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boston mfa for sale, reconsidered

Post #209 • February 9, 2004, 7:01 AM • 10 Comments

In the comments of the last post Robert of Las Vegas Arts and Culture provided a link to this article by Greg Crosby, whose opinion is the opposite of the Christopher Knight piece previously cited. Whether Knight or Crosby is ultimately right, you can be sure that you would rather have a drink with Crosby:

In Lenny Bruce's famed routine from the early 1960s, "Las Vegas Tits and Ass," the comedian hilariously satirized a society that claimed sex was dirty while it normalized the objectification of women. "You'd think when you go to Las Vegas, you'd be there to see just the purest -- a Monet exhibit," Bruce joked. "But what's the big attraction in Vegas? Tits and ass. Whaaat's that? Tits and ass, that's what's that. Well, that's just the biggest hotel, gimme the second biggest hotel. More tits and ass."

Irony of ironies, some 40 years later, what's up on the marquee at one of the biggest hotels is a Monet exhibit. Now you can revel in the works of one of the inventors of Impressionism and still get a lap dance from one of the lovelies at Cheetahs, all in one night. We do indeed live in a world of wonders.

Let's say hypothetically that the BMFA is in the sewer, ethically speaking, with this Monet exhibition at the Bellagio. Does it matter? If the good people of Las Vegas (I will not tolerate snide remarks here!) get to see Monets that they might not otherwise see, that is a net positive. How much iniquity, mutual backscratching, and withering reverse snobbery (i.e., BMFA director Malcolm Rogers's characterizing his critics as "priggish") would it take to negate that good? Crosby is clearly grateful:

Meanwhile, Monet's work serenely floats above such considerations of money or propriety, as it should. ... For anyone who hasn't had the benefit of a trip to Boston, this exhibit will come as a delight and revelation.

Something else bothers me: those guidelines from the Association of Art Museum Directors. "In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible finanacial gain." This demands a comparison between intangibles (intellectual merit, educational benefits) and a tangible (financial gain). If this guideline was cynically applied (and some of the Las Vegans feel that it is), I don't see how any loan that results in a meaningful profit could pass this test. I understand that the idea is to favor intangibles over tangibles, which I support. But Knight's comment seems to be that the trifle of a catalogue versus the million dollars going to the BMFA is proof that the educational component is lacking, an apples-to-oranges comparison not unlike the guideline itself. The catalogue may not contribute to worldwide Monet scholarship, but it may be good enough as an introduction. Education has to begin somewhere.

More people seeing Monet is good. Yes, the whole arrangement is greasier than a fry cook's hair, but it's going to take some colossal evil - say, burning down the Bellagio, with the paintings inside, for the insurance money - to negate the good of Monet entering new eyes.

Comment

1.

Tyler Green

February 9, 2004, 5:05 PM

I don't disagree with the gist of your post and the Lenny Bruce quote is a gem. But...

Then send the Monets to an accredited museum, one which has proven to the arts community that it can take care of great works and present them with care. The problem isn't with Monets going to Vegas: it's with Monets being rented out to a for-profit institution because MFAB can score an easy check. Museums are not rental galleries.

2.

Jack

February 9, 2004, 6:37 PM

I agree with Tyler. The artistic education or elevation of the people of Vegas was NOT what motivated the Boston MFA--it was money, pure and simple. There is such a thing as a proper setting and proper circumstances, which could have been achieved, but not as profitably. The move was indisputably crass, and unworthy of anybody in the position of those responsible. The P-word defense, of course, fools absolutely nobody.

3.

Nate Martin

February 9, 2004, 8:35 PM

"For-profit" is a not a dirty word, for crying out loud. The ONLY differences between the financial and material arrangements for this exhibition and those for a traditional museum renovation show are its somewhat more limited scope (Monet only) and the fact that a for-profit institution is involved. In a reno show, the "organizing" museum just puts together a bunch of artwork that is being displaced, writes a quick catalog, and then shops it around to art museums in exchange for SIGNIFICANT participation fees, sometimes even as high as the million dollars the MFA is getting for these Monets. Those participation fees generally come from, big surprise, FOR-PROFIT ENTITIES known as corporate sponsors, but I guess passing the money through the hands of a non-profit museum "purifies" it somehow.

As far as professionalism and "museum standards of care" go, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, whether run by a PaceWildenstein subsidiary or run directly by the hotel, as it was in the past, DOES have a history of displaying and protecting artwork of the highest possible quality: Steve Wynn's old collection. The MFA would never have let the works travel if they didn't think the Gallery's security and climate control provisions were adequate.

I find the rumbling outrage on this issue to be utterly incomprehensible, frankly. When one of the critics can come up with ONE SINGLE NEGATIVE impact of this arrangement, other than wifty BS about "compromising the intellectual standards of the institution" then maybe you'll have a chance of convincing me. To put things into a little perspective here, would you be outraged if a small local gallery arranged for an exhibition to be hung in the lobby of a corporate building in their community, and received a donation from that corporation "in exchange"? For consistency's sake, I hope so ...

(Full Disclosure: As someone who has worked in museum fundraising, my opinions on this issue are admittedly colored by my own memories of how outlandishly difficult it is to come up with a multi-million dollar budget year after year after year. Sometimes you have to hustle for dollars, and if you can do it without endangering your art or compromising your exhibition schedule, I say find whatever creative funding mechanism you can.)

4.

Hovig

February 9, 2004, 10:40 PM

Nate - I think you nailed it, amigo.

I wonder where people think such works should be displayed. Perhaps the Liberace Museum, the Guinness Museum of World Records, or the Las Vegas City Museum and Rough Riders Collection are the better venues. Or perhaps Las Vegas isn't worthy of fine art. Maybe one needs to see art in more civilized places like LA.

Failing these institutions, I wonder whether anyone commenting here would have complimented this exhibit had it occured in the only truly institutional museum in Las Vegas, that one with the motorcycle exhibits and the expansionist curator everyone loves to hate. Or whether people would have spun it as another conspiratorial exercise in curatorial hegemony (or something).

But I'd really love to see Christopher Knight defend the Guggenheim's "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit with the four criteria he cited in his LA Times commentary, since it was he who wrote the following:

A spectacular phantasmagoria of stainless steel plates, translucent glass, steel mesh and strobe lights, it encapsulates all you need to know about a motorcycle's modern meaning. Gehry uses his machine materials to fracture, reflect and diffuse light, creating sexy, highly organic, frankly theatrical forms, from billowing clouds and monumental floral blossoms to great curtain swags. Glamour and erotic thrill summarize the motorcycle aesthetic.

Judging from his enthusiasm, I assume it meets Mr Knight's elite institutional standard of "intellectual merits and educational benefits." I merely find it difficult to believe someone could accept the benefit of a motorcycle show at the Guggenheim, but not a Monet exhibit at the Bellagio.

I'm sure these are nothing but subjective criteria in the first place (what about art is objective, after all?), more to foster effort than score success. Mr Knight's foul-tempered hypocrisy does not move me. I'm only sorry the LA Times chose to dignify his hateful prejudices with their publication.

And Franklin, Mr Knight anticipates your opinion that education must begin somewhere, saying, "I've got some swampland on Boston's Fenway you might also be interested in buying." Perhaps he's forgotten that the MFA sits on swampland filled during the nineteenth century, as do the wealthy Back Bay and Copley Square areas (not to mention my alma mater, across the street from the MFA).

Perhaps Mr Knight loathes the rich and powerful, and perhaps he's jealous of Mr Wynn in particular, but he could at least be honest about his prejudices and consistent in his opinions.

5.

Franklin

February 10, 2004, 1:05 AM

I should have written "greasier than a pole on the stage at Cheetah's." What a missed opportunity!

6.

Jack

February 10, 2004, 5:08 AM

I still think Monet does not belong in a flashy hotel in Vegas, however good its security and climate control. A museum is not analogous to a commercial gallery, for obvious reasons, even if they both exhibit art. Different standards apply. In all fairness, however, the museum-based blockbuster syndrome is not much more defensible than a move like this one. In both cases, money is put first and foremost, to the detriment of displaying art under optimal conditions.

If that sounds elitist, so be it. I can think of far worse things to be when it comes to art.

7.

Robert

February 11, 2004, 1:21 AM

I know the following will prove that Vegas is no place for art of high value or merit, but...

When Tyler says, "...send the Monets to an accredited museum..." I have to reply that there is no accredited museums in Las Vegas. A for-profit gallery in the midst of a casino and a stand-alone non-profit museum are two completely different things, something we all can agree upon. And until/if the Las Vegas Art Museum (not the Las Vegas City Museum and Rough Riders Collection which is in Las Vegas, New Mexico) can get its act together, residents of Vegas will be dependent on the likes of the Bellagio or Steve Wynn to provide us with glimpses of art that we would not have the option of seeing.

Don't doubt we aren't aware or care about the moral and ethical issues that come about because of such dealings. Its infinitely disappointing to know we may never have the world class arts institutions that you all seem to take for granted. But just because we don't have them in place, doesn't mean we can't enjoy the art that comes our way, even if its tainted with the usual Vegas deal-making.

8.

Robert

February 11, 2004, 1:21 AM

I know the following will prove that Vegas is no place for art of high value or merit, but...

When Tyler says, "...send the Monets to an accredited museum..." I have to reply that there is no accredited museums in Las Vegas. A for-profit gallery in the midst of a casino and a stand-alone non-profit museum are two completely different things, something we all can agree upon. And until/if the Las Vegas Art Museum (not the Las Vegas City Museum and Rough Riders Collection which is in Las Vegas, New Mexico) can get its act together, residents of Vegas will be dependent on the likes of the Bellagio or Steve Wynn to provide us with glimpses of art that we would not have the option of seeing.

Don't doubt we aren't aware or care about the moral and ethical issues that come about because of such dealings. Its infinitely disappointing to know we may never have the world class arts institutions that you all seem to take for granted. But just because we don't have them in place, doesn't mean we can't enjoy the art that comes our way, even if its tainted with the usual Vegas deal-making.

9.

Hovig

February 12, 2004, 1:35 AM

Robert - Thanks for the correction! Ha! I'm laughing my eyes out over here! And please accept my apologies for my moronic tourist mistake, too. :-)

10.

Troy Swain

February 13, 2004, 7:00 AM

Jack, honestly, think of the people who have owned Monet paintings since he started painting them. Remember that when he first started painting his paintings were considered degenerate and radical. They were not fit for polite company. Remember, the Salon des Refuse was considered immoral and obscene, and the newspapers told the public that the paintings were not fit for women or children.

The impressionists, back then, where made for the denizens of Montmartre! The impressionists would sell to anyone and loved gambling. I bet they would have loved Las Vegas. They loved gaudy lights and seedy underworlds.

My point is that they are not the paragons of truth and beauty that contemporary audiences make them out to be. They are paintings and if their safety is guaranteed, I don't see why it's a big deal to have them in Vegas, which seems to me is a more appropriate place for them then Boston.

Prurience and hatred of capitalism are not two things that sit well with the impressionists.

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