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Looking Forward to 2012: Maxwell Anderson Looks at Art

by Jerome Weeks 26 Dec 2011 6:30 AM

The first in a series: At year’s end, Art&Seek looks forward to people in the North Texas arts community — some of the ones who’ll be doing work in 2012 that you’ll want to keep an eye out for. We start with the Dallas Museum of Art’s new director.


This week, KERA’s Art & Seek is looking to the New Year, to people in North Texas arts who’ll be doing work worth keeping an eye on in 2012. To begin the series, KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks with Maxwell Anderson, the Dallas Museum of Art’s incoming director.

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The next few weeks should be memorable for Maxwell Anderson. He’ll be starting as the Dallas Museum of Art’s new director, and three weeks later, his new book, The Quality Instinct, will be released.

Anderson edited his previous book, The Wired Museum in 1997. It made him an early leader in the field, an advocate for redefining museums digitally, for getting their collections online — at a time when many barely had a web presence and some weren’t sure they ever should have one (museums protect unique, costly objects — why should they hand out images of them to everyone?). Anderson practiced what he preached when he became director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2006. Among his other achievements at the IMA (adding $30 million to the museum’s endowment, opening a 600-seat theater, launching a 100-acre art-and-nature park), he got national attention when he put IMA policies and (some of its) financial data on the web — an unprecedented act of transparency in a field known for its secrecy and discretion. He also created a separate website, Art Babble, that specializes in videos about artists’ work and artists at work.

The DMA has been an online innovator as well, and Anderson now considers the digital age more or less a battle won.

Anderson: “For me, online is really a form of conversation. And it’s part of the future of every art museum, including Dallas’s.”

For his new book, The Quality Instinct: Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eyes (left), Anderson turned instead to the past, to an idea that many consider old-hat: the connoisseur.

Anderson: “Connoisseurship has to do with training the eye to see in works of art something that might not be immediately obvious – to see the quality and character of works of art as material objects.”

His book is partly a guide for anyone who wants to take the time to look at artworks; it’s also a personal memoir about how he learned to do just that, how he could examine an ancient Roman bust and almost immediately realize there was something “off” about it. Anderson is the grandson of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson (below), best known, perhaps, as the author of The Bad SeedAnne of a Thousand Days and the “musical tragedy,” Lost in the Stars, with composer Kurt Weill. He is the son of Quentin Anderson, a Columbia University professor and  senior fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities. At 24, the future museum director was the youngest Harvard student to earn a doctorate in art history — and he’s been knighted by both France and Italy.

Not exactly a typical middle-class life. Even so, Anderson wants to rescue the idea of the connoisseur from the old trappings of upper-class privilege, from the art-market focus on price and profit and from the critical theorists, who dumped the connoisseur as a period fossil. Critical theory is concerned with sexual-racial-social-political contexts, with power relationships. To the theorists, judgments about an artwork’s quality — ranking it on some grand scale of greatness and relevance — these are just traditional modes of, well, class privilege. But by using his own life and career as examples, Anderson hopes to sidestep all that to convey the benefits of direct encounters with art objects.

Anderson: “I hoped that I could demystify a little bit the process of acquiring that expertise and make it less this unreachable mountain and more something which touches the expertise that people have about all kinds of things, whether it’s gardening — or NASCAR.”

Anderson maintains that truly seeing an artwork is a skill anyone can acquire.

On the other hand, running the DMA probably isn’t. Anderson will begin testing that particular skill set January 9th.