PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE: A Social History of the American Art Museum by Nathaniel Burt

PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE: A Social History of the American Art Museum

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This big, bouncy book--a catchall of factual data and curiosa--is also the first comprehensive history of US art museums: a bazaar, a celebration, and, inescapably, a source. Beginning near Adam, Burt tells the bizarre story of ""Tradescant's Ark,"" embryo of Oxford's lofty Ashmolean. He tells the story of artist John Trumbull's winning bargain with Yale, start of the first college art collection; stories of New York scandals, Boston in-fights, civic boosterism north, south, and west; tales of J. P. Morgan and the missing curator (""Sorry, sir, but Mr. Morgan bought him too""), the Misses Cone and their sequestered moderns, the Kress brothers' five-, ten-, and twenty-five-thousand-dollar pictures--distributed to repay communities for their commercial support. All of which goes to demonstrate, entertainingly, that ""art follows money."" Butt, however, has no patience with ""the myth of the ignorant American millionaire. . . fleeced by devious dealers""; no, they knew what they wanted and they were willing to pay, ""just like the Medici."" Not all, of course, were in that munificent class; and Burt's book is most engaging--and informing--when he's touting the Detroit Institute of Arts' slow, sound growth; the special delights of Indianapolis, Toledo, or Cincinnati (in a chapter on the museum-state of Ohio); Raleigh's expertly selected, execrably housed collection. As an inventory of America's museum riches, this is chiefly deficient in ignoring New World and tribal art (hence, for instance, the dismissal of Brooklyn). But apart from a passion for Benjamin West, Butt (The Perennial Philadelphians) has no particular identification with art; and the idea-content is sparse. Still, where others have seen the American art museum as a people's palace too, Burt's ambitious, exuberant book goes far to prove it.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1977
Publisher: Little, Brown