Preparing the AGO for the Next Millennium
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Feb 1997, p. 405-418


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Anderson, Maxwell, Speaker
Media Type:
Text
Item Type:
Speeches
Description:
One of the finest art collections in the world at the AGO, held in trust for the people of Ontario. A brief overview of the AGO's assets and collection. Access to the AGO on the Internet. Current AGO endeavours, including the following. An ambitious partnership to enable distance-learning for tens of thousands of Ontario schoolchildren. The world's first art museum network, an Internet/broadcast television conglomerate linking the continent's 200-largest art museum, from the National Gallery of Canada to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The construction of the world's first authoritative image bank of thousands of masterworks. A global exhibition calendar. The first debit card at an art museum. Technological innovations that are part of a long-term strategy for the Gallery, being built in anticipation of the imminent arrival of secure on-line digital transactions. Ways in which the Gallery is changing this month and some of the ways that we will change over the next couple of years. What else must be accomplished to put ourselves in shape to meet the silent click from 99 to 00. A review of services, programming, and funding. The crux of AGO's mission: the acquisition, care, study, and presentation of works of art. AGO's international reputation and lending activities. Collection strengths. Visual literacy as a primary goal. Education enhancements. Digital audio as the centrepiece of a larger strategy to ensure that visitors of all ages have direct confrontations with the original artworks hanging on the walls and in the cases. Next phases. Some words on technology. Oil paintings as a form of technology. An exploration of the word "painting" and how we experience art. An explanation of how an all-white modern museum is in fact the most intrusive of all. Judgements made in creating surroundings for the works. The display of art. How to insure that oil paintings have a continued relevance to the audiences of the next millennium. Some concluding words with reference to the guardianship of "tens of thousands of messages and memories" and the need for "galleries of all institutions … to stand and flourish well into this next unpredictable millennium, attesting to the pitfalls of vanity and the joys of human contact, and allowing a place of refuge from the fleeting, the commercial, and the inauthentic."
Date of Original:
20 Feb 1997
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Language of Item:
English
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Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Maxwell Anderson Director, The Art Gallery of Ontario
PREPARING THE AGO FOR THE NEXT MILLENNIUM
Chairman: Julie Hannaford, President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Ed Badovinac, Professor, Department of Telecommunications, George Brown College and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Barri Biederman, Grade 12 Student, Forest Hill Collegiate; Rev. Duke Vipperman, Priest-in-Charge, Little Trinity Anglican Church; Jane Corkin, Jane Corkin Gallery; Sandy Brown, Director of Development, Alumni Affairs, Trinity College, University of Toronto; Frederic L.R. Jackman, Ph.D., President, Invicta Investments Incorp., President, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Douglas Todgham, Vice-President, The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; William Withrow, Director Emeritus, the Art Gallery of Ontario; Meredith Chilton, Director and Curator, George Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art; and Joe Tanenbaum, Chairman, the Board of Trustees, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Chairman and CEO, J. M. Holdings Ltd.

Introduction by Julie Hannaford

The world of art and the world of business have historically revolved in co-existing and some would say co-dependent concentric circles, with a dynamic tension keeping the two worlds connected as a result of their absolute difference and concurrent complete interdependence. In essence, the product of the artist at its very best speaks to the world of commerce in a language that defies the linear thinker and yet speaks to us better than any prosaic medium that dominates our commerce-laden lives.

Of recent years, the uneasy truce between the business world and the art world has started to come undone. The best evidence of this is found in popular culture: cultural historians would tell us that we know or should know that business is trying to displace art rather than co-exist with it when the business world starts to fashion its leaders as artists. And we know this has happened when the skill of making, keeping, or trading money is described in books with titles such as "The Art of the Deal." We know we are in worse trouble when books like those become best sellers.

As is the case with production in general, the future of art and its survival and steerage into the 21st century will depend upon how its leaders configure the business of acquiring, preserving, displaying, and maintaining the artists and their products in an environment that has itself reconfigured how we see and perceive the world. Our guest today began his preparation for this challenge after having studied fine arts at Harvard. He became fluently tri-lingual (English, French and Italian). He acted as Liaison for Information Technology for the Association of Art Museum Directors and he launched the Art Museum Network, the first official website linking North America's 180-largest art museums on the Internet. He has lectured on Roman art, international art law and interactive technology. He is a past Trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors and he sits on the Advisory Committee of the Getty Information Institute. He is a Trustee of The American Federation of Arts and was decorated as a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy in 1990.

Max Anderson joined The Art Gallery of Ontario as its fourth director in September of 1995, having directed the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta and having spent six years as the Assistant Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

As a society, we shall be judged by the words and deeds recorded by our historians; as a civilisation, we shall be evaluated by our success or failure in preserving and maintaining an environment for the making of art, and for its display and communication. It used to be that those charged with being the curators of our public cultural heritage needed to bring to their role primarily, or possibly only, the virtue of refined good taste and training. As we approach the turn of the century, those charged with the stewardship of our public art institutions in general (in the AGO in particular) shall succeed not by virtue of their good taste alone, but rather (and perhaps only) as a result of their vision.

Max Anderson has a vision for the AGO. Please join me in welcoming him to share that vision with The Empire Club of Canada today.

Max Anderson

Let me begin with an apology for the pompous title of this talk. But in today's fast-paced world a century sounds short-lived already. Besides, in the coming months I'll be speaking a lot about centuries as we plan the celebration of the AGO's Centennial in the year 2000, so I want to keep my options open and lengthen the attention span of Ontario's leadership.

In addition millennial anxieties and promises are taken in stride by an institution like the AGO, caring for a billion dollars in assets made by thousands of history's greatest artists over the course of eight centuries. We hold in trust for the people of Ontario one of the finest art collections in the world. In addition to masterworks by everyone from Rembrandt to Picasso, we present the pre-eminent assemblage of the works of Henry Moore and of Inuit sculpture, one of the world's two or three finest collections of Renaissance and baroque bronzes, Canadian paintings and sculpture, and more recently prints by the Impressionist J.J. Tissot and picture frames from the Renaissance forward, as well as dozens of other distinctions including great 19th-century British paintings and an outstanding collection of American post-war art. We have bigger fish to fry than obsessing about the silent switch over of wrist watches from 99 to 00 that the millennium portends. We have the reputations of some 20,000 artists from the 12th century to the present to maintain and the stewardship of a collection that millions of Canadians and hundreds of thousands of tourists count on to tell the story not only of our history but that of Western Civilisation from the dawn of the Renaissance onwards. Perhaps most significantly of all, we have the responsibility to see to it that every visitor and prospective visitor can turn to us for a release from their daily travails, a context for the passions and ideas that have gripped everyone at one time or another, and a benchmark for quality--that evanescent virtue in a mass-media, over-advertised, jangling morass of multimedia blitz and hype threatening to engulf us at every waking hour.

This is not to say that the AGO is averse to engaging the world of new media. Far from it. Ten thousand hits a day on our website encourage us to think about the people who are increasingly connected to us from desktop computers. We will shortly announce an ambitious partnership to enable distance-learning for tens of thousands of Ontario schoolchildren. We have founded the world's first art museum network, an Internet/broadcast television conglomerate linking the continent's 200-largest art museums, from the National Gallery of Canada to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are overseeing the construction of the world's first authoritative image bank of thousands of masterworks in those collections. We are working with North America's and Europe's largest museums to construct a global exhibition calendar enabling on-line audiences to review the schedules of thousands of art exhibitions over the next several years, as well as order catalogues and merchandise, purchase tickets, reserve tables at our restaurants, book group tours, and connect with the global industry of tour operators, travel agencies, and hotels. We introduced last week the first debit card at an art museum, allowing visitors to purchase tickets, meals, admission, merchandise, and everything else we sell, while making themselves eligible for rewards. We are working in tandem with software developers to configure the utilities that will transform not only our gallery, but potentially all of the 200-largest art museums in North America. And while everyone from Bill Gates to the U.S. Federal government would like to be setting the terms under which we collaborate as museums, it is the AGO that is driving the effort.

Our technological innovations are part of a long-term strategy for the Gallery, which is being built in anticipation of the imminent arrival of secure on-line digital transactions. Let's go over a fraction of the myriad ways in which the Gallery is changing this month and some of the ways that we will change over the next couple of years. And then allow me to close by speculating on what else we must accomplish to put ourselves in shape to meet the silent click from 99 to 00.

For many years we have charged a set admission fee to enter our doors. Yesterday we eliminated the required $7.50 charge and now ask visitors to pay what they can to enter the permanent collection, with a suggested admission of $5.00. Wednesday evenings, which have until now been free, will involve this new approach as will all other public hours. Our reasoning is that more people will come to the Gallery more often once the charge is eliminated; we have determined that an increase in attendance will cover off the shortfall occasioned by eliminating the $7.50 charge. Members will of course be free to come as often as they like with no solicitation for payment. At the same time, we have begun more ambitious programming of educational services for all ages, as well as lectures, concerts, films, and other educational and entertaining events, and will be charging for these, as well as for many special exhibitions that have been free with required admission in the past.

Until now, the Gallery has been open during daylight hours, meaning that most people can visit us only on weekends when we compete with errands, chores, and evening engagements that take precedence over daytime excursions. We must recognise that evening hours are more convenient for most people--so that stopping by after work to meet a friend, bringing the family, or just heading over to see what's up that night are all options. In order to make it more attractive for everyone, we will programme the Gallery differently during the course of each day. Early mornings will be available for events like corporate breakfast meetings, for which we will soon be able to offer live global teleconferencing; ten to noon will be for school groups and group tours, noon to five will be for tourists and those fortunate enough to have the time to visit, and five to nine p.m. will be for all of us. Evenings will have a different flavour, with live music in the galleries, cocktails, and light fare in the restaurant and our new street side cafe on Dundas Street, with outdoor seating from April to September.

Access to the Gallery will remain free for members for almost all exhibitions while the general public will pay a surcharge for many exhibits and programmes. A no-hassle entrance will honour our new bar-coded Members Card, which will prevent unnecessary queuing. We are the first art museum in North America to offer such a sophisticated digital instrument for ensuring the swift passage of our members. Members will continue to receive advance notice of exhibitions through our quarterly magazine MJ, as well as access to the Members' Lounge, discounts in the Gallery Shop and Gallery Restaurant, as well as on Gallery school courses and lectures. Members with Internet access can e-mail us with inquiries or concerns at members@ago.net, and using a membership number, will soon have privileged access to restricted parts of our Website, at http://www.AGO.net.

Those who support the Art Gallery of Ontario are vital to our fiscal health, and we could not have made these sweeping improvements to the Gallery's operations without the continuing support of our patrons, members, volunteers and visitors. The province of Ontario provides us with an annual allocation covering almost half of our operating budget--but we must raise almost $12 million annually from our members, patrons, corporate and foundation supporters, as well as from earned-income streams.

Allow me to turn to the crux of our mission: the acquisition, care, study, and presentation of works of art. Nothing is more important to us than maintaining our reputation as one of the world's leading art collections. It is axiomatic that those who live in a city take their own institutional strengths for granted. Rest assured that our reputation in the U.S. and Europe is more considerable than our reputation in Greater Toronto. Not a week goes by that I don't sign an agreement lending masterworks to museums ranging from the National Gallery of Art in Washington to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. At the outset I mentioned some of our collection strengths. These are better known to our colleagues at museums from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles than they are to the average Ontarian. And that is something we most assuredly will change. The new opportunities posed by digital technology will mean that our collections will become better known to the residents of the province and to all Canadians. We will shortly embark on one of the most ambitious efforts ever to connect far-flung audiences with a museum's art collections. No gallery or museum has yet attempted what we will introduce next fall, which will allow those on-line to roam through our galleries in real time video, participate in live video-fed conversations with our curators, educators, conservators, and technical staff, and learn in real depth about the cultural heritage to which they will turn as part of their daily curriculum. Visual literacy is one of our primary goals. It has been proven time and time again that young people exposed to studio art and art history, as well as various forms of performing arts, learn new cognitive skills that serve them a lifetime, and that an educational diet deprived of the arts leads to undernourished minds that are less competitive.

In addition to the opportunities we will soon afford Canadian children far afield from Toronto, we will be building an enhanced educational environment at the Gallery for those fortunate enough to come to visit us. Kids on-site will arrive, we hope, with a thorough grounding acquired through the Internet in some of the primary issues informing the study of painting and sculpture, including artists' biographies, social context, and the condition of works. When they come to the Gallery, already aware of our facilities and amenities, they can lead their teachers to the works in their study plan, sit in front of select masterworks and bring all of the knowledge acquired remotely to bear on the experience of the original work in front of them.

Please make no mistake--facilitating the experience of the original work of art is the reason the AGO exists. The myriad educational enhancements we offer to those in our doors and far away, from published monographs and catalogues, touring exhibitions, the lecture circuit, and the Internet, are enhancements. The direct encounter with a video project by an artist in her 20s today or a painter from the Gothic period is our reason for being, because through these experiences visitors of any age make the most powerful connection with the ideas, emotions, and concerns of society's greatest exponents of meaning: its artists.

In addition to all the other amenities that we are planning this month, we will also introduce a digital audio tour in conjunction with the exhibition of Edvard Munch, that includes an oil version of The Scream that has come from Oslo. For the time being, that tour will be on portable CD-ROM players, allowing visitors to hear Munch from beyond the grave, and hear scholars fill in our knowledge and listen to a psychologist speak about the emotional state of this remarkable but troubled artist. Digital audio is the centrepiece of a larger strategy to ensure, to the degree possible, that our visitors of all ages have direct confrontations with the original artworks hanging on the walls and in our cases. Before long, options will present themselves beyond the random-access tours allowing for a variety of perspectives pulled off CDs at the visitor's whim. The next phase will involve, like the Internet, a combination of archived information and real-time broadcasting. Similarly, we will likely move to live transmission for those visitors who seek individual or group tours. This might include hookups with experts not only in our facility but from elsewhere or with other audiences that are back in a classroom participating in a screen-projected live feed of a school group before a sculpture in one of our galleries. The focus will always be on the works of art. A group in front of a portrait will examine the surface, and could have a conservator answering questions about the work from her office, while transmitting a video feed of this exchange over the Internet for potential millions on-line. The encounter will be taped for re-broadcast at regular intervals as well as available to be pulled down in classrooms or libraries 24 hours a day around the world.

But what about the quiet reverie in front of the artwork by the single visitor or the parent and child? We will do nothing to encumber that basic experience. In many ways it is the richest kind for many, especially for those fortunate enough to have enough background from their education or direct exposure to art to make it enjoyable and worthwhile with no additional learning tools. A visitor or visitors who seek a connection with a painting, unfettered by explanation or interaction should not feel that it will be forced on them. Some of my most compelling memories of visiting galleries as a child were times when I was free to allow my imagination to interpret the works, rather than to follow the official and oft-times limiting interpretation of the teacher, parent or institution.

I am one of those for whom the concept of technology is integral to daily life. But I don't associate it instinctively with computers or with digital technology. For example, I once listed the reasons why the fountain pen is, in addition to a viscerally satisfying tool, a problematic example of technology. The reasons include the fact that it leaks and invites smudges, is easily lost or borrowed and not returned, has a small ink supply, permits only one colour at a time, can scratch surfaces, is easy to drop and be damaged or stain a rug, has a clip which can cause wear on jacket pockets, is expensive or not worth buying, has to be sent away for repair, can't retrieve information--only provides it, is hard to edit or substitute text with, produces sketchy, inexact images, makes only one copy at a time, only makes one or two sounds and can't retrieve any.

Oil paintings are a form of technology and were discovered to be a practical alternative to paintings on wood only through technological experimentation. They continue to carry visual messages on a durable medium. They were made either to be transported or to be in a fixed location, like an altarpiece or a desktop workstation. They were intended to transmit meanings of interest to viewers of the time and were part of a flourishing industry that stretched around the globe. The finest creative minds turned to paintings and sculptures to express the concerns of their day. But these concerns were as multivalent as they are today. The word "painting" is a technological delimiter, or a means of classifying one medium designed for visual communication. Yet what was communicated varied as widely as the minds of mankind from the remote past to the present. We make the concept of "paintings" too abstract and disconnected from our daily life by thinking of them as a dead medium or even one that only the initiated can learn from. By romanticising them we simultaneously drain them of their power. We should feel free to enjoy them and learn from them as emblems of their time but also as direct forms of communication with ours, and for many that require, in today's frenetic world, a way in that goes beyond the uncompelling message that "it's good for you" to go to a museum.

It is in some ways an arrogant corruption of artistic intention to put pictures from over seven centuries in the same suite of galleries. How presumptuous of us to hang a demure Madonna and Child by Bernard van Orley across from an ebullient genre scene by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The quiet religious contemplation that the former was intended to exact from the viewer is for me disrupted by the peasants stomping tipsily to song at a fifteenth-century wedding. Or the display of our new Ribera with St. Jerome--a gritty, emotional baroque homage to a Saint with dirty fingernails as if projected into the seventeenth-century Spaniard's own time--not far from the pristine white marble bust of Leo IX by Bernini, a pope living in the lap of luxury, should evoke strong tensions in the observant Catholic visitor, for whom the dissonance of these value systems goes to the heart of issues raised by religious conviction. But since these unlikely pairs of works are from the same period we enshrine them in association with one another. This is taken to be appropriate in museum culture and yet conveys next to nothing of the texture of life in the Renaissance or the era that followed unless we can develop sensitivity to the ironies that we create by hanging them in the same gallery. Museum galleries can become the unfortunate equivalent of waiting rooms at train stations, in which the occupants, so different in their internal thoughts, emotions, and histories, are reduced to silent strangers thrown together not because they have anything in common but because of the function of the space they share. And as in those waiting rooms, we can emerge with mistaken assumptions about the occupants because we confused shyness with rudeness or curiosity with flirtation.

I console myself about how we're doing by knowing that certain modern galleries, unlike ours, paint all their walls white out of the mistaken belief that this is somehow fairer to the artists shown therein--as if an antiseptic room is less intrusive than one striving to put some contextual cues around the works on view. But the all-white modern museum is in fact the most intrusive of all, in which the vanities of the architect, curator and administrator only help drain the artworks in their care of any connection to their time--a time which was like our own, invariably filled with organ music or techno, pirouettes or mosh pits, incense or air fresheners, candlelight or sunlight--all of which are banished from the experience of the work of art as if at odds with artistic intention. There is no greater fiction in museum history. The palaces, chateaux and homes that were converted into museums, like Versailles or The Grange, are, even without labels, more authentic places to encounter artworks of their time than we will ever be. The all-white museum is the opposite extreme of sensory privation, the vacuum tube of human experience in which we are meant to taste the complicated and sensory-rich offerings of the pictures before us without so much as a dash of colour from Picasso's beloved sunny Mediterranean.

Those of us in museums have reconciled ourselves to the problem, occasionally straying more towards an unobtrusively simulated context, and at other times yielding to the impulse to create a more clinical, modernist environment. The judgements we make in creating such surroundings for our works are often nuanced and thoughtful, and sometimes succeed mightily. We tell ourselves that this process of filtration, which is considered and undertaken with consummate respect for the works themselves, is what separates us from wax museums and theme parks, where context is king--to the exclusion of the authentic.

But the display of art with no context is the ultimate act of arrogance, in that it suggests to the visitor that he or she had better come equipped with all the knowledge necessary or be beneath the experience we offer. Thus I consider high-tech aids to the visitor to be other than an intrusion if properly designed. They can serve to enhance our understanding like the figure in Renaissance and baroque paintings who looks out at us and points to direct us to the primary scene of the picture. They can make a simple gesture of reawakening the senses about the original surroundings and sounds in which a picture or statue resided--all the way from the artist's studio to the dealer's salon to the patron's home to the conservation laboratory to the frame-maker's workshop to the wall on which it hangs before you. These are the multiple lives of the work of art, and their stories need to be told for us to sample the deepest draughts of their meaning and reception over time. All but a very few stand to gain from these tools, since we fool ourselves if we believe that the only way to absorb a painting is from 20 words on a label and a prolonged stare.

How will we insure that oil paintings have a continued relevance to the audiences of the next millennium? Certainly not by assuming that what was important to us will always be so. We have to work to allow the continued relevance of messages from today and from long ago to shine for everyone. And that will make manifest the degree to which the human condition is in many ways immutable--that the love of a mother for her child is shown in quattrocento panel paintings, or that the trappings of wealth were captured not in names on buildings but in flattering portraits, or that the passions of love were recreated not in film but in mythological allegories, or that the clash of arms was recalled not in video games but in battle paintings.

It does no disservice to the makers of those original works of art from long ago to show the ways in which they can connect with our realities and even our fads of today. If anything, it affirms their continuing importance as touchstones of culture and prevent us from becoming too comfortable in thinking that we are the centre of the universe or at the summit of human experience. And as we scurry to taxis to rush us to meetings, to finish proposals to undertake projects, galleries and museums stand to remind us of the sweep and majesty of the human imagination, the long history and persistence of creativity and of more enduring values than wealth and visible success. As the guardians of tens of thousands of messages and memories, galleries of all institutions need to stand and flourish well into this next unpredictable millennium, attesting to the pitfalls of vanity and the joys of human contact, and allowing a place of refuge from the fleeting, the commercial, and the inauthentic.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Frederic L.R. Jackman, Ph.D., President, Invicta Investments Incorp., President, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Preparing the AGO for the Next Millennium


One of the finest art collections in the world at the AGO, held in trust for the people of Ontario. A brief overview of the AGO's assets and collection. Access to the AGO on the Internet. Current AGO endeavours, including the following. An ambitious partnership to enable distance-learning for tens of thousands of Ontario schoolchildren. The world's first art museum network, an Internet/broadcast television conglomerate linking the continent's 200-largest art museum, from the National Gallery of Canada to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The construction of the world's first authoritative image bank of thousands of masterworks. A global exhibition calendar. The first debit card at an art museum. Technological innovations that are part of a long-term strategy for the Gallery, being built in anticipation of the imminent arrival of secure on-line digital transactions. Ways in which the Gallery is changing this month and some of the ways that we will change over the next couple of years. What else must be accomplished to put ourselves in shape to meet the silent click from 99 to 00. A review of services, programming, and funding. The crux of AGO's mission: the acquisition, care, study, and presentation of works of art. AGO's international reputation and lending activities. Collection strengths. Visual literacy as a primary goal. Education enhancements. Digital audio as the centrepiece of a larger strategy to ensure that visitors of all ages have direct confrontations with the original artworks hanging on the walls and in the cases. Next phases. Some words on technology. Oil paintings as a form of technology. An exploration of the word "painting" and how we experience art. An explanation of how an all-white modern museum is in fact the most intrusive of all. Judgements made in creating surroundings for the works. The display of art. How to insure that oil paintings have a continued relevance to the audiences of the next millennium. Some concluding words with reference to the guardianship of "tens of thousands of messages and memories" and the need for "galleries of all institutions … to stand and flourish well into this next unpredictable millennium, attesting to the pitfalls of vanity and the joys of human contact, and allowing a place of refuge from the fleeting, the commercial, and the inauthentic."