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
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
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.
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
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?