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Critic's Notebook; Photography Wins Advocates, With a Focus Still to Come

The Guggenheim Museum's announcement in early December that it was establishing a permanent photography collection was simply the latest in a dizzying series of moves by major New York City museums to establish or expand their commitment to photography.

It came little more than a year after an Upper East Side neighbor of the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art, formed a committee to begin assembling its own collection of photographs. Some of the first fruits of the Whitney's efforts, including works by Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Nauman and Nan Goldin, are on view at the museum through Feb. 21.

These developments at the Guggenheim and the Whitney come at a time of great change in photography as a whole as it gains new acceptance among artists, collectors, critics and curators. The new programs take their place alongside existing photography departments at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, the International Center of Photography offers exhibitions, workshops and other programs at its headquarters on 94th Street and at its midtown branch on 43d Street

All of this interest in photography will inevitably lead to competition as the new and old departments vie for the attention of the hottest artists and the most important patrons. This may make life more difficult for curators and museum directors, but it can only benefit the average viewer. For anyone interested in photography, the prospect of having growing collections at five important museums in the city, each accompanied by a lively program of exhibitions, is almost too good to be true.

Moreover, each institution will undoubtedly interpret the medium in its own way and offer a different sense of its history and significance. In a field where scholars are only now beginning to examine the work of many major historical figures, that competition of ideas and interpretations can only be healthy.

Meanwhile, many questions about the fledgling collections at the Guggenheim and the Whitney are unresolved. Prime among these are issues of focus: What direction will the programs take? Will they overlap each other or the established departments at the Modern and the Met? And if they do, so what?

The Whitney's entry into photography is laudable if somewhat belated, given the medium's importance in the history of American art. But the museum has decided not to hire a curator with specific expertise in photography, choosing instead to rely on the combined talents of its curatorial staff in making acquisitions.

Perhaps as a result, the scope of the Whitney's acquisitions has been narrow. David A. Ross, the museum's director, defines the focus of the collection at this point as "post-1960's photography, and particularly Conceptual and post-Conceptual work." The current show of recent acquisitions includes work by older artists like Mr. Nauman, John Baldessari and Chris Burden, as well as gallery stars of the 1980's like Mapplethorpe and Ms. Sherman.

Not surprisingly, the exhibition looks a little like an excerpt from recent Biennials, which are also selected by the Whitney's curators as a group. But the show offers little sense of the diversity of photography or that the medium even existed before 1960.

Mr. Ross sees works by New York City photographers from the 1930's to the 1960's as another possible focus for the Whitney's collection. Many artists from this period, including Weegee, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, were grouped together as "the New York School" in a series of exhibitions by Jane Livingston, a former curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and in her new book.

If the Whitney decides to take this direction, though, its efforts will overlap those of the Met and the Modern, who have collected and exhibited many of these artists over the years. Just last fall the Met presented a retrospective of Ms. Levitt's work that was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The Guggenheim's plunge into photography has been widely welcomed, but many people have expressed qualms about how it was done. The museum began its collection with a gift from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation worth an estimated $5 million. It included more than 200 photographs and other works by Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, and about $2 million in cash.

An unusual aspect of the agreement between the museum and the Mapplethorpe Foundation is that members of the foundation's board will join Guggenheim staff members on a new photography committee that will advise the museum's trustees and staff on acquisitions and exhibitions.

Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's director, strongly denied that the foundation might unduly influence museum policy. The committee simply "provides a forum for us to meet and discuss" issues related to the photography program, he said. But Michael Stout, the head of the Mapplethorpe Foundation, said that through the committee "we will have a voice" in the museum's activities in the medium.

In any case, the arrangement seems fraught with the potential for conflict. Moreover, in building its collection around a large number of works by Mapplethorpe, the museum is linking itself to a photographer whom many people in the field regard as a gifted and highly successful portraitist but whose future importance seems uncertain at best.

In a recent interview, Mr. Krens linked the acquisition of such a large group of Mapplethorpe's work to the museum's basic philosophy of collecting. "Our interest is to try to develop intelligent collections of certain artists and focus on certain aspects in depth," he said, pointing to substantial holdings of work by Wassily Kandinsky and Joseph Beuys as examples.

"We're not seeking to attain the great comprehensive threads of the Museum of Modern Art's collection," he said, "but to recognize that photography is an important art form."

Asked what shape the Guggenheim's collection might take beyond the Mapplethorpe gift, Mr. Krens said that it was "too soon to tell, except in a general sense." He added, "A lot depends on opportunities." In other words, like most museums, the Guggenheim will take what people give it, so long as the work fits into the museum's overall sense of itself.

The photography programs at other museums in town have been changing too. The Metropolitan Museum has collected photographs on and off since 1928, but in January 1992 it got around to setting up a separate department devoted to the medium, under the direction of Maria Morris Hambourg.

The photography department at the Museum of Modern Art has been around since 1940, and its exhibitions and publications have been crucial in shaping the field. But recently it, too, has undergone substantial change. Two years ago Peter Galassi succeeded the legendary John Szarkowski as head of the department and since then has made his own taste felt in a variety of ways. On Thursday, his rehanging of the permanent collection will open, and last week he announced that Sheryl Conkelton, associate curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, would take that post at the Modern in June.

The International Center of Photography under the leadership of Cornell Capa, who founded it in 1974, has been a major force in the medium in New York City. In recent months, there has been speculation about when Mr. Capa, who is 74 years old, might retire, although he has given no hints that he might do so.

Both the Modern and the Met collect work from throughout the history of photography. As Mr. Galassi puts it, the Modern's philosophy is "to collect as if there were no other collections." At the Met, Ms. Hambourg has followed a similarly eclectic program.

But in practice the Modern places more emphasis on collecting and exhibiting 20th-century photographs, particularly contemporary work, while the Met is stronger in the 19th century. The I.C.P. has carved out a niche for itself in part by showing the work of contemporary and historical photojournalists, as well as traveling shows that other institutions in the city can't or won't take.

So what's left for the new kids in town? Both the Whitney and the Guggenheim have decided not to form comprehensive historical collections. This seems wise, given the limited resources they have for the medium.

But at the same time, neither institution appears to have a clear sense of where to go with its collection and neither plans to hire someone with a broad background in photography to help them chart such a course. It is still too early to tell how all of this will work out, but for now the two museums seem like children who've been given wonderful new toys for Christmas but don't quite know where to put the batteries or how to turn them on.

Correction: Feb. 3, 1993

A Critic's Notebook article yesterday about growing interest in photography at New York City museums misstated the closing date for an exhibition of the new photography collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It runs through Feb. 14, not Feb. 21.