What Tim Burton and Alexander McQueen Taught Me about Running a Museum

The dress that made me an Alexander McQueen fan for life. There's no doubt he's an artist

When I was an intern at MoMA, the museum launched a mid-career retrospective of the filmmaker Tim Burton. It was met with skepticism. Burton’s iconic status as a mainstream blockbuster-maker, with a cult following, had critics and fine-arts-lovers questioning MoMA’s integrity. It was an exhibition that displayed process, the evolution of process, and a mental stream of consciousness. But are doodles by a director art? Is Burton a mega-museum worthy artist?

When I considered the exhibition at the time, I decided “Tim Burton” was brilliant. From a museum-marketing, public relations point of view, I still believe “Tim Burton” was brilliant.

After witnessing the line-ups and the crowds, and after mingling with the audiences, I saw the value in a marquee art venue like MoMA hosting a mass-appeal exhibition. New audiences entered the museum, memberships increased, and because the exhibition had timed entry tickets, museum-visitors had time to kill by viewing the other galleries. The meatier, more academic, more stunning show “Bauhaus” was on at the same time. I don’t doubt that the increase in the number of under-20-somethings strolling the gallery had a lot to do with Tim Burton.

2+ years later, people are still talking about it. 2 years later, the number one search term that drives people to my blog is “Tim Burton at MoMA.” It was an exhibition that had staying power in the public’s mind.

Then came “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition with the same mass-consumer appeal.

Burton and McQueen are household names in a way Frans Hal and Lyonnel Feininger will never be.

I began following McQueen’s career when he catapulted into the fashion headlines in 1990s. He revived avant-garde haute couture and breathed a much-needed breathe of the rebellious artist into a humdrum fashion world. So, of course, when the exhibit opened in May, I promised myself I’d go.

people were lined up to get into the musem for blocks! records must have been set

“Savage Beauty” closed yesterday, and all  I saw of it was a line of waiting people stretching south along 5th Avenue and fading into Central Park. I can’t, therefore, comment on the show itself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on “Savage Beauty.”

Drawing on global culture as much as on his native Scotland, McQueen’s career echoes those of artists like Matisse and Picasso who took the history of their medium and infused the traditional with a sense of the exotic, the other-worldly. For anyone that has ever seen a McQueen show or seen his clothes in a Vogue spread, there is no doubt that McQueen is an artist. The Costume Institute is an integral part of the Met’s collection and exhibition schedule. Fashion as art and the art of fashion is, essentially, part of the museum’s DNA.

A retrospective at the Met on McQueen was not only natural, but inevitable.

always the showman, his work was as carnal and disquieting as it was beautiful

But what about the management of the exhibition? My understanding is that there were no timed tickets for “savage Beauty” — if you wanted to see it, you had to wait your turn. Standing in line for 2-5 hours — did that permit visitors an opportunity to tour the museum? I’d be interested to see gallery counts. Thousands lined-up, thousands saw McQueen. Did thousands see “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask?”

Membership increased, but then the Met stopped granting early morning member-exclusive previews. Considering that the Met’s ticket price is technically voluntary, the only benefit to becoming a member is the privileged viewing. I bet there were some very angry new members. Were refunds requested? Were they granted?

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a line thousands deep waiting to get into a museum of fine art. On the other, you can’t help but wonder, if that’s the only exhibit they get to see, will they be back?

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Why Blogging Matters

Nearly 6 months ago, I wrote about my beloved dog Jessie, about how she chose to be part of my family and how eventually we had to choose to let her leave this life. Last night, a man named Greg found that now long-ago post. “I’m scanning and commenting on posts made by fellow dog lovers because it must be therapeutic in some way,” he wrote.  He recently lost his 6-year old Irish Terrier and was “reaching out to others who understand.”

Greg’s comment got me thinking. Isn’t that what blogging is really all about — reaching out to others who understand? I went back and looked in my leather-bound journal. I never wrote about Jessie there. I guess when she passed, I needed to share my loss with something less solitary than a diary.

Why do we blog? Because sometimes we need to share something personal with something less solitary than a journal.

A year ago, a young man I knew died by suicide. As a way to both cope with her grief and to provide a support network for others touched by suicide, his mother launched a blog called “Forever Invictus.” One day, she posted a proposal to hold a suicide prevention/wellness  fair in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Readers from around the country rallied together to help her realize this vision. On September 17, 2010, the first “Get Your Wellness On!” event welcomed over 1,000 participants and saved a life. The event was organized and executed by a group of people who met for the first time the morning of the fair, but had already known each other only through Esmeralda’s blog.

Tim is an Olympic Silver Medalist in fencing. He has a blog too. So does Maria, a literature teacher in Italy. They don’t talk about death. Tim talks about fencing, about traveling around the world as he prepares for London 2012, about chilling with Apolo Anton Ohno. Tim’s blog has become an online venue where the American fencing community, a diverse and dispersed group of people who share a sport, can congregate and get caught up on the latest news or pick up some training tips. Maria’s blog “Fly High” is an online book & movie club for Jane Austen and Richard Armitage fans around the world. We hang out on Fly High and gush about our love for 19th century British literature and its 21st century screen adaptations.

When I started blogging, I was really only in it for myself. I wanted to write about me. I wanted people to read my writing. I wanted someone to love my writing enough to offer me a book deal. My alter-ego blog, “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband,” has been more successful in this endeavor. It’s where I write about the way we love and are expected to love now. Thousands of WordPress readers responded to my post “You Borrowed My Dylan CD and Stole My Heart, I’d Like them Back Now Please” — a little piece about reclaiming the intangibles when a relationship ends. It seems every past relationship leaves a trail of damaged songs in its wake.

Reading Greg’s comment put Esmeralda’s and Tim’s blogs and the outpouring of response to “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband” in perspective. Turns out, when I write about myself, I’m writing about you, and him, and her too. While blogs may be the vanguard of political analysis or the source for the latest entertainment news, at the end of the day, blogging is about community — at the end of the day, we want to read about things we can relate to. Bloggers and their posts remind us all that, no matter how unique each of our lives are, living is a common experience. In this digital community of words and comments, there’s always someone we can reach out to who understands.

Why I’m Not Going to Read Julie & Julia and Why you shouldn’t NetFlix the Movie

Don’t hate me — I’m not a bad person. But, the truth is, Julie & Julia is a bad movie.

First of all, Amy Adams is not captivating or compelling enough to play opposite someone with the presence of Meryl Streep. Yes, I know Adams was nominated for an Oscar when she played opposite Streep’s power-hungry Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt, but in Doubt, Adams was a supporting character whose childish innocence is a foil to the sinister fanatical Streep. In Julie & Julia, her character is an equal. But Oscar nominee or not, Adams is not Streep’s equal.

Second, Julie Powell as she is portrayed is not a captivating character. In theory, her story is great — a failed author works for the city helping mop-up the emotional mess of 9-11, in frustration turns to blogging to find renewed sense of purpose. Yet that story fails to be interesting on screen. Most uninteresting is the fact Julie can cook. Everything she cooks, even before she begins the Julie/Julia project is “amazing.” Lame. I wanted her to actually learn how to cook while working her way through Julia Childs’ “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I wanted stuff to burn, fall on the floor — in short I wanted Julie to be more like Julia… a little imperfect.

Next, there’s the sex problem. I really didn’t expect to see, or want to see for that matter, Stanley Tucci make out with Meryl Streep or Chris Messina make out with Amy Adams in a movie about mastering the art of french cooking. While “French,” “lover,” and “food” are all terms that meld beautifully with one another in most circumstances, they fail here.

There is hope for redemption in Meryl Streep’s masterful portrayal of the American icon, Julia Childs. Streep’s voice and mannerisms morph uncannily into Childs’. You forget it’s Meryl Streep on screen. The problem is the Julie segments distract horribly from Streep’s Oscar-caliber performance. While Streep deserves the recognition, the movie is so weak on a whole that I feel it’s a crime to give the project any sort of trophy. it’s a shame — Julia Childs’ life is worthy of a film and Meryl Streep was born to play her… but Julie & Julia is the wrong bio-pic.

What a missed opportunity.

The Personal Archive

There are only 6 pages left in my journal. There used to be about 300 smooth, creamy, unlined pages in that leather-bound notebook given to me by good friend and classmate on the day of our college graduation. As I’m nearing the end of this collection of stories, I’ve begun to read over my thoughts on the events, travels, worries, stunted romances, people, achievements and losses that mark my life since September 2007. But in recollecting all that has happened since my senior year of college, I realized the process of piecing together my life is less simple than reading one journal. There’s another leather-bound notebook to be perused, a few word documents that acted as a diary while I was in the library working on papers, a series of digital photo albums, and blogs.

For most of the academic projects I undertake, personal and family papers are the core of my research. Thinking back on my work on Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), I spent hours rummaging through her tremendous archive of hand written notebooks and letters – correspondences scribbled on small bits of paper, filled to the corners with words so as not to be wasteful, years and years of personal finances diligently kept in ledgers, photographs and sketchbooks. Her published writings and her manuscripts — all there for me to handle and read. But the personal archive is changing. Should my personal papers one day end up in MoMA’s library, handwritten notebooks and printed photographs will be in the minority.

Today, while there are still journals to be filled with ink (and fill them I will), there are word documents, facebook albums, blogs and flickr. The personal archive is no longer purely a paper trail.

I wonder — does this means our archives have become more personal (think of how much more we can record thanks to technology)? There’s something about a handwritten page and a carefully selected photo that speaks more about an individual than a typed or airbrushed digital document. But then again, thanks to digital, we get to archive more of our life…

I pity the poor grad student who writes her dissertation about me.

The Unwashed Phenomenon Decks the Halls

I couldn’t believe it either. Bob Dylan has released a Christmas album. 

The definitive voice of America’s counter-culture, the definitive voice of the anti-establishment had gone the way of the shimmering smooth pop-prince and recorded a Christmas record. Could you imagine anything more of a stretch? And Dylan is no crooner a la Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble. Would the croaking drawl that elongated syllables and fell in unexpected cadences butcher such loved carols as “Little Drummer Boy?

Skeptics, take note: there is no singer in this day and age more suited to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” than Bob Dylan.

“Christmas in the Heart” is easily one of the best holiday albums recorded in the last decade by a popular artist. Dylan is as much a historian of traditional American folk songs as he is a creator of them. His early years were spent chasing Woody Guthrie, Odetta and John Jacob Niles — learning their songs and attempting to capture the visceral, genuine qualities of their voices. He is an archivist of sorts and deeply rooted in music’s past. Christmas carols are folk songs — songs that tell a story, that are revived year after year and passed from one generation to another. Who better to sing them than the King of Folk?

One of the great successes of “Christmas in the Heart” is that it’s a paired down, no-frills album. The only embellishments to the 15 well-known tracks are a few sleigh bells and backup singers that could easily be the company in “Holiday Inn.” The fact that Dylan’s Christmas album sounds more 1942 than 2009 only makes it more believable as a holiday album. Let’s face it — the American vision of Christmas has been shaped by Irving Berlin, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and Jimmy Stewart. That said, a good Christmas album should evoke the age of Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Personally, I can think of anything worse than an over-popped, poorly “updated” carol. Actually, when it comes to Christmas songs, there’s a lot of things that are pretty terrible… [click here]

Dylan has compared his musical journey to an Odyssey… “I had set out to find this home I’d left a while back,” he said in an interview for the documentary No Direction Home. “I couldn’t remember where exactly it was, but I was on my way there. I was born very far from where I was supposed to be, so I’m on my way home.” It seems appropriate then that my favorite track off “Christmas in the Heart” is “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Everything about it is just sooo Bob Dylan.

Tim Burton bombards MoMA

Untitled (cartoon series), c. 1980-1986. (Cupid's true colors)

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality,” iconic director Tim Burton once said. And if you happen to find yourself in MoMA’s fall/winter exhibit “Tim Burton,” you’ll discover Burton’s reality is pretty crazy.

 

“Tim Burton” is a ground-breaking and staggering exhibit. Ground-breaking because it’s the first time a major fine arts museum is exhibiting Burton’s non-cinematic work — the first time a Hollywood A-list director is being elevated to the status of fine artist. Staggering because there are so many doodles and drawings to peruse. There are hundreds of parts and their sum is a weighty and intimate look into the relentless imagination of one our generation’s best-loved filmmakers.

NYTimes critic Ken Johnson clearly doesn’t believe a museum like MoMA should be using gallery space on an artist like Tim Burton… because Burton isn’t a graphic artist, he’s a filmmaker. Leave him in the theaters, is essentially Johnson’s message. “To be a popular Hollywood moviemaker and to be an interesting fine artist in today’s terms are very different propositions” he writes, “and it’s no knock on Mr. Burton that he’s not great at both. Nobody is that good.” Johnson had some excellent points in his review — indeed, the exhibition could have done with about a hundred fewer drawings (I believe there are upwards of 400 hundred) — but to call it a “letdown” means he had the wrong expectations.

The majority of the works are cultivated from Burton’s personal sketchbooks and private collection. The reality is, these hundreds of drawings, doodles and cartoons were never meant for public display. With this in mind, they are not so much works of fine art as they are a visualized stream of consciousness.

If you’ve ever seen a Burton film — which unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen at least 3 — then you’re already familiar with his gothic and distorted figures. Proportions are stretched and shrunk, edges are sharp and humour is black.

It’s hard in this economic climate not to look at an exhibit like “Tim Burton” without questioning MoMA’s integrity. Museums have cut their operating budgets, endowments and donations are down. But before “Tim Burton” even opened, MoMA had sold out of its first printing of the exhibition’s catalog. Lines have already been forming round the block of people waiting to pay the $20 admissions fee to the museum. It’s the jackpot exhibit every museum hopes for.

But regardless about how you feel about MoMA and Burton and fine art, “Tim Burton” is a special. Sure we can go over the exhibit’s shortcomings. But I think that’s just silly. MoMA should be praised for having the balls to weather the naysayers that thought mounting such an exhibit was contrary to its mission. And let’s be honest, the greatest measure of the success of an exhibit is its popularity. The number of people flocking to the 3rd floor are testament enough — “Tim Burton” is brilliant.

Edward Scissorhands, representative of Burton's prevalent theme of lost childhood and dysfunctional human relationships

I think Bravo won when it Lost Project Runway

Season 6 of “Project Runway” was a waste of 14 Thursday nights.

The season finale Bryant Park show was a lackluster display of recycled looks, average street wear, and overworked gowns. Fashion forward? Not so much.

Did anyone notice the striking resemblance between Irina’s collection and that of season 4 winner, Christian Siriano? The all-black garments, the felt hats, the dramatic shoulders, the stilettos. We’d seen it all 2 seasons ago… but Christian was a showman. I still remember those stunning bolero jackets and high-neck blouses. His collection was like a series of Rembrandt portraits — dark and powerful, modern and immortal. Irina’s collection, while cohesive and certainly well-constructed, was not particularly memorable. It was perhaps the most tired of the three lines.

Althea just looked at what’s already going on in fashion — layers, boyfriend blazers, harem pants, 80s-shoulders, and cinch-waist belts — and made her own. It reeked of a high schooler on a limited budget who embarked on a DYI fashion project. Indeed, there were several individual pieces that would become staples in any woman’s wardrobe — a cardigan or pair of pants. But did it shake up your fashion world? Did it inspire you to redo your wardrobe? No. It was a snooozefest… albeit, one that would sell well in Macy’s.

Carol-Hannah had the most compelling, though most disjointed, collection of the three. Her first dress, a short, flowing champagne-colored cocktail number, was structured and draped in a way that echoed the lancet arches of Gothic cathedrals. It was a show-stopper. As was her “13th look” — a teal, floor-length gown that simultaneously screamed Grecian goddess and silver screen siren. But there were several metallic looks in the middle that looked like bad maternity wear, even with all the stunning embellishments. Also, her signature look (a gold, fish-tale gown) was remarkably similar to Rami’s (of season 4) signature look.

Throughout the season, Irina was the judge’s favorite. She won more challenges than the other designers and rarely received negative feedback. But she has a thing for fake fur, which to me means she has a taste problem. Fake fur always looks cheap. She also likes her dresses hip-hugging and skin-tight… which to me also indicates a taste problem.

Challenge after challenge, I questioned the judges’ decisions. Michael Kors was MIA for most of the season, and I feel as a result, some looks won and some looks were overlooked that shouldn’t have. Frankly, there was nothing particularly memorable about most of the winning looks… except maybe Chris’ first winning dress that was a cascade of ruffles that stopped just above the knee. I wish they had kept him for Bryant Park… at least he would have put on a show with 12 voluminous, over inflated gowns. Anything would have been better than all that black and beige.

And can I just say, what happened to all the sleeves on all the knitwear in that final runway show? Did they stretch out on the hangers and the models, or did Althea and Irina mean for the cuffs to hit the knees? I’m all for an oversize sweater, but at some point oversize looks ridiculous.

Considering Season 5’s dullsville finale (does anyone remember who won?), I was expecting Season 6 to be a knockout on par with seasons 1-4 (I wanted every one of those winners in my wardrobe). But after two lame seasons in a row, I have to say… I’m sorry, Project Runway, you’re out. Auf wiedersehen.

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