I may not be the trendiest fellow on the planet, but I’m pretty good at spotting and predicting trends as they arise.
I sensed when I went to review it not long ago that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ current exhibition, “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” demonstrated an interesting trend in the evolving concept of what a museum experience should be. The experience in this case was the opportunity to stay overnight in a space that copied a motel room in one of Hopper’s paintings with exacting detail. I attempted to register for this when tickets became available, but perhaps not surprisingly it sold out almost immediately. At the time, I speculated that other museums would start offering the same thing as part of their temporary exhibitions, and it looks as though I’’m on trend, as it were.
The Design Museum in London, as part of its new exhibition “Moving to Mars”, will allow a visitor and a companion to spend the night inside one of the displays, which recreates at full scale a design originally submitted to NASA as part of an architecture competition for imagined living environments on the Red Planet. Unlike the Richmond show, which offered multiple possible opportunities for a Hopper sleepover, in this case only one evening will be available. The lucky winner will receive not only overnight accommodation, but also a set of loungewear designed for Martian colonists, a private tour of the exhibition, dinner and breakfast, a private screening of a Mars-themed film, and a swag bag. If you’re interested in entering the competition, you’ll need to do so before Midnight UK time on December 17th; the winner will have to spend the night of January 17th at the museum.
On the positive side, this gimmick goes a long way toward making a cultural institution seem less stuffy, but still glamorous. Not everyone gets to have this experience, after all, because only one bed is made available. Whether the privilege of sleeping in it is afforded via booking a room as one would an hotel, or whether it’s awarded via a lottery or a competition, by definition the number of people who might want to be able to participate far exceeds the number of people who would actually be able to do so.
By generating greater interest from the press, the museum can hope to attract more visitors to their show. More visitors mean more revenue, whether in terms of ticket sales, catering, or merchandise. In addition, it raises the perception of a museum as a place that doesn’t simply close at the end of the work day and lay dormant overnight. For the survival of these institutions, particularly in attracting those who might not otherwise ever set foot inside them, the exhibition-as-AirBNB seems a winning idea.
Yet at the same time, I can see a few potential pitfalls, as well.
Putting aside the more obvious risks with respect to security, damage to objects in the collection, and so forth, it’s hard to see how you could logically and seamlessly install a bedroom in an exhibition on, say, early 20th century Russian landscape painters. Do you bring in a sleigh, surround it with a bunch of birch sticks in pots, and cover the floors in artificial snow? Other environments would only attract those who have a warped sense of where it’s appropriate to sleep, and possibly a warped sense of what is appropriate behavior, to match.
You may recall the story from earlier this year about a Las Vegas luxury hotel bar decorated like a 1980’s New York crack house, albeit with works of art by people such as Banksy and Basquiat valued in the millions. In that case, at least, the bad art is the property of people with bad taste – but what about when the art is public property that belongs to everyone? What happens if John Q. Public gets up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, and knocks over an Attic vase?
For now, I suspect that we’re going to see more of this trend, so long as museums can think of a way in which to integrate a bedroom into their exhibitions. Like any cultural phenomenon however, at some point trendiness becomes commonplace, until it no longer attracts the attention it once did. Perhaps the cause of the eventual decline will be when something awful happens to one or more guests, or a state or local authority gets involved and challenges a museum’s ability to invite people to sleep on the premises. Until then, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for shows that have a sleepover component, since let’s face it – I want to have that experience, myself.
And now, on to some art news stories from the week gone by.
One outer space place where you *can* stay overnight anytime you like, or at least drop in for a drink, is the new TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, an adaptation of a Space Race-era masterwork by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961). Although I flew in and out of the building many years ago, back when it was still a working airline terminal affectionately known as “The Pregnant Oyster”, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the restoration-expansion for myself. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see it come back to life, as I wrote about previously, and so, it seems, are many others. The Architect’s Newspaper has just named the hotel 2019’s Building of the Year, noting that “the sensitive restoration and reactivation of Saarinen’s masterpiece” convinced the jury to award the prize, and I suspect that a number of other publications and associations will likely follow suit.
A magnificent Iron Age shield found near Pocklington, a town in Yorkshire, has just emerged from many months of conservation and study, and some are calling it one of the most important early archaeological finds ever made in the UK. Dating to somewhere between 320-174 BC, the roughly 2 1/2 foot-long bronze shield was buried with a Celtic warrior who probably died in his late 40’s. The shield is a beautiful piece of workmanship, worthy of “The Lord of the Rings”, covered with swirling patterns and a prominent, never-before-seen scalloped edge decoration. Moreover a number of marks on the object, including a hole likely made by a sword during battle, indicate that this wasn’t just a decorative item prepared for a ceremonial burial, which challenges how many historians have previously thought about the levels of artistic development and technical sophistication achieved in Celtic culture long before the Romans first arrived in 55 BC.
A work by (arguably) Austria’s most famous artist, Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), which was stolen from an Italian art gallery back in February 1997, has turned up in…the gallery. Sort of. A gardener cutting back some ivy on one of the exterior walls of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi in Piacenza came across a metal door set into the structure, and when he opened it, inside was a garbage bag which contained a painting believed to be Klimt’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1917). The picture will need to be authenticated by experts, although initial reports indicate that the back of the canvas still bears the wax seals and stamps that were placed on the object when it was sent out on loan for exhibition, increasing the likelihood that this is, in fact, the missing painting. The work is particularly rare because, some years ago, an art student noticed that it appeared to be painted over the top of an earlier painting, something which Klimt almost never did. Meanwhile, Italian police are investigating both the original crime, which was never solved, and how the painting ended up in its unusual hiding place.