Why Art Museums?

Why Art Museums?

The Unfinished Work of Alexander Dorner

Edited by Sarah Ganz Blythe and Andrew Martinez

Alexander Dorner's radical ideas about the purpose of museums and art, examined through his tenure as Director of the RISD Museum.





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 It includes the first publication of a 1938 speech made by Dorner at Harvard as well as galleys of Dorner's unpublished manuscript, “Why Have Art Museums?,” both of which explore the meaning and purpose of museums and art in society.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 Lázló 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 The essays and unpublished material in Why Art Museums?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.

Copublished with the RISD Museum


$39.95 T ISBN: 9780262039147 272 pp. | 8 in x 11 in 28 color illus., 52 b&w illus.


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

Andrew Martinez is an Archivist at RISD and the coeditor of Infinite Radius: Founding Rhode Island School of Design.


  • In revealing Dorner's thinking in unprecedented depth and breadth, the volume's aim is to move him squarely into the mainstream, in part by emphasizing that contemporary culture has finally caught up with him.



  • A fascinating combination of museum and curatorial history, this book illuminates both Alexander Dorner's innovative thinking and its implementation at the RISD Museum. The inclusion of little-known texts by Dorner and documentation of his experiential “atmosphere rooms” make this an especially important scholarly resource.

    Bruce Altshuler

    Director, Program in Museum Studies, New York University

  • At last, the silence on Alexander Dorner's The Way Beyond "Art" (1947) has been broken. This excellent new publication elaborates intriguingly on Dorner's curatorial career in the US, following his flight from Nazi Germany. Essential reading for anyone interested in the development of US art museums between the two world wars.

    Lucy Steeds

    Reader in Art Theory and Exhibition Histories, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London; editor of Exhibition, coeditor of The Curatorial Conundrum and How Institutions Think

  • Alexander Dorner offered a holistic vision that integrated a critical approach to art history, museum curating, and education with a broader understanding of the specific changes that define modern society. This significant publication thoughtfully reveals how Dorner's view is unique within his generation and still a great source of inspiration for museum curators and educators today.

    Steven ten Thije

    Curator, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven