In this guest post, Neil Harris, Professor Emeritus of History and Art History at the University of Chicago, examines how American arts organizations have arrived at this particular moment in time. Born out of civic pride, one-upmanship and good will, our institutions face a unique and challenging legacy. Neil Harris will be a panelist at our live event in San Francisco on October 23.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, over the course of three or four decades, major American cities brought forth a series of cultural institutions–art and natural history museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, research libraries. They performed mutliple functions. Many of them were designed to credential their civic hosts, to provide them with status in the highly competitive world of American municiaplities, to invoke the rich cultural life of storied European cities. In a number of cases institution founding was linked to some great local event, or the survival of some great crisis. Patronized in large part by wealthy local businessmen and professionals, they were also in part gestures of good will toward the towns where they had done so well.
These expressions of culture, increasingly seen as high culture, served, as well, to identify their supporters with a set of ideals, practices, objects and experiences, which together conferred a status of their own. Motives were multiple and effects sometimes moved in opposite directions, simultaneously liberating and controlling, integrating and separating out, emphasizing pleasure or instruction, meant for connoisseurs to enjoy themselves or trying to seduce the masses into attendance and support.
These diverse aims have left a challenging legacy. While the institutions have survived, now for a century or more, supported by generous private donors, they have suffered from associations of privilege, condescension, and snobbishness. Created simultaneously as asylums to protect and engines to project, they were meant to influence a broad public, but class, ethnicity, and demography have also played their roles. Understanding and building upon this complex heritage, retaining the loyalties of long-time believers while attracting the patronage of new audiences, forms a major challenge. But in the life of these institutions, not for the first time.