Is there a crisis in American museums today? Has the remarkable surge in museum building programs left us with a sprawl of chronically indebted institutions, each one condemned to an eternity of fundraising? Will commercial pressures—from both within and without—undermine the scholarly efforts of museums? Have these institutions become so large as to be ungovernable?

A report last year in The New York Times noted that there were then vacancies at the top of eighteen American art museums. The exact numbers have undoubtedly changed since then, but the situation remains essentially the same. One might almost imagine those museum directors who are still in their jobs to be like the survivors on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa—ragged, desperate, nourished in ways one shouldn’t examine closely, reaching with their last strength to hail that figure of hope on the horizon, a...


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