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MOCA show asks: Is it business or art?

Times Staff Writer

In a move that seems sure to offend art world purists, the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art will merge the worlds of art and commerce this fall by including a fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique as part of a retrospective of the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

Highlighting Murakami’s longtime professional association with the luxury goods label, the boutique will offer limited-edition handbags and small leather goods featuring Murakami designs. The estimated prices of the bags, ranging from $875 to $920, represent about a $300 markup over the $575 to $665 that consumers would pay for the same line without the Murakami designs at the Vuitton store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Unlike the traditional gift shop or museum store outside the exhibition area, or a shop set up for a traveling exhibition such as the 2005 King Tut show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Vuitton shop will be situated approximately in the middle of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary space. It will be among about 20 rooms featuring paintings, sculpture and animation.

“People have touched base with the play between the commercial arena and high art, but this is a little more confrontational,” MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, who organized the show, said Wednesday.

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Although MOCA will receive no profit from the boutique’s sales and no rental fee for the space, the unorthodox plan raises questions about whether a nonprofit museum tarnishes its reputation by peddling high-end handbags in its hallowed halls.

Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama and president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, said she had conversations with MOCA leaders about their concept of including such a boutique during the planning stages of the Murakami exhibition, which will open Oct. 29 and run through Feb. 11.

“They are doing something that contemporary museums do, pushing the boundaries,” Andrews said.

“They are going to have to work very hard to get the curatorial concept across to the visitor so they do not perceive a conflict of interest. That’s going to really be at the heart of this.”

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Selma Holo, director of USC’s Fisher Gallery, said that MOCA’s decision is the next step in an apparent trend.

“What’s happening in museums is that the lines between commerce and pure art are increasingly blurred,” she said. “So with respect to the Murakami show and the Vuitton shop, one has to wonder whether it is meant as a celebration of the trend, a critique of the trend or a satire?”

Referring to the pioneering 20th century artist who labeled a urinal a work of art, Holo said, “Ever since Duchamp, we have trusted the artist to determine what art is. Is a latrine in a gallery any less valid than a store?

“At the very least,” she added, “it’s going to be fun.”

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MOCA Director Jeremy Strick said the idea of a boutique is in keeping with the 45-year-old Murakami’s commitment to breaking down the boundaries between low and high art.

The acclaimed multimedia artist, who has been credited as the progenitor of the art movement called Superflat -- influenced by pop culture, anime and graphic design -- has his own company, Kaikai Kiki, which mass-produces Murakami-designed products at reasonable prices and serves as a management organization for other artists.

“Murakami is an artist who is perhaps the most significant and influential artist to have emerged from Asia in the last half-century,” Strick said. “And one of the key elements of his work is the way in which he melds commercial practice and fine art and really makes no distinction between the two.

“When Paul Schimmel invited Louis Vuitton to participate in this way, he really felt that the act of buying, the way one approaches the objects when they are consumable within the museum environment, spoke to the unusual nature of his work.”

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“We really didn’t need a faux boutique,” Schimmel said. “I felt that the experience could only be achieved by having an operational one, rather than a fixed, embalmed replication. The fact that there is a new product that is only available here is very dynamic and represents that kind of relationship between the viewer and the consumer.”

Couldn’t the concept of commerce vs. art be illustrated with less pricey goods? Schimmel said that he had also approached the artist about doing a Kaikai Kiki boutique but that the company wasn’t interested in participating: “They said it was too much trouble.”

As is customary with artists who also create mass-market objects, another room in the Geffen will contain 350 items produced by the Kaikai Kiki company, although those will not be for sale. Other Kaikai Kiki products will be available for purchase in the gift shop. However, Schimmel contended that the relationship with Vuitton has been integral to Murakami’s career.

“For Takashi, it has something to do with his expanding self-vision,” Schimmel said. “Every time he collaborates with a kind of strong brand identity, it seems to morph his own identity into something else.”

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Schimmel said MOCA is leaving pricing of the products and the operation of the boutique to Vuitton -- including making sure there are enough handbags and leather goods to last through the run of the show.

“The only request we made is that they operate and have it functional throughout the exhibition, that we do not have this sort of ‘dead booth,’ ” he said.

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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