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The artist as a draw

How do museums devoted to a late painter or sculptor fuel a crowd-building buzz? Turns out there's a fine art to keeping . . .

August 05, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — "They're having an O'Keeffe day here. Come on over," says the guy on the cellphone as he checks out the action on the city's historic central plaza. Mariachis and marimba players give their all on the outdoor stage. Then Sister Mary and the Bad Habits, a local blues rock band, takes its turn, belting out heart-wrenching songs for an audience of families, over-the-hill couples and adolescents in outrageous outfits. Nearly everyone who wanders into the area is tagged with an O'K Day sticker.

O'K Day? Is this any way to treat Georgia O'Keeffe, the late, great, famously reclusive artist who lived in the villages of Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, a safe distance from Santa Fe's tourist mecca? A painter whose trademark images of bleached bones and desert landscapes epitomize her love affair with the profound quiet and open space of northern New Mexico?

The hoopla may be at odds with the personality of the artist -- a pioneering Modernist painter and famously independent woman who died in 1986, at 99 -- but the museum devoted to her life and work is celebrating its 10th anniversary. And the community festival that has brought about 5,000 people to the plaza on a recent Saturday isn't the half of it. A yearlong series of events includes workshops, exhibitions, lectures by "women of distinction," public readings of the artist's letters, desert walks and a motorcycle ride through O'Keeffe country. The festivities culminate Aug. 24-25 with a lecture by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Santa Fe's Performing Arts Center, an exclusive dinner at O'Keeffe's house in Abiquiu, a concert by jazz vocalist Diana Krall at the Santa Fe Opera's open-air theater and a gala at the museum.

"I think we'll all have O'Keeffe fatigue when this is over," says George G. King, who has directed the museum for most of its life.

King presides over a small institution with unusually big ideas, but he's not alone. Leaders of one-artist museums across the country -- including the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the Isamu Noguchi Museum in New York and the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont. -- spend their days dreaming up ways to promote the legacies of individual artists. Instead of creating a shrine or a morgue, directors of these museums try to position the artist as the center of a universe that reaches out to scholars, artists and the public.

For the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, there is much to celebrate: a collection that has grown from 118 to 2,993 artworks, including 1,149 works by O'Keeffe; an exhibition program that has featured works by 150 artists; a research center devoted to American Modernism; ambitious outreach and education initiatives; a $20-million endowment; and an annual attendance of 175,000, the highest of any museum in New Mexico.

"The No. 1 question tourists ask is: 'Where is the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum?' " says City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, speaking from the stage on O'K Day. "It used to be 'Where are the bathrooms?' That's got to be a big change for culture in Santa Fe."

It's also a significant achievement for a museum devoted to a single artist, no matter how popular. Unlike general art museums that attract repeat visitors with temporary exhibitions on a broad range of topics, one-artist museums have a special problem: the been-there, done-that syndrome.

The solution for some of these museums, says Hugh Davies, who leads an institution with a relatively broad purview, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, is to make the artist part of a big picture. "Contextualizing the dead artist's work by also exhibiting the work of contemporary colleagues and living followers creates a reason for another visit."

"Contextualizing" for the O'Keeffe means exhibitions that include up-to-the-minute abstractions by conceptualist Sherrie Levine as well as works by associates of O'Keeffe and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. It also means "art and leadership" workshops, scholarly conferences and a research center that interprets American Modernism as a movement running from the 1890s to the present.

One-artist museums are largely a European phenomenon, but they have cropped up in the United States over the last century. Up-to-date records don't exist, but a survey done in 1998 lists about 45 American museums and historic homes or studios devoted to single artists. They might be expected to have the world's best collections of the artists' work, but with limited acquisition funds, they compete with larger institutions for gifts of artworks. As a result, the quality and quantity of their art holdings vary considerably. The Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, N.Y., maintains a comprehensive collection of the artist's paintings, sketches and sculptures in his former home. At the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio in Kansas City, Mo., the emphasis is on the artist's domestic and professional environment.

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