Friday, November 18, 2005

A Museum for San Francisco & the Americas

by Gregg Chadwick

Olmec Sculpture
photo by Gregg Chadwick

"In 1862 plantation workers in Huaypan, Veracruz, thought that they had found a large overturned iron kettle buried in the ground. Believing that it might hide a cache of gold, they dug -- and dug -- and dug, eventually revealing a colossal stone portrait head. This was the first Olmec sculpture to be discovered in Mexico. It would be nearly 70 years before a number of extraordinary objects of jade and stone were to be seen as stylistically related and of a culture which nobody had known. That culture was arbitrarily named "Olmec" for the peoples who, at the time of the Spanish conquest, had inhabited the region where the first head had been found."
- Gillett G. Griffin, from the catalog eesay for "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership" exhibited at The Art Museum, Princeton University in 1996.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have a new building to house the de Young museum and a new director to lead both the de Young and the Legion of Honor. Tyler Green in Modern Art Notes reveals that John Buchanan, current director of the Portland Art Museum, will step in for Harry Parker upon his departure from the FAMSF.

Greeting John Buchanan upon his arrival will be a powerfully sculpted stone Olmec head. This massive sculpture, on loan from the Mexican government, carries enormous metaphysical power that, in the autumn of this year, seems to bear portents of our future.

According to Gillett G. Griffin, from the catalog esay for "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership":

The Olmecs believed that the human body divided itself into three cosmic levels: the celestial, the terrestrial and the underworld.

The head represented the celestial realm which indicates that the colossal heads found in Veracruz were probably ancestral portraits depicting the exalted seat of the mind.

Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle recently stated: "The implicit global reach of its collections makes a new conundrum for the de Young in an era struggling to think in planetary terms. As a museum focused on American art, the de Young inevitably tracked American art into the 21st century, where it has already begun to seem much less central to world culture than it did between 1950 and 2000."

I disagree with Kenneth Baker's forecast. John Buchanan, as did Harry Parker before him, needs to remember that a museum focused on American art should open up its definition of America. How often, we in the United States lay claim to two continents in our linguistic hubris by referring to ourselves as Americans while excluding the rest of the Americas that range from Canada through Mexico, Central America and South America to the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

The United States under the current regime is losing favor overseas. But San Francisco is a special city, whose culture and politics find favor in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Maybe the deYoung will be less a museum focused on the United States and more a museum focused on the Americas as a whole and the world beyond. It can only help that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will have a broader, more global, focus in the future.

I suggest that Harry Parker on his way out and John Buchanan on his first day in, sit before this ancient Olmec head and listen for the portents that it brings.


Anna L. Conti said...

Actually, John Buchanan addressed this very issue in his press conference today. He talked about his work in Portland with art of the Northwest tribes and said that "American Museums are unique in their diversity..... we have a very diverse audience, especially in the Bay Area." He emphasized that he wanted to build on that, and to get every school child in Northern California here to learn from this diversity.

gregg chadwick said...

That's great-
I was impressed that you made the press conference. Thanks for your timely and considered thoughts and reportage.
Hope your painting goes well.