Friday, December 2, 2011

Museum Blockbuster-Show Sponsorships Go Begging While Billionaires Throw Down Hundreds of Millions on Trendy Schlock

Painting by Antonella da Messina, to be shown in the Met's "Renaissance Portrait" exhibition
The Metropolitan Museum’s next sure thing is its “Renaissance Portrait” show, an international loan exhibition of about 160 works from some 50 institutions.  When it opened at Berlin’s Bode Museum this summer, it had enthusiastic reviews in Europe and lines around the block.

But when the show opens in New York on December 21, it won’t have a single sponsor from the private sector.  

No such support either for the famous trove of medieval ivory chessmen – seen by millions in a Harry Potter flick – that is currently on view at the Cloisters, the Met’s uptown jewel box.  The chessmen, loaned from the British Museum, were the subject of a feature article in the Wall Street Journal, and the exhibit, called “The Game of Kings,” was a lead review in the New York Times. 

Queen chess piece
The Met had sought a cool $1 million for exclusive name-brand sponsorship of “The Renaissance Portrait” and a bargain-basement $100,000 for “The Game of Kings,” amounts that are mere chump change for the kings of Wall Street who will giddily part with tens of millions for an inferior Warhol.

Support for both shows, though, is being provided entirely by foundations and philanthropies.

Sponsorships can be useful for buffing up a bad image.  The corrupt Bank of America, for example, started getting involved in cultural support big time in 2008, when it was taking the lead in driving the economy over the cliff.  “We get great public relations out of it,” Allen Blevins, director of the bank’s corporate art program, unabashedly told the Charlotte Observer in 2010.

Of course, some reputations are so noxious that even institutions hard-up for a handout will shun an affiliation.  There’s been noise recently in London about kicking polluter BP out of the sponsorship business at the Tate, and some might argue that the bailed-out banks should also be beyond the pale – for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that money from them would be the same as taxpayer support.

Portrait attributed to Andrea d'Assisi
But there are still plenty of acceptable dirty names in the financial industry – various hedge funds, investment partnerships, money management firms, among them some whose principals are notorious for spending big bucks at auction on the latest lollipop art, under the mistaken impression that they are also purchasing social cachet.

Maybe they should consider in addition getting some cash flowing to the Met and supporting an exhibition of timeless art.  That could be a friendship with benefits for art lovers outside the party circuit.

Images: Portraits from the Bode Museum website, chesspiece from the Metropolitan Museum website.

Text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert