Vision Problems at the PMA

Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

through September 3, 2012

By Daniel Gerwin


The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has been on a multi-year run of blockbuster shows that is beginning to infuse the exhibition halls with a slight scent of pandering. Looking over the big exhibits since 2009, we find Rembrandt, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Chagall, Renoir, and Picasso: names that are synonymous with ticket sales plus mugs and calendars on your way out. Is the PMA living up to its responsibility as a world-class museum by offering a playlist with so many top 40 hits set on shuffle?


The current PMA bestseller, Visions of Arcadia, has been justly lauded for its academic achievement.   Senior Curator Joseph J. Rishel does an excellent job of presenting the Arcadian theme in its 19th century context, and successfully connects the dots between the more staid exemplars of this work (Corot, Poussin, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes) and the daring artists who reworked the genre even as they reinvented painting.  But many works in the exhibit feel like filler, and who are the groundbreaking artists in the PMA’s spotlight? The names are too familiar: Gauguin, Cezanne, and Matisse.


The PMA’s most interesting and challenging exhibits are often found in their sideshow tent: Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Oscar Munoz, or Zoe Strauss in the rooms opposite the lower level gift shop, or the wonderful Notations series just off the main hall in the contemporary wing.  Art Fag City recently reported that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA) backed out of its agreement to present the first full-scale retrospective of Richard Hamilton, the British Pop artist best known for his 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  The only other domestic stop was the PMA. Hamilton’s oeuvre deserves a serious look, but chances are the exhibit will not pull crowds like Picasso. The PMA did a smaller Hamilton show in 1986, and you can actually go see an example of his work right now, on the wall outside the Meatyard room.  I hope the museum will bring the retrospective to our city despite the sad situation at LA MOCA.


Since the recession, many museums appear to have doubled down on a crowd-pleasing strategy. Tickets generate cash flow, high attendance helps leverage funding, and executive leadership can tout record numbers to their board of trustees.  Yet ticket sales generally amount to a small fraction of the total earnings of an institution like the PMA, so why focus on them?  Moreover, a museum’s mission is not simply about attendance, which is one of the reasons LA MOCA has just seen the exodus of four key artist-trustees in response to the leadership of Jeffrey Deitch.


Blue Chip shows are to be expected in top tier museum programming, but there is no need to depend on the most famous names imaginable, as the PMA’s outstanding Gorky retrospective demonstrated so well.  I went to that show multiple times and it was always packed: excellent curating can generate strong attendance. Institutions that provide major funding to museums should reward efforts to preserve and look searchingly into our culture rather than have people lined up around the block for more greatest hits or a quick trip down Carsten Holler’s slide.



Daniel is a painter whose work can be seen this September in an exhibit of current fellows of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, at Artworks in Trenton, New Jersey.