Medical students study Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed (1818), by J.M.W. Turner, at the Yale Center for British Art. / Adam Jones

Imagine an expansive, enclosed glass atrium dotted with potted ficus trees, the arboreal hallmark of the bourgeoisie. Amidst the subdued hum of conversation, visitors complacently mount escalators. Down below, others meander along an underground walkway, between shops and a strategically positioned café.

The tableau would seem to suggest a suburban shopping mall. Instead it is an art museum and a venerable one—the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. It is no accident that the East Building, construction of which began in 1971, echoes the aesthetic of the vertical malls then in vogue. Designed by I. M. Pei, the East Building was intended to attract people, pairs, groups, crowds. More abstractly, it was positioned as a celebration of capitalism. As architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable observed, the East Building glorified “the consumerism of culture and commerce.” Another I. M. Pei museum exudes a similar consumerist gestalt, though the space conjured is more akin to an airport than a mall—the pyramids at the Louvre. As Andy Warhol—an accidental prophet—declared, “All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores.”

The design of the East Building was emblematic of an institutional shift in the museum world that has only become more dramatic over the decades. At the beginning of the twentieth century, museums were considered august guardians of cultural wealth. By the late 1960s the association between culture and wealth remained intact, though the terms had changed: culture was no longer just a kind of metaphorical wealth; it was a way of procuring the real thing.

University art museums are proving capable of realizing the ideals that other art museums espouse in facile mission statements.

Over the last fifty years, museums have become even more entangled in consumerism. Three recent exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art include “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion (sponsored in part by designer Marc Jacobs and Condé Nast), “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (sponsored in part by Amazon and Condé Naste), and “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (sponsored by Alexander McQueen, the brand; American Express; and Condé Nast). Elsewhere, for instance at the exhibition dedicated to Chinese snuff bottles, pandering to consumer culture is less overt. Yet, aestheticized though the bottles might be, what are these curious objects if not material evidence of eighteenth-century trade winds? Of consumer exchange between East and West? The Metropolitan is only one among a multitude of museums hosting exhibitions that seem offerings upon a capitalist altar. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent and well received “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness” requires little comment.

Neil Harris, author of Capital Culture (2013), has suggested that now-familiar strategies intended to popularize the museum experience—large-scale exhibitions advertised in glossy formats, aggressive acquisitions of works by masters old and new, the introduction of gift shops complete with exhibition tie-in products, seemingly endless projects for expansion, and slick marketing campaigns—were all tactics first designed and implemented by the same man who oversaw the completion of the East Gallery: J. Carter Brown, who reigned as director of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992. Regardless of whether the trend toward popularization can be linked to a single director, this popularization—and commercialization—of art museums forced institutions to execute precarious balancing acts between the elite and popular, between ideals and crass market forces. Gimmicks such as MoMA’s wildly popular 2013 exhibit “Rain Room” (sponsored by Restoration Hardware) suggest that art museums have ceased to balance. They have, instead, shamelessly surrendered themselves to consumer imperatives.

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But melancholy jeremiads about the decay of prominent art museums and the evils of trading ideals for profit are tiresome. There is, moreover, hope elsewhere. Another kind of museum offers the public what commercialized counterparts might—and often more cheaply and effectively. Ironically these museums are sheltered under the aegis of institutions perceived as so exclusionary that they are collectively labeled the “ivory tower,” a synecdoche that suggests an improbable wedding of spun-sugar fantasy and contemptuous anti-intellectualism.

Counter-intuitively, university art museums are proving capable of realizing the ideals that other art museums espouse in facile mission statements polished to a gleam by publicists—primarily a “commitment” to serve as cultural resources for the public and to make art education accessible. Though university museums employ their own public relations corps, their fundamental concern with education makes their ambitious missions less rhetorical, more a matter of praxis. In a certain sense, university museums are in business as surely as are their public counterparts. However, by virtue of their academic affiliations, theirs is a commerce of the mind, of making art available and comprehensible.   

Some of the most prestigious university museums—among them the Princeton University Art Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art—honor that commitment in practice, not just theory, and make available their resources to a wider audience than standard art museums can. While MoMA charges $25 for admission, many university museums admit visitors for a fraction of that price, if they charge at all.

The public potential of university art museums is not bound to some obscure charm. As an institution connected to the university, the university museum is primed to teach the most important, basic skill any museum featuring art should: visual literacy. The ability to “read” art is rarely intuitive. It requires attention and cultivation, which pedagogy is best qualified to develop. During a visit to Yale’s recently and spectacularly renovated Art Gallery, I stood witness as Director Jock Reynolds drove this point home graphically. As he discussed how visual literacy was learned, not inherited, he unexpectedly pulled at a metal sculpture in the lobby for emphasis while declaring that art should not just be available but also accessible and, in some cases, literally within reach. He then bolted into one of the museum’s modern art galleries, eager to demonstrate how Yale’s galleries were explicitly designed to encourage a public unfamiliar with art’s idiosyncratic language to translate it and to incorporate in their translations not just individual works of art, but also the conversations, disputes, and fellowships perceptible between artists and across styles and decades.

Non-university museums, through outreach programs and educational materials, also encourage visual literacy. But, there, less is at stake. Among their university counterparts, the need to make art accessible is hardly a passing interest; it is a deep conviction and organizing principle. The necessity of teaching visual reading gives purpose—to educate students and general public alike—and ensures that museums become an indispensible part of student development. The ability to read and interpret visual “documents” is also a point of contact for cross-disciplinary research, with specialists in fields ranging from literature to mathematics contributing to exhibitions, just as museums augment university curricula.

Indeed, unexpected partnerships arise between these museums and academic departments. At Yale first-year medical students take part in a program at the University’s Center for British Art to develop observational skills through visual learning. The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas recently designed a similar program for students from their School of Pharmacy.

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One of the main battlements of the ivory tower, is, at least in popular perception, Princeton University, home to lacrosse teams, eating clubs, and polo shirts with pearls. But while the relatively small size of the Princeton University Art Museum seems to telegraph insularity, its reach is broad. The museum, which is free to the public, knits a fierce concern for undergraduate education with concerted community outreach. There are opera performances and scientific models integrated into artistic displays, exhibitions on subjects ranging from ancient Cyprus to the rhetoric of physical maps. There are programs for families and collaborations with outside groups, from Trenton public schools to the YMCA.

When asked in an exclusive interview about his own introduction to the visual arts, James Steward, the museum’s director, recalled, “Museum-going and the visual arts were always interwoven into my life experience.” Then, in a tone more purposeful than poignant, he added, “I’m hoping to make that true for others.” He characterized the university museum as a “bridge” between the public and the university. “There’s a challenge to speak not only to students of all majors but to people of all backgrounds,” he said. “We must learn to translate for non-specialists. We can’t afford jargon.”

The freedoms of an academic environment make it not just possible but imperative to investigate challenging issues.

These are the sorts of glossy, politic statements we have come to expect from many corners of the art world, but Steward moved on to a substantive outline of what makes university museums so promising. He described “the academy” as a place where “creation and discovery of new knowledge, re-revaluation of boundaries of disciplines, risk-taking happens.” These characteristics speak to the university museum’s unique capacity to enrich the public’s experience of art and more: it has the license, arguably the mandate, to ruffle feathers.

Think back, beyond the culture wars of the ’60s and ’70s. It was the summer of 1925, and in Dayton, Tennessee, the Scopes trial was roaring along with all the indignation that challenged beliefs can arouse. Just months later, in January 1926, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History opened. One of its first exhibitions was devoted to human evolution. The example dramatically illustrates this important distinction between academic museums and their non-academic counterparts. Universities are ideally, if not traditionally, strongholds of productive controversy, argument, dispute.

Even the smallest risks make a difference. Jane Pickering, former deputy director at Peabody, pointed to a natural experiment of sorts. In February 2012, the museum opened “Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating.” That month Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center launched “Habit Heroes.” Both exhibitions aimed at educating attendees about the food they eat. “Big Food” attracted 40,000 visitors in its first three months and garnered higher monthly attendance than any Peabody show in a decade. A stunning failure, the Disney exhibition closed quietly in less than four weeks.

One distinction between the Peabody exhibit and its less successful Epcot counterpart is subtle, easy to overlook. While Peabody incorporated brand names of foods and beverages into installations, the Epcot show—like any other public museum exhibition—represented the same items with generic titles, such as “Cola.” Peabody presented visitors with the products they actually consumed, grounding nutrition facts to the reality of daily life. Pickering saw in this the source of the exhibit’s power—a power available only because Peabody’s financial backers, largely alumni, ensured that the museum was comparatively unfettered by the politics that influence exhibition choices at public museums, which rely on corporate support. The freedoms of an academic environment not only make it possible to investigate challenging issues but, as Pickering put it, “That very freedom makes it a moral imperative for university museums to take these risks.”

Such risks may also be less subtle than those of “Big Food.” At Williams College Museum of Art, a 2002 exhibition, “Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna 1906–1913,” focused on how the future dictator transferred theatrical effects from art, architecture, drama, and music to spectacles of the Third Reich. The exhibition courted controversy on several counts. It seemingly humanized Hitler by representing him in dialogue with art and literature. It also charted how theater influenced Hitler’s “staging” of Third Reich events and placed pre–World War II Anti-Semitica as well as Hitler’s paintings on view. Williams was awarded for its courageously transgressive exhibition with attention from media outlets ranging from The Berkshire Eagle to The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

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For the Italian historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), words would preserve the triumphs of masters from the fourteenth century to his time, making those virtuosos and their art known to an audience that would grow ever larger with the centuries. His Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects (1568) was meant to immortalize the heroes of post-classical art, from Cimabue to Titian. Urgency infuses Vasari’s project. After praising the artistry of the ancients in his preface, he acknowledges how little of that art survived. He then marvels at the geniuses of his own time. In the final lines of the preface, marvel is checked by despondency, as Vasari aligns art with the frailty of human bodies that “are born, grow up, become old, and die.” His chronicle was not a mere exercise; it was meant as insurance against the seemingly inevitable decay of the art that he regarded with such adoration. Vasari talks against time.

The aim of both Vasari and of art museums is the defense of art from dangers accidental as well as intentional. Vasari’s goal, though, is never more than ekphrastic, a bid to protect fragile physical objects by containing them in words. What university art museums can preserve is even greater. As public institutions falter, university museums are a point of access and a safeguard of the objects themselves. Whatever their architecture, they are bridges—between academe and the community, between the accessible and the abstruse, between us and the artists who would otherwise be lost to time and marketing.