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Mega Museum Shows: A Primer of New Ideas

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Paul Richard, wrote recently about the disappointing numbers of visitors attending the Corcoran Gallery of Art's mega-exhibit "Modernism." It's not easy to create (or predict the success of) museum exhibitions that will attract huge numbers and put some money in a museum's coffers, especially at $14 a pop, as the Corcoran's entry fee is. I've heard nothing but good things about the Corcoran's new director (Paul Greenhalgh) and at least he's trying to get the Corcoran back on track and also out of the red.

Museum directors are caught between a rock and a hard place when selecting exhibitions that have a good chance of being popular. In the elitist world of most art critics and the art world cabal, any exhibition that is popular with the masses is immediately suspect of being low brow. The American art world generally does not trust the American public's sense of taste when it comes to visiting an art exhibition. If they line up around the corner, then the exhibit is too popular and thus… ah… "popular."

Nonetheless I have been hard at work with some suggestions almost guaranteed to bring huge masses to the Corcoran, or any other museum in the nation for that matter — lines like the ones we experienced in DC with the Vermeer exhibition, or the Van Gogh exhibition, or the WPA/C PostSecret exhibition, or in Philly with the Dali exhibition.

Frida Kahlo – In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), will present a major exhibition of the artist’s paintings spanning her career. Curated by art historian and Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera and Walker Associate Curator Elizabeth Carpenter, Frida Kahlo will open at the Walker October 27, 2007 – January 20, 2008, before traveling to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and SFMOMA. Why Kahlo is not coming to any DC museum is a mystery to me, and I can already hear the k'ching of cash registers in those museums selling posters, books, etc.

The Art of Comic Books – Hollywood gets it, so when will the art world get it? Comic book characters generate big bucks for La La Land, and I suspect that a massive survey of original artwork by both the vintage artists of the early to mid-20th century, as well as the cult icons like Frank Frazetta, Berni Wrightson and others, coupled with the young new hard guys and gals is sure to a) expose the brilliant genre of art that is comic book art, and b) get huge lines to see the original boards for Superman, or Batman, or Spidey, or Frazetta's spectacular series of Conan, the Barbarian illustrations.

PostSecret – Why someone hasn't done this on a massive scale is beyond me. Imagine a museum lined up with 100,000 postcards of Frank Warren's secrets. If they stood in lines around the block when the WPA/C did it in hard-to-get-to and hard-to-park Georgetown, imagine what it would do in a highly visible museum setting and to that scale.

The Ivy League and Seven Sisters Nude Photographs – It was an apparently long-established and bizarre custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools for incoming freshmen to pose nude for a series of photographs. In some cases, pins were attached with adhesive to their backbones at regular intervals from the neck down. These "posture photos" were in some of these schools a routine feature of freshman orientation week, and designed to "discover" those students with an erratic postural curve, and those were then required to attend remedial "posture classes." I kid thee not. Both George Bush presidents, Bob Woodward and many other now famous folks were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep did it, and at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer also did it. Can you imagine the lines of people waiting to peek at a naked Dubya?

Ansel Adams Revealed – There are some fill-in-the-blank American art icons whose name alone guarantees a mega show because their art has become part of the American identity. In addition to Adams, other such artists include Georgia O'Keefe, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Andy Warhol and maybe Edward Hopper. Because the Library of Congress owns thousands of Ansel Adams negatives created while Adams worked for the Dept. of the Interior, I suspect that a hard-working curator could dig and put together an exhibition of seldom seen Adamses.

Sports Art – People are always yapping about political art (yawn), which is simply another genre or subject that artists look at once in a while. And if we simply consider focusing an art exhibition on a particular subject matter, just to get a general survey as to what artists are doing on that particular subject, then a potential idea would be a survey of sports-related art. What has happened in this genre since the great George Bellows paintings? Some photos have become an iconic part of Americana, such as the great Ali-Liston photos. What else is out there?

Other interesting ideas (not guaranteed to be mega exhibits):

eBay Artists – At any given time there are around 150,000 lots classified as art on eBay and around 12,000 by self-representing artists. eBay is generally where bottom-feeders dwell (for the most part) in the world of art. But we also know that it's not that unusual any more for museum curators to occasionally troll through eBay looking for specific stuff. Can a decent exhibition be curated from the massive numbers of artwork being exposed through eBay? Just an exhibition of copy cats may be fun.

Blank Canvas – Imagine that a local museum sets up 100 4 ft. x 4 ft. blank canvasses on easels and sets up an online and snail mail lottery where artists from all over the world submit their details and at a certain point 100 of them are picked at random via a lottery style (or a curated process, I guess) and selected to come to the museum for a specific period of time and create a painting live and in situ.

Googlart – A variation of the above, but a more contemporary approach, where the museum sets up 25 big LCD screens in a cool minimalist way, and each screen is online and connected to a wireless keyboard somewhere else in the museum, where visitors can type in some sort of search parameter and using some new dorky CGI script or whatever, in conjunction with Google Image Search, be constantly presenting images on the screen, say ten seconds each? Because this is the USA, some sort of safety net to try to avoid porn would be needed, so perhaps a hidden human in the loop to prevent porn from going to the screens may be a good idea. Get Google to sponsor the exhibition, pay for the screens and for the minimal software development and you're set!

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About Lenny Campello

  • On the Modernism at the Corcoran:
    It’s a shame: by this time popular needn’t mean “popular” as far as Modernism is concerned, and it must be disheartening for the director to find they’re making a loss on what, really, they should be presenting to the public. However, let the record show he took the blows! He’s in good company historically.