ON THE NIGHT THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS OPENED THEIR ACCOUNT AGAINST the New Jersey Nets, Kirk Varnedoe, handsome former chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was going mano a mano with Adam Gopnik, twitchy staff writer at The New Yorker, in an upstairs room at LACMA West.
"How do you think she puts her
bra on?" "I don't know, but I
hear arm-removal surgery is
getting cheaper." "Yeah, I'm
getting my legs done next
week." (Andromate CybOrgas-
Matrix sex toy, Erotica L.A.
6/7/02.) Photo by Ted Soqui
Hmmm. Even Gopnik, a ferocious practitioner of verbal one-on-one, ever on the prowl for an epigrammatic slam-dunk, admitted he'd rather be watching the basketball game. Alas, he and Varnedoe -- the Shaq and Kobe of art talks, they joked -- had been flown out to the West Coast to kick around such brain-ticklers as, What is a museum? What is the future of museums? Do museums need to educate or entertain? Should they be aesthetic storage-rooms for the few or art-themed fun houses for the many? Etc. Going conspicuously unmentioned was the fact that LACMA itself is slated for demolition, to be replaced by the somewhat vague imaginings of globe-trotting Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
So the table was set for an evening of what LACMA had advertised as "rigorous and playful debate," with Varnedoe as the "expert" and Gopnik the pesky opinionated "amateur." The room was filled to capacity with by several hundred people, and they seemed to know their museums. When Gopnik remarked that there wasn't a picture in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris that hadn't looked better in the Jeu de Paumes, there were nods and murmurs of agreement in the audience.
That the debate on the nature of museums was being held at all suggests a certain guilt in the upper echelons of the art world about what it is doing to its own institutions. Varnedoe called the Tate Modern in London "a Fascist building worthy of Mussolini," and both he and Gopnik agreed that the Tate Modern and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao are not museums so much as architectural extravaganzas intended to be destinations in themselves. For Gopnik, museums must allow for intimate, personal experiences or they will degenerate into a branch of the entertainment business, with lines forever stretching around the block to see the latest "blockbuster" exhibition. Varnedoe, playing the pragmatist to Gopnik's neo-Luddite, agreed with much of what his friend and one-time collaborator (on the notorious Pop High and Low at the Museum of Modern Art) had to say but insisted that museums need to grow and accommodate the explosion of interest in all things visual among the public.
The contrast between the two men (both Canadians) was striking. Varnedoe, dressed in beige slacks and a tan jacket, had the relaxed, aristocratic air of a retired polo player about to sit down for his evening gin-and-tonic. Gopnik was much edgier. Wearing a dark suit that looked too big for him, he perched on the edge of his chair, legs crossed, hands folded as if to stop them from flapping uncontrollably, ready to pounce on the slightest lapse of logic in Varnedoe's discourse. Unfortunately for him, there weren't many. Varnedoe is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award.
After about half an hour, the debate began to feel a bit stale, probably because real disagreement was lacking. The "problem" with museums is that, unlike football stadiums, they're much more enjoyable when they are at least half empty. By deliberately targeting a mass audience, curators are destroying part of what makes their institutions worth visiting in the first place. When you look at a painting, you don't want 50 people standing in front of you. If you have to crane your neck just to see the thing, you might as well go to a movie where at least you can sit down. Anyone who likes museums knows this. So although the conversation took some fascinating turns, at bottom there was little to argue about. "It's so crowded nobody goes there anymore" -- the ancient joke sums up the feeling of many about the state of the contemporary exhibition hall.
Only at the end did a moment of real drama seem possible. Someone in the audience asked the two men if, "at the risk of biting the hand that's feeding you," they'd give their opinion of Rem Koolhaas' proposed radical redesign of LACMA, which, with its clear plastic roof and open floor-plan, would transform the rather drab jewel of Museum Row into a kind of postmodern train station with art instead of trains -- spectacular, yes; intimate, no. "I'll let you take that question, Adam," Varnedoe joked, but then proceeded to make his excuses. Unfortunately, he said, he hadn't studied the other proposals enough to give an educated answer, etc. Gopnik also dodged the bullet, though more wittily. In an obvious reference to Koolhaas' planned translucent roof, Gopnik said that for anyone who had listened to his arguments thus far, his opinion of the project would be "transparent."