Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era

Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era

Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era

Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era

Synopsis

Things American gives us, at last, a history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art based on genuine archival materials. Moreover, it reorients our thinking about art museums in the United States, demonstrating that there were important democratic, utilitarian, and civic impulses at work behind them. The book also broadens our thinking about progressivism, reminding us how it shaped art museums and how those museum-related programs it spawned continued beyond World War I.-Steven Conn, author of Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Excerpt

In the early twentieth century a new generation of museum reformers ushered in an institutional revolution that redefined the relationship between art, museums and industrial urban society in the United States. Determined to overturn the image of museums as elite storehouses of art, those curators and administrators developed a progressive museum agenda that linked art and beauty to citizenship. Combining the era’s impulses for civic and urban reform with new professional standards and a commitment to democratic access, they turned art museums into modern, efficient educational institutions in service to the people. At the center of this movement for museum reform stood the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frequently seen as a bastion of elite cultural values and social exclusion, the Met presented itself as a model for new ideas about cultural democracy, during the Progressive Era. While hardly alone in the movement for making museums more useful and accessible, the Metropolitan nonetheless stood apart because of its dominant economic and cultural position in the United States.

I call this generation of museum reformers who led the movement for more democratic museums progressive connoisseurs. Instead of seeing art museums as rarified institutions that preserved the sacred status of art, progressive connoisseurs established museum standards that introduced modern, bureaucratic business management and practical education programs that could produce measurable results, similar to other Progressive Era social reform. They integrated museums into the larger social reform movement because they recognized the important role the arts played in the health of the nation. Whereas an earlier generation of cultural leaders and philanthropists had believed that art could lift up the poor by providing civilizing influences, progressive connoisseurs insisted that American citizens had a civic right to beauty and tasteful surroundings. And they insisted that better cities and . . .

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