Continued from part one of a Q&A with Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun on the exhibition “Telling
Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of Steven Spielberg
and George Lucas.” The show opens on July 2.
MAN: So if the museum wanted to do a Rockwell show, if it accepted the premise of the exhibition, why not give the curators the freedom of curatorial inquiry to include work beyond those two private collections?
Elizabeth Broun: I would give two answers to that. They have collected on some level subliminally and on some level consciously, they have collected the works that make the case extremely well. There are direct quotes. There is a wonderful work of Gary Cooper getting made up by the makeup artist, The Texan, and there are images that directly relate. There’s another great one, –And Daniel Boone Comes to Life [at right, 1923] on the Underwood Portable, a young guy at a typewriter and it’s almost like there’s a thought-bubble above his head and he’s envisioning Daniel Boone crossing the Cumberland Gap and it’s about trying to script something on paper that’s in your head. So they have collected works that are right in line with how you make this argument. There is a pertinence to seeing that it took directors and producers to see this and they see a kindred spirit. We think it underscores and adds [to the show]. I don’t think the show would be stronger [with outside work]. I don’t know that you would gain by saying, ‘We borrowed four things from the Rockwell Museum.’ To me the point that it was movie-industry people who have been profoundly impacted by this is kind of a virtuous circle of engagement in the project.
I can tell you this: Unlike the shows you have complained about where people are flattering private collectors or showing board members’ works this is not a [situation] where we have ulterior motives. [Ed: Over several years MAN has written about museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, etc. presenting single-collector shows.] I’ve never met or laid eyes on Spielberg or Lucas personally. It’s all been handled professionally at the staff level. We know the public likes that aspect and it’s fun to see that collectors have done this. I don’t know that we have much to offer by way of enhancement of either Rockwell or Spielberg or Lucas. It seems to me that the normal concerns aren’t relevant here.
MAN: I obviously haven’t seen the show yet – it opens July 2 – but will there be materials in the galleries or near the galleries pertaining to Spielberg and Lucas?
EB: It’s all Rockwell. It’s a very tight show, it’s in our first-floor galleries… a space that accommodates 55 or 60 paintings. All those other associations are in the catalogue and we will tease them out through the run of the show in our programs. We’re having a film series about films from Rockwell’s time… so there will be an ongoing movie series in the auditorium.
MAN: The show’s credits include the line “the Museum also gratefully acknowledges the contributions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.” Are they financially contributing to the presentation?
EB: They are each making a modest, five-figure contribution. All the costs of the show and the book are covered by an exclusive corporate grant from Booz Allen Hamilton. But the supplemental support from Spielberg and Lucas allows us to extend programs and ancillary activities. We deliberately did not want their funds to produce the show or the catalogue.
MAN: How does that work? I don’t work in a museum or at the Smithsonian so maybe this is a silly question, but is there some kind of firewall or assignment of monies raised into certain funds or…?
EB: It’s a kind of consensus. We’ve discussed it throughout the Smithsonian with colleagues and also with our own administrators. Our feeling is whether it’s a collector or a dealer or someone who has some kind of interest in the project, they should not be providing core support for the project. The project should be achievable without their support, but if there’s things that makes the project better – programming or films and not core support — it’s OK to [accept that] in a modest way. You just don’t want to be depending on funding from an interested party for achieving the main goals of the project. Fortunately, thanks to Booz Allen Hamilton, we’re in good shape. [Image: Norman Rockwell, Boy on High Dive, 1947.]
MAN: So I understand the link between the premise of the show and the collectors, but do you worry that these kinds of shows validate the spending habits and taste of certain influential or famous collectors?
EB: I would refer you to our track record. If we were out chasing wealthy collectors and validation — that’s just not what we do. The same time we’re working hard on the Rockwell show, the one I’m fundraising for right now is a powerful but rather quiet despairing project focused on none other than George Ault, on the home front in World War II. So it’s just not our nature to be out there chasing celebrity collectors. That’s not what we do. We think pretty much all of our projects have serious, substantive purpose and we take a lot of pride in that.
We’re also happy when a project has wide appeal. We like that, we’re populist by nature. We like having a wide audience and we like having a renovated building that is indeed an attraction… We have a long record of commitment to scholarship: We have the largest fellowship program in American art in the country. We have the largest research databases of any institution anywhere in the country for the study of American art. We see ourselves as profoundly devoted to advancing the understanding of [American art]. If you look at our track record we’re not that lavishly funded and we devote a major share of what we get from the government and what we raise from private sources to scholarly pursuits. It’s wrong to suggest we’re out there trying to snag the next celebrity collection. In this case we happen to have celebrities, but the reason we love having them is their insight tells us something new about Rockwell that has been ignored and their insight came because they are in this industry.
MAN: You seem to be suggesting that if this show were at the New Museum or somewhere else that it might raise more legitimate questions? Maybe it’s unfair to be positioning that question in a way that encourages you to say something about another institution, but I gather you understand what I’m asking.
EB: Every museum has a slightly different profile. I guess I’m not saying if someone else did the same show it would be different. This show would stand on its own as a solid contribution to scholarship no matter where it was produced.
MAN: The Smithsonian is a quasi-federal institution. As you know, overall 70 percent of the Smithsonian budget comes from federal appropriation. I’m sure you grappled with this or talked in house about whether it was appropriate for a quasi-federal institution to present an exhibition of the work of two private collectors.
EB: Whether it was appropriate for a quasi-federal museum is not an issue. The issue that we did discuss was whether there was a serious ‘there there,’ or whether this was just a confluence of three big names. We did have a number of conversations about that and teasing out these understandings about what these relationships were and what the substance was. And yes, it was crucial to a decision about doing the show. We would not have done the show if it were just three big names coming together.