The Gibbes' Decision: Are we a museum of history or a museum of art?

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That's about as much as we know from Dottie Ashley's solid report this morning in the Post and Courier about the sudden and unexpected resignation of Todd Smith after a mere two years as executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. First the news.

Ashley writes:

"Some see Smith's departure as the result of a disagreement between the concept of bringing in more contemporary work, as opposed to concentrating on the unique quality of the Gibbes, a treasure trove of history."

Ashley does us the great service of providing context. Evidently, Smith is the second executive director in six years to come and go. Elizabeth Fleming left in 2005 after just three years as the Gibbes' top decision-maker.

Ashley does something else that's very useful. She includes observations from people who spend their time observing the art scene. They say:

"Arts connoisseurs have noted that the Gibbes has faced increasing competition with more art galleries in town and an aggressive director at the all-contemporary Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston."

OK, now some analysis.

First, we are starting to see a pattern of high turnaround at the top. Not good for the Gibbes. Donors, especially big-money donors, don't want to put their names on a house of cards. With Smith's departure, we'll probably see other people leave too, particularly those brought in by Smith to achieve a vision for the museum that he was slowly building a consensus for, but of course could not realize because it's only been two years.

The Gibbes is at a crossroads. It has to decide if it wants to be a small, history-focused institution or a forward-thinking institution. In other words, it needs to decide if it's a conservator of the past or a participant in the present. Tom White, board president, and the outspoken Eric Friberg, VP of the board, told Ashley that the Gibbes would go back to business-as-usual. In other words, focus on its core collection of historical artifacts.

I'm reminded of the ongoing struggle in urban design, development, and architecture. Should we preserve Charleston's past or should we embrace the present and move into the future? Do we sacrifice one to attain another? Or is there a middle way?

There is a middle way, but it's messy and loud and full of debate and sometimes bitterness. But there is a middle way, as shown by the new buildings all around Charleston. They don't please everyone, but they are the result of intense discussion.

I don't see this discussion happening as the Gibbes. If it were happening, Smith wouldn't be leaving like this. It was sudden and unexpected and shocking to many, I'd guess, in that institution's administration. And he makes two directors in six years. Not good for the Gibbes or for its public persona. The Gibbes needs to make up its mind about what it is.

I also think a middle way is best for a publicly funded museum. It would be different if it were a private museum. As it is, it should think about the future of the Gibbes as a public institution. The trend in museums nationwide is to be civic forums as much as repositories for art. They need to engage as much as preserve. If the board is happy with a constant flow of tourists, that's fine. But if it wants to be part of the life blood of the city, something has to change.

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