Article a disservice to museum

Donald Mrozek

By A Contributor

I was puzzled at first — then troubled — by your sometimes strange article May 20 concerning the decision to release Bill North from the staff of the Beach Museum of Art.

In some ways, I believe, you have contributed to the maximum possible awkwardness in this matter — and not for the university or, more specifically, for the museum. As a former departmental-level administrator at Kansas State University — I chaired the History Department for eight and a half years — I know that every administrative officer of the university is obligated to observe confidentiality in all matters pertaining to personnel.

This obligation does not cease when others, whether principals or not, say what they wish and seem to compromise this confidentiality. Your article, put together with a pretense of evidence rather than the real thing, seems for the most part to be an exercise in selective advocacy with something close to sentimentality as its main dynamic.

But I will try to avoid indulging in speculation of the sort that suffuses your whole article — speculation and sometimes distortion. One of the most obvious errors is in the first sentence, where you claim that Bill North “quadrupled the size of the collection” at the Beach Museum. This is an outrageous claim, dismissing the extensive work of many others both on the museum’s staff and in other roles.

My own experience contradicts your statement. My partner and I have been giving works from our own art collection to the Beach Museum for a few years — something like 75 works to date with several hundred more to come in long-term planned giving. As to our decision to give art works to the Beach Museum, Bill North played no role whatsoever. In one case only, in which we proposed giving a work by George Segal, we posted images of two works and asked for help in picking which one we would donate at that time. That was the full extent of Bill’s role with regard to our gifts to date and our plans for future giving.

My point is not to judge his performance but to point to the obvious incompetence of the Mercury to do so, especially if the test is the article in question.

Art collections in a public museum are not generally acquired by the efforts of any one individual, and many have played — and still play — key roles in building the collection at the Beach Museum. Many individuals are responsible for the rapid expansion of the collection. No one person — certainly not I, as a modest donor, nor any other donor, but not Bill North, either — deserves credit for it.

I was concerned and saddened, too, that your article was rich in innuendo and seemingly intentional ambiguity. “North’s departure,” you wrote, “sparked questions ….” Yet you did not specify who, precisely, fanned the sparks and who, precisely, raised the questions. Or did this whole matter occur to the staff of the Mercury spontaneously? Somehow, I doubt it.

My own interest in Kansas State University having an art museum goes back to the 1970s, when I wrote art reviews for the Mercury. In the 1980s, I was part of a group chosen by President Duane Acker to explore the feasibility of establishing an art museum at the university. In the 1990s, I had the honor of serving on the Museum Operations Board, when the inaugural staff members of the new museum were hired, when the collections policy was determined, and when many other key objectives were discussed and set.

From the start, the policy regarding collections and acquisitions was clear. Works related to Kansas and the Midwest have always been central. Think of it as a target, and the art of Kansas and the Midwest is the bull’s eye. The additional concentric circles add strength, but the farther from the center, the lower the overall priority. But your article ignores completely the crucial role of opening the work widely to many groups and constituencies, sharing it and promoting it.

One of the deeply disturbing and extremely misleading errors of your article is its false pitting of “collecting” against “programming.” To suggest that “collecting” is hurt by “programming” or is its enemy is like saying that music is hurt when it is performed. It is like saying that the purpose of a library is subverted when books are off the shelves and in the hands (and minds) of readers.

For an art museum, “programming” without “collecting” would be absurd — but so would “collecting” without “programming.”  Anyone doubting this should review the website of the Association of Art Museum Curators, perhaps with a glance at sessions at this year’s conference, which included one on “Technology and Community Engagement” (which, I could swear, sounds rather like “programming”).

The Beach Museum has al-ready survived a great deal — and grown better for it. I recall an individual, early on who had important responsibilities at the museum and who thought that an exhibition of duck decoys would make a wonderful show.

I remember another who thought that the purchase of an elaborately detailed piece of old European furniture would help to put the museum “on the map” and would inspire the party selling the item to the museum to donate works to it as well. Photographs of the piece proved to be deceptive, the actual worth of what was purchased was a modest fraction of the purchase price, and no subsequent gifts materialized.

Yes, errors do occur now and then, and they deserve our attention. Who knows? We might even discuss the wisdom of past acquisitions by purchase at the museum more broadly than the isolated case I just mentioned. At the same time, the current developments at the Beach Museum will surely remain open to judgment just as those of the past are.

But it would help if the matters that come to our attention today are evaluated against the full range of the museum’s mission — not against an imaginary isolation that is ultimately inconsistent with the museum’s origins and purpose.

Don Mrozek is a professor of history at Kansas State University.

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