American Idol Meets the Museum 

The Hammer's Mohn Award is a grand experiment in art-world democracy

Thursday, Aug 23 2012

"BlackBerrys, Turkish garlic, baby food, chocolate bars, perfume, fuel ... ." Artist Liz Glynn is fumbling through the multicolored wooden drawers in her installation at the Hammer Museum, pulling out lead sculptures.

The objects are life-size versions of banned or difficult-to-find items that Palestinians have imported through the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The idea is that museumgoers can play with these things, taking them from the drawers and arranging them around the room. The exhibit includes a wooden tunnel that gets smaller and smaller, like a sideways pyramid; a round, white section of another tunnel, made of reinforced concrete bricks; a box of white gloves for handling the sculptures; and a closet with a wedding dress — brides have been smuggled, too.

Museumgoers particularly like the lead crabs. "People like to put them in funny places that have sort of a narratively suggestive" quality, Glynn says. "Peeking out from behind something, or the crab with a cellphone next to its claw." Some visitors have tried on the dress.

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY BRIAN FORREST - A series of paintings by Meleko Mokgosi depicting Africa's colonial legacy.
  • A series of paintings by Meleko Mokgosi depicting Africa's colonial legacy.

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People are technically allowed to take the objects anywhere in the museum, though guards sometimes stop them. Glynn once found a lead BlackBerry stuck in a planter. She pictures people walking around with these items in their pockets, feeling their weight, simulating the experience of sneaking something where it's not supposed to go.

Glynn, 30, a graduate of Harvard and CalArts, grew up outside Boston, obsessed with the mummy display at its Museum of Fine Arts. The idea for her exhibit began with the great pyramids, where pharaohs were buried with belongings to use in the afterlife — and then got more complicated.

"I try to start with something any fifth grader would know," she says, but adds, "You aren't expected to know everything. It's better if you don't, and have your own story of the time you put something in your pocket or having been in a mine shaft or something else."

Whether people can relate to her work is a particularly important question for Glynn, one of five finalists for the Hammer's inaugural Mohn Award. The prize — which pays out $100,000 over two years and includes a book published about the artist's work — is given to the top artist in the museum's inaugural biennial, "Made in L.A.," featuring new work from 60 young or under-recognized L.A. artists and running through Sept. 2.

The twist? It is museumgoers who vote to determine the prizewinner — a process that has angered many L.A. artists and fueled a discussion about whether popularity is an appropriate goal for visual art.

The art world is full of prizes, including the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award for best work in the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Guggenheim Museum's Hugo Boss Prize — also $100,000 — is given every two years to an artist of any age or nationality. The most prestigious, and talked about, is the £25,000 Turner Prize for a British artist, run by the Tate in the United Kingdom.

All of those are juried prizes. But, slowly, voter-based contests are beginning to join them. The 4-year-old ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a sprawling free-for-all with more than 1,500 entries, where anyone who shows up can vote for the top award of $200,000 (there are also juried prizes). The Brooklyn Museum in September will hold its GO project, in which the public votes on 10 artists to be considered for an upcoming exhibit. An online vote determined the 80 games chosen for the "Art of Video Games" exhibit now at the Smithsonian.

On the more private side of the museum biz, LACMA runs an annual Collectors Committee benefit: Ten curators pitch top donors on the pieces they want the museum to buy. The benefactors then vote on what is purchased (see sidebar).

The Mohn Award is bringing Grand Rapids–style democracy to a curated, prestigious exhibit. And it comes as Los Angeles is embroiled in a debate over a museum's relationship to the public. The Museum of Contemporary Art is still reeling from the firing of its chief curator, Paul Schimmel, after 22 years. Schimmel's relatively scholarly bent was perceived as a casualty of MOCA's direction under its buzz-generating museum director, Jeffrey Deitch, a fan of combining art with music, fashion, celebrity and other aspects of pop culture.

Museums have fended off accusations of commercialism for decades. The traveling "King Tut" exhibit in the 1970s ushered in the age of the blockbuster, which continued with last year's Metropolitan Museum's show on fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and Deitch's own street-art retrospective here, which attracted 201,352 visitors, MOCA's biggest tally ever.

Some think the Mohn Award's public vote, which ended Aug. 12, turns a serious exhibit into an extravaganza, focusing on what the public desires at the expense of what's truly deserving. But Hammer director Ann Philbin responds that she's just trying to get more people seeing and thinking hard about "Made in L.A." And what could be wrong about that?

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