Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Worth the Price of Admission?

I think one of the biggest issues facing specifically art museums over the next decade will be the issue of moving from paid admission to free or pay-what-you-feel donations. As Jacob Stockinger and I have written, we both believe that Madison is at the forefront of this issue with both the Chazen and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art being free.

The New York Times released its special section on museums today, which acknowledges that art exists beyond New York City. There are a number of interesting articles but I would like to focus on one comment in particular from the Times, initially singled out by Tyler Green in his Modern Art Notes blog:

At the Museum of Modern Art [referred to as MOMA hereon], Glenn D. Lowry, the director, said that it was just as important to know who is not coming to the museum as it is to know who is.

"It's what you're missing," he said. While entry information and other data showed that a healthy number of college students visited the Modern, "we were not drawing as many of the 20- to 30-years-olds that we hoped," Mr. Lowry said. "So we went out to determine how to better communicate with them."

Green offers advice to the director and really most NYC museums:

"I'm happy to tell MoMA why it isn't drawing as many visitors in their 20s as they'd like: Because MoMA charges $20 for admission. When you set an admissions fee that high, one of the visitor groups you're almost certainly going to impact is young people.

For years I've argued that by charging $20 for entry, museums are cannibalizing their future audiences. According to Vogel's story, MoMA has discovered that process may be underway."

As a 20-30-year-old who recently visited the New York museums (Guggenheim, MOMA, the Met) I can confirm that admission prices are way too high for my demographic. It becomes a major financial burden to visit these institutions, deterring many and taking the focus from self-improvement or anything like that, to the pocket book. For instance, should I have to pay the whole admission price to the Guggenheim when it's under construction, it's between major exhibits and the collection is not installed in the circular rotunda (my main reason to go, to see the art on the famous slanted ramp) and the secondary exhibits include a whole show of New York grade schooler's art?

Britain implemented free admission to its national museums in 2001 and reported a rise in visitors of more than 60%, whereas Sweden ended free admission at its national museum and saw attendance drop by 20% (Article in New York Times). The same Times article focuses on the French national museums which are experimenting with free admission (for certain groups) for six months.

Unfortunately current thought in the museum world regarding admission prices is almost polar opposite to the trend in Europe is and admission setting is encouraged strongly by the industry wide association, the American Association of Museums (AAM). According to their November/December issue of Museum News, Shannon Oster writes enthusiastically about charging admission in her article "Charge Now-Here's How":

I would argue that charging a price to visit a museum may not only attract more devoted patrons but actually induce other patrons to take the visit more seriously to psychologically justify the admission price.

As evidence of this theory Ostner oddly cites a study done on Zambian villagers using a water purifying tablet less when it was free and more when they paid a "very modest fee." Couched in business-speak Ostner relies heavily on predicting the psychology of the patron, concluding that when $20 is on the line the visitor will want to get their money's worth. Ostner essentially says that people who can't easily afford museum admissions will go on alternate days when the institution is free (assuming both availability of the visitor and the existence of free admission times (thanks Target Companies and Chase Manhatten!)). Ostner doesn't address the possibility that the visitor just doesn't go at all.

Well according to the director of the MOMA the facts are in and charging an admission, especially one of $20, does deter visitors from the museum. According to Sweden charging admission reduces audience significantly and conversely according to Britain and France eliminating admission results in startling gains.

People want to enrich their lives through museums, admission fees do not create a motivation for learning only an obstacle to attendance.

I'm sure I will be writing more on this in the future.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Anxious about Addition

Photo: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

After reading through multiple reviews of architect Renzo Piano's extension, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art I have to say that I am somewhat anxious about how the addition to the Art Institute of Chicago will turn out. They were, at best, only slightly disparaging. You can read the reviews in New York Times here, Los Angeles Times here, and the New York Review of Books here. The picture above picture from the NY Times is the frontal view of the museum which illustrates one of the many problems cited, that is, the huge dull walls facing the street which gives the museum a hulking and monolithic feel. The palm tree-on-blue is actually are giant banners hung on scrims, presumably to disguise the weightiness of the exterior.

Considering that Piano's "Modern Wing" addition to the Art Institute of Chicago is opening in 2009, these lackluster reviews are probably causing more people then just this author some anxiety. However, I think that the pitfalls in LA will be avoided here in Chicago. To see the plans for the building click here. The frontal facade, facing Monroe St., will be sheer glass which allays concerns about a weighty and boring entry. The dull, hulking wall criticized in LA here will be turned to the Metra train line that bisects the museum and as such will be needed and appropriate.

This is not avant-garde or daring architecture, but that's alright. The proposed design is classical and elegant modernist architecture and as such is perfectly in step with both the collection and the institution. It would be odd for this respectable and historic institute to have a really radical addition. The Piano addition is essentially updating the language of the classical Beaux-Arts hall that is the original building of 1893. The Piano is likewise reserved, rectilinear, and displays the art in natural light. For modern art, this building seems to fit the bill both for the art and the institution, for a contemporary art museum Piano may have been too conservative for LA.

Check back for updates, time will tell as the building takes shape over the next few months.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Ed Ruscha at the Art Institute of Chicago

If you're not on the e-mail list for the events at the Art Institute of Chicago, I would suggest that you sign up. They are in the habit of bringing very important cultural figures in to talk, which is precisely what Ed Ruscha did last Friday In a here's-what-I've-been-think-lately style artist "lecture," Ruscha ruminated on everything from Muhammad Ali to Gertrude Stein to photography, the supposed subject of the lecture set to coincide with the opening of the exhibit Ed Ruscha and Photography. While he did not lay out his style shifts strictly chronologically as one attendee griped, it was much more interesting to hear his current thoughts on art and art history then to just drone about his influences with slides clicking in the background.

Ruscha began by saying that he has recently bought a Peter Schuyff painting and displaying a slide of it. Utilizing for the base of the image what Ruscha describes as "a thrift-store painting" of a still life of flowers, Schuyff layered over the flowers concentric rings of blue and red paint until it mostly obscured the image except for the center and the edges. Ruscha noted that the artist lives in Amsterdam and said he imagines this is what flowers may look like in a psychedelic state (i.e. tripping). After implying that the artist was on drugs, Ruscha seemed to soften his opinion by saying that once he saw it he had to have it. Ruscha then moved to the next slide which showed the display of the Schuyff: sitting on top of Ruscha's toilet, propped up by a Kleenex box with the tissue sprayed out of the top obscuring the painting. Ruscha said he liked this display and thought it appropriate to the image, complimenting its form. This prompted quite a bit of laughter.

Ruscha also recalled the first time that Leo Castelli showed him a painting by Roy Lichenstein of converse sneakers emerging from a yellow star burst shape. He recalls the encounter with the image to be like "having lemon juice flung in your eyes."

Aside from these and other side stories, Ruscha did talk about the influence photography has had on his work. He cited Walker Evans as a influence in terms of his straightforward and historical style, methods which certainly manifest themselves sometimes in Ruscha's work though usually nuanced with text additions. He also noted that Evans was the artist that made him appreciate the United States, a statement quite interesting in its implications. Ruscha also noted influence that film technique has had on his work, particularly his very famous Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1963, top image) and his Standard Station series (1966, below). Recalling a scene in a film, or many films, Ruscha noted how an approaching train would begin as a speck and then grow bigger as it approached until it eventually filled the screen with image and noise, an event Ruscha tried to adapt to two dimensions.

While it meandered in its topic, hearing Ruscha speak was quite interesting. He avoided talking about his most current work which was too bad, instead focusing his more well known work. Next speaking event is Robert Pinsky, another not to be missed.

Free February at Chicago Museums?

February was a sly month for the museum-going people of Chicago. The Shedd had a "discount week" in the middle of the month with free admission to their permanent exhibits (the net one to come in June). Meanwhile, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago were free the whole month of February, to little publicity. I only found out about the Field when a bus advertising it passed me about a week ago. The Art Institute was a little better, owing mainly to the publicity about the opening of the nationally traveling show Edward Hopper and the Chicago-only Watercolors by Winslow Homer usually included a side-note about the free month and the exhibits which are not free (tickets are now $20). One of Chicago's major assets in its bid for the Olympics are the cultural institutions that truly make the city world-class, institutions that I believe should be operated on a free basis as the national museums are in the UK and closer to home the art museums in Madison, WI. However, it's a shame that media outlets didn't play this benefit up, that Chicago would beat the coasts to free cultural access. I hope they try out the free month again to larger fanfare, open institutions will make London's 2012 Olympics notable I am sure, Chicago should follow suit and the media should take note.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hirst's Gambit

I thought that I should link over my article from CulturalChicago.com about Damien Hirst to this site, in case someone might want to comment here also. My argument here is essentially that the skull functions as a business plan rather than an objet d'art (emphasis on the decorative and collectible aspect of that word), and is much more interesting as such. The maneuvering of both artist and dealer are so shady and calculated they are more important or at least equally important to the object itself, especially since it is called "For the Love of God." The title (unusually relevant considering the breadth of Hirst's titles) brings to mind not only Hirst's reliable rhetoric of taking on "big" subjects, but the prime part price plays in an artist's career, and especially his career. What he sells at, resells at, donates, buys back, have all been prime concerns of Hirst et al. recently. Not to mention that the media attention was due to its much publicized price: a theatrical $100 million dollars. So why not enjoy the skull for what it is? An expensive pawn, as I posit? The art world is full of art about it's own price as it were, Duchamp, Warhol, and plenty of artists have bought back their works to control them, why not just be up front about it? Anyone else have any thoughts about this? If you didn't click the link above click here to be redirected to the post.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Superbowl Super Bull

On the Superest of all Sundays I was, as many of you were too, watching the pre-game show to Superbowl XLII on the FOX network.  Stats were given, predictions made and Alicia Keyes proved that she can really sing.    

Being that the Superbowl was on FOX it must have had to include at least one piece of propaganda which came in the form of Russel Crowe narrating a clip show ostensibly on the subject of perfection, playing on the Patriots perfect season that they would then go on to screw up by losing the Superbowl.  

Now don't get me wrong, I don't care that it's a commercial and I don't care that it's Russell Crowe narrating an American commercial.  As the Art Advocate it is my sworn duty to expose visual mechanics and hypocrisy.  Am I making mountains out of molehills?  Maybe, but I am not wrong.

While Crowe concedes that each person's definition of perfection is different initially, he later states "on the planet's biggest stage we may bear witness to perfection" (we didn't).  This montage creates the visual statement that just as art is perfection so too is football.  Though it should go without saying that the perfection of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles," Raphael's "School of Athens," and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel have absolutely nothing to do with football or the Superbowl.  How do I know this?  Well for one, because football hadn't been invented yet (with the exception for Pollock).  Perfection is also not a word that I would use to describe JFK or Martin Luther King, Jr., important yes, perfect no.  Linking football with these two luminaries is absurd, especially considering that the NFL still allows the openly racist team name Redskins and JFK had to force that team to integrate in 1962.  Only the addition of Gandhi or perhaps Nelson Mandela into the sequence could have made this more absurd.

I did think that it was interesting that they showed all the Ninja Turtle artists (with the exception of Donatello) in painting when so often perfection, especially related to sports and physicality, is depicted in the human body.  For the "gladiators of the gridiron" why not show Greco-Roman sculpture?  It's much more logical and relates to sports.  But then again showing sculpture of naked men could be a little uncomfortable on one of the most heterosexual days of the year, besides those pants the players wear are tight enough.

In the end Crowe's script is right, we all should strive for perfection but this promo was perfectly incomprehensible.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Art of the Simpsons

This is one of the more popular posts from Madison.com anticipating the then upcoming The Simpsons: The Movie, revisiting some of my favorite Simpsons art references:

Since the Simpsons Movie is coming out so soon I think that it’s kind of indisputable that the Simpsons are one of the most influential (and longest running) animated shows on television. Some might argue that the show is crude and they would be right, sometimes it is. That is part of the vast appeal of the Simpsons, it appeals to everyone on every level. Beyond Homer saying “d’oh!” and getting hurt and Bart’s bad boy antics is a much more intelligent level which is perhaps why the series has been so long running. I can prove it.

Let’s talk about the art in the Simpsons. Throughout the series both high and low references abound. I am thinking about one example in particular that really struck me but let’s make sure I’m not totally nuts here, I mean animation intelligent? What would Greenberg say?

Among the overt references one of my favorites is when Lisa gets lost going to the Springfield Museum to see the “Treasures of Isis” exhibit, which in itself sounds very much like the King Tut exhibit that has been touring the U.S. off and on for years. For anyone who wants to look it up it’s the ’98 episode “Lost Our Lisa.” The King Tut exhibit is not the point (though it is a good one in itself) rather: when Homer and Lisa decide to illegally enter the museum (something I don’t recommend!) they climb what looks like an Alexander Calder mobile. It’s a mobile with the characteristic yellow, red and blue shapes attached to the large wires that Homer and Lisa manipulate using their weight to ascend to the top floor. Once inside they explore the exhibit, discover its secret and in typical fashion the episode ends with Homer chased by a pack of ravenous dogs.

Another example and relevant to readers of this forum, is a brief blackboard scrawl by Bart. Each episode opens with a montage in which Bart is presumably serving detention by repetitively writing something on the blackboard, phrase different each episode. In the 1999 episode “Little Big Mom” Bart, the bad boy of the Simpsons is punished by repetitively writing, “I will not create art from dung.” 1999 was also the year that the art of Damien Hirst (subject of recent posts) and in particular Chris Ofili were exhibited in “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Ofili drew particular criticism for his image of the Virgin Mary that had elephant dung and rear ends on it. The Simpsons apparently also recognized him as the bad boy of art at the time through Bart Simpson, quite a tribute (though misplaced) in my opinion.

The most art focused episode came in season sixteen, 2005 when Frank Gehry, the designer of Millennium Park, Chicago, the Weissman Art Museum, Minneapolis (recently expanded), Guggenheim, Bilbao, guest stars as himself in an episode. If you can’t picture his buildings, perhaps this encounter between Gehry and a skateboarding Kearney will help. As Gehry chases Kearney and friends through the undulating steel clad building he is skateboarding on, Kearney teases, “Hey Frank Gehry, design curvilinear forms much?”


Prior to that had Gehry received a letter at his house that modeled it exactly after his own house in real life.


The letter is from Marge politely hoping he will design a Springfield Opera House. He is infuriated by the Snoopy stationary and angrily crumbles the letter throwing it to the ground. He does a double take, declares, “Gehry you genius!” and uses the wadded ball of paper as the basis for the Springfield Opera House.


Unfortunately, as we all know, the people of Springfield love an event but not opera and after realizing their aversion to the debut song by Beethoven they stampede for the exit despite Marge’s entreaty that the next song is an “atonal composition by Philip Glass!”

However the impetus for writing tonight came from the episode guide for an even earlier season, eight. In “The Homer They Fall” the writers make a sly allusion. Homer has discovered an extra layer of fat in his head and logically becomes an amateur boxer. His strategy: let the opponent wear out and then push them over. A montage rolls as he defeats opponent after opponent. One scene briefly shows Homer standing victorious over his opponent. This image is most recognizable to those of that have season eight of the Simpsons since it is inset in the episode guide. The pose of Homer, legs wide apart, left arm over the chest, knocking his opponent out of the ring, with the referee as Moe standing over him pointing down is identical to George Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo, 1923-24, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Referring to one of the American Realists or “the Ashcan School,” who chose to depict everyday life in all its grittiness, the Simpsons cleverly alludes to one George Bellows’ iconic boxing images, replacing its characters with their own. The picture itself is a lithograph composed in the exact same manner that depicts the instant when Firpo stands triumphantly over Dempsey who is falling out of the ring and the crowd (supposedly including Bellows himself) is pushing him back in, or in the episode Lenny and Carl. The one lithograph is part of a larger series of boxing pictures in a variety of media that Bellows created throughout his life, the most famous probably being the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, recently commemorated on a stamp. The obscure reference is quick, but it’s unmistakable.

These are just a few of the often subtle but always entertaining jokes that the Simpsons writers include with the usual slapstick and antics. This is doesn’t even take into account the vast amount of other musical (Tito Puente), historical (take your pick), scientific (Stephen Hawking) and literary references (Tom Wolfe) that are also included in the show. On July 27th the world will see if the series can translate its glory to success on the big screen.