Michelle Obama to visit Metropolitan Museum of Art (yawn)
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The White House announced the other day that First Lady Michelle Obama would attend Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly refurbished galleries for American art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Why? The arts community has expressed considerable hope that the new administration will be active arts participants, focusing the kind of attention that hasn’t been seen from Washington in decades. And, indeed, according to the news release, Obama’s visit is being staged ‘to demonstrate her interest in and support for the arts.’
Really? Is that what a visit to the Met will demonstrate?
New York City is the nation’s No. 1 tourist destination. After Times Square, the Metropolitan Museum is the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction. The first lady will be doing what 4.5 million people, mostly out-of-town visitors, did last year. The city’s tourism industry will surely be thrilled at the demonstration of support. But for the struggling arts infrastructure elsewhere across the nation, which doesn’t rely on tourist hordes, the New York event is pretty much a snooze.
Last month the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., opened its new American art galleries. On May 30, the Huntington Library and Art Galleries in San Marino will open its new Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. In the fall of 2010 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will open its new American art wing. Yes, it’s a busy 18 months for museums’ historical collections of home-grown painting and sculpture. If Michelle Obama turned up at any of those ribbon cuttings, we’d certainly have some authentic evidence of arts support.
But at the country’s leading cultural tourism destination? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. The Met is swell, and so is the first lady. I just think there’s a message problem here.
The desultory gesture doesn’t match significant words with savvy deeds. This particular media stunt is sort of like the president going to a Lakers game and expecting sports reporters to fall all over themselves waxing poetic about a national demonstration of support for struggling basketball. Visiting the Met is the sort of thing noted arts supporters Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan did.
So here’s a tip for the White House Office of Media Affairs, which doesn’t quite seem to understand arts support in the United States: On Monday, do not under any circumstances let Michelle Obama have a photo-op in front of that Neo-Classical marble architectural facade reconstructed inside the central court of the Met’s American wing. Martin E. Thompson’s Branch Bank of the United States (1822–24) was originally located in Lower Manhattan at 15 1/2 Wall St., and what with all the current bank bailouts and investment Ponzi schemes and millions in taxpayer-funded CEO bonuses and that $1,400 John Thain wastebasket and such -- well, you get my drift. Media events can have unexpected consequences.