Alexander Dorner's radical ideas about the purpose of museums and art, examined through his tenure as Director of the RISD Museum.
Alexander Dorner (1893-1957) became Director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in 1938, and immediately began a radical makeover of the galleries, drawing on theories he had developed in collaboration with modernist artists during his directorship of the Provinzialmuseum in Hanover, Germany. Dorner's saturated environments sought to inspire wonderment and awe, immersing the museum visitor in the look and feel of a given period. Music, literature, and gallery talks (offered through a pioneering audio system) attempted to recreate the complex worlds in which the objects once operated. Why Art Museums? considers Dorner's legacy and influence in art history, education, and museum practice. It includes the first publication of a 1938 speech made by Dorner at Harvard as well as galleys of Dorner's unpublished manuscript, "Why Have Art Museums?", both of which explore the meaning and purpose of museums and art in society.
In Germany, Dorner formed close relationships with the Bauhaus artists and made some of the first acquisitions of works by Lozly Moholy-Nagy, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and others. The Nazi regime actively opposed Dorner's work, and he fled Germany for the United States. At the RISD Museum, Dorner clashed with RISD officials and Providence society and contended with wartime anti-German bias. His tenure at RISD was brief but highly influential. The essays and unpublished material in Why Art Museums? make clear the relevance of Dorner's ideas about progressive education, public access to art and design, and the shaping of environments for experience and learning.
Sarah Ganz Blythe
Sarah Ganz Blythe is Deputy Director of Exhibitions, Education, and Programs at the RISD Museum and coauthor of Looking at Dada.
Andrew Martinez is an Archivist at RISD and the coeditor of Infinite Radius: Founding Rhode Island School of Design.