Friday, August 13, 2010

In defense of expertise; Nelson Atkins Museum of Art shop

I’ve racked up about 5,000 miles this summer in my Mazda and have been listening to lots of great new music (thank you Everyday Music in Seattle, Twist & Shout in Denver, and B-Side in Madison). Laurie Anderson has always been a favorite so I was keen to hear her new opus, Homeland.

At first, my favorite tune was “Only an Expert.” Catchy beat, interesting narrative. Not surprisingly, it’s a sarcastic takedown of the experts.

But after a dozen listens it started to grate on me. For one thing, “experts” are sitting ducks; we don’t have many politically charged performers of Laurie Anderson’s stature and it seems a waste to squander eight minutes on such an obvious target.

Then her argument began to annoy me. I realized that I actually like the idea of experts! I think training people in specialties that interest them so the rest of us can benefit from their accumulated wisdom is actually a smart idea. The problem isn’t expertise per se; it’s the ends to which it’s put. To rail against mastery seems, well, stupid coming from a woman who is a certified expert in musical performance.

I’ve been a bit cranky on this whole subject lately since so much of new media seems predicated on the idea that we’re all experts, or that the experts aren’t really experts, or that expertise doesn’t really matter anyway. One opinion is as good as another, one fact is as good as another, and everything is “just a theory” anyway.

If Laurie Anderson wants to see the positive fruits of expertise she should visit the Nelson Atkins Museum shop in Kansas City. I’ve been calling on this store for ten years now, and it’s still a great surprise every season to see what book people who know what they are doing can accomplish. (There are other excellent museum shops of course- she should also pay a visit to the Boston MFA shop to see experience and taste in full flower.)

Over the past decade, so many fantastic art museum shops have become hollow shells when it comes to book inventory. Many seem more like high end jewelry and scarf emporia than bookshops. Where maintaining a solid selection of art books was once simply part of the mission of an art museum, the shops have now become centers for chasing cash. If books aren’t pulling their weight and the margin on play-doh and ugly knickknacks is better, books have to go. The market has spoken!

This downward spiral, where “watching” the book inventory level quickly becomes a purge, and the book section of every shop begins to look like a Taschen kiosk, is a depressing spectacle. But then there are the inexplicable exceptions, like the fantastic Nelson Atkins shop.

What makes this store so special?

It’s a bookshop with related merchandise, not a gadget shop with a few books.

The book inventory is attractively arranged and fresh.

Subject areas are wide and deep. All of art history is represented, not just a scattering of tie-in’s to current exhibitions.

There’s a sense of mission that reminds me of some of the excellent bookshops in European museums. The goal of exposing visitors to a great selection of art books seems like an extension of exposure to a selection of great art. And- surprise! - once committed to a significant book selection, the books sell quite well.

Kansas City is the quintessential Middle American city, and the museum is supported in a robust way by the corporate community. Indeed, admission is free, which is no small factor when trying to figure out why they do so well with books. A family that has paid $100 just to get in might not be so willing to part with $65 for a monograph.

But there’s a more important factor: the staff expertise. Many of the booksellers have been there for years. John Hamann, who has been the brains behind the store and inventory as long as I’ve called on them, has both a vast institutional knowledge of art books, and an intuitive sense of what his visitors might find interesting or quirky. He’s a walking argument for the idea that knowing something well is related to doing it well.

I don’t want to see any more museum shops turned over to consultants and number crunchers and window dressers. If art book sales have a future in our great art museums, it will be because administrators invested in staff expertise.

Sometimes, “only an expert CAN deal with the problem.”

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