I recently saw the exhibit, ‘Fashion Redefined: Miyake, Kawakubo, Yamamoto’ at the Indianapolis Museum Art (now called Newfields). The exhibit was on a second floor gallery, adjacent to the European and American Painting and Sculpture Galleries that feature some of my favorites works of Van Gogh, Gaugin and Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper. As I viewed the collections displayed on mannequins, it didn’t feel much different than when I engage with works of art in the other galleries. Yet after pondering the questions later, 'is fashion art' and 'does fashion belong in a museum', and reading what others had to say, I reconsidered: perhaps fashion isn’t really art at all and might belong in a more obscure gallery, or not belong at all. I review here not only the exhibit, but also the idea of fashion as art and its place (or not) in an art museum.
The Fashion Redefined exhibit consists of pieces from Newfields collection of Japanese designer fashions that the museum has been collecting since 2009, as well as loans from private collections. The featured Japanese designers were part of a group who arrived on the Paris couture fashion scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and shook things up in the fashion world. These designers not only infused Japanese aesthetics into their designs with clean lines and a focus on minimalism, but challenged the female silhouette—that hourglass figure (or the skinny hourglass figure) that haute couture fashion liked to celebrate. One of the designers, Rei Kawakubo, really disrupted the status quo with her collections that were viewed as gender-neutral, with loose-fitting garments, frayed hems and dark colours. Another collection of Kawakubo’s, the, ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ collection, also known as the ‘bump’ collection was another sensation (a few are featured in the exhibit--see blue dress far right in image below). These I found most intruging. So did Paris though not in a good way, they were appalled that these bumps purposefully built into garments, appeared in all the wrong places—they made hips, buttocks and even tummies looks bigger! How dare Kawakubo do so? I found it refreshing.
Other interesting garments were four sheath dresses featuring works of art by designer Issey Miyake. These were part of Miyake’s 'Pleats Please Guest Artist Series'. The dresses, were literally, the artist’s canvas’. Miyake chose artists who created art works specifically for the pleated sheath dresses. One off white dress, features a work by Cai Guo-Quiang who used gun powder explosions to create an image of a dragon which was then photographed and printed on flat fabrics before it was pleated (image below).
Is Fashion Art?
The exhibit was well done; the fashions intriguing, the exhibit labels interesting, even thought-provoking. Was this exhibit much different than traditional art exhibits of paintings or sculpture? I did a bit of digging to try and find out what the experts, artists, fashion designers and museum professionals had to say. Overall there's a lack of consensus. Some consider fashion, when in museum at least, like a glorified store window, while others consider fashion similar to decorative arts like ceramics, or jewelery. Others say fashion is not art and doesn’t belong, as fashion is interactive—it requires an active participant—a person wearing the garment.
Fashion designers have strong and contradictory views. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier famously said in 2001 “Fashion is not art. Never” (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). Other designers concurred, including Prada and Marc Jacobs. Artists of traditional mediums weighed in on the discussion and suggested that fashion belongs in its OWN museum, so fashion could be "put into context". Their argument—fashion takes gallery space away from ‘real’ art (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). My guess is that some museum curators would agree with this argument.
Attendance at Fashion Exhibits
More importantly though, we should consider what museum visitors think. And if we use attendance numbers as a benchmark, it seems that museum-goers love fashion exhibits—in a big way. The most visited museum exhibit worldwide in 2018 according to the Art Newspaper’s annual museum-visit attendance survey, was a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination with about 1.7 million visitors. The show, featuring haute couture fashion with religious works of art, was a smash hit—the most visited exhibit in history of The Met! It beat the #1 show of all time at The Met, the 1978 King Tut exhibit, Treasures of Tutankhamen. It also beat out the Mona Lisa Exhibit, when she was on view at the Met in 1963 (with just over a million visitors). Not only that, more than double the number of visitors want to see Heavenly Bodies than another exhibit at the Met that was going on at the same time--Michelangelo in the Divine Draftsman and Designer.
Yet not all people agree that fashion belongs in a museum. After reading a selection of reader comments in response to a 2014 article, 'Does Fashion belong in an art gallery', you’ll see what I mean, for example, “…a lot of so called fashion should be in the trash can not in museums”. The comments goes on.
What’s Going On Here?
Still, museums can’t ignore visitor attendance numbers, discouraging as they may be for artists and museum professionals, that fashion exhibits attract more visitors than traditional art exhibitions. The overwhelming numbers are telling—the response suggests that visitors, (and new visitors who might never have set foot in a museum if not for fashion) find fashion approachable, relatable, interesting and fun.
The attendance numbers alone create a strong argument that fashion does belong in an art museum. Perhaps museum professionals need to think differently about what art is, and consider that fashion goes beyond telling a story about how people dressed in a culture or time period, and is thought-provoking, challenging, engaging with potential to change people’s thinking just as traditional art does. What do you think?
I recently visited the small, but impressive collection of eight paintings in the Matisse/Odalisque exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The exhibition, showing until June 17, features four works of 'odalisques' that Henri Matisse painted over his career, as well works of the same subject by Picasso, Bazille, and Devéria. It’s a tremendous exhibit—Matisse’s works particularly. His colours and textures make for a gorgeous, visual experience, as does Picasso’s, Women of Algiers, Version I, an interesting and unique painting.
My aim with this post is to help readers experience this lovely exhibition online or in person without feeling guilty for enjoying what some consider, politically-fraught art works that represent colonialism and female exploitation with images and ideas that romanticize harems of the ‘Orient’ (a term used by Europeans to refer to North Africa, Turkey or the Middle East during the 19th and 20th century). I also give some background to the works that will help visitors enjoy the paintings that much more, and I cut through the museum-speak of the exhibit labels.
What’s the Exhibit About
The exhibit’s focus is odalisques, a French term based on the Turkish word, 'odalık' which refers to female slave or harem concubine. Though it’s unlikely that the artists featured in this exhibit actually saw a harem in Turkey (a ‘harem’ being a separate part of a Muslim household reserved for women: wives, female servants and concubines of the male (polygamists) household leaders), they do however paint the female nude using themes from the 'orient' that include harem settings, costumes and textiles as backdrops.
To appreciate the works in the exhibit it’s helpful to look at what was happening during the time the artists created the works. Artists typically don’t create in a bubble, but are influenced by current events, politics, cultural trends, even other artists’ works. We can then, view the works in the Matisse/Odalisque exhibit as a reflection of French culture during the time that the artists lived and worked (for the most part which between the late 19th and mid 20th century), which included at the time an interest in ‘oriental’ themes.
We can see these themes in Matisse’s works with his use of fabrics, costumes, and the settings he created, particularly in Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue). It’s a carefully staged scene where his model Henriette, (a professional model employed by Matisse) wore clothing that was influenced by Matisse’s daughter, who wore a similar costume to a carnival party when she dressed up as woman from a harem. Notice too the blue North African textile behind Henriette; it’s rich in detail and colour, as is the carpet at her feet. Matisse was known for collecting fabrics and textiles (usually picked up on his travels), which he used not only as backdrops but as focal points in his paintings. Do you think the woman is the focus in Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue) or the blue cloth backdrop?
One of the earlier works in the exhibit is Jean-Frederic Bazille’s Woman in Moorish Costume painted in his Paris studio in 1869. It takes a different approach, not using the harem setting as a backdrop (except for the sword on the wall and perhaps a tambourine on the floor?) but it focuses on the model, using her clothing as imagery associated with Orientalist themes. Nevertheless, her bare breast gives a sexual connotation.
I’m a big fan of Picasso's works (not him as a person), and his painting in this exhibit, Women of Algiers, Version I is intriguing. Picasso did a series of paintings on the subject of odalisques, titled Women of Algiers, after Matisse’s death; this version is labeled ‘I’ (there's fifteen works in the series). Picasso was inspired by not only Matisse’s odalisques, but also by an 1834 painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, by Eugène Delacroix (see slide show). It’s an iconic harem scene based on Delacroix’s visit to a harem he experience on a trip to Morocco where he was allowed the unusual opportunity (for a European man) to visit within a Muslim harem. Yet when you look at Picasso’s Women in Algiers, Version I painting, it barely resembles either Delacroix’s work or Matisses’. But the painting is interesting; the colours are vibrant, the subjects exaggerated, strange. What do you think Picasso was thinking when he created this? It’s worth pondering; especially when looking at the paintings of the odalisques that inspired him.
Clarifying the ‘Museum-speak’
I typically read the introductory labels that introduce an exhibition, and always appreciate those written in straightforward, non-scholarly language. Alas, they are hard to find, and though the Norton Simon is better than most, the exhibit label for the Matisse/Odalisque is a bit cumbersome as follows…
“…yet his [Matisse] colorful and daring compositions revel in imagery, and excessively decorative environments that threaten to subsume the female subject altogether. The quest to create a harmonious relationship between figure and ground was one that Matisse paused throughout his career, but in the odalisque, he found a particularly, complex and compelling theme in which to further these ambitions”
My 'Non-Museum' Translation
Matisse’s paintings are stunning—the colours and patterns Matisse uses in his textiles, the rugs, bedspreads and backdrops are vibrant, bold and gorgeous, so much so they almost overpower his female subjects. Matisse was always striving to create harmony in his works between the subjects and his textured, colourful backgrounds, and even more so when he painted the female figure. The paintings of the odalisques in this exhibit showcase Matisse’s talent, how he was able to create compelling works that highlight his mastery of colour, texture and form.
I hope you are able to view this exhibit in person, but if not, I’ve included the link to the exhibit below, along with another link to a previous Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that shares other works of Matisse that gives a different perspective.
If you want to go deeper into Matisse and the odalisque theme, see below.
“Museum Hack leads renegade tours of the world’s best museums…with guides that are smart, sassy and sarcastic”— Museum Hack’s website and YouTube video.
I signed up for Museum Hack's ‘Un-highlights Tour’—I wanted to shake things up with The Getty. Though my favorite museum where I’ve done numerous docent-led tours, I felt ready for something ‘sassy’. For the most part Getty tours are great: interesting, sometimes dry, definitely predictable. The Hack’s tours sounded anything but. According to their website the Getty tour is for, “for those who seek secretive, salacious, scandalous stories” (bring it on!), “speed walkers” (wouldn’t want it any other way), “people who don’t like museums” (okay, I can pretend)—and “it’s not your grandma’s museum tour”. So radical! I signed on and paid my $49; never mind that I happen to be a grandmother.
Saturday came. I got an email that morning reminding me of the 2:30 pm tour—where to meet, to leave time for parking, etc. and with a downloadable e-ticket. I left early to make sure I got a parking spot (I know…so non-millennial). Then got a text from ‘Vic’ our tour guide with last minute instructions and a contact number. Brilliant!
The tour did not disappoint. Vic, vivacious and edgy, enthusiastically greeted the four us. Our group likely skewed older than most. One couple was Vic’s grandpa, Ron, a seventy-five year old man with his partner, me (fifty-plus), and one other woman in her forties. Poor Vic. Yet she energetically led us on a whirlwind tour visiting a selection of her favorite works telling stories of each piece that incorporated unique and (sometimes) shocking facts. She was engaging, involving us with questions and inviting comments. No boring art history with dates, names of dead people or terms like Baroque sensibility, fluent brushwork or atmospheric landscapes. No sirree—we discussed partying, the love of wine, penises (more on that later), and heard gossipy stories of several works you wouldn’t hear from a Getty docent.
We played games too. Yes games! One was making up a who-dunnit story using paintings. Standing in front of the ‘Countess of Chesterfield’ portrait by Gainsborough, we had to create a story of who killed the Countess, how and where using the artworks in the nearby galleries. Working in teams of two, we were to take pictures of three artworks with our phones that told the story. Fun! My team determined that a jealous lover, poisoned tea biscuits and worked with the housemaid to serve them to the Countess in her salon. Dead! Another was to find a piece of artwork during the tour that represented who we were in a previous life, then take a picture and share it at the end of the tour. There would be a prize. There wasn’t much of a contest, as Ron and his partner didn’t take a picture but described vaguely who they might have been, the other woman said she would have been King Louis XIV red shoes he wore in his portrait (?!?). I chose a woman who was leading two horses in a field; I likely owned and ran a farm in my past life (boring, but the bar was low). I won a cool magnet of Van Gogh’s Iris’ painting.
The games were fun; they prompted thought and engagement. Vic did a great job introducing them; it didn’t feel awkward or weird.
As promised there were back stories about various artworks. Some salacious in nature. One was the story behind the sculpture ‘Angel of the Citadel’ which features a man sitting on a horse with an erect penis. Apparently the penis-sculpture piece disappeared one day a couple of years ago, (some Getty visitor likely has this prize mounted proudly somewhere in his or her home), and The Getty had to contact the company that had made the mold of the statue (cast in 1950) to see if they could make another phallic cast. Apparently they did, and now it is attached, and virtually impossible to remove according to Vic. My guess is it’s a popular selfie spot on most of the Hack’s tours.
Another, not so salacious but juicy nonetheless, was the kidnapping story of John P. Getty’s grandson in 1973. Vic shared, in the John P Getty exhibit space which tells (parts of) Getty’s life story, how Getty refused to pay the $17 million ransom for his grandson saying it would set a precedent for his other grandchildren. After receiving a piece of his grandson’s ear in the mail, he finally agreed to a negotiated amount of $3 million, which was the maximum amount you could claim on your income tax. Cheap!
Finally, the most shocking story of what Vic shared, is the fact that of all the artworks in The Getty’s permanent collection, only two are by female artists! Vic was more outraged than any of us. I’m so jaded.
I Want More!
The tour was stellar; it lived up to its promise as a renegade tour that’s not your traditional (grandma’s) museum tour. Museum Hack operates in five cities, New York, LA, Chicago, D.C. and San Francisco. They also offer another tour, ‘Badass Bitches’ at The Getty which I’m going to try next if I can convince some girlfriends to join me. It looks just as renegade, if not more so than the un-highlights tour given it promises to “kick some ass”. I’m in.
This post explores what it means for museums to be innovative in today’s digital culture, and describes unique, forward-thinking programs and initiatives in five different museums.
What does it mean for a museum to be innovative? When thinking of innovative companies and institutions, Amazon comes mind, as does Apple, AirBnB, even Bank of America with its digital tools that support virtual banking (like depositing a check with a smart phone). I don’t usually associate museums with innovation. Words like staid, traditional and stoic seem to describe museums best, traditional ones at least. For the most part, cultural institutions are not leading the way in offering guest-centric, unique, user-friendly experiences.
I was reminded of museums’ status as ‘traditional’ institutions in Successful Museum Management a course I’m taking with Northwestern’s Museum Studies certificate program. The instructor, a museum director of a small museum, shared a graphic illustrating strategic planning elements for museums (below); the graphic shows the mission statement and values lasting for 100 years (!).
A mission statement steers the ship so to speak. Yet a hundred years seems eons in today’s fast-paced environment when technology is drastically changing consumer behaviours. Yet it doesn’t mean that organizations can't adapt with shorter-term goals and objectives. A recent article by an experienced museum practitioner discussed the need for adaptable strategic planning, more importantly, the need for a responsive, flexible mindset that's open to change.
Easier said than done, change is hard. Yet, one only needs to look at how retail has changed over the last couple of years, the number of big retailers are defunct due to shifts in customer purchase behaviours, for example Toys R Us, Sears, K-mart and others, to see how inability to adapt led to an at-risk business model. Cultural institutions are just as vulnerable.
So how do museums adapt, become agile organizations? I don’t work in the museum sphere, but I do know that it’s leaders of organizations who act as visionaries, who assess opportunities and strengths within their organization that can lead an organization to sustainability; who know how to leverage people and resources effectively, are responsive to the environment, can create and implement strategies that meet the needs of customers (visitors) and employees.
Below are examples of museums that are innovating—are trying new, unique initiatives that disrupt traditional ways of operating. One project listed (SFMOMA’s app), is no longer operating as it was intended at launch, yet I still included it, as it’s a constructive example of how initiatives can be at risk without the support of resources and/or leaders who aren't able to adapt to change.
Grading Art: The ‘D’s Gotta Go
The Non-Curator Curated Exhibit
Fire the Curators
“Alexa, What IS This”?
At San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Tech Goes Awry
As we’ve seen with this selection of five unique initiatives, innovation IS happening within cultural institutions, change is afoot with much to look forward to. As in any industry, there are leaders and laggers, I’m going to keep my eye on the leaders and see where it takes us!