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Mary Hirsh

Distrusting Art: Funding and the Drifting Mission of Curatorial Practice

       As public funding for arts organizations becomes more competitive, granting organizations are demanding applicants expand programs and services to attract a wider audience. At the same time, requirements such as educational aspects and diversity initiatives directly impact the types of exhibitions that institutions are able to mount. Museums have certain responsibilities involving the illustration of ideas. Prime among these is the visual manifestations of collections, artifacts, and artworks that help contextualize these objects. Yet, institutions seem to doubt art’s inherent ability to create its own context, themes, and impressions. In addition, education mandates are built into nearly all museum charters. However, these objectives do not always work in concert. The notion of how organizations are to ‘educate’ has changed dramatically over time. Initially, opening the doors to the public was enough to fulfill this mission. Museums, increasingly dependent on public funding to operate, are moving towards a more ‘democratic model’ that appeals to a broad swath of the population at a common level, while facing an intensified degree of accountability towards both granting organizations and the audience, altering the way in which artworks are presented and discussed within the context of exhibitions.

       This thesis asks if the mounting dependency on educational funding has lead to the favoring of pedagogically oriented display over other, perhaps less academic, approaches to museum exhibition practice. What combination of factors, other than funding, may account for the move away from a primarily art historical model to a cultural studies model? How widespread is this change? Is this move towards a more ‘democratic’ museum actually democratic or does it lead to cursory, one-sided lessons imposed on the art and the audience?

       Studying past and present NEA requirements, as well as the funding guidelines from corporate and foundation sources will establish a historical framework. Current literature dealing with the intersection of arts, culture, and education will provide a theoretical basis for considering these questions. Educational theories, ranging from John Dewey to the present, will be examined to offer a variety of options for keeping museums as viable sites of discourse, while maintaining ethical fulfillment of granting requirements. In order to provide specific examples and suggestions concerning the exhibition model, two exhibitions from Chicago area museums will be examined in depth. Through this study, trends in funding and organizational responses will be identified and elucidated, creating a general understanding of why museums choose to present exhibitions in certain contexts.


         Mary Hirsh received her BA from Indiana University, with a double major in history and art history. Prior to entering SAIC, she worked in film production and at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. While in Chicago, Mary interned at the Department of Cultural Affairs and in the registrar’s office at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.


Thesis Advisor: Gregory Sholette Assistant Professor, Arts Administration

Thesis Reader: K. Emerson Beyer Program Associate, The Ford Foundation










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