June 27, 2009

Museum exhibits as a commercial endeavor

I think that this criticism is well-posed (I saw this show in Los Angeles, and found it to be pure hucksterism):

Among people with a professional interest in the arts, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, which opens today at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, will merely deepen the tarnish on the reputation of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Although FAMSF curator Renee Dreyfus has swapped out four objects presented at other venues for four of her own choosing, the show in bulk comes here prepackaged by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International, a subsidiary of corporate impresario AEG Worldwide, which also owns the San Francisco Examiner.

Critics have hammered every art museum that has hosted Tutankhamun. (A parallel exhibition, Tutankhamun, the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs - same size, same sources, same organizers - opens today at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.) But here, as elsewhere - except Dallas, where attendance fell about 40 percent short of projections - a vast audience probably will eat it up, even at $27.50 a head for general admission … the enveloping stagecraft will encourage no one to reflect on the reasons why these things fascinate.

A large dedicated shop connected with the show incites visitors to spend as little time as possible outside the fog of consumer desire. The commercial spirit of the affair shows even in the presence of large-type labels at the top of each case, to inform viewers of what they can only glimpse through a crowd….

Unfortunately, hard times have lent traction to the bottom-line thinking behind Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. With museums across the world - even the Met - trimming staff and programs, and sometimes taking artworks to the auction block to raise cash, the sate-the-gate approach of the Fine Arts Museums' John Buchanan … looks almost prudent….

But what will we not be seeing that we might have in the de Young's special exhibitions galleries during the nine-month span of Tutankhamun? What projects did FAMSF curators have to postpone or scrap altogether for the sake of the costly Tut gamble?…

Note that in New York, a new space has opened in Times Square that is purely commercial for the purpose of putting on these “blockbuster shows” – including Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs:

… Two years after The [New York] Times left its longtime headquarters on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, the basement of that building is being converted into a 60,000-square-foot space for large-scale exhibitions of art and historical artifacts. Called Discovery Times Square Exposition, it will open June 24 with two shows, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition and Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, featuring the 3.2-million-year-old fossil remains of the female hominid known as Lucy. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, an expanded version of the show that has been touring North America since 2005, is to open next spring….

The enterprise is a partnership between Running Subway — a New York production company whose projects have included the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC — and the Discovery Channel…. Running Subway has taken out a 20-year lease and spent “tens of millions of dollars” on construction since spring 2008, Mr. Sanna said…. Shows will be installed in two basement rooms, each with 30-foot ceilings, and a cafe and gift shop will also be underground.

Shows like Titanic and Tutankhamun, which have been blockbuster hits, are often organized by for-profit companies instead of museums, and in some cases they have bypassed New York because no appropriate spot could be found, organizers say.

“We’ve always wanted to bring Titanic to New York, but there wasn’t really a suitable venue until this time,” said Chris Davino, chief executive of Premier Exhibitions, whose other shows include Bodies: The Exhibition. Presented in museums, science centers and casinos elsewhere around the world, in New York Bodies has been mounted in converted retail space at South Street Seaport.

The new Times Square space will also allow exhibitors to avoid the restrictions of museums. The King Tut exhibition was turned down by many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, because its organizers wanted to charge additional admission fees. Each show at the Discovery Times Square Exposition will cost $19.50 for adults and $17.50 for children….

This brings to mind a snarky quote I read long ago from Gore Vidal to the effect that, in America, education was now a branch of the entertainment industry.

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