Dead heat

Pub date August 11, 2009
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art


TREND Summer’s not over, but it might not be too soon to identify Michael Jackson’s passing as the touchstone cultural event of season. Icons and paradigms have been crumbling at a remarkable clip: California narrowly avoided a financial abyss, stalwart businesses folded, major pop and art figures died. New Langton Arts, a venerable San Francisco alternative gallery, may not survive the season.

Art museums are inherently rigid institutions. As much as they’ve been loosening up with livelier programs, they exist to present, collect, and protect the ever-fracturing canon. It’s difficult not to survey San Francisco’s big-ticket summer shows without considering recessionary measures. As endowments shrank, it was widely reported that museums would be tightening their belts by concentrating on their collections rather than on creating expensive new shows, and by presenting exhibitions for longer stretches of time. These shifts seem more like retrenchment than exciting revisions.

The de Young Museum’s current "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibition is perhaps more interesting as a barometer than as a well-designed (albeit to resemble a deluxe burial chamber) state-of-the-art showcase of ancient artifacts. It is, first and foremost, a return to proven formulas. Tut was the subject of the first museum blockbuster, and it worked like gangbusters for the de Young in 1979. Back then the boy king seemed to compete with a vibrant Farrah Fawcett for poster space on teen walls, but currently, evidence of him outside of banners on SF light poles seems scant. The pharaoh’s not the media darling he once was, but apparently the Fine Arts Museums, of which the de Young is a part, is banking on him. (Ironically, Tut is organized by a subsidiary of AEG Live, which also produced the ill-fated Michael Jackson tour.)

Tut is firmly placed as a multiseason blockbuster, a cash cow to be milked into spring. He’ll be followed by an Impressionism show, another safe bet the de Young has made before. The Legion of Honor’s print retrospective devoted to John Baldessari — an uncharacteristically contemporary artist for the space — will be followed in December by a Cartier jewelry show.

The Tut exhibition’s press preview was bolstered by official optimism and ample refreshments. There was a spread of Middle Eastern nibbles and pyramid-shaped servings of custard, and media reps left with gift bags containing a catalog and chocolates. It seemed like the old days, before endowments took their Madoff hits. There was a panel of speakers in the theater. Fundraiser socialite Dede Wilsey said she wished her sons were as successful as the king. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, spoke of Tut discoveries with entertaining bluster. Gavin Newsom worked the civic booster angle, touting a power trio of summer museum shows: "Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" at SFMOMA ("Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004" had yet to open), "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and Tut at the de Young. Although each of these exhibitions puts forth a specific viewpoint on its subject — the Chagall show is driven by the fascinating sweep of political and theatrical history while "Natural Affinities" probes an artistic dialog — the list of names sounded emphatically conservative, even for summer blockbuster season. There’s not a living artist in the bunch.

This isn’t so strange — after all, big institutions follow Hollywood models by packing the houses with mainstream fare and saving the more thoughtful offerings for fall. Both SFMOMA and the de Young exceeded audience expectations last summer with their Frida Kahlo and Dale Chihuly shows, respectively. The de Young take was reportedly bumped up by brisk sales of pricey pint-size Chihuly sculptures. And due to the practice of sometimes booking shows years in advance, these offerings were in place before the downturn. How are they faring?

The de Young won’t release attendance figures until a show has closed — in the case of Tut, that means after March 28, 2010. A museum publicist could offer a cagey comment that "response from visitors has been phenomenal." (This despite the steep nonmember ticket price of $27.50.) SFMOMA is more forthcoming. It unofficially stated that Adams/O’Keefe held steady but admissions spiked when Avedon opened, almost recalling Kahlo crowds. (These exhibitions have a $5 surcharge.)

The Avedon show is handsome, with images of the famous in crisp black and white. So many of the subjects, though, are emphatically of another era — iconic celebrities and political figures who have passed. Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, César Chávez, and various Kennedys, among others, are figures that continue to embody their cultural power in Avedon’s pictures. And Tut more than maintains his royal allure — gold holds its value. But finance gurus also tout making more unusual investments in times like these, and one hopes that our institutions will use this moment to engage in some portfolio diversification. *


Through Sept. 7

Contemporary jewish Museum


Through Sept. 7

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Through March 28, 2010

De Young Museum