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Art Museums Are Becoming Fashionable

By Steven Rosen · August 24th, 2011 · The Big Picture
I have seen the future of art museums and it is fashion/costume design.

That’s a paraphrase of a famous review Jon Landau wrote upon seeing an early Bruce Springsteen concert, but I felt as if I’d just discovered the art-museum-world equivalent — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit.

The dramatically designed exhibition honoring the outré work of the avant-garde, theatrical British fashion designer — who killed himself in 2010 — had what seemed like a thousand people moving through its packed, darkened galleries at any one time, and maybe a thousand more in line waiting to get in.

By the time the show closed its three-month run this month, 661,509 visitors had seen it — ranking it as the eighth most popular exhibit in the Met’s 141-year-history, and the most popular ever for its Costume Institute.

Coming after last year’s Wedded Perfection turned into such a runaway hit at Cincinnati Art Museum — 63,176 people, an exhibition record — this makes one wonder if art museums have found a replacement for the expensive, touring blockbuster art shows that have been curtailed by the ongoing recession. (The Fashion World of John Paul Gaultier, another high-profile fashion show, is currently at Montreal’s art museum and will tour other museums.)

“Costume is always popular in a way that not everyone can relate to painting and sculpture, just because we all wear clothes,” says Cynthia Amneus, CAM’s curator of costume and textiles.

Wedded Perfection, by the way, was a satisfying art show.

Not content to have just a chronological, historical survey of wedding dresses, Amneus gave it a provocative, thematic focus about attitudes toward marriage and included some installation-art objects like Christo’s skeptical 1967 “Wedding Dress.” Cincinnati has two similar shows coming up in the 2011-2012 season — Art Deco fashions and the surreal, fantastical “sound suits” of Nick Cave.

But Savage Beauty was in a class, and a world, all its own. This was like being in the middle of a performance of a wildly modernist opera, with the wind howling and lights flashing all around. Some of the clothing was erotic, some sinister, some bizarre, some humorous — like the “It’s Only a Game” ensemble featuring a body suit with sash of lilac silk satin and chiffon embroidered with silk thread, accompanied by brightly, colorfully patterned shoulder pad and helmet. The Bengals would be a lot more fun if they wore this.

On one platform was “No. 13,” a white-cotton muslin dress, with underskirt of white synthetic tulle, that was seemingly staid except the dress had been somewhat haphazardly spray-painted yellow and black. Adjacent to it was a film of the model being spray-painted by two robotic arms while wearing the dress at a 1999 show. Eerie.

While that film, and others, drew clusters of gawkers, the crowd around the ghostly floating three-dimensional hologram might as well have camped there overnight. People were so slow to move. It was of Kate Moss, in a film directed by Baille Moss, wearing a ruffle dress from McQueen’s Widows of Culloden collection in 2006ivory silk organza and tulle.

Amneus said the McQueen show was the culmination, so far, of a new direction the Met has been taking in presenting its fashion/costume shows.

“They started to do exhibitions that had a little more theatricality to them, and they have seen a steady uptick in attendance since then,” she said. “I think that theatricality is appealing to a broader audience because it’s like going to a show, not an exhibition.”

One waits to see what museums do next to try to tap into — and top — the Met’s success with McQueen.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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