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For Your Consideration 1.4

The Special Role of Art Museums

Art’s highest reward is personal discovery. Like falling in love, the experience is unique to the individual. It cannot be programmed. But it can be encouraged.

My hope for the future of our art museums, is to find the permanent collection returned to center stage. This is not to abandon special exhibitions or even the quest for new acquisitions, but to refocus these activities in relation to the works of art at the heart of the institution — the masterpieces overlooked because they are always there . . . We must return the great art in our public collections to what [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt so aptly called public use.

There are heartening signs of change, of new or improved efforts to invite the essential discovery that works of art can enrich the pleasure or diffuse the pain of being alive. Very little is required: curiosity, imagination, longing, accessibility, and encouragement. New modes of presentation quickly kindle new ways of looking and response. Nor does it take long to realize that the more we explore, the more we discover. The greatest wonder of great art, always, is that it is at once timeless and timely. If we will but give it time.

Must we justify? Some years ago, a BBC commentator queried Kenneth Clark about the purpose of art. Lord Clark responded, “I can only ask you, what is the purpose of love?”

Marilyn Perry, President Samuel H. Kress Foundation in The Economics of Art Museums, edited by Martin Feldstein, published by the University of Chicago Press.

Perry, Marilyn. “For Your Consideration,” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1994): 11.


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