Part of my work and exploration in the new company is to survey museums (and libraries and archives, wherever possible) in the shadow of the great Jessamyn West in Vermont, and the magical Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul. If you know of other similar surveys, please do get in touch!
Today’s museum visit — the first! — was to the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I’ve certainly gone before, but today I had a slightly different mission. I’m curious to poke at which staff knows what about the collection. I do not mean this exercise as critical — in any way. It’s more, for me, about a) getting to the actual number of objects, and b) seeing who knows it, because I bet that’s a small number of staff, particularly in big institutions, where big equals number of staff and/or annual budget.
As I was buying my ticket, I asked the woman behind the counter.
“How many objects are there in the SF MoMA collection?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “They’re closed for renovation.”
I realised my flub, and corrected. “How about the De Young?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know how I could find out?”
“Try asking at the information desk.”
So, I asked at the information desk.
“Hi. I have a question, please. How many objects are there in the De Young collection?”
“Do you mean on display, or in the collection? There are things on display some of the time, and not always.”
“I mean in the collection.”
“Ohh… I don’t know.”
“Do you know how I could find out?”
“Try asking at Administration, to your right, and up the stairs.”
Instead of continuing the task, my companions and I started our visit.
I enjoyed the Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection, and then the Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay, and perhaps most of all, “A book like hundred flower garden”: Walasse Ting’s 1 ¢ Life, a 50-year-old, brilliant project in which Ting asked 28 artists to respond to his poetry, creating a book of 62 lithographs they created. I LOVE this idea, and want to copy it.
Where can I find a book exciting as Times Square, color bright as neon light, hot as espresso. I face the big red pizza and green earthworms, and decide to make a book like hundred flower garden.
After we’d stopped for a tasty lunch, we headed for the viewing tower. I popped into the Administration office to see if I could get that number. I asked the two women at reception.
“Hello. I have a question, please. How many objects are there in the De Young collection?”
“45. Oh, do you mean on the floor, or in the collection?”
“In the collection.”
“Umm…” Both looked around. Another staff member joined the conversation, and another head popped up above the cubicle.
“250,000,” said the third person.
“Exactly?” I must admit to looking slightly incredulous, which I now regret.
“That’s the number we use with the public.”*
“OK, thank you.”
* I can’t remember the exact phrase used, but it was something along those lines. I should have written it down.
Given that it’s just my first shot at trying to find that number by asking staff unannounced, I’m happy with where I got to. I guess you could say I got that answer from the fifth person. I plan to do this again, and suspect that each institution’s actual figure will be somewhat rubbery in the majority of cases. Fun!
Incidentals: I paid $21 for an access-to-everything ticket, and another $25 for lunch (salmon salad, pear and almond tart, and a latte), and $13.50 for parking. All in all, $59.50, a pretty expensive art-y day. (I could certainly have had a less expensive meal, but… have you met me?)
Addendum: Enjoyed this adaptation when I tried to pay for my parking. I wonder who wrote it all. It seems like the same hand.