Russians, Guggenheim Make Big Mac Museum

The other day, I had a call from London

that set me to brooding again about the fate of our art museums-some of them,

anyway, and no doubt many more in the future. The caller was a reporter from

the BBC, and he was inquiring about the opening of yet another new Solomon R.

Guggenheim Museum franchise in-where else?-Las Vegas.

Was I planning to attend this historic opening? he asked. I was not, I replied. Being a journalist, he

naturally wanted to know why I would take a pass on such a glittering event.

Well, I said, I’ve lived a long and interesting life without recourse to-how

did I put it?-the lower depths of American cultural life, and could see no

reason to alter that practice now. After all, if it’s a question of acquainting

oneself with the lengths to which the Guggenheim is currently prepared to go in

prostituting its once-celebrated fame as an art museum, I don’t have to leave New

York for that.

It came as no surprise to the man from the BBC, of course,

that I disapproved of what is now the Guggenheim’s principal mission in the

21st century: to become the McDonald’s of the international museum trade. It came as no surprise to me, either, that

he wasn’t surprised. He was clearly looking for someone to say a bad word about

the Guggenheim’s current course. This is the way our major media operate today:

They concentrate on the kind of questions to which they already have the

answers. The task of journalism thus consists of

contacting a sufficient number of responsive, identifiable “sources” for sound

bites to fill in the requisite range of opinions already programmed. It saves

having to make judgments of one’s own.

Alas, the BBC isn’t what it once was, either. It, too, has

been moving down-market in its arts coverage to lower and lower cultural

levels, in keeping with the “Cool Britannia” imperatives of the Blair

government. But all that’s a story for another day. When it comes to having a

bad word to say about the McDonaldization of the Guggenheim, I am always

available. For what we are talking about here is the shameless trashing of an

art museum that used to play a vital role in the art life of New

York. I doubt if it will be shocking to anyone to

hear that the event scheduled to inaugurate the Guggenheim’s Las

Vegas franchise is the exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle that was first

seen at our local Guggenheim in 1998. (The major offering this fall at the Guggenheim in Bilboa,

Spain, by the way, is the

show of Armani fashions already seen here, too.) And what will our local branch

be offering the New York

public this fall? A traveling show devoted to the paintings of Norman Rockwell.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh

out loud.

Still, the trashing of a venerable art museum is no laughing

matter, especially when it’s so obviously part of an accelerating international

trend. Mercifully, we don’t yet have on this side of the Atlantic

anything as unrelievedly awful as the Tate Modern in London:

a culture mall still pretending to be an art museum but resembling-in spirit,

in layout, and in noise levels and general pandemonium-a cross between an

airport arrivals terminal and Times Square on a bad

night. But a mall of this atrocious type is what we are likely to get if the

Guggenheim brass succeeds in conning the city into allowing the museum to build

its proposed cyclopean theme park in Lower Manhattan.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this deplorable development is

the Guggenheim’s virtual annexation of an art museum with collections far

greater than its own-the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia-as a

resource for further expansion of this McDonaldized imperium. Opening

simultaneously with Guggenheim Las Vegas on Oct. 7 is an exhibition called Masterpieces and Master Collectors at

still another franchise, the Hermitage

Guggenheim Museum-which,

like Guggenheim Las Vegas, is housed in the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino. One

can only wonder how long it will take to see both The Art of the Motorcycle and the Armani fashion show-and why not a

show of Las Vegas slot machines?-on view at the old Hermitage in St.

Petersburg.

Everyone in the art world knows that representatives of the

Hermitage have been desperately seeking financial support for their museum

since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But who could

have imagined that this magnificent museum, which was made to suffer such

egregious deprivations in the Soviet era, would be made to pay so high a

price-the price of its cultural dignity-for its survival in the post-Soviet

era?

In due course, no doubt, St. Petersburg

too may be a venue for a Guggenheim-sponsored Tate Modern–type mall. The

collaboration between the Guggenheim and the Hermitage is said to call for

“collection sharing, building expansion and Internet initiatives,” and it is

this reference to building expansion that is no doubt the key to St.

Petersburg’s future as an art capital-and, of course, the Guggenheim’s

boundless ambitions. And if St. Petersburg

surrenders, why not Moscow-and tomorrow, the world? Russians, Guggenheim Make Big Mac Museum