Sneaking into the stockrooms at city museums

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Visible Storage: Green Vases. (Painting by Beth Livensperger.)
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Ever since there have been museums, there has been not enough space.

Museums are repositories, acquiring far more than they lend or sell, and collections almost always grow at an exponentially greater rate than does real estate. This means that large portions of a museum's holdings—in some cases, the substantial majority—languish in storage, and are rarely if ever seen by the public. Expansion projects generally provide only a small and temporary solution. The 2004 renovation of the Museum of Modern Art doubled its exhibition space, but six years later it's already feeling cramped; the Met is even more limited by its inability to extend any further into Central Park.

One strategy to deal with the problem—allowing more works to be displayed without straining already overworked curatorial departments—is visible storage. Visible storage spaces—sometimes called "study centers"—display works for the public presentably, but without much curatorial intervention or, in most cases, even labels. A case (visible storage is almost always behind glass) might hold, simply and without commentary, a few dozen pots; another might contain a long row of antique mirrors.

It's a compromise solution, but not an inelegant one, and since the '80s it has grown in popularity. Both of New York's encyclopedic museums, the Met and the Brooklyn Museum, have visible storage spaces for their American art collections; the Met's dates back to 1988, Brooklyn's to 2005, and both were made possible by the Luce Foundation, which has also established study centers at the New-York Historical Society and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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"The idea of the accumulated treasures in museums is something that appeals to a lot of people," Kevin Stayton, chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, said in a phone interview. "And from a curatorial point of view, it's always frustrating to know that only a very small percentage of what we have can be exhibited. There's always a limited amount of exhibition space available. We can never get everything out that we want to get out. So there's a great interest among museum people about showing more and exhibiting more."

Visible storage makes possible every curator's dream: the display of more artworks than the very, very few that a museum can fit in its regular exhibition spaces. If that comes at the expense of the curator's ability to use those artworks to shape a narrative, then so be it. And mini-narratives are possible, even if they're as simple as grouping together objects of a certain time period; the Brooklyn Museum's visible storage allows for semi-curated "nodes" that might explore, say, the history of wallpaper or objects from the 1890s.

"In our regular galleries the idea is that we are telling a story," Stayton said. "We're developing a set of ideas. The labels lead from one to the other to sort of write a history, and that takes a lot of space. In visible storage, you can put a whole lot of stuff out with much less interpretation, and hope that people will be fascinated by just the amount of material and collectors who are interested in teapots can see lots and lots of teapots, whereas in the galleries you might have just one teapot to illustrate the role of tea in society."

Visible storage has become ingrained enough in the museumgoing experience, particularly in New York, that it has itself become an artistic subject: "Visible Storage," a show of paintings of the Met's Luce Study Center by Beth Livensperger, opened yesterday at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side and runs through Sept. 26.

"I went with a friend to the Met," Livensperger, 31, said during a tour of the show earlier this week, "and we wandered around the American wing, and I took a load of photos. One thing I like about visible storage is this dreamlike quality. I really love the idea that there are all these objects; it's almost like your brain imagery will generate a visual surfeit or extravagance of form and then you can't remember it afterwards, but kind of endlessly walking into the space and not being able to remember what you just saw and not being able to anticipate these things that unfold. It's like the museum is closed and you snuck in and get to be there."

LIVENSPERGER'S INTENSELY COLORED PAINTINGS EMPHASIZE the almost overwhelming visual effect of these spaces, and the rows of mirrors and vases are as lush and painterly as Wayne Thiebaud cakes. But the paintings also evoke the unexpected melancholy of visible storage, recalling the lonely interiors of Edward Hopper.

The vague feeling of anxiety or disorientation aroused by visible storage results from the ways in which the spaces remind us of darker aspects of museums. The friendliness of the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition spaces, the elegance of the Met's, the spareness of MoMA's—these qualities encourage us to forget that these places contain nearly endless quantities of things made and bought by people who are now dead. The twenty-first century museum's elision of the accumulation that is at the heart of a museum's mission also lets us repress our embarrassment at the economics of art. "We don't want to think about the money," Livensperger laughed, "even though we just paid twenty bucks to get in." In an exhibition gallery, it's very possible to believe in what we want to believe: the transcendent aesthetic value of art. But in visible storage it's nearly impossible to ignore that these are things, with prices.

Visible storage may seem quaint—Livensperger said it sometimes reminded her of an antiques store—but there's something radical about it, particularly these days, when we go to museums expecting a closely curated, often narrative or thematic presentation. Even when it's not entirely random, visible storage is a throwback to the overwhelming five-painting-high installations of the nineteenth century, as well as, paradoxically, the focus on formal qualities that was the hallmark of modernism. When a viewer is confronted with thirty vases and no contextual information—no knowledge of what's a Monet, what's been adjudged "good" or "better"—it makes him or her really see those vases. "In visible storage," Kevin Stayton said, "where there's just a skeleton of an idea of what we want to say, it's much more dependent on what the visitor brings." This imposes a degree of responsibility on the viewer that is rare at a time when the aim of most museums is to provide an experience that's educational, and mostly gentle. Visible storage is hard.

Yet the slightly anxious, claustrophobic sensation of visible storage spaces isn't, for Stayton, entirely a bad thing. "It underscores the fact that, even if we might not notice in our daily lives, we are surrounded by designed objects," he said. "We are surrounded by artistic expression. And when you're in visible storage, you can't escape that fact that every object is made. It's a little bit overwhelming, but I think it is also a kind of lesson. The notion of accumulation and the multiplicity of objects is a message in itself."