A recent study by Total Research Corp. in Princeton, N.J., concludes that American consumers tend to determine quality on the basis of whether products are sophisticated, practical, sentimental, project an image of energy, provide relief or escape, help make them more popular or reflect a "new traditionalism."
Hmm. Looks like Newport Harbor and the Laguna Art museums took a leaf from that book when they dreamed up solicitation letters for their membership drives. The words and phrases that keep popping up-- special, exceptional, dynamic, vibrant, upbeat, new energy, ambitious, smart and brassy, alive and growing, innovative, sophisticated, stylish-- seem designed to push all the right buttons in the heart and mind of someone "with more than average interest in art."
Leave the sentimental appeals to museums that collect old dollhouses or baseball memorabilia. The arcane, specialized world of art has built-in snob appeal to people looking for "sophistication."
On the other hand, no one wants to feel foolish or inadequate. And most of us like to hang out with our peers. So taking out a museum membership becomes synonymous with joining a special kind of social club.
"Best of all, you'll meet South County people you'll want to know better," says the Laguna museum's solicitation letter, signed by director Charles Desmarais. "This Museum has always attracted lively, sophisticated members . . . "
In fact, if just being a member doesn't give you enough togetherness with like-minded folks, you can join a museum special-interest group and "get to know other Members even more intimately." It sounds as though we shouldn't inquire too deeply into whatever goes on at \o7 those \f7 meetings.
The Laguna museum letter opens with the essentially true statement that "The whole idea of a Museum is \o7 public\f7 access to art." But the idea immediately gets twisted around to separate the great unwashed from the lucky few who have paid more money for the opportunity to enjoy the museum when it's normally closed: "So if the idea of coming here \o7 after hours \f7 . . . when our elegant galleries are open for your \o7 private\f7 enjoyment--well, it's a fantasy I thought might appeal to you!"
Oddly enough, the Newport Harbor letter contains no specific information about major exhibits, past or future, organized by the museum. Instead, the letter leans heavily on the undoubted star power of Andy Warhol (whose early work is featured in a show opening tonight) to launch the December, 1989, membership drive.
The Laguna museum's 1989 letter at least offers a basic rundown on the different types of exhibitions it showed during the past year (performance, installation and contemporary art, as well as "American masterworks").
To be sure, the idea is to sell the sizzle, not the steak. But both museums seem to be proceeding on the assumption that potential members have little awareness of top artists and important trends in the field.
Newport Harbor's opening appeal pushes the hoary notion that, like a piece of the True Cross or an amulet that wards off evil, a work of art possesses a special power that can transfer itself to the viewer. "It might be said that magic flows from the hands of an artist . . . when that unique, mystical quality called talent manifests itself on canvas, in stone, glass or metal. . . ," burbles the letter, signed by board of trustees President Thomas H. Nielsen.
It's amusing how at odds the tone of that sentence is from the pronouncements of the museum's curatorial staff, who are unlikely ever to have uttered such blather.
"When a work of art speaks to us through its beauty or power or sheer individuality, we walk away feeling changed," the letter intones, without explaining further. Apparently, there's nothing like the vague heavenly promise of art-religion to draw in the faithful.
The Laguna museum also promises potential members (yes, "members like you") that they can "rub elbows with artists, critics, curators!" Newport Harbor takes a different tack, stressing educational opportunities ("children love it") and the importance of the museum as a community resource ("your patronage and generosity are a vote of confidence in our role as a resource for art. . . .").
Surprisingly, the Newport Harbor letter mentions the museum's new building "on its beautifully landscaped 10-acre site" but omits any horn-blowing about the distinguished architect (Renzo Piano) who designed the structure.
For its part, the Laguna museum rather bizarrely borrows a phrase associated with Maoist China--the "great leap forward"--to describe a glowing future that includes "even more ambitious exhibitions and events."
Of course, both letters are essentially sales pitches, a genre of communication that inevitably seems to involve an appalling degree of sugar-coating, peppy enthusiasm and base appeals to the reader's ego. All one can do is wish both institutions well, and hope that the hyped-up appeals actually lure dollars from the pocketbooks of people who can't wait to meet each other--and maybe see some art as well.