Reflecting on the panel, moderator Lippit said, “The discussion was full of humor and insight, and left me feeling that our Boston-area cultural institutions, as remarkable as they are, are refusing to rest on their laurels.” He contends that the museums, esteemed as they are, remain constantly vigilant and constantly evolving. The talk as a whole drove home the point that these are living institutions, and the panelists claimed they both feed from and giving back to the communities they are a part of.

Upon conclusion of the event, Alison Moore, a Cambridge resident, said, “This talk made me want to get more involved.”

“The Museum, The City, and The University” explored the relationship between the three institutions and the role they play in forming civic identity. The panelists were in consensus that museums and universities play an integral role in Boston, mobilizing citizens to question, challenge, and engage.

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