07/02/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Art Museums and the Aspen Spirit

A member of the Turkish parliament attending the Aspen Ideas Festival told me he had promised his constituents an art museum. An art museum? Dr. Aykan Erdemir had been elected before the recent protests, but his vision remained clear. An art museum would attract tech and design firms to a local economy dominated by agriculture and industry. It would give the city a sense of pride. It would bring a humanistic dimension to a university culture dominated by technical education. In his promise, Erdemir aspires to something like the effect of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao--combining a mark of international distinction with economic development and appropriate cultural and civic celebration.

It's hard not to think about the arts at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Harman-Eisner artists in residence Damian Woezel, Anna Deavere Smith, and Yo-Yo Ma (the artist in residence for 2013)--not to mention the concurrent Aspen Music Festival--have been infusing the performing arts as significant complements to the economic, political, and scientific "big ideas" that echo across the Institute campus. But the campus itself is a work of art. Designed by Herbert Bayer--whose artwork adorns most of the Institute's Aspen buildings--the campus' Bauhaus aesthetic amidst the stunning Colorado mountains gently but forcefully whispers: Think! Be! Imagine! In some respects, the Aspen campus is an art museum turned inside out, a place where the galleries of nature, of human artifice, of the life of the mind and spirit spill over into one another into an exhilarating cacophony of thought and feeling, a tribute to our achievement, our frailty, and our aspirations.

Is this the future of the art museum? What is an art museum? Or, as performer (and Aspen Trustee) Anna Deavere Smith and Tom Campell (who directs the Metropolitan Museum of Art) asked in their "Artist as Seer" panel on Monday, Do art museums matter anymore? The answers are almost as varied as the number and kinds of art museums as institutions and leadership wrestle with significant social, demographic, economic, and technological shifts.

The Aspen Institute--originally the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies--has long had the arts at the center of its mission of dialogue. Monday's panel discussion emerged out of a crescendo of discussion in the industry and from a focused convening organized by the Aspen Institute Seminars Department in March 2013--a four-day, Socratic conversation "Propositions for the Future of the Art Museum". The March seminar was attended by seventeen distinguished international art museum directors (including Tom Campbell) and other "provocateurs" (including Anna Deavere Smith) from outside the art museum world. Some held that art museums need only "tweak" their mission and operations to secure financial and cultural stability. Others argued that only a more fundamental, industry-wide approach to problem-solving could put the art museum world on firmer footing. (Those interested in a summary of the March discussion can read the report here.)

What is the purpose of an art museum? What is the role of the art museum in the good society? These questions go beyond the institutional challenges of art museums to the broader issues of our individual and collective encounters with traditional visual arts in an ever-expanding digital age. What are we doing when we encounter a work of art in a museum gallery? Are we simply observing an artifact of history mediated by academic scholarship? Why should we see the original when digital reproductions are available for free on virtually any computer screen or smartphone?

To see art museums not only as repositories of culture, but as dynamic spaces for encounters with other human beings past and present, as confrontations with ourselves in which we allow art to "read" us--this is to recognize art museums as custodians of individual and collective memory and identity, as places which educate and stimulate the imagination. As Campbell put it, a museum is "not just a stuffy art history lesson" but a comprehensive experience which "puts you in a contemplative state of mind and opens you to new suggestions."

Art museums matter because the human spirit matters. We need places set apart in which we can wonder at ourselves, our heritage, and our future. Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, like Aykan Erdemir, sees museums not only as emblematic of cities, but of the texture of the experiences that makes us who we are. "Museums", Pamuk writes, "are (1) not to be strolled around in but to be experienced, (2) made up of collections expressive of the soul of that 'experience,' (3) not in fact museums but merely galleries when emptied of their collections." At their best, art museums take us out of ourselves, even as they engage us in dialogues with ourselves and each other...past, present, and future. Just like the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Dr. Todd Breyfogle is Director of Seminars at the Aspen Institute, including the classic Aspen Seminar on Leadership, Values and the Good Society.

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