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Taking Advantage of Picasso

A visiting exhibition will fill a huge hole in LACMA's schedule and generate money and new memberships.

March 15, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

'One of the interesting things about museum life is the interlock between the material and the ideal," said Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the department of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Museums deal in matters of the spirit and the ideal, but they also depend on people coming through the turnstile and on money given in support. We have to find a way to make the two work together, to do things of quality that have integrity but that at the same time are popular and remunerative. For me, this falls right down the middle of that corridor."

Varnedoe was talking about "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art," an exhibition of about 90 paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages and prints by the 20th century master. Following its debut at Atlanta's High Museum and a stop at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the show will open Sept. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and run through Jan. 4, 1999.

The LACMA engagement--which was recently added to the Picasso show's itinerary and was announced three weeks ago-- appears to be a confluence of opportunism. For MOMA, extending the show so that it could go to Los Angeles is a way to get more mileage and money out of a daunting project, intended to share the museum's vast art resources with less well-endowed institutions. For LACMA, importing a large group of works by an enormously popular artist provides a much-needed attraction over the holidays and fills a hole in the exhibition schedule--left over from a period when the museum lacked professional leadership.

Popular as they are with the public, large exhibitions from a single museum's collection are often criticized in art circles as fund-raising opportunities with little scholarly or aesthetic purpose. Complete costs of the Picasso show haven't been revealed, but MOMA will collect hefty rental fees. The High Museum raised $1.5 million to bring the exhibition to Atlanta, and LACMA is planning a budget in excess of $1 million. Museums are willing to pay such high sums because of the potential for increased attendance, membership and bookshop sales.

LACMA officials are sensitive to the criticism, however. "If this is all we did, take these prepackaged things, then it would really draw into question why we have deep curatorial departments," said Andrea Rich, LACMA's president and chief operating officer. "But that isn't the case. This is part of a much larger picture. It's because we are doing this that we can begin to generate resources that allow us to do more scholarly things of relatively narrow interest."

Engineering a museum's exhibition schedule is a question of balance, Rich and LACMA Director Graham W.J. Beal said. When they arrived at the Wilshire Boulevard institution, many scholarly projects were on the schedule, but most of them were not funded, there were worrisome holes and the necessary component of popular exhibitions was missing.

What's more, Beal said, the Picasso show is "an extraordinary opportunity to bring what is essentially a retrospective exhibition to the public here."

Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA's associate curator of contemporary art and a former curator at MOMA, agreed: "It's great stuff. Collections exhibitions are never the same as exhibitions organized to make a point, but that said, the Modern's Picasso collection is second only to that of the Picasso Museum in Paris." Even though Picasso is a household name, there are never enough modern art shows in Los Angeles, she said. "Getting this many Picassos is a really rare opportunity."

Nevertheless, MOMA's greatest Picasso painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," is not in the traveling exhibition.

MOVING ON TO A NEW CENTURY: Meanwhile at LACMA, staff members of all departments that deal with 20th century material--modern and contemporary art, American art, prints and drawings, photography, decorative arts, costumes and textiles, film, music and education--are organizing a mega-exhibition to celebrate the millennium. Scheduled to open in the fall of 2000 and to occupy both the Hammer and the Anderson buildings, the extravaganza will survey 20th century art in California.

"We have spent a year considering different approaches and have come up with something that has a chronological construct but then deals with issues that emerge throughout the century," said Stephanie Barron, senior curator of 20th century art and vice president of education and public programs. "This is not about boosterism. I think we are beyond that. We are trying to take a fairly objective view and bring out themes that seem worth looking at."

Part of the planning process was a colloquium, held last November at the museum, in which an invited group of artists, critics, writers, historians and other specialists discussed the exhibition's parameters and themes that might be explored. "It was very beneficial in terms of jump-starting the exhibition," Barron said.

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