The case for the museum as a venue for great Latin American art was bolstered last year by two complementary exhibitions. "Latin American Art From the Collection of Pearl & Stanley Goodman" was compiled from the breathtaking collection of a local collector and museum board member, and "Recent Acquisitions From the Latin American Art Collection" beautifully augmented it.
The museum has also taken to showcasing more work from its other permanent collections. This is a very good thing. For years, it seemed the museum trotted out selections from the magnificent Meyer & Golda Marks collection — the museum's extensive holdings by modern artists from the Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam axis — only when it needed to fill space. Now there's the sense that someone has finally realized, belatedly, what an asset the museum has on hand and has decided to share it with a local public hungry for more traditional fine art.
Then there's the museum's enormous William Glackens collection, which has been a constant for many years. The American artist's heir, Ira Glackens, bequeathed a hefty set of works by his father to the museum in 1991, and a decade later, a new, 10,000-square-foot wing opened to provide a venue for the collection, which is maintained thanks to regular infusions of cash from the Sansom Foundation. For a long time, I was dismissive of the Glackens collection, only to find myself growing to admire its depth and breadth the more I learned about the artist and his contemporaries. The collection anchors the museum, in its own way, and with a longtime Glackens expert on staff, the museum is able to offer a steady stream of rotating exhibitions that draw on the collection.
Unfortunately, the museum is too cavalier about some of its facilities. Although the lobby and some of the galleries regularly host special events, including private functions that generate modest revenue for the institution, other amenities remain underused. Take the previously mentioned Peck Sculpture Terrace, that nearly 3,000-square-foot space where visitors awaited entrance to "Tut." It once lived up to its name, presenting displays of large-scale sculptures such as the 2004-05 show of lovely work by British artist Edwina Sandys. But it's long overdue for renovations and sits empty at the top of that expensive outdoor staircase that was designed and installed for the "Tut" show and that now literally leads to nowhere.
The museum's Norma and William Horvitz Auditorium gets a little more use, but it has yet to become a reliable cultural destination for the community. The space is perfect for lectures and panel discussions and the like, as well as concerts and plays, all of which it has hosted from time to time. It would also be ideal for a small-scale series of independent and foreign films. An occasional movie or two does not constitute a serious film program.
An institution like this is ultimately exhibition-driven, however, and on that front, there is cause for cautious optimism. In the past couple of years, the museum has finally gotten back to the kind of programming that pleases fine-art aficionados — people for whom the Diana and "Tut" and Vatican shows were necessary evils that helped pay the bills. The 2009-10 season included "Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s," a sweeping, painting-intensive exhibition the likes of which hadn't been seen since "American Renaissance: Painting and Sculpture Since 1940," a 1986 show that inaugurated the museum's move into its current Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building.
The follow-up, "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell," seemed to suggest that "Coming of Age" was no fluke. The retrospective of one of America's most beloved artists turned out to be an overdue reappraisal of Rockwell — a surprisingly well-argued case that he was also one of the country's most misunderstood and underestimated artists. The double whammy that came next, "With You I Want to Live" — a pair of exhibitions drawn from the local private collections of Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea, and Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz — overstayed its welcome, but the two shows also included some terrific contemporary art. And 2010-11's "Tom Wesselmann Draws" took an unexpected look at a top 20th-century artist better-known for his paintings.
Two recent shows were something of a step backward. "Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art" was a decidedly unsatisfying object-based show in which many of the artifacts were of the "from the studio of" and "in the style of" variety. A set of iron calipers, for instance, was identified as "believed to have belonged to" Michelangelo.
The just-ended "The Art of Caring: A Look at Life Through Photography" was big and ambitious but ultimately bland, with more valleys than peaks. At the same time, however, I was heartened to find a concurrent exhibition that was nothing if not edgy, the small group show "Sight Specific: Explorations in Space, Vision and Sound."