LACMA says Mattel did not pay Barbie’s way into museum exhibition


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Did Mattel pay to play (with Barbie) in LACMA’s upcoming design survey?

As The Times reported Friday, Mattel has signed on as the lead corporate sponsor for an upcoming design survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that includes an original 1959 Barbie and early 1961 Ken and her original 1962 Dream House. In a world of rampant product presence (or ‘integration’ in corporate speak) in creative endeavors, ranging from BMW bikes in the BMW-funded ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’ show at the Guggenheim to paid Snapple spots within ’30 Rock,’ one wonders whether there was quid pro quo with America’s most popular doll.

Wendy Kaplan, head of LACMA’s decorative arts and design department, says that was not the case, noting that she was already planning to include Barbie in her show of 300-plus objects before the sponsorship opportunity arose. The survey focuses on California designers from 1935-60 (clothing, furniture and more) who were instrumental in fashioning midcentury fantasies of the good life.


She plans to include the Barbie material as an example of an ‘aspirational toy’ in a section on toys and play, along with more typical museum pieces, such as a prototype of an Eames plywood elephant from 1945 that never went into production. She also makes a case for Barbie as a window onto the history of fashion, singling out the talent of her “wardrobe director” Charlotte Johnson, a designer who taught at Chouinard. (The doll itself was invented by Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel.)

Still, it could be tempting for any museum to add an extra work or two to such a big show when a deep-pocketed sponsor comes knocking at the door. Would LACMA ever consider adding work to a museum show because of its relationship with a particular sponsor?

Museum spokesperson Barbara Pflaumer says no. ‘No, all of the artwork that the curators include in our shows has some scholarly reason to be there, and they wouldn’t make a decision based on anything other than the validity of the artworks.’ Asked whether the museum had any policy guiding the potential use of products in an exhibition funded by that manufacturer, she explains that there is no written policy but ‘a practice wherein the museum carefully looks at those instances’ to ‘judge whether the products can convey the theme of the exhibition,’ mentioning a Charles and Ray Eames exhibition at the museum that included furniture by Herman Miller and Vitra.

‘However,’ she adds, ‘inclusion of those pieces was a purely curatorial decision.’

-- Jori Finkel