Commentary: LACMA, the corporate rent-a-museum
Santa Monica music giant Interscope Records is having a 30th anniversary blowout, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has ordered up a celebratory exhibition for the occasion.
No, not a sponsored fundraising party for the museum.
Not even a private event for Interscope in a rental hall.
It’s an exhibition, open to museum members and any gullible public willing to shell out admission dollars to see it.
Here comes “Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reimagined,” set to open in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion on Jan. 30. The company commissioned 46 artists to make paintings (and a few sculptures) related to their favorite Interscope tunes by Gwen Stefani, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Tupac Shakur, Black Eyed Peas and plenty more. The artists retain ownership of their works, while the company intends to use the images in packaging for future limited-edition reissues of albums.
We’re being asked to believe that this low-wattage marketing idea is something worthy of our rapt, if pandemic-weary, attention.
Strip away the diverting celebrity names, and what’s left is just a museum show of a corporate collection. Corporate art collections are not a rare thing — although this format is certainly unusual — but exhibitions of them at major museums are. There are lots of reasons why. For one, outsourcing art selections to company execs usurps the role of museum curators. Curatorial independence vanishes.
Other potential land mines are even greater.
Chief among them: When a corporation contributes funds to a museum that shows its collection, the museum’s exhibition program appears to be for sale. Interscope Records is underwriting a chunk of “Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reimagined.” (Neither Interscope nor LACMA spokespersons would divulge the amount.) The specter of pay to play should be a matter of considerable concern — especially for the Board of Supervisors that oversees the county facility.
Why is LACMA hosting a museum show for a major record company? Beats me. Interscope has built a lucrative empire producing a wide range of pop music, including rap and alternative rock, featuring some of the biggest names in the business. LACMA is an art museum in the midst of a gigantic capital campaign to underwrite construction of a hugely expensive new building, which will be named for record mogul (and major donor) David Geffen. Let the speculation about crass motives begin.
Is LACMA’s sluggish fundraising campaign picking up momentum? Here’s where things stand
The museum’s coffers are just $24 million beefier than a year ago for its $750-million new building project.
A last-minute announcement of the imminent show arrived in mailboxes just the other day, which is one sign of the depth of thought that’s gone into its preparation. Assorted ludicrous claims are being made about the ostensible seriousness and significance of the undertaking.
Top of the charts: “Artists often cite music as a source of inspiration, capturing the sonic experience through color and form, or translating musical innovations into their own practices,” says the press release. (No museum publication is planned.) In this exhibition, “a diverse, intergenerational group of contemporary visual artists are in creative dialogue with iconic musical artists.”
Well, yes. They are. They’ve been paid to get together “in creative dialogue.”
Which is certainly fine by me (and no doubt them), if not exactly daring. A drawing by the great assemblage artist Wallace Berman graced the 1948 cover of a bebop-jazz album for L.A.’s old Dial Records label.
If Interscope folks whip up an instant corporate quasi-collection of paintings by name artists — Ed Ruscha, Lauren Halsey, Kehinde Wiley, Stanley Whitney and others — good for them. But don’t pretend this is some discerning LACMA discovery and analysis of a wave of artists gripped by a contemporary urge to explore synesthesia. That perceptual phenomenon, sometimes called joined perception, describes how the stimulation of one sense can lead to involuntary prompts in a second sense.
The last time synesthesia made big cultural waves came a hundred years ago, when Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky courted sight from hearing. He created rhythmic visual experiences in oil on canvas and watercolor on paper by deploying line, color, texture and shape. (LACMA owns a great one, “Untitled Improvisation III,” from 1914.) That radical art idea stemmed from him, not the executives of a major international entertainment conglomerate.
Instead, what’s coming to LACMA is a show of art conceived as a corporate marketing tool.
The museum project was initiated last summer when Interscope approached LACMA Director Michael Govan. Staci Steinberger, a museum decorative arts and design curator who has acquired historical album covers for the museum’s collection in the past, was charged with overseeing the show.
The anniversary idea to commission album art came from Justin Lubliner, the savvy young record exec who shepherded Billie Eilish to stardom, sweeping the “big four” Grammy Awards (album, song, record and new artist) in 2020. Interscope executives John Janick, Steve Berman and Josh Abraham chose the painters and sculptors, along with billionaire company co-founder Jimmy Iovine.
Cecily Brown, Anna Park and Lisa Yuskavage have all made paintings “inspired” by Eilish. (This may be the place to note that 60% of the show’s artists are men.) Kendrick Lamar is the musician with the most painter links — six — unsurprising, perhaps, given Lamar’s own track record of past commissions of terrific video installations from artist Kahlil Joseph.
All of which is to say: Who cares? Since when is LACMA’s mission the promotion of corporate marketing plans? One depressing answer to that question is “since 2020,” when the museum tried to pass off a selection of props from a TV beer commercial as a work of art.
Pay to play is no small thing. As a deal-making business, not a nonprofit charity, Interscope wouldn’t likely know about the perception problem with funding such an exhibition, but the museum sure as heck should.
On the bright side, this game will be brief. The run for this fiasco of an exhibition is a scant two weeks. Two whole weeks. The museum’s Interscope anniversary party ends Feb. 13.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has opened as the ultimate celebration of Hollywood history, Oscar lore and today’s movie makers.
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