The Metropolitan Museum of Art is crowing about record attendance. Met director Thomas P. Campbell credited the museum’s popular costume show “China: Through the Looking Glass” – 140-plus items of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear, noting how China fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.
The show is so popular that the museum extended its run.
Campbell also said that the museum’s record-breaking numbers “demonstrate the ongoing enthusiasm for the Met’s exhibitions, collections, and programs.”
The collections? You mean the 400,000 works of Old and Modern Masters or the Met’s long succession of style shows like Coco Chanel fashions, “Goddess” (classic Greek clothing), “Braveheart” (men’s Shirts) and “Dangerous Liaisons” (fashion and furniture from the 18th Century?
Not that the Met is the only art museum to offer frocks-as-fine-art. I’m thinking of Jackie Onassis dresses at the Museum of Modern Art, a retro of African American fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Philadelphia Museum of Art “Ladies Choice: American Women’s Fashions, 1950-1965.”
Suzanne Baldaia, associate professor specializing in fashion history at Johnson & Wales University made this clear in a statement in 2004: “It’s something that helps draw people into the museum and that helps the bottom line. I’m not convinced the museums feel fashion has been raised to the level of a high art.”
Me, neither. What does the Met’s show of clothing worn by John Lennon have to do with art?
Granted, contemporary culture takes in art forms other than the traditional painting and sculpture – video and performance art, for example. But a Lennon dud?
Are we going back to the time of the “Dime Museum” and the culture of Phineas T. Barnum who ran that museum in the 19th century in the belief that people-pleasing shows like jugglers and rope dancers raise gate receipts?
Something former Brooklyn Museum of Art Director Arnold Lehman told me some years ago comes to mind. A devotee of the populist approach to art, Lehman said that non-art shows are a way to attract non-museum-goers: “Young people have so many opportunities to receive visual stimulation in other ways. If we can’t explore those elements of our history and current society that make us what we are, we’re shutting out huge portions of our audience.”
Under Lehman’s watch, the Brooklyn Museum offered mounted shows like the hip-hop exhibit organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We think what museums do is too difficult for people to grasp,” Lehman told me. “But that’s our problem. It becomes their problem because we don’t do anything about it.”