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Making Prints and Graphics Hip and Popular for Museums

By Steven Rosen · July 29th, 2009 · The Big Picture
For art museums, one knotty problem is that the public rarely flocks to prints/graphics shows.

Prints are an important art form for museums to collect and display — many institutions even have curatorial departments devoted to them. But they’re tough to promote to visitors, which is frustrating during a recession when museums need to develop more affordable shows that can draw a crowd.

Because the public regards prints/graphics as multiples, it rarely responds to them as being the equal of paintings. This is despite the fact they can be worth a lot of money and often take great effort to design and execute.

But maybe pop culture is coming to the rescue — and Cincinnati looks like it’s in a prime position to benefit.

Last Sunday, the Denver Art Museum closed a smash exhibition that exceeded attendance expectations, The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area 1965-1971. It had already extended the show once. For the museum’s second quarter, April through June, a period that included three of the show’s four months, total attendance was close to 136,000.

It’s worth noting that, for that same period, Cincinnati Art Museum’s attendance was 66,085 — and for half of that quarter, it had a very popular show, Surrealism and Beyond: In the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

It’s also worth noting Cincinnati Art Museum is free; Psychedelic Experience cost $15.

Denver’s assistant curator of graphic design, Darrin Alfred, organized the show from a 2008 acquisition of 875 psychedelic posters from Boulder collector David Tippit. These included full first-print sets from Bill Graham Presents and Family Dog, the two main concert presenters in San Francisco during the hippie era.

I saw the exhibition and thought Alfred did a superb job of making a case for the artistry of the work, delineating the subtlest of evolution in the graphic-design innovations of people like Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. I also have to say that, because this was a big show, after a while such subtle variations became lost on me.

So instead I became fascinated with the musical acts advertised on the posters — some fabled, some forgotten. I’ve heard other visitors did the same. Does that still make it an art experience?

Cincinnati Art Museum originally had a show scheduled for the coming season with less edgy but still noticeable pop culture overtones: circus posters from Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art. But the Ringling delayed it, given the economy.

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe has reported that the current Shepard Fairey exhibit, Supply and Demand, at that city’s Institute of Contemporary Art — predominately screen prints, collages and Rubyliths — had exceeded 105,000 visitors by June, making it the most popular show in that museum’s 73-year history. The show opened Feb. 6 and continues through Aug. 16. Fueling that show’s popularity is the hip street/poster artist’s impact on popular culture and history — his “Obama Hope” poster has become almost as iconic an image as Uncle Sam, making Fairey a celebrity.

That show comes to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center on Feb. 20, 2010, and might well be running for two exhibit cycles, into the fall, to meet expected demand. The CAC, it’s well to note, debuted an influential show that predicted this trend of pop culture-fueled art shows back in 2003, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture. It included Fairey.


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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