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?


Don’t Touch the Money Bunny!: Artwork of the Week Makes a Comeback

"Jeff Koons is a big Blow Hard," Ray Beldner. Sewn US currency (after Jeff Koons's Rabbit, 1986)

If my gallerinas and I said it once, we said it 100 times a day — “Please don’t touch the money bunny!” There’s no denying that there’s something cuddly about Ray Beldner’s rabbit made out of sewn dollar bills. Maybe it’s the tilted head and the carrot that screams “pat the bunny!” And then you read the wall label and take note of the title, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, and suddenly it’s not so cuddly.

Commentary on the nature of the art market and the subsequent commoditization of art and artist, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard attacks the blue-chip popular artist Jeff Koons while asking the question: what makes a work of art valuable — the artist, the medium, the subject, or the market?

The soft sculpture effectively renders the dollar bills useless as currency. The bills are no longer tradeable on the market they were designed for. They enter a new market with a new value — as art. Each bill is meaningless. Their value exists only stitched together as an entire work of art. Their value becomes what a collector will pay for them as a unit entitled Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, by Ray Beldner.

Meanwhile the piece asks a number of other questions:

Is Jeff Koons a sell-out — sculpting lite subjects that people want to buy — or a veritable “Pop-Artist” whose work actually comments on the nature of the art collecting as its being collected?

And then again, what about Ray Beldner? Where does he fit in? Is he capitalizing on another artist’s reputation? Is his copy of a popular sculpture a work of art, a statement, or simply a pile of mutilated, worthless dollar-bills?

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (Aug. 1)

We decided to set aside our first day in St. John’s for exploring the city itself. The clouds Environment Canada had predicted hung over the Narrows, threatening Signal Hill. We hurried to get dressed, hoping to hit the center of town before the weather turned against us. But before we could tie our shoelaces, the fog rolled in, bringing with it a persistent mist that kept the day cool and my camera cloudy.

Though it wasn’t the best day for walking around, we still made the most of it, beginning with a visit to The Rooms. Part archive, part history museum, part art gallery, The Rooms overlook the city and offer tourists and residents alike a view into St. John’s cultural past, present, and future. Currently on exhibit is a stunning show of Ed Burtynsky’s photos of the oil industry…

a view onto The Rooms

the view from The Rooms

The next essential destination was Signal Hill, a National Historic Site and important military outpost in the 18th century (not the band). The fog was thick, but it added a certain mysterious romanticism to the sweeping view of the harbour and Atlantic…

fog over Cabot Tower on Signal Hill

a couple stops to take in the view of the Narrows

To some, it might have been a crummy day for Signal Hill, but to my family and one particular bride, it was still pretty awesome...

Artwork of the Week April 26, 2010: Russian Tea

Irving R. Wiles

Russian Tea

about 1896, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.,

In this interior scene, three elegantly-clad women and a young girl await the piping-hot cup of tea being prepared in an imported Russian samovar. Wiles’ painting exhibits exactly what we’d expect from a portrait of Gilded Age America — an opulent decor with equally opulent sitters and leisure activities combined with a new brand of internationally-minded consumerism.

Perhaps more interesting than the extravagant subjects and the imported ritual, is the artist’s study of light. In an age of plein aire and Impressionistic landscapes, canvases depicting domestic interiors always feel unusual — where did all the sunlight go? But Wiles’ painting, though not the expected Impressionist garden scene, is Impressionist indeed, but not just in its painterly style. At the heart of this work is a study of light. Here, Wiles examines how candle light, rather than natural light, illuminates a space. The warm but limited light from the lamps cast a soft glow on the porcelain-like skin of our feminine subjects while the cinched form and pink colouring of the shades seem to mimic the corseted bodies. The candle lamps are intrusive, their shades dominate the composition and obscure the figures so that we can’t ignore their role in setting the scene.

Redrawing Lilith: Canadian Painter Jon Tobin’s New Vision of the First Woman

She was the first that thence was driven; With her was hell with Eve was heaven

– “Eden’s Bower,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

Lilith – Adam’s First wife, a temptress, a demon, the architect of Man’s fall from Eden. As the embodiment of “the perilous principle in the world being female from the first,”* she has captivated writers and artists since the dawn of civilization. Her image has become standardized, traditionally cast as a woman of supreme beauty, an un-aging seductress ominously entangled with the Serpent and the Tree. Yet Canadian painter Jon Tobin has envisioned a new Lilith – a psychological being and a woman of raw, primal emotion, journeying through darkness, as much tormented by her inner demons as humanity is by her deception.

Tobin’s Lilith is introspective. As she ages, she becomes increasingly aware of her true self. The blindfold present in each image in the series represents self-contemplation as well as her blindness to the havoc she wreaks. She is also carnal and raw – a “woman in exile who has returned to her body/ as one would return from a country on the other side of the Sun.”**

“The Lilith Series,” an ongoing study of the character, visualizes the artist’s personal interpretation of the Lilith Myth in the style that is signature Jon Tobin. The artist is known for his ethereal canvases that pulsate with internal energy, and Lilith emerges out of Tobin’s autographic palate of subdued hues, masterfully manipulated to create startling contrasts and tactile depth in darkness. The palate ultimately harmonizes to create a ghostly figure of Lilith that is mysterious, captivating, and haunting.

Tobin studied Fine Art and French-Canadian Literature at University of Waterloo. Besides serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Regional Arts Council, Tobin teaches aspiring artists and lectures on the techniques of “tactile media.” His paintings have been widely exhibited at galleries in Toronto, Montreal, and his hometown of Kitchener and collectors have been quick to recognize the sublime yet subtle beauty of Tobin’s artistic vision.

*Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of 21 April, 1870.

** “femme en exil revenant dans son corps/ comme on revient de loin/ de l’autre pays/ du soleil” from Michel Camus’ “Hymne a Lilith: La femme double.”

Artwork of the Week for February 1, 2010

February launches us into a new artwork of the week theme — “Sacred and Profane Love” — a theme inspired in part by the month’s adoration of a divinity with a quiver, and in part by a painting of the same title. And so, let us begin February in Venice and with a discussion of the painting in question, a work that renders “the double motion of the soul, its simultaneous attraction to the earthly and the heavenly.”


Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

oil on canvas, Museo Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

A viewer stands before Titian’s 1515 painting Sacred and Profane Love and is instantly placed at the crossroads. On his right stands one woman, a statuesque nude with marble-like skin and tendrils of hair brushing her collar bone. On his left is the nude’s voluminously clothed twin. The nature of the choice before our viewer is clear: on one side stands the chaste, the virtuous; on the other stands the corporal, the profane. But which is which? On closer inspection the surrounding details blurs the line between virtue and vice, and the viewer realizes the choice is more difficult than it initially appeared.

The figure we immediately associate with chastity is the woman on the viewer’s left. With her weighty white dress and gloved hands, and with the glaring white citadel in the deep background, she seems the model of feminine modesty. However, a collection of other elements hint at something else. Her exposed décolletage, the flowers she holds near her hip, and a pair of rabbits (nature’s famous reproducers) behind her help our viewer identify her as a bride. As a woman for whom a pending marriage promises love of a physical nature, she comes to embody the figure of “Profane” Love, for as Ingrid D. Rowland writes in From Heaven to Arcadia, “the bride represents love as it occurs in the life of the real world.” The woman on our viewer’s right must then be the personification of “Sacred” Love. Despite her open nudity, a virginal-white drape across her lap maintains her modesty as does her averted gaze. She holds a lamp, a symbol of charity, high above her billowing scarlet robe. Along with the ominous background, a lakeside village over which the sun has already set, her attributes infuse her presence with a divine power.

Titian aligns the two figures through multiple compositional details. Besides rendering the two women as identical in facial features, he paints them seated on the same surface – a Roman marble sarcophagus converted into a fountain. By placing them on the same pictorial plane, he portrays them as equals. Additionally, Titian conflates traditional attributes of personified Virtue and Vice to blur the distinction between the dual figures. The temptation is to see these women as polar opposites, but what Titian reveals through the painting’s structure and selection of detail is that they are, in fact, interrelated, inseparable, figures – the Sacred and the Profane are in fact “born from the same seed.”

Artwork of the Week for January 25, 2010

Erica Lord

Artifact Piece, Revisited

Performed April 3-5, 2008, at the George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY

The original Artifact Piece was performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man. The work had been called “groundbreaking,” “elegant,” “powerful,” and “harsh,” and its artist, James Luna, had been called “the most dangerous Indian alive.”

Like its model, Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece Revisited attempts to recall a suppressed memory of Native-as-Spectacle in American institutions of display. Yet Revisited is more than a reiteration of Luna’s initial critique of museums as architects of Native identity. In personalizing Luna’s work, Lord calls into question ideal femininity as well as accepted notions of “Nativeness.” Furthermore, with the introduction of text referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act she confronts the ethics of museum collecting practices and brings to light a part of institutional history that curators and trustees would prefer to keep in the shadows.

Positioned at either end of her sandy display case bed are two poster-size panels densely packed with typeset text and maps. Near her head stands one panel comprised of text that summarizes and historicizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). For decades, Natives waged a war with the US Government demanding the recognition of their right to possess their cultural property. NAGPRA was the result of their dogged persistence. The law did not exist in 1987 when Luna donned his loincloth; it only came into being in 1990 and did not see real implementation for several years. Lord’s inclusion of the law is one of her many innovations that allows Artifact Piece to remain current and relevant. Yet the NAGPRA Panel not only updates Artifact Piece to reflect changes in US Policy towards Native rights and museum collections. It also questions the notion of the museum as steward of Native culture, and even steward of Native remains.

In replacing Luna’s masculine body with Erica Lord’s feminine figure, Revisited ups the anti. The history of women as objects of the male gaze automatically enters the work with this change of body. But there is an additional history of Native American women as fetishized objects of male desire that Lord invokes in her performance. The market for images of Native Americans created a secondary market for “prairie pinups” – photographs of nude Indian women “in the familiar poses of a Playboy centerfold.”

Staged within the walls of an institution that hopes to offer an alternative American history, Artifact Piece Revisited is a work that forcibly shakes its audience out of a socially-induced amnesia while proposing the possibility of an alternative contemporary Native American. It does not allow us to remain satisfied with NAGPRA, a few repatriations, and the creation of the NMAI. It keeps the Native demand for recognition as a sovereign, vital, and active community on the table. It forces us to take note and ask, where should we go from here?


For anyone interested in a lengthier discussion of Luna’s original “artifact piece,” Lord’s re-envisioning, or Lord’s work more broadly, shoot me an email and I’ll shoot you a 20-page paper or 2.

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