The Reich Stuff

Brent Benjamin and the St. Louis Art Museum are examining whether 102 paintings in the collection have any ties to Nazi looting. But they won't identify the paintings for fear of tainting the works as "suspect." Their caution only raises suspicion.

For now, Benjamin's vision is directed ahead rather than behind. SLAM is involved in the byzantine planning stages for a new facility in Forest Park. The future of museums as a whole, with the stunning new structures in Bilbao, Spain (Frank Gehry's Guggenheim), and Los Angeles (Richard Meier's Getty), has generated fresh discussion about what museums can be and what they might be for.

The questions Benjamin felt unprepared to discuss are some of the most important issues museums are grappling with as they move beyond their colonial legacies. Yet when Benjamin was provided with an opportunity to return to these ideas, by way of e-mail, he was far from forthcoming. For example, Benjamin was again asked, "Don't art museums have the unique opportunity to tell a complex story of clashing cultures, to examine questions of value, of class and status and power? And isn't acquisition -- both legitimate and illegitimate -- part of the story of art, and of human history? How important are these issues to you in the evolution of SLAM as an institution? Is the museum involved in examining these topics, and what are your thoughts regarding how these can be part of the museum experience?"

His response was no more illuminating than before: "These are all significant, and number among the range of topics that can be and are included in the Museum's interpretation of the works of art in its collection. They are fascinating issues in and of themselves, and make up an important component of the broader context in which the meaning and magic of the works of art in the Museums' collection can be understood."

"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin
Jennifer Silverberg
"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin

He concluded: "Hope this is helpful."

Benjamin is as cautious about communicating the art museum's future as he is in revealing its past.

For more information, see"Turtle" Diary.

Related Links:

Art Institute of Chicago: www.artic.edu

Metropolitan Museum: www.metmuseum.org

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: www.mfa.org

A good art-news resource: www.artsjournal.com

International directory for Nazi plunder: www.LostArt.de

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