Earlier this week, the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussof reported that the relocation of the Barnes Foundation—an eccentric suburban museum about to be moved to Philadelphia—signaled “the end of an era in American cultural history.” He mentions the Getty Villa and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as also undergoing changes meant to “modernize” and monetize.
The title of the article “Eccentricity Gives Way to Uniformity in Museums,” is disheartening. Eccentricity, he suggests, is no longer valued in American culture. Uniformity is the status quo. The American art world no longer embraces the “ideal of stubborn individualism.” “That spirit,” writes Ouroussof, “is now mostly gone, a victim of institutional conventions and corporate boards, and by a desire for mainstream acceptance that has displaced a willingness to break rules.”
As a lover of eccentric museums, I hope this is not true.
On an unassuming residential street in Houston, Texas, The Orange Show stands as one successful affront to the death of stubborn individualism. During the 1970s, Jeff McKissock labored alone, without blueprints, on the sculptural-architectural structure made of cement, stone, tile mosaic, and found objects.
In addition to a small book describing in detail the health benefits of oranges, as he saw them, McKissock displayed his ideas in his “museum.” The museum includes a line of mannequins, including a clown, a man in a Santa suit (claiming he is Santa’s son), and a wooden cigar store Indian, all who attest to the power of oranges.
McKissock’s home-turned sculpture is now preserved by a foundation, The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. Their mission reveals the enduring enchantment of places like The Orange Show that were created out of unique and individualistic expressions: “The Center preserves, promotes and documents visionary art environments, provides opportunities for the expression of personal artistic vision and creates a community where that expression is valued.”
McKissock did not care about donors or audience. He had a vision. Perhaps, an obsession. I’ve visited many “roadside attractions,” as such places are often called, relegating them to the wide margins of the artistic map. But The Orange Show is different. It is more carefully crafted. Here is more than novelty. Here is vision.
McKissock’s devil-may-care creation and exhibition have earned a following in the twenty-first century, proving our desire for eccentricity is not dead.