Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Blockbusters, Schlockbusters

[For those of you who just arrived here today, July 19, from the link in Tyler Green's blog, here's my more recent post on the phenomenon of renting exhibitions for big bucks---the Metropolitan Museum's 19th-century European paintings show, traveling next year to Houston and Berlin.]

Yesterday, I raised some questions about Renzo Piano's architecture for the expanded High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Now let's raise some more questions---about the use to which one of its new wings will be put:

The Anne Cox Chambers Wing was specifically designed as a blockbuster magnet, "to bring the world's great art to Atlanta," as museum director Michael Shapiro put it. Beginning in October, it will be venue for three years of changing loan shows from that undisputed masterpiece bastion, the Louvre in Paris.

The question is: How many of those loans will actually come from the Louvre's A-List? The High is paying top dollar for the cachet of the French museum's imprimatur. Olivier Meslay, the Louvre's managing curator for this transatlantic collaboration, told me that the shows are meant to raise some $7 million for the renovation of his museum's decorative arts wing. Atlanta-based donors who have been solicited to support the shows are actually paying, in large measure, for the costs of French construction.

Large loan shows drawn entirely from the permanent collection of one major, world-class museum generally fall into one of two categories: Major masterwork shows, organized while the lending museum is partly or completely closed for renovation; or shows of a few major names, padded with many less stellar works---the tactic of a lender that can't afford to alienate its own public by stripping its walls of too many of its icons.

Louvre Altanta (or "Paris, Georgia"?) looks likely, from the checklists I've seen, to be the latter type. The household names for whom Atlantans may be pining are relatively few. For every Raphael or Poussin, there's a gaggle of small 16th- to 18th-century bronzes of indeterminate authorship. For every Rembrandt or Rubens drawing, there is a sheaf of lesser lights---not quite "schlock," as this post's exaggerated title implies, but not necessarily worth the hefty price exacted of the High, its donors and its visitors.

The proof will be in the seeing. But the proliferation of high-rent shows, whereby major museums beef up their budgets at the expense of other museums, seems like the wrong kind of fundraising.

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