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Monday, 5 April 2010

PMA's Picasso Show...

... Gets Slammed
by New York Times
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer Bio
More than a month after 'Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris' opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The New York Times got around last week to reviewing the exhibition. The PMA probably wished that the newspaper hadn't bothered.

'The outcome,' says Karen Rosenberg, a New York-based freelance arts writer, 'is deeply unsatisfying....'

Rosenberg argues that the show, drawn exclusively from the PMA's permanent collection, many works in which were closeted away in the museum's attic for many years, is too thin to do the thematic justice to exhibition's conceit.

'It's an endurance test without the major loans that typically reward a long slog through the galleries,' she noted, in her review 'Picasso Leads the Way Through a Maze of Cubism.'

It's all downhill from there.


The Times is the ultimate arbiter of national main-stream cultural values, and pretty much the 'decider' on which arts events get middle-brow public approval. That's important because shows, like the PMA's Picasso exhibit, need to rely on a national audience for a strong gate and overall monetary success. That's why -- despite no review until last week -- the museum has been heavily advertising in The Times.

Sure. While a negative review like Rosenberg's can't 'close' an arts event, as reviews by Times theatre reviews used to putatively spell the kiss of death for Broadway shows, they affect national ticket sales, especially from East Coast cultural meccas like Boston, New York, and Washington.

Fortunately, the PMA doesn't have to worry about critical comment from The Inquirer, the Delaware Valley's most influential voice. When it comes to the PMA, The Inky can always to be counted on for favorable, wall-to-wall coverage. (In fact, in the one-sixth-page ad the PMA has been regularly running in The Times, The Inky gets billing for proclaiming, 'IT'S EXCEPTIONAL').

In fairness, my review of the show, which appeared on-line at Examiner.com, the BroadStreetReview.com, and Junto.blogspot.com, was also positive. Still, like Rosenberg, I thought that the museum skimped too much by not publishing a show bulletin.

Rosenberg makes another interesting point about expectations arising from a 'mini-blockbuster.'

Like other museums now strapped for cash, the PMA shaved considerable cost by mounting the Picasso installation by simply showcasing the family jewels already in its A.E. Gallatin and Walter Arensberg collections. Expenses such as that for the rental of visiting artwork, international travel, insurance, licensing fees, and the like are thus eliminated. Moreover, in-house shows take less time to put together. Again, saving money.

Yet, as Rosenberg notes, '... [T]his is a special exhibition, with special admissions charge and timed tickets, and viewers will expect all the curatorial sifting and string-pulling that such productions normally entail.'

In other words, if a museum-goer pays for special, the visitor should get special.

Rosenberg makes a solid point regarding expections, and she doesn't think that the exhibition's curator, Michael Taylor, meets the test.

As my review, here and elsewhere, demonstrates though, Rosenberg and I have differing opinions about Taylor's success was in shaping the show's content and narrative. Besides some glitches (not publishing a special bulletin, some poor lighting, and some un-needed thematic excursions), Taylor, to my mind, skillfully used the permanent collection to craft an important story-line that I haven't quite seen before.   

Oh, yeah. Besides the delay in publishing the review (whether ultimately it was good, bad, or indifferent), The Times took another editorial swipe by not showcasing the Rosenberg's article in Friday arts section. Instead of a front-page treatment, the review was buried inside. Below the fold, no less. Ouch!