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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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

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