Reviewing Art: Museums and Galleries

By Barry Willis

This may come as no surprise, but most Americans rarely venture into art galleries and museums. Adventurous vacationers may dash into museums such as the Louvre for quickie tours of iconic artworks—who doesn’t want to mention having seen the Mona Lisa? —but for the most part they stay out of commercial art galleries because they feel intimidated. They don’t know enough to feel confident discussing art with friends and relatives, and certainly not with someone as expert as a gallerist.

The critic is a bridge between art and the reading public, a conduit for insightful commentary about what can be a sometimes-inscrutable human activity. An art critic’s job is to distill a few hours spent viewing an exhibit into an intelligently written and informative piece of prose—one that may untangle some of the inscrutability for art-world innocents, and either entice potential visitors to a mind-opening experience or shield them from a time-wasting horror show.

Museums and galleries exist within the same ecosystem but serve differing ends of the market. Museums may be privately operated; may enjoy local, state, or national financial support; or may be both publicly and privately funded, a tax benefit for wealthy donors. Some museums charge admission fees while others are free. Their primary purpose is educational—hence, theme-driven exhibits such as “Degenerate Art: An Overview of German Expressionism” or “Treasures from the Tang Dynasty.” Assembling everything to go into such exhibits is a diplomatic exercise for museum staffers, who arrange loans of inventory from institutions worldwide, and from private collectors. A museum show that runs twelve weeks may have been years in the planning.

Museums also have a mandate to protect and conserve artworks in their possession. Their physical space and economic resources are largely devoted to this work, unseen by casual visitors. Museums sometimes sell artworks in their possession, to collectors or to other institutions — “de-accessioning” in museum-speak. But despite mind-boggling budgets and daunting expenses, museums aren’t in the business of selling anything other than gift-shop souvenirs. The reported value of art on display may certainly attract some visitors, but you won’t see prices on anything outside the gift shop.

Art galleries, on the other hand, are unabashed commercial enterprises, businesses whose owners are hardcore deep-knowledge enthusiasts about the art and artists they represent. A huge step above coffee shops providing wall space for local artists, galleries vary enormously in their offerings and aspirations, from neighborhood galleries with folk art to those specializing in collectible upper-tier paintings, sculpture, and increasingly, technological art. Many such galleries have a narrow focus—impressionist masterpieces, mid-century abstraction, early 20th century California painters, or contemporary emerging artists, to name only a few possibilities.

Key concepts: A solo show is devoted to the work of one artist. A group show may feature several artists whose work is similar, or work that is thematically related but diversely executed. A retrospective covers a lengthy period in an art movement (“Photography in the 19th Century”) or some years in an artist’s career (“Rothko in the 1950s”). A major retrospective is an ambitious large-scale exhibit of work with historical importance and may be devoted to a single artist or a group of artists from the same era or genre.

So, soon, let’s step into a fictional gallery and dip our toes in the arty water.

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