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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Art museum hopes popular exhibit will build its member list

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

But next Sunday when the museum opens “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” - a blockbuster traveling exhibit filled with the plastic TIE Fighters and 12-foot-long latex slugs that inhabit George Lucas' movie universe - Berkowitz will know less about the subject chewing up 8,000 square feet of his gallery space than the average 10-year-old.

Eighteenth-century French decorative art? No problem. Eight-foot-tall monkey costumes? Not his specialty. Same goes for Asian art curator Carolyn Putney.

When the museum landed the show in 1999, after months of lobbying its organizers, the Smithsonian Institution, the question came up of who was the most appropriate curator.

In the show, there are 250 concept paintings, props, and costumes from LucasFilm's archives. Some look like hi-tech garbage cans; others, up close, reveal the haphazard smudges and stray paint marks of frantic filmmaking. Putney was picked after it was brought to her attention that Darth Vader's helmet sort of looks like Japanese warrior armor.

“They said, `Hey, Carolyn, How `bout you?'”

She had heard horror stories from the show's stop at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. On the last day of the exhibit there, after weeks of capacity crowds, a man standing in line got tired and sat in a 17th century Ming chair.

Which promptly collapsed.

Still, there were those record crowds. Not to mention, someone who visits a museum and sits on the art is both the kind of person not familiar with museum etiquette and the kind of first-time patron that museums drool over.

Like many art institutions around the country, the Toledo Museum of Art is looking to pop culture in the hopes of boosting membership and attracting the sorts of new faces - men, teenagers, low-income families, people intimidated by art - who typically avoid art galleries altogether. But everyone knows Star Wars.

Berkowitz pictures multiple generations of fans packing the show, then maybe exploring the rest of the museum. Ashow with this much built-in interest is a rare treat for an art museum, he said. Before it closes on Jan. 5, 2002 (making it the longest-running special exhibit in the museum's history), 180,000 visitors are expected to attend. That gives “Star Wars” a shot at breaking attendance figures of the art museum's biggest blockbuster to date, 1994's “The Age of Rubens,” which drew 234,000.

“It's also a chance to prove we're not snobs,” Putney said.

At least she had dim memories of Star Wars movies themselves. Berkowitz hadn't seen any of the four films at all until after the show was a done deal - “I don't go to movies often,” he said. So he rented them on video and paid attention to how the mission of a serious art museum might smartly intersect with a space opera. He decided it fit Toledo fine. The museum has exhibited Disney animation cells since the 1950s.

“We've always had a populist streak,” said Nan Plummer, head of the education department. When the show was first discussed in 1998, then-museum director David Steadman became convinced that landing “Star Wars” satisfied the desire of museum founder, Edward Drummond Libbey, to be relevant to the entire community. “Star Wars is part of every American's visual vocabulary,” Steadman said last week. “These images are as important now as the images of Hercules were a thousand years ago.”

Kate Jamieson, one of the museum's first docents, said she remembers when abstract art debuted at the museum in the 1950s. “Some women just about had heart attacks.” And aesthetically, “Star Wars” is more traditional than that. Plus, other art museums that already hosted the show, including Minneapolis and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, tied the themes in “Star Wars” (the hero's journey, good and evil) to ancient myth, and subsequently to works in their own collections that carried similar themes.

Not everyone buys the connection. “Will Gladiator be next?” asked Kym Rice, assistant director of museum studies at George Washington University. She saw the show a couple of years ago and liked it. But she didn't find the interpretation as interesting as the artifacts themselves. “Ancient myth is the PR spin here. The simple truth is, museums are pushing the outer limits of their mission statements now and being more commercial. You don't go to “Star Wars” for theoretical constructs. You go for Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Just as important as the aesthetic context, she said, is that “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” draws record crowds - 127,000 in Minneapolis, 136,000 in Houston. Van Gogh is the Bruce Springsteen of art museum shows, drawing sellouts everywhere he rests his bones. But at the moment, lines snake through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for a show of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis memorabilia. In 1998, 300,000 crammed into “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim Museum of Art, while the Brooklyn Museum of Art (which gets “The Magic of Myth” next) recently had a hip-hop exhibit.

And that's just New York - in 1999 Des Moines did jelly bean art. “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” itself is the offspring of another blockbuster, 1992's “Star Trek: The Exhibit.” After “Star Trek” drew 900,000 to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, curator Mary Henderson approached Lucas about a similar show; by the time the show closed at Air and Space in early 1999, attendance broke one million.

So at the urging of museum representatives around the country, including Davira Taragin, then the exhibitions team leader at the Toledo Museum of Art, they went on the road. “Our biggest concern was, these are delicate objects originally made to last a short time,” said Kathleen Holiday, director of special projects for LucasFilm. “It takes sophisticated handlers. That led us to working with mostly art museums.” After Steadman called a quick meeting, he said, the museum began a full-court press, using the museum's stellar reputation, its art collection, and its ability to handle big shows as the key selling points.

“I remember many, many messages that `Toledo called,'” said Cheryl Washer, the Smithsonian's project director. It also helped that Toledo had plenty of space.

Competition for the show itself was even tighter, exhibitors say. The Royal Ontario Museum showed interest; the Detroit Institute of Art, one of the other most likely venues in this region for the show, wasn't even offered it. But they've done shows on the Muppets and low-rider cars, said DIA curator of exhibition's Tara Robinson. “The concern is always, where do you draw the line at commercial pretensions and at how much control do you have over your own show,” she said.

In fact, “Star Wars” is largely curated when it arrives. The Smithsonian and LucasFilm have final say over everything, from how images are used in the museum's marketing campaign to the cutesy names of any food stands tied into the show. “It's all pre-packaged,” said Janet Landay, the Houston museum's curator of exhibitions.

When the show was pitched to the Toledo museum's exhibition committee, there were concerns: Is the duty of an art museum to be popular? Or to be an alternative to mass culture? Was it art in the first place? Also, without enough time to secure underwriting, the show's price tag - $325,000 for the exhibit itself, not including security, marketing, etc. - would have to be recouped through ticket sales, the cafeteria, and a percentage of sales from the “Star Wars” specialty shop. (To fit the 1,500-square-foot store into the museum, a gallery of Renaissance art had to be moved to another gallery.)

“No one was against it,” remembers exhibition coordinator Mary Plouffe. “I think some people had to be more convinced than others.”

So a couple of weeks ago, the massive monolithic archway went up around the entrance to the Canaday Gallery. Inside Claude Fixler, the museum's exhibition designer, stood silently, surrounded by Wookie wranglers - make that art handlers. The half-dozen men wore white cotton gloves, carried half-inch thick Plexiglas, and listened to Johnny Cash. Fixler watched the two nail around a small platform.

“Here's where Chewbacca will live,” he said.

Fixler looked around with a bemused expression, at the murals of lonely planets and alien forests on the walls, at the fractured jigsaw puzzle of wooden crates filling the rooms, each box containing some tangible artifact of the most popular legacy in movie history.

Only last May, this gallery held jewels of ancient Egypt on loan from the British Museum - alabaster goddesses, ivory kings - and now a few feet away sat another kind of tomb, a long wooden crate that carried an infamous plastic idol. Scrawled on its side in black marker were the two most feared words in the galaxy:

“Darth Vader.”

He'll stand in the same spot recently held by a massive red granite lion from Sudan. It was priceless. But in a week, not far from that spot, the gift shop will sell a virtual replica of the Darth Vader costume on display. If you've got $9,999.99, he's all yours.



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