Thursday, May 28, 2009
I'm dying to get up to New York to see a few exhibits, chiefly the Met's Costume Institute exhibit "The Model as Muse." "Model as Muse" was also the theme for the Costume Institute Gala, an enormous celebrity-studded fundraiser that happens every year (this one was headlined by Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs). The topic is very thought-provoking and one that should make for a good exhibition, incorporating photography, art, and fashion design. It also happens to be a "sexy" topic that appeals to our celebrity-crazed popular culture, where supermodels are just as well-known as the fashion designers whose work they wear.
Exhibitions on "sexy" topics present their own set of challenges. While museums frequently struggle for funding and visitors, exhibits on topics relating to pop culture and current fashion often attract big-ticket sponsors and hordes of museumgoers outside the usual demographic. This not only boosts the museum's bottom line, it has the potential to expose visitors who have come to see a single exhibit to the museum's permanent collection, advancing the institution's mission and setting the stage for repeat visits-- all a dream come true for any museum director.
But it gets more complicated than that. Fashion exhibits almost always run the risk of over-emphasizing display, becoming more like retail windows than museum galleries. In any exhibit, the objects must speak for themselves and have appropriate visual context and arrangement, and the best fashion exhibitons remind the viewers that there are more layers to fashion than simply the merchandising and consumption stages.
Secondly, while I am all for the incorporation of multimedia elements (especially interactive ones) into museum exhibits, I hate to attend shows that make me feel like I've just walked into an Abercrombie and Fitch store, with music blaring and videos flashing at me from every side. Multimedia elements should complement and reinforce the exhibit's narrative, not distract from it. This applies, of course, to all exhibits, but it can be particularly enticing for designers of "sexy" exhibits to incorporate multimedia and sound elements more than usual.
There is also the issue of strings attached to exhibit funding, although this is more of a problem with monographic shows being underwritten by living designers or current fashion houses. Conflicts of interest between designer PR and a museum's ethical obligation to be neutral--I think museum text is a type of journalism--can become an issue when the museum is relying on the design house for the resources to create the show. Even if there is no money attached, it never benefits a museum to displease a designer or design house, so negative or critical commentary must always be tempered with a certain level of deference (in some ways, dead artists and defunct houses are far simpler to work with!).
Finally, the curators and exhibit designers must remember the mission of their institution, which, for the Met, is "to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards." That means that exhibits of current fashion can (and should!) be exciting, stimulating, attractive, and "sexy" while also being in-depth, contextualized, well-researched, unbiased, and relevant, reminding the viewer that the pieces exhibited are works of art of "the highest level of quality."
I am excited to see what the Met has done with such a loaded topic, and how they've handled all these challenges! Take a look at the exhibit's website, including a video overview of the gallery (I love the opening vista, a recreation of Richard Avedon's famous photo for Dior, "Dovima with Elephants").
Photo of model Catherine Deneuve by Loomis Dean for Life, 1961.