My Love Affair with Modern Art by Katherine Kuh


The docents at the art museum have a book club in the summers when touring activity is light.  Today we discussed this book which was in progress when the author died.  Since her hope had been to see it finished and published a close friend pulled it together and made sure that happened.  (When I asked Barnes and Noble whether the book was in stock, I was told that they couldn’t even order it because it is an “old” book and out-of-print.  2008.  Old.  It wasn’t a hit.)

This book isn’t an autobiography or memoir in the ordinary sense.  The friend who wrote the preface explained that Kuh kept personal information private.  She didn’t intend this book to be about her, but rather about modern art and the artists who made it–her experiences working with them.  She had quite a life in the art world as a gallery owner, curator (Art Institute of Chicago), and adviser.  So why did her friend reveal some very private details in the preface of the book?  She said it was necessary for the reader to understand what Kuh had written, but I disagree.  My guess is that someone thought it would sell more books.

Having worked in the art museum world for many years, Kuh offers her thoughts about the role of the museum.  This is the part of the book that was the most germane to a book discussion by a group of docents, two of us thought.  Not do you or don’t you “get” an modern artist’s work Kuh discussed, but what we are about in our own art museum.

Here is the part of the book the two of us put on the table:

“What are museums to do? Grow larger and larger? Take in more and more funds to support ever-expanding superstructures? I would advise the reverse. Museums could increase their effectiveness, at least for the foreseeable future, by delving deeper into holdings that could yield valuable surprises. Today it is education rather than entertainment, enlightenment rather than theater, that is mandated. The hype and the mobs have broken down dusty old barriers, but now we must use our gains for more rewarding ends. All the familiar staples–lectures, books, symposia, conducted tours, even perhaps those dreadful talking machines–do have their uses, but the time has come for more in-depth solutions. Historical, scientific, and technical aids can free art education from its past dependence on stereotypes. Education departments as such should be abolished. Each curator must develop his or her own educations program and give it the same priority accorded to acquisitions and highly touted exhibitions. Works that have been taken for granted for years, on reexamination in new contexts, can yield surprising secrets. It is no longer merely exposure we want, it is an intelligent understanding of what makes a work of art. Somehow we must develop new ways of bringing an interested public to a fuller understanding of visual experiences. Often the most difficult works to understand are the most rewarding.”

There are docents who focus on giving information about works of art, and there are those who invite people to do their own careful looking and facilitate them making their own discoveries. It’s not clear-cut. Some visitors want to be told, and it is true that more artworks can be covered with that approach.  I’m thinking a lot about this…

4 comments on “My Love Affair with Modern Art by Katherine Kuh”

  1. Hi Teri, wonderful review, as always… your comment: “There are docents who focus on giving information about works of art, and there are those who invite people to do their own careful looking and facilitate them making their own discoveries.” This reminds me of visiting the Yale Art Gallery with a dear friend- I noticed her standing quietly before a painting and I felt drawn to walk over to her- she turned to me and said “would you like to enter this painting with me?” I felt a shiver in my spine and said, “of course I would”… although I do not remember all of the *information* about the painting, I certainly remember the colors that I saw, and the sensations that I felt.. and now when I feel drawn, I pause in front of a work of art and allow myself to *enter* rather than ogle… I also find that I need to be calm and present in order to be drawn into art.. or writing.. or music… so there is a preliminary effort and shift that I engage when I am available to enjoy what I am seeing…

    “Museums could increase their effectiveness, at least for the foreseeable future, by delving deeper into holdings that could yield valuable surprises.” Yes……

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, Meredith, thank you for giving me the benefit of your experience at the Yale Art Gallery. Love “enter rather than ogle.” I just know that the artist of the work you entered with your friend by your side would much prefer that to your remembering the date it was made, her or his name, date and nationality, etc. They tell us that the average amount of time spent in front of a piece is 17 seconds, and that must include time spent reading the label.

      This isn’t to say that, after deep engagement with a piece of art, I don’t read the wall text, write down the name of an artist I want to know more about, and then go home and google away. I love factoids I find, but they must be used judiciously (if at all) on a tour.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think it is always a careful balance of information and experience when engaging with creative art. I kind of wish I had taken note of the artist and painting that I shared with my friend- I am sure I knew it at the time, but now it has drifted from memory… I, like Alison, love thinking about all of these things, and learning about and through your docent life… 🙂

        ps- 17 seconds is definitely not enough time…….!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your carefully written post Teri- I love thinking about museums and this summary is helpful in that process. It takes all kinds of thinking and I am always excited to learn more about your docent life, too 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s