The Art Trap

In June The New York Times proclaimed that "Brooklyn Museum's Populism Hasn't Boosted Crowds." Populism is dead? Nope, long live populism. LACMA recently announced it will be hosting the MoMA-organized Tim Burton show (above). MOCA is is showing the art of Dennis Hopper, whom posterity will remember as a great actor, and is enmeshed in a goofy soap opera deal with James Franco, who may or may not be so remembered. On the East Coast, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is doing a show of Norman Rockwell as collected by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and the Metropolitan Museum is drawing crowds with Ringo Starr's gold snare drum.
Museum populism raises two distinct questions. Should populist exhibitions exist? If they should, do they have to be in art museums?
There's more consensus on these issues than you'd think from the tone of the debate. First of all, nobody says there shouldn't be "Star Wars" shows. They should exist as long as somebody's willing to pay for them. The somebody could be the public attending the show, or it could be a billionaire willing to foot the bill. The prime example of that is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who built Seattle's Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Allen's museum is currently touring a show called "Out of this World: Extraordinary Costumes from Film and Television" that's touching down in some otherwise serious art venues.
To put it another way, the free market should decide how many populist shows we have. But anytime someone mentions the "free market," you've got to ask who's doing the accounting. Museums are non-profit for a reason. With very rare exceptions, exhibitions are not cash cows, and that includes the populist ones. These shows typically occupy galleries funded by another generation's philanthropists, who intended more serious and elevating fare. The venues receive favorable tax treatments on the premise of being educational. Populist shows co-opt the labor of museum staffs, also funded for different and loftier purposes. When museums claim that a motorcycle or movie memorabilia show was a financial success, they usually count restaurant and gift shop sales, new memberships, and so on, without a too-rigorous accounting of what these sales might have been with a more serious show. It's easy for any business plan to succeed when it doesn't count costs, or opportunity costs.
Should populist shows be in art museums? The core audience for a motorcycle show does not care that it's being installed next to Kandinskys, in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed temple of high culture on Fifth Avenue. They'd just as soon it was in a Las Vegas casino, as that show eventually was. The core ("elitist") audience for art museums is, of course, the one that complains about populist shows. They'd rather see Dennis Hopper and Tim Burton's movies than their installations.
That leaves only one micro-constituency for having populist shows in art museums: directors of art museums. While they're at least as elitist as their audiences, they have to consider the numbers. Building attendance is one of the few metrics of a museum director's success. They therefore make an argument that practically no one else does — the "Art Trap" argument, to quote James Franco. It holds that the populist shows will lure crowds who don't normally go to art museums. Once there, they'll realize the museum isn't such a forbidding place; it's for people just like them. A significant fraction will wander through the galleries, looking at real art. Some will become hooked. They'll come back for more serious shows. Maybe they'll become members. It's the old bait and switch.
That doesn't mean it doesn't work. It does work for car dealers. If everyone who watches General Hospital signed up for MOCA membership, that would fix the museum's financial bind, and MOCA's core audience would be pragmatic enough to applaud Deitch's genius. Of course, it's doubtful how many soap fans would segue easily to Latin American light and space and William Leavitt.
It's ultimately an empirical question whether populism works. That's why the Brooklyn Museum history is worth pondering. In his tenure, Lehman has had a deeper, more consistent commitment to populism than almost any other major art museum director. He did shows of Star Wars, hip-hop, rock and roll photography, and Annie Leibovitz. In Lehman's first full year, 1998, the Brooklyn Museum's attendance was 585,000 a year. It soon took a nose dive and has fluctuated ever since. In 2009 attendance was 340,000. The opening of glass-enclosed court in 2004 was supposed to make the museum Brooklyn's living room, and triple attendance. It didn't do much of anything. The only real trend is a steady modest increase due to "First Saturdays," free admission date nights with a bar and movies. It's doubtful whether many First Saturdays people pay much attention to the art. Subtract the First Saturdays numbers and the total attendance trend is down.
The one encouraging number in the Times piece is for ethnic diversity. In 2009 over 40 percent of visitors identified themselves as people of color. That's presumably higher than it was, though still low, given Brooklyn's population. Another way to encourage diversity, which has mostly eluded the Brooklyn Museum, is to put on serious shows by artists of color. (The notable exception is the Brooklyn-organized Basquiat show in 2005.)
"It's the one thing that frustrates me more than almost anything else," Lehman said of the lagging attendance. "I've always felt, 'Where are all the people who should be here?' It's a good question. Brooklyn — like Los Angeles — has became a center of the creative community. The answer is pretty obvious: They're taking the subway to more serious shows in Manhattan. Hereafter, anyone who wants to defend museum populism as a way of building attendance will need to start by explaining why it failed in Brooklyn.


Donald Frazell said…
But arent the contempt museums failing completely? What are the attendance of MoCA, the New museums and other travesties of psychobabble and overgrown day care centers? Where is the new art worth showing, how do you find anything worth a damn? Not from art schools, that has been proven again and again. Academies are always centers of last years mediocrity, sorta like the French always fighting the last war.

All these new fangled museums, all this huge acreage of wall space, with so little to hang on them. Always the spacing is huge between the precious works to make them appear more important, and still fall flat with inteligent and caring human beings. Only Pavlovian trained art grads drool over the garbage, as they can see their own limited concepts being equal, rightly so. Time to break old habits, time to search teh real world for at, where it alwyas has been and still is. Art is out THERE, as Eric Dolphy showed in his limited career, true artists, who were avoided by the "elite", and lived the lives so many art students dream of, but are so scared to actually do, as commitment, sacrifice, and passion are not in their vocabulary.. Never fgrom inside teh belly of teh besast.

Burtons show is fine, he is a graphic artist, and should be shown. However, Modern and Contemporary art are completely different beasts, SFMoMA expanding is self defeating, no one will attend, anymore than they go to BCAM, or MoCA. Times Court is a great opportunity to bring a sense of life to LACMA, supposedly contrasting styles of architecture leave room for tying them together by a artist. Art is about finding teh communality of all, of revaling that the supposed opposites and antagonisms of life are truly but facets of teh same briliant diamond.

Paint the damn place, and have a free platform for perfromances of all kinds, acoustic only, scheduled by the directorate. And make no mistake, curators are buereaucrats, none more so than them. And so will make mistakes, but if given enough rope, there will be enough slack to not hang themselvs all the time. Which they have proven to be absurdly good at. This is where populism should be, let the "market" decide, those who get applause and build rep, bring back. As long as they fit the descrioption of art, not entertainment. Art being of the highest common denominator, pop and amusements of the lowest. And stop presenting the works of teh effette elite, or we will continue to stay away, in droves. Sports have more relevancy, we are far more inteligent than you could ever surmise, trapped in your limited worlds. They are the highest physical and mental disciplkines of man, performed before us, with great passion, commitment and yes, sacrifice. Having coached many into college ball, and knowing many pros, believe me, you have no idea. Artistes are so fake. And WE see that for what it is, decadence.

Trying presenting what WE need, not what YOu want. And they will come.

Save the watts Towers, tear down the Ivories. ACDE!
Donald Frazell said…
Seeya tomorrow, puny backstabbing artistes be damned. literally.

Chess Park, Judgment Triptych, 7'x17'

seriously, art collegia delenda est
JdP said…
I think it's a bit short sighted to say that the "empirical failures" of so-called populist shows should come down to attendance "metrics". Isn't it this kind of base instrumentalization of culture that we're wishing the politicians (on both sides of the aisle) could see past when they make decisions about funding?
renny said…
(1) Note how many times you used the word "serious" in your blog, which you use in opposition to the kind of exhibitions you are discussing, and by implication, are not "serious." This is a very powerful word that is loaded with implications, but that you fail to define. So it's reduced to a weapon, a cudgel--nobody wants to be on the side of the not serious, so if something is labeled as not serious, it is identified as not worthy, inferior. So you are using a rhetorical device of labeling something and making it sound undesirable, scary and inferior by using an undefined term. This is what the right wing has done with words like "liberal."
So, what is not serious about any of the shows you discuss? Were they poorly organized or displayed? Was the material not a first rate representation of the field? Was the written material poorly researched or written? I don't think so. I think you say that what you don't like is not serious, and what you like is serious.
(2) You are touching on the purpose of museums. Should they be unchanging, static institutions or should they evolve in purpose, function, and form, as living entities do? Books, newspapers, mail services, broadcast television, et al ad inf, have had to adopt to changing technology, but somehow museums should not?
(3) Which of these shows are "serious"? King Tut redux at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and their current Impressionism show?
(4) You open by posing the question of whether exhibitions that you apparently don't think of as worthy should happen. Fortunately you don't have the job of national arts ombudsman deciding what is serious and worthy for the rest of us. The fact is that it is beside the point to ask if they should happen, the reality is that they do happen, and the reason is not the marketplace, as you imply. It is because more and more people find the production of visual and material culture to be, one, amazing, and two, capable of giving us as useful an insight into our culture as high art.
(5) There are two streams of art--the European derived forms that evolve from church and aristocratic tastes of the past 600 years, and the American forms that are vulgar, pop and infused with working class and middle class interests and values. What you are opposed to is the opening of cultural institutions to wider understanding of what is valuable, and whose productions are worthy.
Donald Frazell said…
Uh, no. Modern art is derived from arts from all over the world, and seeking what is essential and lasting, that which creates is own visual language, but more importantly, has something to say. nonverbally of course, literature is the enemy of art. And psychology and word games the entertainment of the effette rich of our day?

art collegia delenda est