Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Status update + buzz hype aura & presence

Last fall I had a really stupid idea.

"I'll do a little something for National Novel Writing Month," I told myself in October. "Just for fun. It'll be fast! Breezy! Easy!"

So now it's February and the thing's at 65–70% completion and I'm at about 96% worn out and crazy. Having been so busy turning the soil over and over elsewhere afield, I've neglected my hay-making over on this side.

Well then, some stray thoughts.

The latest special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where I earn my wage) came to an end recently. Old Masters Now showcased the collection of one John G. Johnson, a corporate lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who earned his fortune representing such scrupulous and benign entities as Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co., the American Tobacco Company, and so on. When Johnson died in 1917 his mansion full of paintings was bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia, and the museum has hosted them since the early 1930s.

In terms of bringing in the crowds, Old Masters Now rated no better (nor really any worse) than a minor disappointment. "Paintings which belonged to one filthy rich packrat with unobjectionable taste and avaricious clients" doesn't exactly make for a compelling curatorial linchpin. Despite the exhibition's title, only one or two pieces from the individual eponymous old masters were featured—one painting by Titian, one painting by Rembrandt, one painting by Bosch, etc. Moreover, many of the highlighted pieces—such as Sargent's In the Luxembourg Gardens, Manet's U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, van Eyck's Saint Francis of Assisi—were already familiar mainstays of the galleries.

To be fair, the curators were hamstrung: the museum is currently operating in the midst of large-scale renovations, which means it cannot exhibit objects on loan from other museums or private collectors (for insurance reasons). For now the special exhibitions are restricted to objects already in the museum's stores, constraining their curators to literally work with what they've got. I don't think the tepid turnout came as much of a surprise to anyone.

I've joked to colleagues and to the occasional guest (whose humor I've ascertained and found suitable) that the show would have been more of a hit if the museum had underscored its fugacity, changing the title from Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection to Old Masters Now: AND SOON NEVER AGAIN. That would be step one. Step two would have the publications and outreach people sending out all the usual press releases through all the usual channels announcing two things.

(1) The creme de la creme of John G. Johnson's famed art collection will be on view until February 19.

(2) At 12:01 AM on February 20, the objects on display will be liquidated. Not auctioned off for fluid capital, but thrown in a heap, bathed in turpentine, and set on fire.

"If you don't come to Philadelphia to stroke your chin and nod thoughtfully before the treasures of the Johnson collection, then you've missed your last chance because vanity vanity all is vanity, Johnson is dead, achievement is ephemeral, and all our lives are as ash. Schedule your visit today!"