"But the terms of existence for cultural institutions have changed," he said. As former bastions of art scholarship and preservation have reached out to the public and attempted to broaden their bases of financial support, the line between educating and entertaining an audience has been redrawn. "Whether you use really benign examples like welcoming exhibits that are so pretty to look at and so interesting to see--such as the Lincoln, Washington and Bloomsbury shows at the Huntington"--or the wildly popular but controversial exhibition of motorcycles at the once-staid Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim's global expansion under the direction of Thomas Krens, the art world "will never be the same again," Skotheim said.
Unlike some other cultural centers, the Huntington hasn't been publicly criticized for turning itself into an entertainment center or theme park. But it has kept up with the times by revising its mission statement "with education as the umbrella theme," Skotheim said.
The original mission statement focused on "research into the ideas of the English-speaking peoples," with only a brief mention of "exhibits and displays, insofar as it is practical," he said. The revised statement says the Huntington "encourages research and promotes education in the arts, humanities and botanical sciences through the growth and preservation of its collections, through the development and support of a community of scholars, and through the display and interpretation of its extraordinary resources to the public."
It's a powerful change, but not as alien as it may seem, he said. "Obviously Mr. Huntington meant to contribute to the education of Southern California. But his idea was that people would make reservations and get dressed up and no children would be admitted in the galleries. People who are attracted to the Huntington now, who care about it and financially support it, want it to do more than just present things to the educated elite. They want to feel they are making a contribution to a larger public."
Speculating about reasons for the current "hyperactivity" in cultural institutions, Skotheim wonders if museums, zoos and aquariums are "filling in where schools no longer do things" and, if so, why. "Is this another function of the coming of age of a more individualistic demographic group that really doesn't want to sit still in a school, but wants to wander around? I don't know, but it's a very interesting thing," he said.
The rise of cultural tourism has certainly contributed to mushrooming audiences, he said, but so has new wealth. "I think there is something to the very unusual boom psychology of the '90s. Everything has exploded--our expectations, our affluence, our consumption habits. Why are there sports utility vehicles? In a way that's as much a puzzlement."
David Brooks' new book, "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," argues that bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos, have merged two historical opposites--bourgeois businessman and countercultural bohemians--into a new ruling class of educated elite, explained Skotheim.
"They carry over the rebelliousness and individualism of the '60s," he said, "so that they don't defer to established patterns in all kinds of ways, but they don't have any of the historic bohemian's antipathy to affluence or the trappings of success and wealth." Among other things, this phenomenon has spawned "an inexplicable reveling in aesthetically superior things" including fine art.
No matter how one accounts for the boom in cultural institutions, it has brought new challenges, Skotheim said. The brouhaha over "Sensation," an exhibition of works by young British artists from the collection of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, at the Brooklyn Museum, provoked a national discussion of the pitfalls of self-interested private and corporate sponsorship of the arts.
But that is part of the fallout of rising costs and expectations, Skotheim said. "Ed Nygren [director of art collections at the Huntington] estimates that $300,000 is about the minimum it will take every time we redo the Boone Gallery for a show. That's so much money compared to the old days at the Huntington, when a curator would get an idea and put it together in old cases, using expense accounts and supplies on hand."
These days, Americans seem to expect almost the same growth rate in the arts that corporations expect, he said. It may not make sense that demands for an ever-greater rate of return on investments have somehow been translated into a passion for bigger and better exhibitions, but "it seems as if the appetites are unending, and apparently there is no turning back," he said.