Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

February 9, 2015
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An excerpt from In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

by Matti Bunzl

***

“JEFF KOONS <3 CHICAGO”

I’m sitting in the conference room on the fifth floor of the MCA, the administrative nerve center which is off limits to the public. It is late January and the temperatures have just plunged to near zero. But the museum staff is bustling with activity. With four months to go until the opening of the big Jeff Koons show, all hands are on deck. And there is a little bit of panic. Deadlines for the exhibit layout and catalogue are looming, and the artist has been hard to pin down. Everyone at the MCA knows why. Koons, who commands a studio that makes Warhol’s Factory look like a little workshop, is in colossal demand. For the MCA, the show has top priority. But for Koons, it is just one among many. In 2008 alone, he will have major exhibits in Berlin, New York, and Paris. The presentation at the Neue Nationalgalerie is pretty straightforward. Less so New York, where Koons is scheduled to take over the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the city’s premiere art destinations. But it may well be the French outing that most preoccupies the artist. With an invitation to present his work at Versailles, the stakes could not be higher. Indeed, when the show opens in the fall, the photos of Koons’s work at the Rococo palace, shockingly incongruous yet oddly at home, go around the world.

But on this morning, there is good news to share. As the marketing department reports, Koons has approved the publicity strategy for the MCA show. Most everyone in the group of curators, museum educators, and development staffers breathes a sigh of relief, not unlike the response of Don Draper’s team after a successful pitch. Mad Men, which made its widely hailed debut only a few months earlier, is on my mind, in fact. Sure, there is no smoking and drinking at the MCA. But the challenge faced by the museum is a lot like that of the fictional Sterling Cooper: how to take a product and fit it with an indelible essence, a singularity of feeling. Jeff Koons is hardly as generic as floor cleaner or facial cream. But given his ubiquity across the global art scene, the MCA presentation still needs a hook, something that can give it the luster of uniqueness.

Koons has history in Chicago, and that turns out to be the key. Yes, he may have been born and raised in Pennsylvania, graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and settled in New York, where, after working as a commodities trader, he became a professional artist. But in between, for one year in the mid‑1970s, Koons lived and studied in Chicago, taking courses at the School of the Art Institute and serving as an assistant to painter Ed Paschke. Enough to imagine the MCA show as a homecoming, and the second one at that. The first, it now appears, was the 1988 exhibit, which had paved his way to superstardom and cemented an enduring relationship between artist and city. No one in the room can be certain how Koons actually feels about his old stomping grounds. But the slogan stands: Jeff Koons Chicago.

 ***

It’s a few weeks later. The group is back on the fifth floor. The mood is determined. On the agenda for today is the ad campaign. It will be a “communications blitz,” one of the staffers on the marketing team says. It will start with postcards sent to museum members urging them to save the date of the opening. “We need to communicate that it will be a real happening!”

“Koons is like a rock star,” someone seconds, “and we need to treat him like that.” Apparently, Justin Timberlake stopped by the MCA a few weeks ago, causing pandemonium among the school groups that happened to be touring the museum at the time. “Koons is just like that!” one of the marketers enthuses. “No, he’s not,” I’m thinking to myself. But for what seems like an endless few seconds, no one has the heart to burst the bubble. Finally, someone conjectures that, Koons’s art‑star status notwithstanding, people might not know what he looks like. It is suggested that the postcard feature a face shot.

The graphics for the ad campaign and catalogue cover are central to the conversation. We look at mockups, and the marketers share their excitement about the splashy images. There is much oohing and aahing. But, then, a minor hiccup. A curator notes that one of the pieces depicted in the copy will not actually be in the show, the loan request having been refused. Another image presents an issue as well. That piece will be on display, but it belongs to another museum. Maybe it, too, should be purged. No one is overly concerned, though. Given a virtually inexhaustible inventory of snazziness, Koons’s oeuvre is certain to throw up excellent replacements.

Splashy images would also be the focal point of an advertorial the marketing department is considering for a Conde Nast publication. Such a piece, to be run in eitherVanity Fair or Architectural Digest, would be written by the MCA but laid out in the magazine’s style. It would complement the more conventional press strategies, like articles in local newspapers, and would be on message. This, as signs from the real world indicate that Koons may, in fact, truly like Chicago. He wants to attend a Bulls game with his kids while in town. From the standpoint of marketing, it’s a golden opportunity. “This artist likes Chicago sports,” one staffer gushes, something people would be “pleasantly surprised by.” The narrative that emerges is that of the local boy who made good. Indeed, when the official marketing copy arrives a few weeks later, it features sentences like these: “The kid who went to art school in Chicago and loved surrealism, dada, and Ed Paschke and the imagists—that kid made it big.”

 ***

A few weeks later still, back in the conference room on the fifth floor. Today’s topic: tie‑ins and merchandizing. Some of it is very straightforward, including a proposed relationship with Art Chicago, the local art fair. Other ideas are more outlandish, like a possible connection to The Incredible Hulk. The superhero movie, based on the Marvel Comics and starring Edward Norton, is set to open in mid‑June, and the staff member pitching the idea seems to be half joking. But as I look around the room, there are a lot of nods. The show, after all, will feature several pieces from Koons’s Hulk Elvis series, large paintings that juxtapose the cartoon character with such Americana as the Liberty Bell.

More concrete is a tie‑in with Macy’s. This past fall, a large balloon version of Koons’sRabbit made its debut in New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the MCA show, it could make a trip to Chicago, where it would be displayed at the Macy’s store in the Loop. I’m wondering if that might be a risky move. After all, the company is considered something of an interloper in the city, having taken over Marshall Field’s beloved flagship store in 2006. But the marketers are ecstatic about the opportunity. “This will really leverage the promotional aspects,” one of them exclaims. The word that keeps coming up is “cross‑marketing,” and I take away that Jeff Koons stuff might soon be everywhere.

Stuff, in fact, is what really gets the group going today. Koons, it turns out, is a veritable merchandizing machine, which means that a lot of things can be sold in conjunction with the show. The list of products bearing his art ranges from the affordably populist ( beach towels from Target) to the high‑end luxurious (designs by Stella McCartney). But the news gets even better. Koons has given the MCA permission to manufacture a whole new line of T‑shirts featuring Rabbit. We pass around production samples, and everyone agrees that the baby tees, in light blue and pink, are too cute for words.

Then it’s time for the food. As early as January, I heard about plans to delight museum patrons with Koons‑themed cuisine. Initially, there was some talk of cheesecake, but more recently, the word in the hallways has been cookies. Turns out, it’s a go. Koons just approved three separate designs. We’re back to oohing and aahing, when one of the marketers suggests that some of the cookies could be signed and sold as a limited edition. Another joke, I think. But he goes on, noting that some people would choose not to eat the cookies so they could sell them at Sotheby’s in a couple of decades. The atmosphere is jocund. So when one of the curators points out that worms would be crawling out of the cookies by then, it’s all taken as part of the general levity.

 ***

The concept of marketing is quite new to contemporary art museums. In the good old days, it was simply not seen as a necessity. Giving avantgarde art a place was the objective, which meant that institutions catered to a small group of cognoscenti and worried little about attracting the general public. All this changed once the spiral of growth started churning. Larger museums required larger audiences, not just to cover ever‑increasing overhead but to validate contemporary art museums’ reinvention as major civic players.

The MCA is paradigmatic. Until the late 1970s, there was no marketing operation per se. What little advertising was done ran under the rubric of “public relations,” which was itself subsumed under “programming.” Public relations became a freestanding unit in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade marketing was officially added to its agenda. But it was not until the move into the new building in 1996 that a stand‑alone marketing department was added to the institution’s roster. The department made its presence felt immediately. Right away, its half dozen members began issuing a glossy magazine, initially called Flux and later renamed MCAMag, MCA Magazine, and eventually MCA Chicago. A few years later, a sprightly e‑news enterprise followed, keyed to the ever‑expanding website.

But marketing is much more pervasive in the contemporary art museum. Just before I arrive at the MCA, for example, its marketing department spearheads the museum’s fortieth‑anniversary celebration, a forty‑day extravaganza with numerous events and free admission. Some of the first meetings I attend at the institution are the postmortems, where the marketers take a lead in tallying the successes and failures of the initiative. There is much talk of “incentivizing membership.” Branding, too, is emphasized, particularly the ongoing need to “establish the museum’s point of view” by defining the contemporary. The latter is especially pressing in light of the imminent opening of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. But the key word that recurs is gateway. The MCA, the marketers consistently argue, needs shows that appeal to “new and broader audiences” and signal that all Chicagoans are “welcome at the museum.”

Jeff Koons is their big hope for 2008. In a handout prepared for a meeting in February, they explain why: “Jeff Koons is by far one of the (if not the) most well known living artists today.” With the recent sale of Hanging Heart making “news even in InTouch Weekly” and his participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he “is doing what no artist has done since Andy Warhol.” He is becoming part of the “mainstream.” Even more importantly, “the art itself helps to make this a gateway.” The “images of pop culture icons and infl atable children’s toys democratize the art experience. Even the most novice of art viewers feel entitled to react to his work.”

With this, the marketing department takes a leading role in the preparations for the Koons show. Its members help organize and run the weekly meetings coordinating the museum‑wide efforts and rally the troops when morale is down. This is done corporate‑style, as in an exercise in which staffers go around the table to share what excites them personally about Jeff Koons. The curators can be conspicuously silent when marketing talk dominates the agenda. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any tensions.

 ***

I’m having lunch with one of the curators. We’re sitting on the cafeteria side of Puck’s at the MCA, the vast, high‑ceilinged restaurant on the museum’s main exhibition floor. The conversation circles around a loaded topic, the frustrations with the marketing department. “I understand where they’re coming from,” she tells me, only to add that they may not “believe in the same things I do.” I ask for specifics and get a torrent that boils down to this: The curator sees the MCA as a space for adventure and experimentation where visitors encounter a contemporary culture they don’t already know. What marketing wants to do, she says, is to give people a pleasant experience amidst items they already like. “If they had their way, it would be Warhol all the time.” Individual viewpoints vary, of course. But I’m hearing similar things from other members of the curatorial department. Marketing, they tell me, can be fecklessly populist and insufficiently attuned to the intricacies of contemporary art and artists.

The feelings are mutual, or, to be more accurate, inverted. To the marketers, the curatorial department sometimes comes off as elitist and quixotic. When its members talk about some of the art they want to show, one of them tells me, it can “just sound crazy.” “Sometimes,” she continues, “I don’t even know what they are doing.” Even more exasperating, however, is the curators’ seeming disinterest in growing the museum’s audience. “They never think about how to attract more viewers” is a complaint I hear on more than one occasion.

If there is a convergence of views, it is only that the other side has too much power and influence.

***

For a while, I think that the fretting might be personal. Every institution, after all, breeds animosities, petty and otherwise, and the ever‑receptive anthropologist would seem to be the perfect outlet. But I am struck that the grievances are never ad hominem. The MCA’s employees, in fact, seem to genuinely like and respect one another. This is not surprising. The museum, after all, is a nonprofit whose staffers, no matter how “corporate” in orientation, could pursue eminently more lucrative careers elsewhere. The resulting feeling is that “we are all in this together,” a sentiment I hear expressed with equal regularity and conviction.

What, then, is it between curation and marketing? Over time, I come to see the tensions as intrinsic to the quest of bringing contemporary art to ever‑larger audiences. The issue, in other words, is structural.

 ***

When marketers look at contemporary art, they see a formidable challenge. Here is a product the general public knows little about, finds largely incomprehensible, and, occasionally, experiences as outright scary. This is as far as one can be from, say, introducing a new kind of soap. There, the relevance and purpose of the generic product are already well established, leaving marketers to work the magic of brand association. Maybe the campaign is all about fragrance or vitality or sex appeal—what it won’t be about is how soap itself is good for you.

Much of the marketing in the domain of high culture works in this very manner. When Chicago’s Lyric Opera advertises its new season, for example, it can safely assume that folks have a pretty accurate sense of the genre. What’s more, there is little need to justify the basic merits of the undertaking. Most people don’t go to the opera. But even those who find it boring or tedious are likely to accede to its edifying nature.

The same holds true for universal museums. In Chicago, that would be the Art Institute, whose holdings span the globe and reach from antiquity to the present. Marketing has relevance there, too. But much like at the Lyric, the value of the product is readily understood. So is its basic nature, particularly when it can take the form of such widely recognized icons as Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte or Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

At its most elemental, the marketing of a museum is orchestrated on the marquees at its entrance. With this in mind, the Art Institute’s advertising strategy is clear. It is the uncontested classics that get top billing, whether they are culled from the museum’s unparalleled collection or make an appearance as part of a traveling show. Mounted between the ornate columns at the majestic Michigan Avenue entrance, a typical tripartite display, as the one from April 2007, looks like this: In the middle, bright red type on a blue banner advertises Cézanne to Picasso, a major show on the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, co‑organized by the Art Institute and fresh from its stop at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On the left, a bisected flag adds to the theme with apples by Cézanne and Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, one of the museum’s best‑loved treasures. On the right, finally, a streamer with an ornately decorated plate—horse, rider, birds, and plants—publicizes Perpetual Glory, an exhibit of medieval Islamic ceramics. A couple of months down the road, the billboards announce a show of prints and drawings collected by prominent Chicago families, an exhibit on courtly art from West Africa, and free evening admission on Thursdays and Fridays. A little later still, it is an exhibit of sixteenth‑and seventeenth‑century drawings, a display of European tapestries, and the Art Institute’s logo.

What’s not on the Art Institute marquees is contemporary art. Sure, a canonized living master like my good friend Jasper Johns can make an occasional appearance. But the edgy fare served up by the museum’s contemporary department is absent. Nothing announces William Pope.L in 2007, Mario Ybarra Jr. in 2008, or Monica Bonvicini in 2009. The contemporary art market may be booming, but the Art Institute’s marketers assume that the general public cares only so much.

Their colleagues at the MCA don’t have that option. Tasked with marketing a contemporary art museum to an ever‑expanding audience, they have to find ways to engage the general public in their rarefied institution. It is an act of identification. “Often I, myself, don’t understand the art in the museum at first,” one marketer tells me, “but that gives me an advantage. I get where our audience is coming from.”

The issue goes far beyond marquees, then, although they are its perfect representation. For what’s at stake is the public imaginary of contemporary art. This is where marketing and curation are at loggerheads. The two departments ultimately seek to tell fundamentally different stories about the MCA and its contents. For the curators, the museum is a space for the new and therefore potentially difficult. For the marketers, that is precisely the problem. “People tend to spend leisure time doing something that is guaranteed to be a good use of their time,” they implore their colleagues. “That often means sticking with the familiar.” And so the stage is set for an uneasy dance, a perpetual pas de deux in which the partners are chained together while wearing repelling magnets.

***

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