I strongly support museums that are open to the public where the hoity-toity and hoi polloi can wonder and feign understanding together. As of this week, we also wholeheartedly support the Spencer Finch exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His installation/thingamajig, ‘Sunlight in an Empty Room,’ hangs in the rotunda as apparently fluffy and fun as cotton candy, but more satisfying. The other room is filled with things – scotch tape, photographs, paint, fluorescent bulbs – that are as diverse as a group exhibition and about as abstract as a weather map. This is art through popular science, or perhaps the other way around, but it’s mostly a lot of fun without being dumb.
What it isn’t is free – and this is important in a town divided between dedication to economic liberalism or central administration of public goods. The Corcoran, a private labyrinth housing a college, library, and gallery, charges admission. Our $10 won us an 87-minute wander through galleries whose cumulative effect paled, inevitably, in comparison with the embarrassment of riches at the National Gallery. We loved Spencer Finch and enjoyed ourselves, but were left wondering if we’d enjoyed ourselves enough when the other option is more famous and doesn’t charge admission.
Buyer’s remorse and rational economic choices have a strange and fuzzy place in and around the arts. Museum admission is a private contribution to a public good – you give so we all get, so it’s somewhat disingenuous to measure outcomes in numbers. Still, we paid about $1 for every 8 minutes 42 seconds at an enjoyment quotient somewhere between a round of beers and a sunset. Worth paying, yes, but a far cry from a rational economic decision when Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackson Pollack jostle for space in just half of a museum down the road where no one takes your money at the door.
The perception that we need to choose one ultimately better option, however, assumes a single standard and competitive institutions. Like our political parties, the National Gallery and the Corcoran have different mandates and missions but they are more alike than different. One is the storehouse and showpiece of a country’s treasures to which we get a lifetime pass through a small annual fee – our taxes. The other is a jack-of-all-arts in a beautiful and distinct building that sells day passes. Unlike the elephants and asses, however, there is a space for each and on a mid-autumn lark, we were fortunate to appreciate both.
Their peaceful coexistence is a reassuring reminder that at least one part of Washington has a difference of opinion that leads to a better experience for all of us. Part of that experience is Spencer Finch, a further reminder that the right now, with all of its angles and overlapping colors, is impermanent. In the competition to capture the present moment, if there must be a competition, we choose Spencer Finch at the Corcoran over Democrat and Republican.