Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art


An irreverent, highly original look at our rocky relationship with museums and museums' rocky relationship with us.

If you've ever considered going to an art museum and then thought, errr, I'll do something else . . . If you've ever arrived and left a little glazed and confused . . . If you've ever thought, I might read an eight-page article about art museums but not a whole...

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An irreverent, highly original look at our rocky relationship with museums and museums' rocky relationship with us.

If you've ever considered going to an art museum and then thought, errr, I'll do something else . . . If you've ever arrived and left a little glazed and confused . . . If you've ever thought, I might read an eight-page article about art museums but not a whole book . . . Then this is your story.

"Museum Legs"—taken from a term for art fatigue—starts with a question: Why do people get bored and tired in art museums and why does that matter? As Whitaker writes in this humorous and incisive collection of essays, museums matter for reasons that have less to do with art as we know it and more to do with business, politics, and the age-old question of how to live.

Maybe the great age of museums will yet be a great age of creativity and hopeful possibility in everyday life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781936102006
  • Publisher: Hol Art Books
  • Publication date: 9/13/2009
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy Whitaker has an MBA from Yale and an MFA in painting from the Shade. She has worked at the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Tate, and for a well-known artist and a well-known hedge fund. Her first degree from Williams College is in political science and studio art. Her drawings and paintings are held in collections in the United States and United Kingdom. She has worked as an economics fellow studying U.S. regulatory agencies at Yale and in legal research at Harvard. She likes teaching economic theory to artists—as compiled in the booklet Business School for Artists—and, conversely, painting and art history to businesspeople. Her work has appeared previously in the British journal Architectural Design and in the New York Times. Originally from the South, she now divides her time between New York and London. This is her first book.

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Read an Excerpt

"The age of museums is not to be confused with the age of art or the age of art appreciation." Judith H. Dobrzynski

Several years ago, when I was new to London, I met friends, and friends of friends, to see an art exhibition. Our host was an affable and inviting entrepreneur with a surprising long suit in art history. With every introduction he seemed, more and more, to have assembled a classic group of chronic overachievers—exuberant learners who had never met a test that didn't like them or a grandmother they couldn't charm. Everyone was full of boundless enthusiasm, professed art admirers if not aficionados.

Two hours and twenty dollars later, we left dejected and very little the wiser, one person complaining of "museum legs" and seeming more exhausted than after a harrowing soccer match. It was almost as if we had been pelted by art world intelligentsia wielding tiny knee hammers. Although I was a museum worker at the time, I too felt that gnawing tiredness and helpless pull downward on my heels. The physical sensation recalled an unending Suzuki violin Fiddle-a-Thon at the Hickory Springs Mall at the age of eight. But here, gravity was accompanied by gravitas, as it were, in the form of post-art confusion and general psychic deflation. The whole experience made us wonder: Were we uncultured losers with no stamina, or was this something beyond us?

It was early 2001 and museums were experiencing staggering success—building expansions, ambitious programs, and record numbers of visitors. But I wondered if our weariness pointed to a schism between museums' outward success and their individual impact. In short, how was it possible that museums weredoing so well as a field when I kept meeting people who seemed to feel skeptical, uninvolved, or just plain bored?

At that juncture I truly thought of museums as public institutions; I loved their potential almost as much as that of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. But it was impossible, seeing friends sacked out, looking existentially confused, not to see creeping trust issues. Maybe boredom, especially with regard to modern art, reflected skepticism toward the judgment of the museum, the critic, or the artist behind the work. The problem wasn't as simple as a knee-jerk aversion to contemporary art, but a more general and maddeningly vague sense that something was a little broken with the mechanism of trust.

From the perspective of a generalist visitor, boredom can be tricky to explore because that can be, well, boring. The phenomenon of "museum legs" seemed to speak to a power dynamic between museums and their visitors, between the arts and the general public, or between art as a rarefied discipline and as a universal language of expression. How was it possible we lived in one of the most overwhelmingly visual ages of all time, and the very institutions that could ground us were causing otherwise curious people to glaze over in mental stupor?

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Table of Contents

• Museum Legs

• First Friday

• Liederkranz

• The Insulated Judiciary

• On the Origins

• Ladies Who Launch

• Revenge of the Homunculus

• On Boredom

• Why Museums Matter

• Exhibitionism and Appreciation

• Making Copies

• Alfred Barr Got Fired: Art Museums as Art Projects

• Women in Fancy Sweatshirts

• Epilogue

• Notes

• Suggested Reading

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