Museums, Art and the Rackets

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

Paula Rabinowitz

IN THE LATE 1990s when it appeared that the laws of capitalism had been suspended temporarily and wealth could be accrued purely on speculation, the New York Times began an annual full-section report on museums, those once fusty and staid zones of quiet suddenly become hot public draws. Its 21 April, 1999, issue extols the role museums play in rebuilding urban economies worldwide. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and new wings of the Metropolitan in New York have been instrumental in fostering urban pride and capital flows.

Noting the importance of museums to contemporary Western urban economies, the Times devoted this special issue to “Culture’s Power Houses.” The entire section contains articles on the architecture, economics, and history of art and science museums, because finance, tourism and culture have replaced industry as the primary economic forces in most European and American cities.

Speaking of these giant new museums, Michael Kimmelman noted in that special issue, “Art museums today have become entertainment palaces, like opera houses in the 19th century and movie palaces earlier this century.” (“All Too Often, the Art Itself Gets Lost in the Blueprints,” NYT, 21 April 1999)

Art and contemporary architecture of museums have become a means to urban renewal in the hope that museum space itself, and its blockbuster shows, will draw patrons. Once seen as the stuffy mausoleum of national or class heritage, museums now seek circulation-bodies (and with them cash and credit cards) in an endless flow. Money and the stream of bodies returning to decaying city centers will thus entice cafes, restaurants and shops to open.

In this age of corporate mergers, museums, as a source of corporate capital, have themselves merged. The Guggenheim Foundation, with museums in New York, Venice, Berlin, and Bilbao, and specializing in contemporary art, has recently signed a long-term agreement to share collections with Russia’s Hermitage. With its three million works of art, the Hermitage Museum features an enormous collection of Impressionists, as well as works by Leonardo, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. (Strapped for cash, the state-funded institution has been seeking foreign sponsors.) A few months later, this “existing marriage” expanded into a “new menage a trois” when the collections of the Kunsthistoriches Museum of Vienna were added to the mix.

Art museums are a product of the Enlightenment. As Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, notes, they were “educational instruments for the systematic organization and presentation of artistic and natural phenomena” that “were also understood to be inherently public spaces.” “The State of the Art Museum, Ever Changing,” NYT, 10 Jan. 1999) As Joshua Taylor, former director of the National Collective of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian Institution noted, particularly in the United States the museum provides “an elite experience for everyone.” (As quoted in “’An Elite Experience for Everyone’: Art Museums, the Public and Cultural Literacy,” in Museum Culture: Histories, Discourse, Spectacles, ed. Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994)

A repository for national culture, seemingly stable and monumental, the museum is also commercial depository of valued items. “[J]ust as a gold bank…is necessary in order that the circulation of capital and private speculation be organized, so the fixed reserve of the museum is necessary for the functioning of the sign exchange of paintings,” claims Jean Baudrillard. (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981, 121)

The Museum as Mall

As a site for the visible display of objects, the museum becomes mall. Le Carrousel du Louvre, the giant underground shopping mall situated beneath I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, literalizes this connection. Built with private money in exchange for an 80-year lease to operate the mall, it serves as the entrance for one-third of the nearly six million yearly museum visitors. The Louvre only receives about $80,000 a year from the venture; however, as Wanda Diebolt, the museum’s administrator suggested, “some people who go shopping and are then drawn into the museum.” (Alan Riding, “A Shopping Mall At The Louvre? The French Say, Bien Sur,” NYT, 19 April 2000)

With museums in constant competition for the public’s attention, and with shopping emerging within the West as a primary form of leisure, it is inevitable that the savvy museum director would merge museum going with shopping. As Frederick R. Weisman Museum director Lyndel King observed of competition among the three major art museums in Minneapolis: “We’re also all up against the nearby Mall of America.” (Neal Karlen, “Displaying Art with a Smiley Face,” NYT, 19 April 2000)

Museum shops, once small kiosks selling postcards and a few other items, are huge mazes that offer catalogues and sell scarves, ties, jewelry, furniture, and rugs along with upscale children’s toys. Home furnishings signal arts patronage and the cultural capital flowing from it. Whether it is kitschy refrigerator magnets from San Francisco’s Coit Tower mural of cannery women or Detroit’s Rivera mural of Ford factory workers, art objects index the luxury of disposable income to travel and tour.

The design of museum shows and even the permanent galleries now accommodates 30% of its floor space to consumer items. Each exhibit winds through gallery rooms ending in a gift shop where postcards, calendars, wall hangings and coffee table books compete for patron dollars.

History becomes camp perhaps most vividly in the $39.95 “scale-model replica of a Polish boxcar used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others to the concentration camps” on sale at a St. Petersburg, Florida, Holocaust museum. (Gabriel Schoenfeld, “Death Camps As Kitsch,” NYT, 18 March 1999)

Smaller museums, eschewing the blockbuster razzmatazz or the mall-like shop, depend on cultivating “the homelike ambience” of the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., where “the hurly-burly of a great museum as a marketplace is absent.” Its mission: “show great modern art in an intimate setting.” Duncan Phillips was the first American museum director to acquire the work of American artists, including O’Keeffe. Opened in the large room of an extension of the family home in 1921 (before the MOMA or National Gallery), it became the nation’s first museum and clearly linked domesticity to national culture.
Special exhibits are frequently underwritten by corporate sponsors, whose logos are then discretely displayed.

Whose Art? Whose History?

Recent court cases place museums in the center of legal and historical questions. The Austrian government returned the Rothschild’s stolen works to heirs, only to have them auctioned at Christie’s. As heirs filed claim to family property confiscated by the Nazis, New York State Attorney Robert Morgenthau sequestered, from Austria’s national collection, two Egon Schiele paintings hung at the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile Matisse’s “The Dance” was packed up and sent back to the Hermitage, forfeiting the claims of an heir of Sergei Shchukin, whose collection of 450 paintings was nationalized without indemnity in 1918.

While the Rothko estate fight appears purely familial, the question about the status of the Elgin marbles in London’s British Museum, on the other, pit private ownership against multiplying national heritages. Recently the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return “Euphronios krater” to Italy, acknowledging what has been an open secret since it was purchased in 1972 for just over one million dollars, that was looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome. [Dan Barry, “A Tale of Intrigue You Won’t Hear on the Met’s Headset,” NYT 8 February 2006 B2]

These battles over arts ownership are part of a struggle about cultural heritage, identity, property and the place of art in national and private legacies.

The past requires remembrance. Thus tracing property losses caused by war, revolution and Nazi confiscation of Jewish wealth, inheritance denied or wealth and property redistributed because of changing political regimes are part of the history of cultural plunder attending catastrophe. These battles are compounded by the thousands of paintings, rare books and other objects taken from the areas of Eastern Europe and Germany occupied by the Soviet armed forces and removed to museum basements throughout the Soviet Union.

Yet claims for national sovereignty over artists and their art works, especially over antiquities, maintain (or appear to maintain) cultural continuity by holding onto the past and its treasures.

In this way, a nation’s longings for a continuous history and the concrete evidence of its past glories slide into a desire for emblems that veer on kitsch. Nationalism itself becomes a kind of kitsch registered in and through recognizable objects, which over time have little to do with their origins. Thus the British Museum maintains that it has done more to preserve the Elgin Marbles by housing them in a special gallery than Greece has done to preserve the Parthenon from pollution.

Museums become at once caretakers, neutral repositories designed to allow democratic access, or usurpers, state institutions sanctioning official theft. They also signal the increasing irrelevance of geographical location as both art and patrons travel between the metropolitan centers. When this is impossible, the museum offers the illusion of circulation. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C. solicited memberships from arts patrons in Minneapolis by offering as an incentive two free tickets to its upcoming O’Keeffe show.

Increasingly, too, museums are part of the political economy of national and local culture. “Seventy-five years ago,” writes Herbert Muschamp architecture critic for the New York Times, “the subject of this article might have been the opening of a shipyard, but it is the late 90’s, so I was there [Bilbao] for the opening of a museum.” (“Culture’s Power Houses: The Museum Becomes An Engine of Urban Redesign,” NYT, 21 April 1999)

North Adams, Massachusetts, which by the mid-1980s had lost 70% of its businesses as it suffered decline from plant closings throughout the decade, is now in the midst of a renaissance sparked by “a gigantic museum in an abandoned factory.” Mass MOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) cost $35 million to renovate the industrial space which, in its first year, drew 130,00 visitors to galleries and performances. (John Kifner, “Museum Brings Town Back to Life: Converted Factory is Economic Catalyst for Massachusetts City,” NYT, 30 May 2000)

Money surrounds major cultural institutions. In Society of the Spectacle, Guy deBord describes the emergence of the contemporary museum: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983, paragraph 4) Added to this mix are the culture wars, which offer an easy battleground for politicians frightened by the New Right.

With the enormous wealth circulating during the last decade, charitable giving is up and so museums and other non-profits have embarked on tremendous capital campaigns; museums directors and university presidents function primarily as fund raisers. All these factors converged into New York Mayor Rudolf W. Giuliani’s 2000 attack on the Brooklyn Museum’s show, “Sensation.”

The legal battle that ensued allows us to see how the interlocking systems depend on each other for publicity. In this case the cast included celebrities (David Bowie, Charles Saatchi, the mayor himself, then a candidate for U.S. Senate), the internet (Bowie’s website provided sound and narrated the guided tour of the show), art dealers and auctioneer (Christie’s, and the various dealers representing the “Sensation” artists), collectors (Saatchi and Bowie again), influential museum board members and directors (Arnold Lehman and Robert Rubin), and artists (notably Damien Hirst).

The financial arrangements for “Sensation” included money from a wide array of those with a vested interest in promoting the show’s work. The collector, Saatchi, gave $160,000; his auction house, Christie’s, donated $50,000; glam rock star and small-time collector, David Bowie, pledged $75,000 and provided the voice-over to the guided tour in exchange for the rights to display “Sensation” on his website Ultrastar Internet Services; and $10,000 each came from various gallery owners representing the artists in the exhibition. In the wake of these disclosures, it turns out that a number of major museums extract a commission or sales fee when work they exhibit is sold. (Judith H. Dobrzynski, “A Possible Conflict By Museums In Art Sales,” NYT, 21 February 2000)

These donations are essential to the contemporary political economy of museums as they seek to expand audiences, at once justifying their mission and increasing revenue. Lehman desired to put the Brooklyn Museum on the map by drawing the 300,000 spectators who had flocked to London’s Royal Academy of Art when “Sensation” was exhibited there.

Noting the pressures to boost museum attendance through aggressive marketing and fundraising, Lehman commented that corporate sponsorship (such as Cartier’s sponsorship of the 1997 exhibition at the Met of early 20th-century Cartier jewelry) had replaced philanthropy, which had the same ultimate purpose: notoriety. “Corporations are giving money for marketing purposes, for publicity purposes, for promotional purposes, for whatever reason that is ultimately going to support their business, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of…to put themselves forward, whether to their client base or the world at large.” (Quoted in David Barstow, “Those With Much to Gain Heavily Financed Exhibit,” NYT, 31 October 1999)

To prove the point, in the three weeks after “Sensation” opened in Brooklyn, Bowie’s website had received 7.5 million hits (four times more than usual).  Arguing that the website and the corporate sponsorship, rather than closing down the range of work available, actually opens it to a wider audience, both Bowie and Lehman contend that the interface of art and commerce — especially through the web — is essential to a contemporary museum’s survival.

Most museums have beefed-up their interactive computer terminals and video and website accesses. For instance, during the last weekend of the 1999 “Fame After Photography” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the first image seen was Nickolas Murray’s famous 1939 hyperrealist color photograph of Frida Kahlo, the MOMA was showing videotapes on both Kahlo and O’Keeffe in its education room.

Museum websites display pieces from collections left in storage and provide extensive texts on them; they offer interactive cyberspaces, as Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center’s Gallery 9 and ada’web. (Janice Maloney, “Museums Click onto the Web, And the Favor Gets Returned,” NYT, 21 April 1999; see, listing current projects on view.) The Getty Museum in Los Angeles features a Family Room where children can create their own portraits with paper and pencils or by dressing themselves in period costumes; most popular among teenagers is the computer art program.

In the search for ever-expanding audiences and donors, the Minneapolis Institute of Art launched the “Star Wars” exhibit created by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Hoping to entice 10- to 35-year-old males to the museum’s collection from the show, textile curator Lotus Stack developed a “treasure map. Visitors use it to find and connect the archetypal theses of Journey, Labyrinth, Trials, Transformations, Wise Guides and Evil Forces in the ‘Star Wars’ displays to 21 specially labeled pieces from the museum’s collections.” (Neal Karlen, “A Curator Puts ‘Star Wars’ in Turnaround,” NYT, 19 April 2000)

Even more likely to rearrange the relationships among art, gallery, museum and commerce, are the new internet sites devoted to the art market. Each day, almost as many people visit the Louvre’s website (15,000), with its extensive virtual tour of the “Mona Lisa,” as the museum itself (18,000). (Katie Hafner, “Using the Net for Virtual Art And to Sell the Real Thing,” NYT, 19 April 2000) The Grove Dictionary of Art Online not only references 15,000 images along with 750 maps, diagrams and drawings, it also includes 41,000 articles on artists, patrons, dealers, and so forth.

Perhaps most innovative is its digital links to “images of art in on-line museums.” (See Judith H. Dobrzynski, “Art on Line: The Internet Mounts a Masterpiece,” NYT, 13 May 1999) “What is an Icon?” asks the website advertisement in the New York Times for its “Icons of the 20th Century” auction. “Find your favorite icon of the 20th century and make it yours,” its copy exhorts.

Art online “is a virtual Renaissance,” effused Leif Youngberg, who started Just, one of the dozen or so online art auction sites, in Albuquerque in May, 1999. “There will be art available everywhere all over the world to anybody in the world, instantaneously.” (Quoted in Jonathan Mandell, “Van Gogh Print or Original Oil: The Web has It,” NYT, 4 November 1999) These sites allow browsing by artist, style, size or price, but also offer keyword searches for over 200 topics, including flower, vase, bouquet.

In the on-going debates about the meaning of democratic arts and the arts in democracies, the museum has held a contradictory role. Mausoleum or vault, arcade or promenade? Repository of elite sensibilities, archive for the people? (See the discussions in Dennis Alan Mann, ed. The Arts in a Democratic Society (Bowling Green, Oh: Popular Press, 1977). The Canadian painter Emily Carr “loathed” the British Museum, “the world mummified,” she called it. “Visitors whispered and crept…. Place of over-preservation all the solemnity choked out of death, making curiosity out of it, prying, exposing, indecent.” (Emily Carr, Growing Pains: An Autobiography, Toronto: Oxford, 1946.) This democratized space denatured the work.

With the “industrialization of culture” the museum becomes a new major attraction and gathering place, with blockbuster shows attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, who pay admission fees and shop in the coordinated retail shops.

New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman begins “Van Gogh, or Beauty and the Blockbuster” with an imaginary letter from Vincent to his brother Theo in which the artist dreams that his “unfortunate paintings had now been assembled in some vast marble mausoleum. Thousands of people swarmed and shoved and jostled each other before them…They must have been devil worshipers because I clearly heard the devil speaking in strange tongues through horns clasped to their heads.” (NYT, 2 October 1998)

In his review of Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art exhibition, “Van Gogh’s van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Kimmelman argues that “no matter how often it [great art] is reproduced or how trivialized it is by biographers and promoters, it manages to retain its strange power. The most familiar works here, when you actually stand before them, still have an immediacy, an implacable aura, which is so arresting that, temporarily, it even silences the noise about blockbusters and pandering to the masses…if you can manage to see it through the milling backs.”

Such exhibitions are at once returning to the populist Enlightenment roots of American museums — as display cases for wealth and as civilizing zones for rough-edged citizens.  Blockbusters succeed because of the multiple reproductions and name recognition. Mousepads with van Gogh’s sunflowers make the work comfortable and instill a desire to see it “up close and personal.” Yet this encounter, and what makes the show a blockbuster, forces one to realize each work’s powerful difference, its aura, as Kimmelman calls it, citing Walter Benjamin.

But there is a deep ambivalence about the various strategies museum directors have devised to make museums more alluring. Ralph Blumenthal reports: “Americans are flocking to museums in record numbers, as museums increasingly offer blockbuster exhibits to fill coffers, swell membership rolls and excite envy at fellow institutions; some in museum world looked askance when Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York held a show on motorcycles, which drew half million visitors; Ellen V. Futter, director of Museum of Natural History, claims blockbuster shows offer exceptional teaching opportunities; her show, Epidemic!, on infectious diseases, has drawn more than 150,000 visitors; museum calendars are replete with big exhibitions of plainly blockbuster ambitions.” (“Painting by Numbers; My Renoir Beats Your Vermeer,” NYT Week in Review, 6 June 1999)

In his cynical and delicious exposé of Thomas Krens’ “Guggenheim brand,” former Gallery Lecturer Paul Werner puts it bluntly: “The role of the American art museum is to launder the money of its trustees and sponsors, not as you may think, but turning one asset (“cocaine,” for instance) into another asset (say, “Rembrandts”), but by turning artworks into objects of authority and trust — objects that mediate and are mediated by the worth of money. The American art museum turns art into buzz the way its owners turn pork-bellies into pork-belly futures.” [Paul Werner, Museum, Inc.: Inside the Global Art World (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2005), 7.] And this buzz turns museum visitors into multitudes of spectators — who pay.

Museum as Public Space

Museums are as deeply intertwined with the changing economy of post-industrialism as with its post-modern reconfiguration of space. Current museums are designed to lure visitors through expressive architecture. (For the connection among postmodernism and space, see Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Duke University Press, 1991.) Carol Vogel notes that trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Art recently unveiled its $63 million building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta only to realize there was little art to show in its 225,000-square-foot space. With the stock market booming, they promptly went on a “shopping spree” to update their collection. (“Big Names, Big Bucks: A Museum’s Shopping Spree; Checks Flying, San Francisco Builds a Modern Art Collection,” NYT, 8 February 2000)

At the same time, museums are seeking to reassure a public that new spaces will not necessarily disturb conventional viewing too much. The Chicago Historical Society subtitled its show of Norman Rockwell’s work, organized by the recently opened Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, “Pictures for the American People.” Its advertisement featured a Black couple and a white family of three poised in front of a detail of “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” in which three white kids and a dog stare at two Black children. Like the kids in the painting, the boy in the picture stares at the Black couple next to him, not at the art work.

Presumably art provides an entry into the ideals of American democracy. It might also do the opposite. In Laurens, South Carolina, John Howard, a former high-ranking official in the Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, opened “The World’s Only Klan Museum,” featuring artifacts, documents and photographs of the Klan in South Carolina. Memorabilia, such as windbreakers, sweat shirts and tee-shirts proclaiming “White Power” are for sale along with Klan miniatures and other items in “The Red Neck Shop.”

Laurens, a town of 9,700, has been trying to shut the museum as a public nuisance. It is especially distressing to the African-American citizens who remember the noose left hanging from a railroad trestle since a 1913 mob lynched Richard Puckett, a Black man wrongly accused of rape. The rope only disappeared when the bridge was torn down. (Rick Bragg, “Klan Museum Tests a Town’s Patience and Resurrects Some Ugly Memories,” NYT, 17 November 1996)

The Museum: Personal or Public?

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed out that the concept of an “archive” (and I would link this inextricably to the museum) originated in “The Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded […]. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house, or employee’s house), that official documents are filed.” (Archive Fever, 2) The archive, like the museum, overlaps privacy and the public sphere; each informs the other.

Derrida’s “impression” of “archive fever” occurs on the occasion of the opening of the Freud archives in the Freud house, the Freud museum; his meditation digs into its traces, traces he finds always inscribed on the surface, the skin, the foreskin, the mark of Freud’s Jewishness, which Freud disavowed only to return to it in his “historical fiction” Moses and Monotheism.

This book inspired Frida Kahlo’s epic “Moses or Nucleus of Creation,” (1945) in which the infant Moses resembles Rivera who is connected by blood, milk and river to the history and mythology of the world’s religions and politics, charted in such iconic faces as Nefertiti, Marx, Buddha, Christ, Stalin and Hitler. In this painting, Kahlo archives world history through its icons and places the artist at its center.  Her painting became, like her home, a museum to herself and her identity as national figure, communist invalid, woman painter.

The museum as personal/public archive also engenders a kitschy but vital pride of place. When the heirs of Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo turned their domestic spaces — including their studios — into museums, they were participating in the democratic impulse of humanizing (or womanizing) the artist; they were also (in the case of Kahlo and Carr especially), providing the nation with its national artistic heroine, her home a capsule of self and place.

O’Keeffe’s home and museum now dominate New Mexican tourism. In every hotel room in New Mexico, magazines and gallery guides splash turquoise and silver jewelry across the ads, mixing dramatic red rock mesas with schlocky Southwest art. Somewhere on the page Georgia O’Keeffe’s name appears. Each guide offers information on where to look at what she looked at, walk where she walked, drive through “O’Keeffe Country.” (See the guidebook by Rhoda Barkan and Peter Sinclire, From Santa Fe to O’Keeffe Country: a One Day Journey through the Soul of New Mexico (Santa Fe: Ocean Tree Books, 1997) If they don’t own an original, the galleries will sell you prints. She is a tourist attraction; and judging from the guest book at Abiquiu, people (mostly women) come from everywhere.

While Europe has over 400 single-artist museums, there are only 40 in the United States. For the most part, these are either in the ateliers and studios of the artists or are housed in new or converted buildings, like the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (Deborah Solomon, “For Individual Artists, Museums All Their Own,” NYT, 28 March 1999)

What distinguishes the museums of Kahlo, Carr and O’Keeffe is the attention to domesticity. What we can see of their working spaces, or work, is slim, foremost is the sense of home life. The furnishings: O’Keeffe’s spare rooms with Noguchi lamps and Eames chairs; Kahlo’s colorful garden and tiled kitchen; Carr’s quaint wraparound porch and darkened rooms; these are dwelling places, designed to give entry into the privacy and intimacy of life.

Even at the recently constructed O’Keeffe museum, with its attached O’Keeffe Cafe, the stress is on homeyness. Cookbooks with O’Keeffe’s favorite recipes and decorative vases and stones like those placed strategically around her home can be purchased in the huge shop.

Far more fruitful for the tourist in search of memorabilia, however, is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, also run by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and the New Mexico Museum of Art. Its cafe is available for catered affairs as well as open for breakfast, lunch and dinner; its bookstore features a display case of Frida Kahlo stuff along with the calendars, posters, stamps, pencils, datebooks, cookbooks, photographs, children’s books and on and on about Georgia. Other shelves hold a few books on her contemporaries and teachers, Hartley or Stieglitz or Dove or Dow.

O’Keeffe’s house and museum exude a hushed reverence. Michael Kimmelman, describing the new O’Keeffe Museum, comments on how difficult it is to gain access to her house in Abiquiu, “an intimate place of Zenlike elegance,” and compares it to Lourdes or Graceland, to which thousands make pilgrimages. (“An Adobe Home for Icons,” NYT, 17 July 1997) The opening of this museum has been an ongoing news item, with most major newspapers in the United States sending culture and travel reporters to its cover it more than once.

CODA: By 2003, the whole picture changed: The September 11, 2001 attacks resulted in steep declines in travel and tourism to New York, the nation’s museum capitol. The ensuing economic downturn and threats from war reduced New York museum attendance by about one million visitors; gifts, donations and endowments also shriveled. (See Bernard Stamler, “ New York’s Showcases Are Facing Shortfalls,” NYT, 24 April 2002. This 2002 special section on “Museums” carries roughly the same story about most of the nation’s museums; yet it also features stories about emerging art centers in Missouri and Southern California and other smaller locales.)

Michael Kimmelman reported that “the age of the go-go Guggenheim was over having mimicked the business of the era, with the hype about global networking, cutting-edge growth and a new economy, Mr. Krens’ [the Guggenheim Museum’s director] dream, like the bubble of the dot. coms, burst.” (“An Era Ends for the Guggenheim,” NYT, 6 December 2002)

Nevertheless, a $30 million licensing fee for “Brand Guggenheim” can allow any city to purchase a franchise. In 2003, the mayor Rio de Janeiro has earmarked $250,000,000 for a new Guggenheim Museum to float in the bay across from Ipanema; this despite widespread complaints from Brazilian artists who feel this to be cultural imperialism and from activists and social workers who feel this is a waste of sorely needed funds to fight poverty. (Amy Radl, “Marketplace,” Minnesota Public Radio, 24 April, 2003) The project looked doomed. However, with the re-election of Rio’s mayor Cesar Maia, news circulates that the “cultural Titanic,” as critics have called Jean Nouvel’s $170 million project for the “Gugg Rio,” may not be completely sunk. The mayor and the museum have plans to organize exhibitions in Rio’s Museo de Arte Moderna while the new plans are under development. [artnet.comArtnetNews (2/3/06)]


The title of this article is a borrowing from Kenneth Fearing, “Reading, Writing and the Rackets,” New and Selected Poems (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1956). My reliance on the New York Times as the paper of record for much of my evidence about the contemporary place of museums in the political economy of major cities results from the New York Times’ utter complicity in the mechanics conflating art, commerce and entertainment within the orbit of culture and then making this “news.” It is both source for and example of this new information/commercial form of culture.

ATC 121, March-April 2006