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Hammer Museum's Lawren Harris show curated by celeb Steve Martin raises concern in art world

Mike Boehm
Los Angeles Times

In keeping with an old showbiz tradition, Steve Martin is using his star power to vouch for a little-known talent he thinks the public should know and love — Lawren Harris, a Canadian landscape painter who died in 1970, famed in his homeland but all but unheard of in the United States.

Martin, a longtime fan of Harris, is curator of "The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris," opening Sunday at the Hammer Museum. The actor-musician-writer and the museum professionals allied with him aim to give Harris his belated American due.

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For the Record, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 15: An earlier version of this post referred to Andrew Harris as another curator of the show. His last name is Hunter.

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The painter's only other solo museum show in the U.S. was a little-noticed display in 2000 at the Americas Society in New York City, curated by Andrew Hunter, one of the two professional curators riding shotgun for Martin on "The Idea of North."

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By anointing Martin as curator, the Hammer joins a number of museums that have bestowed curatorial laurels on pop-culture celebrities and reaped the attendant publicity. It also reopens a long-running art world debate over whether people who collect a given artist's work — as Martin does with Harris — should have a hand in curating nonprofit museum exhibitions that have the potential to increase the value of their own art holdings.

"It was never on my radar" to be a curator, Martin said in a public talk this week at the Hammer. "I think [curatorial work] is best left to scholars."

That changed after Ann Philbin, the Hammer's director, visited Martin's home in Los Angeles and was intrigued by a Harris landscape painting. Philbin, who hadn't known about the artist, said she delved further into his oeuvre in the ensuing months, then invited an initially hesitant Martin to curate the exhibition. It will be seen next year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

"Here was an opportunity to pull the curtain back," Martin said at his public talk. "I wouldn't have said 'yes' if [Harris] was known. Here, I feel I'm part of a good deed."

Even so, "eyebrows will be raised" any time a museum's imprimatur can be seen as potentially moving the market in favor of a private collector who's been given a voice in planning an exhibition, noted Bruce Altshuler, head of New York University's museum studies program.

"If what comes out of it is a very strong show, that's good, but the museum should be aware it's raising some questions and should be prepared to answer them," Altshuler said.

Martin owns three Harris paintings, none of which are included in the Hammer show. He declined to be interviewed but responded to some questions in writing.

In his written response, Martin noted that the exhibition "would have never come to be" if he didn't collect Harris' work, and "the quality of the show speaks for itself."

Museum Director Philbin defended the selection of Martin, saying his motives clearly were not selfish. Philbin said she asked Martin whether he planned to sell any of his works by Harris, and he said he did not.

"The word 'curator' carries an assumption of scholarship, intellectual rigor and connoisseurship, and Steve has all those things even though he is not a trained curator," Philbin said.

Martin is no stranger to the commercial implications of museum exhibitions for art collectors. In 2006, after he'd loaned Edward Hopper's painting "Hotel Window" to a 21/2- year touring retrospective on Hopper that ended at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, Martin sold it for $26.9 million at a Sotheby's auction, about double the presale estimate.

"It did not need the imprimatur of the Whitney show to make it collectible or enhance its value," Martin said in his written response, adding that he didn't decide to sell the painting until after the Whitney's show had opened and notified the museum immediately. "The painting was sold for personal reasons," he said.

Auctioneers in Canada who sell Harris' work think that the L.A. show will boost prices, which regularly top $1 million for prime pieces, with an auction high of $3.5 million.

It "could prove a watershed moment for Lawren Harris," said David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House in Toronto. Already, he said, the L.A. show has sparked queries from new potential buyers interested in three Harris paintings he'll be auctioning Nov. 26.

Linda Rodeck, head of the Canadian art department at Waddington's auction house in Toronto, said that the lower-profile Harris exhibition seen in New York in 2000 and in 2001 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, cemented Harris as a million-dollar artist in Canada.

Martin's show promises to give another boost, she said. "It's good for people in my business, and it's nice to have attention paid to someone of whom we're so proud. Being the little brother, we like that affirmation" from Americans.

The Hammer's exhibition covers the most esteemed period and style of Harris' career — the landscapes he painted in the 1920s and early 1930s. The stark, stylized, geometrically patterned pictures of wintry mountains and glaciers are devoid of life but suffused with majesty.

Martin said in his talk this week at the Hammer that he wanted to give the public "a great first date" with the prolific Harris, who veered into abstract painting after his landscape period.

Asking celebrities from pop culture out on curatorial dates seems to be a growing phenomenon for museums in the 21st century.

The roster includes film director David Cronenberg curating a 2006 show on Andy Warhol at the Art Gallery of Ontario, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal picking art for "Size Does Matter," a 2010 show on huge and tiny artworks at the Flag Art Foundation in New York City, rock singer Marianne Faithfull choosing favorite works from the Tate museum's collection for a 2012 show at the Tate Liverpool and pop star Pharrell Williams co-curating an exhibition on the art of toys last year at the Design Exchange museum in Toronto.

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Novelist Julian Barnes recently was tapped by the Royal Academy of Arts in London to curate a 2019 exhibition that, like Martin's show in L.A., will focus on a long-dead figure, Swiss painter Felix Vallotton, who Barnes feels has been overlooked.

This phenomenon "is pretty easy to explain," said David Balzer, a Canadian art journalist whose 2014 book, "Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else," examines how the title of "curator" has lost its former loftiness and exclusivity.

"This is a way to supercharge a brand," Balzer said. "If the Hammer didn't have Steve Martin on the marquee, people obviously wouldn't pay as much attention as they are."

The Hammer and other museum-world insiders are quick to point out that Martin is not just a performer who's beloved for cracking people up but a polymath who for decades has paid serious attention to 20th century paintings.

One of his three novels is about the New York City art world, and his 1993 play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," is a widely staged comedy about the dawn of 20th century modernism in art and science. He served on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1984 to 2002, donating eight works to its collection, and since 2001 his Steve Martin Charitable Foundation has given more than $2 million to museums and other visual art nonprofits.

Melody Kanschat, a former LACMA administrator who's director of a leadership training program at Claremont Graduate University, said she isn't troubled as long as shows curated by pop celebrities meet a museum's standards and are balanced by exhibitions organized by bona fide art scholars.

"We're in a society that values the role of tastemakers as much as it values the role of actual art makers," Kanschat said. "I have full faith that this doesn't represent a trend that is going to throw our industry into the hands of nonprofessionals."

The incursion of celebrity into what was once a lofty priesthood of art curation is "sort of a necessary evil in a post-recession economy," Balzer said. "The high modernist remove, the idea of the museum as a temple with the object itself as the supreme subject and the viewer as secondary to the art on display — those days are over."

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'The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris'

When: Through Jan 24

Where: Hammer Westwood

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