Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, ash and maple, 1996
Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, ash and maple, 1996

The state of D.C.’s art museums at the end of 2008 presents a quandary not unlike the one currently on everyone’s mind in the financial sector: Should troubled institutions be rescued or allowed to fail? In 2007, a controversial independent review of Smithsonian art museums deemed them “drastically underfunded” and declared them to have “seldom lived up to their names.” As dire as that sounds, it’s still an apt description of the status quo—and not just for the particular eight venues in that report. In fact, blogger Tyler Green suggested just last month that some struggling D.C. museums—the Corcoran, the Smithsonian American Art Museum—ought simply to be cut into tiny pieces and divvied up amongst healthier ones.

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme. But it’s at least true that there were few home-run exhibitions this year, and there wasn’t much organizational good news, either. At the tail end of 2007, the Phillips Collection did manage to sign on Dorothy Kosinski, a new director who seems intent on pushing for more contemporary work and who was seen making the rounds this year at art events around town. But whatever Kosinski’s interests might mean for the future, the Phillips continues to lack a senior curator for modern and contemporary art, among other things. Meanwhile, more than a year after Olga Viso’s departure, the Hirshhorn is still operating without a director. (Thinking of applying for the post? Sorry, you just missed the Dec. 15 deadline.)

There’s almost no point any longer in beating up on the Corcoran, which could’ve won the title of Most Doomed Arts Venue in this or any other year but keeps shambling along nonetheless. Dubious achievements in 2008 included botching the Art Anonymous auction in May. Ticket sales for the auction were slow, so the Corcoran canceled the afterparty, disinvited the artists from the main event, and offered to give away some of the donated works of art in order to help boost attendance. It’s easy enough to leave contributors to an art auction feeling a little ill-served; the Corcoran managed to dynamite a whole lot of goodwill in just two mass e-mails. Add to that some lackluster programming—say, celebrity portraits from Richard Avedon—and Green’s surgical evisceration plan begins to sound about right.

Still, there was plenty to see in 2008, and even if the shows weren’t always firing on all cylinders, there were pleasures to be experienced nonetheless—and, as is always a consolation in D.C., at least you didn’t have to pay to see most of them. One show in particular was chockablock with gorgeous, singular pieces. Martin Puryear’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Art over the summer served as a powerful homecoming for the D.C. native, presenting 46 major pieces that spanned most of four decades.

The problem was the show’s installation. Key pieces ended up in unkind spaces. Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington, a split sapling transformed into a dramatic exercise in forced perspective, can look stunning in a clean, modern gallery space. Too bad the National Gallery opted to put it in its vast, ornate rotunda in the west building, where it basically disappeared. And while splitting the show between the east and west buildings wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, the decision to plop down a handful of quite strong recent pieces in the middle of the east building’s atrium was a very real error.

Puryear is a reticent figure who pursues a monklike studio practice, generating objects that look as if they belong to the tradition of early European Modernism—albeit with references to 19th-century sailing vessels, shelters made by various cultures, and the early history of race relations in the United States. But his emphasis on craft and his aloofness from the continuum of contemporary art ultimately made him a safe choice for the National Gallery, which can often seem uninterested in pursuing art of our time.

One notable exception in that regard was the National Gallery’s decision to commission a new piece from light artist Leo Villareal, who is represented locally by Conner Contemporary Gallery. Conner had a good year in 2008, moving to spacious new digs on Florida Avenue NE that look quite unlike any other D.C. commercial gallery space. Working artists and gallerists in D.C. generally have an uneasy relationship with our many museums, which mostly regard them as invisible. But Villareal’s light show, unveiled last month and consisting of 41,000 computer-controlled LEDs, is quite visible indeed, running the length of the 200-foot tunnel between the east and west buildings. It’s a welcome development—even if some local critics object that the piece isn’t really “major art.”

Two major living artists have a show still currently on view at the Phillips Collection: Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their exhibition, “ Over the River: A Work in Progress,” documents the development of a project that one day might span six miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado with masses of translucent silver fabric. Like Puryear, Christo and Jeanne-Claude seem determined to keep themselves separate from art-historical discourse, specifically distancing themselves from conceptual art—despite the fact that they so clearly rely on many of the movement’s tenets and techniques. The main difficulty with the Phillips installation is the sheer quantity of more or less interchangeable pieces: The total number of works on paper could be cut in half without hurting the quality of the show one bit.

As for survey shows, in the spring the Hirshhorn offered a fascinating all-video show, “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image .” Curators Anne Ellegood and Kristen Hileman broke the show into two parts, “Dreams” and “Realisms ,” with one running after the other. For “Dreams,” the museum’s second-floor gallery spaces were turned into a darkened maze of narrow fun-house corridors, with little arrows projected onto the floor to light the way. Viewers were plunged into a tense, mostly black-and-white surrealistic realm in which moving images seemed to claw their way back to a time before the firm association of film with theater or narrative. In one piece, Release, Christoph Girardet borrowed a snippet from the 1933 film King Kong in which Fay Wray, confronted with the behemoth stop-motion animated monkey, shrieks for all she’s worth. Girardet extends the screen into an absurdly long, drawn-out collage, with changes in tempo and pitch, and choppy, looping pieces that begin to sound like far-out electronic music. “Realisms,” meanwhile, offered anything but reality. Instead, filmmakers like Pierre Huyghe and Omer Fast deliberately blurred the lines between documentary and fiction, director and subject, then and now.

If “The Cinema Effect” had a real weakness, it was the sheer amount of time required to actually experience all of the artwork on offer. But the two shows with potentially the most to say this year were also the most sadly underrealized. “Recognize!” at the National Portrait Gallery and “Role Models” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts were extremely modest shows with exciting propositions.

“Recognize!,” in fact, was almost absurdly small, encompassing only five different projects by seven artists total. It was a welcome development to see a museum show that considers the impact of hip-hop culture, featuring the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, the installation work of Shinique Smith, and the videos of local rising art star Jefferson Pinder. But in the end, the whole thing had no more depth than, say, a smart group show in a commercial gallery. Surely more resources, artists, and scholarship could’ve been brought into the mix.

“Role Models,” at least, draws important parallels between two generations of contemporary women artists—and shows how the issues of desire, narrative, and identity in the art of women photographers arguably have shaped what most contemporary photography looks like now, by men or women. From the subjective, personally invested documentary photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, Tina Barney, and Catherine Opie; to the posed, unreal vignettes of Carrie Mae Weems or Anna Gaskell; to the parodic identity-bending projects of artists from Eleanor Antin, to Cindy Sherman, to Nikki S. Lee; “Role Models” is filled with exciting work that touches on the central problems of photography both historically and in the here and now. Sadly, only a few not necessarily choice pieces represent many of the older artists, and the show is hardly representative of the wide range of exciting women artists of either generation. (Just next door, a totally unnecessary Mary Cassatt show fills space that one desperately wishes had even more photos in it.)

With more space, artwork, and support, both of these could have been vibrant, important curatorial statements. Instead, we’re left wondering when satisfying shows that actually make an argument, or draw intriguing connections between daily life and artistic discourse, will get the development they deserve in this town. Hey, if change is really coming to Washington this January—in the form of an administration that actually has an arts agenda and seems to value arts education—then maybe a little change can come to Washington museums, too.