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Few Pacific Standard Time shows will travel to other museums

Only a handful of the California art survey's 60-plus exhibitions are confirmed to be traveling beyond the state.

November 15, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • "Freeway, 1966," an oil on canvas by Vija Celmins. The painting is part of the "Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970" exhibition in Los Angeles.
"Freeway, 1966," an oil on canvas by Vija Celmins. The painting… (J. Paul Getty Museum )

One sign of success for a museum exhibition is the willingness of other museums to host the show, bringing it to new audiences nationally or internationally.

By that measure, many of the shows that make up Pacific Standard Time, however strong their reviews, are underachievers. Of 60-plus exhibitions from San Diego to Santa Barbara that are part of this initiative, only a handful are confirmed to be traveling beyond California, and none is currently going to New York.

A few shows have secured one additional venue. The L.A. County Museum of Art is sending "ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, a Retrospective" to Williams College and Kienholz's "Five Car Stud" to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The Getty's "Crosscurrents" exhibition on L.A. painting and sculpture from the 1950s and '60s will appear at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. And the Orange County Museum of Art's "State of Mind" survey of conceptual art, which was organized with the Berkeley Art Museum, will also run at the Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

But for every show that is traveling there are several that are not, from MOCA's sweeping survey of politically minded art in the 1970s, "Under the Big Black Sun," to the Santa Monica Museum of Art's more focused presentation of ceramist Beatrice Wood. This seems particularly perplexing considering the goals of Pacific Standard Time: to rewrite art history by giving artists of Southern California their due, broadening exposure for the region's artists and institutions both.

In most cases, the paucity of venues was not for lack of trying. The Getty confirmed reports that the Tate in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York both declined to take "Crosscurrents."

Lisa Melandri, deputy director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, said an exhibition tour offers "an expanded audience and recognition that is invaluable." She said the museum tried to find another venue for its Beatrice Wood retrospective, only to have the Renwick Gallery of American Art, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., step away as they were close to a deal — "they found another show for the time spot that didn't cost them anything."

The state of museum finances today were often cited as reason for these shows not traveling, as museums are known to be relying more heavily on their own permanent collections. Taking a museum exhibition on the road typically generates additional costs for crating, transporting and insuring the works and can also involve renegotiating loan agreements for artworks. The originating institution will generally recoup expenses by charging the borrowing institution a fee, which can break into six figures for big shows.

But there were also reasons why Pacific Standard Time shows in particular were a hard sell, museum leaders said. Some of the shows are simply too narrow or regional, for example focusing on a particular arts institution's history. At the same time, the sweeping, historical shows associated with Pacific Standard Time didn't fare especially well, curators say, because they are packed with unknown artists. "I think it is harder than ever to get museums to take chances," Melandri said. "If you have unknown artists, it works against you in the traveling arena."

Paul Schimmel, curator of MOCA's "Under the Big Black Sun," which is loaded with little-known artists, said he didn't even try to find another museum to exhibit his show. "I thought it was more important to do a big, diverse exhibition than to wrap it all up in a package that could be accommodated by other venues."

So is Pacific Standard Time guilty of preaching to a West Coast choir?

That's what a few New York-based art critics have wondered, at least in passing, in their reviews of the shows. One, Peter Plagens, added by phone: "If you want to get out the word about Southern California's participation in the history of modern American art, and show it was more interesting and more influential than anyone thought, that's great. But then you decide to keep the works there and tell everyone: 'You all have to come to see it'?" he said. "Somebody should have thought of traveling the shows and getting the word out in the beginning, from the inception."

Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, said that having the shows travel was not a high priority for the Getty, which organized and funded the Pacific Standard Time enterprise. "What I know is that at a high level we decided that traveling was not a major goal with Pacific Standard Time. We didn't make a policy about it, but we didn't seek to encourage it through grants, for example."

But considering that Pacific Standard Time was designed to broaden the audience for California art, why wasn't traveling the shows a priority?

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