04/12/2011 10:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

No Overlap -- About Small Cultural Institutions

I have been thinking, and then thinking some more, about small arts institutions -- about why and how they matter. We know that there are a great many arts organizations in this country; perhaps, we are sometimes told, there are too many arts organizations. But when I think about museums -- the arts institutions I know best -- I find many "whys" and "hows" and "wherebys" for their flowering on the cultural landscape. Museums stand in distinct locations, with different populations to relate to and respond to. They have unique histories and separate futures; they draw different supporters; they sustain different collections and activities; they care for different parts of the country's productivity and patrimony. The one thing museums don't do is overlap.

Some examples? These come from a mental list of small museums that I especially admire:

• In Pittsburgh, which has a wealth of other institutions, the Mattress Factory has been located in the historic Mexican War Streets section for more than thirty years.

It specializes in room-sized, contemporary installations -- art that fills space, inviting audiences to walk around in it; art that speaks to largeness, completeness, fullness, enclosure. Suitably enough, the work in these rooms is created by artists-in-residence who live and work in local places that have been rescued for this re-use. The Mattress Factory supports printmaking and fabricating facilities; it commissions big work; it sells small work by the same artists. It is not like any other place in town or beyond.

• I love the Wolfsonian museum in South Beach, Miami, walking distance from the unique Art Deco historic district. Like that area, the Wolfsonian is rooted in late nineteenth and early twentieth century history, aesthetics and philosophy.

Its collections are rich in the themes of that time: "nationalism... industrialization, architecture and urbanism, consumerism and advertising, transportation and world's fairs..." as it says of itself -- the material culture that has become modern life. The Wolfsonian collections enlarge and enrich the historic district. The museum is committed to research, to understanding as well as appreciation of its era. It supports fellowship programs and scholarship; it publishes journals and studies; it exhibits art, and it also exhibits artifacts, advertisements, design, furnishings, tools of the period. It is unlike any other place.

• The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia -- just as its name tells us -- encourages artists who work in fabric and in other new or unusual materials. Most of them work under its auspices; indeed, under its roof. The Workshop creates exhibitions and tours them, making little known art forms much better known.

Since 1977, The Workshop has given time for exploration to accomplished artists, classes and apprenticeships to the next generation of artists, and has offered a tie to the time in our history when fabric was a more common material for art than it is today. Every year, the Workshop flies the fabric banners designed by its young students over the Philadelphia landscape. I think no other museum does anything like that.

• The Rubin Museum in New York is the dominant museum of Himalayan art in the west. Its mission covers the mountainous region "...from Afghanistan in the northwest to Myanmar (Burma) in the southeast and... (the) Tibet Autonomous Region, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan," and all the parts of the globe within which that work has traveled over time.

Included in its collection of 2000 objects are Himalayan paintings and sculptures, textiles, prints, ritual objects. It also provides a home for touring exhibitions. In its galleries, theater, and public spaces, the Rubin Museum contains a whole world drawn from ancient and current peoples who live, in actuality, many worlds away. It is unique in what it contains and what it opens to us.

Project Row Houses in Houston was started by a group of African-American artists who were worried about the under acknowledgment of work like theirs, and who were also worried about the status of minority populations in their city.

Starting with a group of ten "shotgun houses" -- neglected, historic relics of a poor black neighborhood -- these artists worked to build what it now a restored community, a haven for creativity, a home for public art, a recognition of the city's past and housing for poor urbanites. With ten heritage cabins as its center and emblem, Project Row Houses provides a unique resource for artists and the Houston community, and a model of action through art.

• The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles holds work collected by entrepreneur Armand Hammer. The Museum honors this colorful and successful American's cultural contributions to his adopted country. The museum, named for him and built by him, contains, among other works, the Armand Hammer Collection and the Armand Hammer Daumier and Contemporaries Collection -- work Hammer amassed with the public in mind in the twenty-five years before his death in 1990. In recent years, the museum has added contemporary and video art. In addition to opening these private collections to the public, the Hammer is part of UCLA, inspiring study and scholarship relevant to its specialties. This collector's vision -- and the museum -- are unique.

In their diverse commitments and collections and connections, these museums and their many, many peer institutions contribute one-by-one to American culture and to American life. They contribute selectively. They contribute separately. And no one of them can substitute for another. I believe that the reason we have so many museums and other cultural institutions in this country is because we have so much to learn, so much to show, and so much to be grateful for. Among the things we can be grateful for are the range and the diversity of our cultural offerings. There is so much to experience in so many places without end and without overlap.