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notes on news

Over Thanksgiving dinner — Filipino food and apple pie — I had the rare pleasure of explaining contemporary art to family members. We talked about postmodernism and how a picture of $400 by Warhol could bring in $43.7M at auction.

I can appreciate how hard it is to make sense of the contemporary art world. I know about how some things work; others, I’m still learning — such as this telling article about why blockbuster museum shows like Tut are such big business (below). It’s because it actually is a big business.

But the Tut show, a product of an alliance between Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian government’s chief archaeologist, and U.S. sports and entertainment giant AEG, is also a global revenue powerhouse that takes over its hosts entirely.

In 2005 Hawass paired with AEG, which owns sports arenas and teams (such as the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings) around the world , for a traveling exhibition that would display a few dozen of Egypt’s thousands of Tutankhamen artifacts. The show was to be put on by an AEG subsidiary, Arts and Exhibitions International.

The deal was simple: The hosts, like the AGO [(Art Gallery of Ontario)], could keep a portion of the gate receipts (the AGO declined to disclose how much, citing a confidentiality pact with AEI), but would surrender all say in how the show was presented and installed. The host would only profit after all of AEI’s costs were covered. AEG also demanded that its own, proprietary gift shop be installed.

At the AGO, the result is a stranger in the house, a hermetically sealed silo hived off from the rest of the gallery. This isn’t how most people expected the gallery to carry its mission of transformation [and inclusion of contemporary art] forward.

—Murray White, “Boy king’s reign at AGO troubles artists” (Toronto Star, November 29, 2009)

I’d had inklings of such tactics (when the Tut show came to the de Young Museum, local preparators were shut out of the installation work), but this is unsettling. Museums are perceived as custodians of historically significant artifacts. For many visitors, this suggests a faith in museum officials — that what’s exhibited is there because it’s edifying and worthy of the public’s attention. The reality is more complicated — in the Tut show, what’s exhibited is there because it’s historical as well as popular and profitable.

To make an entertainment business out of exhibition-making just feels wrong. I’m not so innocent to believe that art and commerce must be kept separate, but I’d hope that museums would be above big-business tactics (media saturation, merchandising, proprietary products) and values fixated on the bottom line. When museum officials legitimize a corporate blockbuster exhibition as an attempt to expand audiences (to their non-profit institutions) at $32.50 a pop (most of which goes to a big business), it seems unscrupulous.

Before traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Tut exhibition was at LACMA. That sort of makes sense. LACMA’s a county museum, so its emphasis is not on contemporary art or risk-taking; it can be forgiven for erring on the side of populism. Plus, everybody knows it’s strapped for cash. Now, Koon’s hanging locomotive sculpture needs a helping hand. At “an estimated cost of $25 million, making it one of the most expensive public art projects ever undertaken” (Katya Kazakina, “Koons’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by Lacma Shortfall,” Bloomberg.com, November 29, 2009), no wonder. I’m all for ambitious public art (love Chris Burden’s lampposts at LACMA), but you don’t have to be a cynic of fine art to think that $25M is an outrageous sum. Imagine how many new works of contemporary art that could fund. You could award 100 artists a quarter of a million dollars each!

Last, Randy Kennedy sums up a massive study of how artists are faring in the recession (“A Survey Shows Pain of Recession for Artists,” NYTimes.com, November 23, 2009). Of 5,300 respondents spanning painting, film and architecture,

  • “more than a third don’t have adequate health insurance”
  • “While the majority of artists have college degrees, only 6 percent said they earned $80,000 or more.”
  • The artists surveyed tended to earn either very little of their overall income from their artwork or almost all of it.”

I’m biased towards indie stuff: art and commerce can mix well. If you’re feeling the gift-giving spirit this month, don’t forget your local artists and galleries:

SHOP SHOW @ Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA
Opening Friday, December 11, 2009, 6-9 pm and continuing through January 24, 2010

HOLIDAYLAND GIFT SALE @ Blankspace, Oakland, CA
On now thru December 20, 2009, with a First Friday Reception on December 4th from 6-10pm

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