Olga Oldenburg, Queen of Greece. Wife of George I, King of the Hellenes and daughter of Constantine Nicholaevitch (son of Nicholas I Romanov of Russia). Born HIH Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinovna Romanova of Russia, she was acting head of state after her grandson Alexander I (1917-20) had died after a monkey bite, until her son Contantinos I returned to take over the throne a second time.
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For some visitors at this year’s Theta Antiques Show, they may be surprised to see changes in the exhibition roster. Some dealers could not make their way from Delaware Antiques Show to Houston in just two days. That opened the door to new faces with unconventional merchandise. Once again Theta proves its prominent status as one of the highest-caliber shows in the South.
Taking I45 from Dallas, we arrived on early afternoon Sunday, just a few hours before the show closed. Many dealers, in fact, have followed the same route a few days earlier after packing up at the Dallas International Art, Antiques and Jewelry Show. Participating shows in two largest metro areas of Texas back to back is convenient for many dealers living afar. When we asked about comparison between the two shows, most dealers confirmed an uptick in the footprints and sales in Houston – It is after-all well-known that Houstonians love shopping.
We did not recall American Garage Gallery from last year. Their booth, filled with Americana, combined understated charm with West Coast coolness. Yet, a 19th century dower chest made in Soap Hollow, Pennsylvania (near Johnstown) was given a prestigious location at the front. Having lived in Pittsburgh for many years, and having visited the landmark show Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, we had the chance to tour with Charles Muller, the expert in Soap Hollow painted furniture and learned from a dozen objects in the show. Back in 2007, when he published the book about Jacob Knagy and his furniture making, some dower chests from Soap Hollow had already fetched six-figures in auctions.
We were told that the dower chest was not only illustrated in the book, but also a rare example of its kind: the maker and the year of making are usually signed for Soap Hollow furniture. But this one has also the owner’s name – a genealogy study about the family history will be a must for its new owner. (Not surprising, the dower chest had a red dot next to it by the time we spotted it.) It is a mystery to think how a dower chest from rural areas of Johnstown navigated the country several times including Los Angeles and Houston (this phenomena is sometimes lost of the contemporary use and over-use of the word green).
A Coca-Cola architectural fragment was another interesting object from the same dealer. Taken from the cornerstone of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Bottling plant, the iconic bottle in cast concrete looked exceptionally lively with the upward wings. The increasingly negative public opinion, with New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg in particular associating soft drinks with obesity, seemed non-traceable and irreverent in front of such an iconic object: it reminded everyone it has been popular since its birth more than one century ago – a feat that no other brand has equally achieved.
There was generally good feedback from dealers. Here and there, I could see sold labels next to furniture. My guess was that furniture delivery tended to be made at the end of the show so that those red dots were easier to be spotted. Whitehall Antiques sold a sideboard with curved front cabinets and a slant front desk. Both were of mahogany and from England. Ted Fuehr of American Spirit Antiques was also pleased to see a much lighter truck load back home.
Ted also brought a few weathervanes of different subjects. Placed on top of tiger maple surface, they looked stunning fresh. Although many folk art subjects such as roosters, cows and horses have been dominating the higher-end weathervane market, Ted showed two sailboats weathervanes. Stacked with triangles of different orientations and thickness, the sailboats weathervanes are more architecturally decorative than naively whimsical of the animal forms.
“There are some great opportunities in the medium range market now for decorative art,” attested by a dealer who offered a stunning sterling sofa made in India. It was actually quite comfortable to sit on — such sofa made in 20th century has better ergonomics than earlier ones (especially those with a horizontal crest to keep sitters from slouching back). I could almost hear Joan Rivers’ comment in her documentary: “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had had money.”
Having attended two shows of similar size within a week, we have seen two different styles. The Dallas show emphasized on high-end and luxury: Bathed in bright light and floored with beige carpet, it had that celebrity glamour affecting both patrons and vendors. Theta Show was less extravagant. (The live piano was gone this year.) It had a much casual and relaxed atmosphere. Besides the look, Dallas Show has a much bigger presence of jewelry dealers. In comparison, only two dealers in the Theta show displayed predominantly jewelry. The presence of jewelry may broaden the demographic of the clientelr, however a ready abundance conspicuously exalts tasteful consumption and ridicules the pursuit of patina and subtlety in decorative art and fine art.
Trading in for a better location, the Dallas International Art, Antiques & Jewelry Show has moved back to the city. Although Market Hall cannot compete with the Irving Convention Center in terms of the facility quality, the show organizers have transformed the hall into a magnificent space – plush light-gray colored carpet throughout, custom walls (covered in felt or paper) and ample lighting. One long-time local resident commented: in its more than half a century history, the Market Hall has never looked as splendid as it did this weekend.
The space marked out for the show accommodated more than 60 dealers from around the world. The word “international” is also reflected in the merchandise. Perhaps in an effort to match local tastes, European art and decorative art dominate the show. Collectors of 19th century American art and Americana may find comfort in the booths of Alexander Gallery and Roberto Freitas’. A portrait of a boy with his pet pigeon by Henry Benbridge has the delicate youthfulness, despite Benbridge’s tendency of delineating dark shadows with enamel-like highlights. Isaac Sheffield was a lesser known itinerant painter. However, his portrait of young Charles Mallory from Roberto Freitas has an interesting history with Mystic, Connecticut. The young man would eventually build a shipbuilding empire — Mallory shipyard.
Yet often the history of a Yankees’ north resonates little with Dallas patrons. Glittering under warm spotlight, the hall has adopted that Dallas look, and it can be about the look as much as the thing itself. The expense on Market Hall’s extreme make-over is well spent – no one would deny the feeling of walking onto red carpet. Nor would we forget the stunning first sight of aisles of suffused light, framed under the draped canopy of black ribbons at the door. But the core of a show is the objects.
There are some big names here and top quality objects, but the river doesn’t always run so deep. Some dealers like Paul Vandekar of Knightsbridge Inc. offer quality objects in a variety of price points and in quantity, but many booths have limited objects. This is sometimes good for conveying a sense of scarcity and opulence, but not necessarily for shopping.
Sometimes when you ask a dealer how a show is, whether good or bad, you get an honest answer. One of the dealers expressed such dismay he wished for some paint he could watch dry. If he looked around, he may find some. The word “art” appears in the show title before “antique” and a few canvases appear relatively fresh from the easel. Contemporary art that looks traditional is a risky proposition. Some do it very well, like Colm Rowan Fine Art, a dealer offering pieces by Ken Hamilton that look like old Dutch portraits.
They are the exception.
Some present the best, and seem to do everything well.
Like last year, M.S. Rau gallery 0ccupied premium show real estate. Paintings by big names are hung with enough breathing space, like a museum exhibition. The large labels above paintings announce their importance to visitors – If you cannot read the art, at least you can’t miss the banners. With their vast inventory, they effortlessly create ambiance of opulent living-without making the booth seem sparse. My favorite was a set of Biedermeier mahogany chairs with paired swan backs and lion paw feet. The gilded and polychromed swans are carved with subtle depths and stylized dynamics as if they are about to rise up from the pond and fly away. Biedermeier, or in general, empire furniture, often emphasizes grandeur. Yet with the open back and liveliness of birds at the same time they look airy and buoyant.
One addition to this year’s show are designer showcases meant to exemplify how antiques integrate into today’s lifestyles. Had the designers taken the cues from M. S. Rau’s gallery, the showrooms would have been more coherent and visually pleasing. Earlier this year, at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, we were impressed by a set of showrooms, each with specific themes and styles. Here, however, the bright red (I’m not sure whose lifestyle can be integrated into that color) is adopted across every showroom. The color is so piercing that a snow scene painting by Arthur Clifton Goodwin (State Capitol in Boston) looks more like subdued wall paper. Nor are the proportions and styles of objects are consistent throughout the show rooms. The effect — a kaleidoscopic display of what is offered in the floor — is, to rephrase Rachel “Bunny” Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon’s words, nothing could be noticed (except the red wall).
Like many in Dallas, I am happy the show continues. This is the third edition and Market Hall is the third location for the show. Many dealers we spoke to liked the new location. However from discussion and observation, the attendance doesn’t seem to have improved markably. The Dallas metro is the fourth largest in the country and should be able to support a show like this. It may be a case of trying too hard, however and it could be held back by existing ideas of what Dallas is (it may not be as traditional as we sometimes assume). The promoter, the Palm Beach Show Group, also produced the Baltimore Antiques Show, which offers a greater array of dealers and price points. The brighter show with more of a mix of antique and contemporary, like New York’s Metro Show, may also have some appeal.
The show has a good foundation of reputable dealers that can carry it forward, and I do hope, with some tweaking, it will continue.
Forty years is long, for human’s life. Yet for art institutions, it’s like a blink. The British Museum was founded in 1753. Forty years later came the Louvre. The American art museums, like the nation itself, are much younger in comparison. The oldest public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, was established in 1844. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the Fort Worth Modern, founded in 1892 as the Carnegie Library and Art Gallery, was, in fact, the first art institute of the town. Now, the Kimbell Art Museum, at 40, is celebrating the process of collecting with the largest ever installation from its permanent collection.
The story of collecting is never boring. In the past, the Kimbell Art Museum has been rather aggressive and willing to take risks in their acquisition strategy. For example, neither Caravaggio’s Cardsharps nor Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony had firm attributions when the museum made the bid. These anecdotes, unfortunately, are not elaborated on in the exhibition labels.
Caravaggio’s Cardsharps has served as source of inspiration for other artists to explore emotions and human nature in card playing; yet in 1987 skepticism was round about whether the picture was THE cardsharps by the master. Only through conservation at the museum did the support become insurmountable. The broken history of provenance was re-established through the seal of Cardinal del Monte, an early patronage of Caravaggio.
Similarly, when Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony was displayed in the single painting exhibition at the Met after Kimbell’s acquisition, much of the exhibition content focused on the attribution process and evidence such as the fish scale or the cross hatching on the rocks. The infrared picture of significant modification in underdrawing eventually proves it not a mere copy, but a carefully crafted original composition. The Met got in first to examine the painting, but it was Kimbell’s patience that paid off. They struck the deal promptly with cash ready at hand (believed to exceed six million dollars) when others had already emptied their bank accounts for the budget year.
Poussin’s Sacrement of Ordination, acquired last year, went through a different ordeal. For months, the British government had tried to block its extradition. It finally gave in after no British museums could raise enough funds to match a price tag of more than 24 million dollars. And when the Kimbell revealed itself as the buyer, the British were puzzled that it was Kimbell, not the Getty that acquired the painting. (In fact, among art institutions which are managed largely by founding foundations, the Kimbell has the second largest endowment, only after the Getty.)
It should be noted that the Kimbell started with some three hundred objects in the 1960’s and the total number in the collection has not bulged that much after four decades’ acquisitions. The untold story of de-accessioning is less concerning than that of other public institutions with financial woes. A few remaining paintings from Kimbell family’s initial collection are on display on the left side of the reception desk. They would have looked less appealing had they been hung in the main galleries. The distinction marks the difference between a family and a foundation, the latter of which, through decades of curatorial efforts, wanes out the former’s affinity to British art and female portraiture.
Thus, with patience, luck and deep pockets, the Kimbell, like an experienced collector, expanded gradually. “Buy the best that you can afford” or “quality over quantity” has always been the tenets for any devoted smart collector. It may take years for someone to realize the most difficult thing for strategic collecting is to conquer the impetuous desire of owning things and balance between rational analysis and indescribable human intuition on fleeting opportunities. The Kimbell, through the guidance of a roster of top curators and scholars, established similar policy early on, to seek works of art of “the highest possible aesthetic quality” as determined by condition, rarity, importance, suitability, and communicative powers.
Yet, no matter how disciplined the collecting has been executed, what is seen in an exhibition is and will always be a collective of objects. The emphasis here should be collective. The 220 or so objects, out of 350 in Kimbell’s inventory, are displayed through the South and North wing of Louis Kahn’s building, in strict chronological order of their acquisition dates. The scope of Kimbell’s collecting interests is comprehensive and encyclopedic. Except American Art, which has been excluded early on through the mutual agreement with the neighboring Amon Carter Museum, almost every expressive form of human civilization have found their ways into the collection. Unfortunately, what and when notably high-quality works were available or will be available in the art market, could and would never be arranged in a systematic order. Thus it is havoc to see them — once and together.
We have been pampered by thematic harmony of museum exhibitions. When such inter-object connections or curatorial insights are gone, the art appreciation goes astray. Or more precisely our brains’ working mode in visual analysis, instead of building upon continuum, cold starts at every object, like a car that must be restarted every block.
Richard Brown, the former director of the Kimbell said “the goal shall be definitive excellence, not size of collection.” True, but this is Texas, size matters. Had the collection had 3,500 objects instead of 350, the exhibition would have been easier to comprehend. It is a body of works by a single hand or within a single school, instead of singular ones, that help define connoisseurship. Our visual memory lapses. The physical proximity of works within a narrow range of consistent style is the key. Without that we cannot accumulate enough visual impression to understand nuances and subtlety.
To some extent, the Kimbell is experiencing adolescent anxiety with too much to express out of too little experience. The result is like a melting pot of assorted ethnic cuisines, rejuvenating your bodily senses at first, but upsetting your stomach in the end.
Yet at the same time, the Kimbell is growing out of its own clothes. Mr. Brown’s insistence on achieving a sense of intimacy through a residential scale like the Frick, where he had worked before, leads to such growing pains arriving much earlier than anticipated. There has been no precedent for any art institutions that no guilt or remorse was found for scaled down or uncompleted initial plans. Had the 450-feet-wide plan in Kahn’s initial scheme been accepted, arranging special exhibitions would have been much easier. Currently, all gallery space (with movable dividing walls) at the Kimbell is used for displaying just two thirds of its permanent collection. Thus, the show implicitly justifies the desperate need of additional space that can accommodate arts of “definite excellence” out of their storage rooms.
Logically, the space next to the other side of the reception desk is reserved to showcase the future models of the Kimbell expansion and video of construction progress. If the Kimbell is the crown jewel among Kahn’s legacy, Renzo Piano, with his extensive resume in museum architecture (including the Menil collections in Houston, Nasher Sculpture Garden in Dallas, the Morgan Library and the new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago) would at least uphold the selection standard of the museum (for both art and architects).
Yet Piano’s design is anything but Kahn. The new wing, once open in 2014, will bring a drastic contrast across the lawn – the rectilinear vs. the curvilinear, the glass vs. limestone, the airy vs. the solid. The result, again, like the show, is a melting pot of assorted excellencies, going awry.
“What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” — Eugene Delacroix
Twentieth century German art is mostly coined by the expressionism at the beginning of the century, epitomized by the Neue Galleries at 86st Street and 5th Ave, which proudly shows Kokoschka, Klimt, Schiele and other German/Austrian painters of the period. Scholars are naturally inclined to study the arts in its indigenous nation. The rise of a new school often signifies a change in social environ, thus enabling a broader study in social science. In contrast, after a new style has jettisoned the older schools long enough to become established or even transplanted to other countries, the scholarly interests diminish and consequently the art market marginalizes its share.
Such a case can be seen in the German art in 30′s and 40′s when Hitler denounced the expressionism as decadent and degenerate. Hitler, an amateurish water-colorist, favored realistic works with monumental quality. But there was also the German Impressionism school that was not perfectly aligned with propaganda, yet still tolerated with certain degree of artistic freedom. Perhaps examining Arnold Grabone’s career spanning from the first world war to the post WWII can shed some lights on this topic.
After a series of experiments of different modernism styles, Grabone entered his mature stage in the late 1920′s after studying with Max Liebermann, a prominent print-maker and the founder of German Impressionism. Although not an indigenous style, by the 1920′s, impressionism, with its bright palette, scientific theory and direct visual pleasure did not “shock” Europeans. Libermann’s own art was also heavily influenced by the French Barbizon school, thus he and his circle, unlike French impressionists, retained a sense of solidity in forms and narrative angles. Arnold once wrote that Liebermann made him into a true painter, a painter who showed the texture of the landscape in the way that he felt and also how he wanted the viewer to feel it.
In 1932, he moved to Zurich to teach at an art academy. When Hitler rose to power in 1936, Grabone was not much affected because the kind of landscapes he painted, although different from the heroic realism style that Hitler had official approved and praised, provided an optimistic upbeat and a gaiety mood for the nation. In the same year, Grabone took a timely trip to US for the first time, through North Africa.
A close look at Grabone’s art reveals that the artist seemed not interested in politics at all. Unlike Max Libermann, who devoted himself to a wide range of subjects, a lot of which were related to social reform and once won him the epithet of “disciple of the ugly,” Grabone was almost a pure landscape painter: more precisely, a landscape painter of natural beauty such as mountains and seas. If Max Libermann adopted Impressionism to his techniques, subjects and perspective (some of his urban scenes feature wide angles, vanishing points and merging lines, probably inspired from modern photography), Grabone was an Impressionist only relevant to purely aesthetic manners. In most of the landscapes, he kept a certain distance to the depicted scenes with a coolness of objectivity. Almost universally objects such as trees, boats or log cabins were in the middle ground, off-center while the rest of the pictures such as mountains, waters or sky provided an atmospherical effects.
Perhaps because of his obsession with the texture, he used palette knife exclusively. His signature style of palette knife with jewel-colors is a celebration of dexterity of painterly skills. One may feel his personality from those moderately-varied, loosely controlled yet well-defined knife strokes. If George Bellows maximized the use of pallet knife with the brutal-force rawness to depict gritty urban nights or harsh wintry scenes, Grabone’s pictures are more amicable with a patterned use of pallet knife. He mostly dotted and pressed the blade without dragging it too long to form a visible trace or a direct mixture of paints. For areas of sky or still waters, he tended to press the knife downward harder so that the same amount of paint were dispersed to a greater area and looked thinner. Regarding the main subjects such as trees or boats, he reduced the blade contact area and quickly built up or juxtaposed strokes of paints of differnt colors so that the texture looked almost architecturally rich.
Most of these scenes do not feature human beings although they are humanized. In these pictures, while the Alps may be gusty, that only provides the advantage of clearing the view of the hundreds of giant facets of the cliff, each of which takes its own light and shade and clashes against others like a resilient soul. And one does not feel the coldness in his winter scenes. Instead it is the interplay of the lightened snow on top of different texture that is captured and presented as a visual splendor. Grabone repetitively painted the same subjects such as the Alps of Bavaria and South Tirole, the Isle of Capri, or the English Garden in Munich. Such a near obsession with painting multiple versions of familiar subjects provided the painter the advantage to probe deeper meaning and varied characters of the subject under different light effect. In these quiet pictures, Grabone celebrated the fleeting light, the reflected, the shadowed, the diffused, the fogged or the direct light that gives the color and the texture a lively play.
Being in Zurich gave Grabone a natural cushion during the WWII and also led to his later encounterance with Eisenhower and Winston Churchill after the war. It would probably be unfair to say that he profited from being in the right school during the WWII since he didn’t choose Impressionism beyond artistic spontaneity and didn’t change the style after the war when modernism came to the central stage. In contract, Max Libermann, his mentor, ended his life miserably. The once president of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Honorary Citizen of the City of Berlin came to a critical point when he resigned his post in 1933 because he was Jewish. His paintings were removed from museum walls and he was deprived of the right to paint. Ostracized by the National Socialists, he died on Feb 8, 1935.
Today, seldom do scholars and collectors look at and discuss German impressionism, although Max Liebermann’s art has seen a greater appreciation. It is dangerous to associate one period or one nation with a particular style without acknowledging art has always been diverse, some style well known, some minor and some may see a revival in the near ture. In my opition, one should not fall into the trap of “ism” or school without looking at pictures. Perhaps, the genius should go to Bejamin Frankin (who has always been wise in giving advice) who said: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources”.
Note: from Oct 20 – Dec 5, 2009, Spartanburg Art Museum at Spartanburg, SC is going to have an exhibition” Artwork and friendships in Postwar Germany – Georg Arnold-Grabone” from the collection of Donald Van Riper. It is interesting that thanks to the special relationship between Grabone and Eisenhower, an American institute take a fresh look at German Impressionism.
At the time this article is written, there are two paintings by Arnold Grabone offered at eBay. The item numbers are 330361709301 and 390096141666.
This post is in response to the New York Times article “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” by Michael Kimmerman.
The time has gone when museums are the sole places of money laundrying for barons and rogues and of self-improvement for middle and lower classes. For some, museums are sacred cultural Mecca; for others, they merely provide space for socializing, with better wall art.
I do not blame those people looking at artworks through their two by three inch LCD screens from the digital cameras. It is part of the human nature to own things, in this particular case to own (or more precisely to record) the experience of visiting. Louvre or Met or any major art institutions have such an overwhelming collection that for first-time visitors (especially those foreign visitors who may not be able to visit the museum again in another decade), their desire to cover as many as possible requires “democratizing” the artworks appreciation so that they either spend meagre time on each one or pass a lot to compensate the time spent on some major “famous” ones. After all, sightseeing in Paris will not be accomplished without a visit to Louvre, nevertheless Louvre is not all Paris offers, and to spend three hours in Louvre on 30 artworks sounds less efficient or even produces guilt with regard to the vast collection in the museum.
In the noisy metropolitan areas with so many attractions, one of the fundamental goals of most museums is to brings visitors inside. Thus museums themselves have given up the high-brow attitude of the past and welcome visitors regardless of their motivation. Thousands of people danced in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum at this month’s Target First Saturday event, which also featured live performance and movies occasionally. Behind the liveliness of community gathering events is the new type of museum strategy: Art education cannot be forced, and instead of linking museums with antiquity and high arts (which for some means you don’t comment in case you say something stupid), the museums are sending signals to the public: Just come in, and it is no big deal to visit a museum.
The consequences of such role-downplaying necessitates all the technological devices to attract those casual visitors. (In fact, I am ok with those who keep taking pictures of artworks, but I get annoyed by those who keep taking pictures with the artworks, i.e. pictures of them standing in front of artworks.) In the the blog “Does tech engage or distract?” by Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum commented that she tends to find technology in art museums rather distracting although she agrees that everyone will engage in different ways and that should be welcome.
I do not want to discuss in length the pros and cons of each type of device, but I think the criteria is simple: anything that brings visitors back to look at the artworks works. In general because the majority of the artworks are visual works, audio devices (in my mind) work better than labels, TVs or touch screens. In the exhibition “Cezanne and Beyond” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, everyone was handed a handheld audio device. I found it indispensable because to hearing the voices of the curator is essential to understand the motivation of paring Paul Cezanne and Jeff Wall and helped me to examine the works of Cezanne from a new angle.
Even spending time in reading labels or watching TVs INSTEAD OF looking at real artworks may be more suitable for some people and should not be depreciated. Good labels reflect incisive curatorial perspective and TVs & touch screens are more accessible to teens. People do learn in this way: Even though such devices seldom inspire people as the real artworks, at least visitors can pick up some pieces of facts of art history or some jargons of painting techniques. The collective of visual/sensual impact, text and audio input make an enriched museum visiting experience. (Should I further claim some picture-takers actually examine the compositions of sculpture more carefully?)
OK. I am going to take my words back in the end of this shout and murmur. Museums are places to learn about art history, to get inspired or to socialize if you prefer, but they are NOT places to obtain art connoisseurship. My artist friend once commented: no label is ever needed for artworks. If it does not speak to you, labels won’t help. I agree. The art connoisseurship or the so-called aesthetic eyes are in-born and can only be sharpened through learning from experts and exposure to great art. If it is not there, no device can help. The greatest strength in art is that it can reach our soul and resonate our deepest emotion DIRECTLY. Neither the primal feelings nor the most subtle nuance could be reproduced in words, video clips or animation flash. Even if with all the tools or devices that one can learn how to identify the difference of the cosmetic eyelines evolved between the middle kingdom and the 18th century of Ancient Egypt. But does it really matter if one does not simply LOVE and APPRECIATE Egyptian statues? Just a gaggle of facts which can be found in books, or internet with some clicks on iPhone.
The museums are open to all, but the art opens to fewer.
In a letter by Arnold Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum on June 16, it is declared that the museum has reduced the workforce by 10% including both laying off 12 employees and buy-out departures. Eventually, the museum joins a long list of art institutions which use staff reduction to cut the budget. Indianapollis, Detroit, Walters, and even Metropolitan Museum of Art (closing store staff in this case) have declared laying off early this year.
Because deaccession collections to cover basic operational cost is not accepted by Association of Art Museum Directors, there are little means for large institutions to balance their budget sheets. However, art institutes should not be operated like corporations where balance sheets are the priority concern. The loss of the people for museums is like the loss of memory for a person. A few years ago when the Brooklyn Museum announced to create two “teams,” one for collections and one for exhibitions and correspondingly led to a series of curator departure, it caused sharp criticism from peer institutes. The institutional memory and experience are not instilled with the objects, but with the people who study and interpret them.
In the letter, no specific detail is given about who quit or lost the jobs except the 10% staff are from different departments. But on the Brooklyn Museum blog, a local artist Ash Meer commented that “each of the employees of the museum is a valuable part of this community. They are contributing to our community by providing a service, utilizing our neighborhood businesses, welcoming visitors, and improving the level of collective dialogue. These are precisely the sort of community members that we want more of, not less.” I totally agree.
In yesterday’s NYTimes, Ken Johnson wrote a review of the current exhibition of Hernan Bas at the Brooklyn Museum. In the end, Ken pointed out a touchy question: How much the cost saving factor impacts the decision of the installation of a retrospective show of an artist who is just getting started ?
Here is the excerpt:
But the museum loses some of its intellectual and ethical credibility in letting the Rubells and their former in-house curator, Mark Coetzee, completely determine an exhibition devoted to an artist whose importance remains speculative. Had the Brooklyn Museum organized its own Hernan Bas exhibition or, better yet, a show examining the trend in faux-adolescent romanticism, these questions wouldn’t come into play.
We have heard the news of museum downsizing such as staff layoff (Indianapollis, Detroit, and Walters) or store closing (met). Under the tight budget, the costly temporary exhibitions would probably cut either in scale or in quantity. I tend to think the Hernan Bas’ exhibition is a natural choice after the exhibition of Gilbert & George. (I wish they could have been exhibited together!) In fact, compared to the compulsive nature of those photos from Gilbert & George, at least Hernan’s paintings feel more humane and sentimental. The museum owns at least one of his painting before the show (“Night Fishing”), so the museum must have considered Hernan as a promising artist and his artworks have met some curatorial standard. If it happens that the installation was paid from private sectors, then why not?
But I agree with Mr. Johnson that such exhibition will never not be tricky. If frequent temporary exhibitions are important venue to attract visitors, then why not seek inside? Brooklyn Museum’s American and Egyptian collection could rival any museum in the country. True, the exhibition may sound antique if the title is “William Merrit Chase and his Long Island” or “John La Farge, the versatile” or any painter buried in Green-wood cemetery, but their collections in terms of dept, subject matters, and time span allow them to come up with some cross-collection exhibition like the intriguing show “The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips, Mark Rothko in Pink, Green, and Red” in the American Folk Art Museum. The current show “Unearthing the Truth: Egypt’s Pagan and Coptic Sculpture” is another good example. Just browsing their online database, you will soon find out the quality and the quantity of items “NOT ON VIEW”. Such exhibitions are not only cost efficient but also may bring visitors the awareness of the vast collection of the museum.
The Brooklyn Museum has its own answer. From March 25, Korean-born, New York-based artist Sun K. Kwak will create a site-specific work composed of approximately three miles black masking tape in the fifth-floor. The total cost for the material? 263 dollars based on the article in Brooklyn Paper.
Looking at the works by Hernan Bas at his solo exhibition in Brooklyn Museum, I was pondering what inspired Mr. Bas with all these pictures. His male figures, though never taking too much space of each picture, have a Cézannian directness from plane colors and small yet visible brushstrokes. However, the architectural solidity in techniques melts down in the overtone of sexuality and near hallucinated fantasy. Are Miami gay scene that decadent?
In all pictures, only one type of persons are depicted: white teen male, smooth and slender, mostly naked or if not in certain narcissism way. Even Jack McFarland in Will and Grace would look more butch compared to them. But luckily they don’t live in this world, or should I rephrase, they are not willing to live in this world. They would take the time shuttle from the 21st century Florida to Hellenic or Roman period, and play the drama of being sardonic or saintly, love wooer or love martyr.
The biggest painting “The Great Barrier Wreath” is made of acrylic, gouache and oil. Among the near apocalyptic madness of harsh environ and ridiculous delusion of flora and fauna are the boys either half nude or dressed like circus actors or comedians. I am ok with the fact that they all look sad and lonely, as happiness would be an inappropriate light subject unsuitable for young serious artists. But they have no interaction with each other, as if all boys are sequential images of the artist’s daydream at the height of his vanity disorder.
Paintings with more or less realistic settings equally troubled me. For appreciating works by Bas, reading titles is not only beneficial but also imperative. “Apollo with Daphane”, “Mephistophiles”, “Swan princes” bring the literature and mythology into the pictures, although still vague, limit how viewers perceive the paintings. Geo, an admirer of the art of George Inness ,commented that the great painting should impact viewers directly and the title of the painting should not be critical. (Inness himself said “a work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion”.)
Thus, Mr. Bas maybe too intellectual for me. In some cases, I failed to recognize the linkage to literature, nor could I spot the undertone of Oscar Wild or Herman Melville: the former I only managed to read a few and the latter none. But unlike the novelist who, at hist best, used Billy Budd to symbolize the fallen victim of homoerotic sensibility against the iron social structure, Mr. Bas explicitly addresses homosexuality by eliminating any sight of heterosexual human beings but with equal reserve on the social justice. Isn’t it sad if gays can only live in their own way without any interaction with straights and even lesbians?
Pearl commented that the pictures are dark and turbulent. I am wondering, in Hernan’s mind, is the violence part of the life and drama in gay’s own world or are those volcano and cataracts analogous to the society? I have doubt about the latter guess, since an outcry for the gay rights would lose its base support by iconizing gays as white lean feminine-looking teens.
After coming out of the exhibition, I said to myself probably I should start reading “Moby Dick.” But, Mr. Bas can probably also benefit from looking at some pictures of Tom of Finland, I hope.
On a visit to an apartment in Crown Heights, I noticed a big poster of Aaron Douglas from Fisk University. “My dad used to serve as president of the alumni association, so I am proud of this.”
Aaron Douglas, the founder of the Art Department at Fisk, was the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most celebrated works there is “Building More Stately Mansions” (BMSM) which is now treasured at Fisk University. Another smaller version was auctioned by Swann Auction Galleries of New York and sold to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for half a million dollars (hammar price).
BMSM, from every aspects, tells vividly the central role of Egyptomania in Harlem Renaissance: It is a painting that honors the contributions black laborers made to great civilizations of the past.
Here is the RISD newsletter excepts.
Douglas’ unique Modernist style emerged during intense engagement with other African-American artists, writers, and musicians whom he encountered when he moved to Harlem in 1925. His work celebrated the intellectual and artistic achievements of Africans and African-Americans, which were brought to life by Douglas in an impressive series of mural commissions. Building More Stately mansions symbolizes the labor of black men and women in the creation of great architectural monuments, silhouetting their active figures against a utopian background. Concentric bands of muted color suggest waves of history and knowledge, linking the builders of pyramids, temples, and churches to the skyscrapers of the present and anticipating future achievements.
Then came the touchy question? Can blacks rightly claim the Egyptian cultural heritage?
Dr. Zahi Hawass commented that “Egyptians are not Arabs and are not Africans despite the fact that Egypt is in Africa”.
From what we understand now, Egyptians had no concept of racism, although they did look down upon the world outside of Egypt. For them, the world of Egypt is small and in peace and harmony. Chaos lay outside. Thus at times there were Nubian (African) kings ruling Egypt by being Egyptianized, but Nubia was a different country. What Aaron Douglas depicted, thus may only partially ring true: African came to ancient Egypt to work as soldiers, slaves or other careers. Certainly they contributed to the ancient civilization, but cannot lay sole claim to it.
Interestingly, there is a painting by Aaron Douglas in the upcoming auction by Swann Auction Galleries. This is a lovely pastel portrait of Aaron’s wife Alta. It is estimated between 15,000 to 20,000 dollars.
In a recent article by Gillian Reagan in The New York Observer, the 1stfans program in the Brooklyn Museum, it is debated whether fans should be charged more or online information should be free to all. To me, Shelley has a point: 1stfans is trying to get supporters to feel inside and involved.
Seldom can museums rely on admission fees or membership fee to balance the budget. Even at the Met, where crowds are packed like sardine on weekends , admission fee only counts for 12% of the annual revenue. If the Brooklyn Museum wants to increase the revenue, a few thousands dollars from the membership of 1stfans club alone won’t balance the budget . To some extent, 1stfans is a type of membership-based on social network. You don’t pay because of products or services that you will get, you pay because you love the community or the institution.
On the other hand, I do have a general concern aboutsocial networks for museum institutions. Even though foot traffic is not the best measure for the success of museums, it is important to bring people in. Among visitors, there are regular museum goers who frequent galleries for special exhibitions; but there are also visitors who have never been to museums and the first visit experience can make a huge impact on their views of the museum, some school of art or even the art itself. While 1stfans makes the great use of the internet to connect people, the members are ,in general, already insiders, even though they may live on the other side of the world. The first time visitor, who should be targeted and could benefit more from a museum visit, would hardly know such an exclusive club. (Would you pay 20 dollars for some museum that you have never visited or heard of?)
As new technology has broken the granite walls of major museums and reached out to more people by providing resources accessible through internet, there is still a need to emphasize that nothing is better than seeing objects in person. Photos lie, especially for paintings or sculptures. The indescribable depths of colors in paintings by George Inness look flat and lifeless online. And the pictures cannot command a full sense of appreciation by giving a thumbnail figure with dimensions, thus Albert Bierstadt’s “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” looks just as grand as Heade’s “Summer Showers” on your 20 inches monitor.
One has to have seen the original to understand the meaning of art, as John Walsh calls “a lingering examination of the original” that totally absorbs the viewers and transforms him or her emotionally and spiritually. All technology should be measured by whether it can bring the shimmer, joy and sense of accomplishment to the audience. If online information cannot do, then bring the audience in.
On Sept 11, 2001, the special exhibition “The Pharaoh’s Photographer: Harry Burton, Tutankhamun, and the Metropolitan’s Egyptian Expedition” opened at Met. The next few days, even when the city was still dominated by smokes and debris, a few New Yorkers chose to visit the gallery, where, quietly sitting, the objects of the ancient civilization displayed all their beauty and fortitude despite of thousands of years of heat, wind, sands or other human sabotage. It was the utmost console and a manifestation of what would stand in eternity.
Would they feel the same if they had looked at them online?