The Brooklyn Museum: everyone should have Visible Storage

This post was meant to precede the Brooklyn Museum’s Target First Saturday this past weekend, but as it turns out, they didn’t even have it this month because of the West Indian-American Day Parade. The first Saturday of every month, the Brooklyn Museum allows free admission for everyone, and hosts a number of (pretty rowdy) events from 5pm-10pm, sponsored by Target.

But truth be told, the Target First events are pretty distracting from the art you’re there to see. The museum was packed full when I visited on the first Saturday of August, and it’s clear that most everyone is there for the drinking and music, with very few people bothering to look at all the beautiful things surrounding them.

by Sanford Biggers, 2007

The outside of the building is incredible – neoclassical architecture reminiscent of the Met, with statues of Old Testament prophets and Greek philosophers lining the exterior. You’d never guess that the inside is fully modernized with glass panels and exposed brick leading you into the center lobby that all the art revolves around.

Maximum Sensation
by Mounir Fatmi, 2010

The first floor’s Great Hall exhibit is overwhelming. They’ve collected and curated pieces that in no way go together, but it’s interesting to compare these works that came from completely opposite times and cultures. They call it, Connecting Cultures, A World in Brooklyn and it focuses on three simplistic themes: connecting places, people, and things, with juxtaposed artworks for each section. One of my favorite pieces from the whole museum was sitting just outside this exhibit: a piano (working keyboard included) with a tree growing up out of the center of it. It’s called “Blossom,” and could have only been more beautiful if the tree was actually real.

Grey Area (Brown Version)
by Fred Wilson, 1993

The first floor is also home to a pretty extensive collection of African art. The art of Asia and the Isalmic World finds a home on the second floor, and they have nearly a whole floor’s worth of Ancient Egyptian work, complete with decorated walls and ceilings matching the ancient vibe. The third floor also has a fantastic collection of European art surrounding the open court below. It’s separated by country, with translations of each description, determined by the nationality of the artist.

The fourth floor has a lot of great contemporary pieces also circling the open court, one floor directly above the European paintings. Here you can find Mounir Fatmi’s “Maximum Sensation” from 2010: beautifully decorated felt-covered skateboards skattered about on the floor. Walk a bit farther and there’s Fred Wilson’s “Grey Area (Brown Version)”, five different solid shades of the iconic Cleopatra bust lined up in the center of an alarmingly yellow wall from lightest to darkest.

Female Model on a Rocker
by Philip Pearlstein, 1977-78
American Art, 5th floor

On the fifth floor is the Luce Center for American Art, with everything from Native American artifacts to portraits of George Washington; everything from sixteenth century to contemporary American work. The most remarkable part of the museum is here on this floor: the Brooklyn Museum’s Visible Storage Center, where you can see all the works not on view, organized by numbers in clear glass cases. There’s shelves upon shelves of sculptures and rows upon rows of paintings, plus computer screens where you can search for anything you might be looking for. There’s even smaller, more fragile works stored in protective metal drawers.

I loved being taken behind the scenes in this special exhibit, and I honestly believe it’s something every larger-scale museum should have. If the works aren’t being used in a particular themed gallery, that doesn’t mean your visitors should be kept from them, especially since it’s just museum management’s decision to hide them away. Share all your art all the time – because why not?

See all my Brooklyn Museum photos in the Flickr set here.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Climb some stairs to find things worth describing

Martin Creed’s “MOTHERS” just outside the MCA.

Although the first couple of galleries you encounter on the first floor of this place are kind of underwhelming, don’t give up hope because the higher you go, the better the art. I found the MCA to be like one of those rope swings they throw out of helicopters – you have to climb up to get out of the awful water full of sharks and backwards-on-purpose canvases.

The first floor only gives you the contemporary art I’m used to being disappointed by – the lazy print-outs with paint on top that couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes. The second floor gets a little better with a First 50 gallery, showcasing the first fifty pieces acquired by the museum, although most of these are just blank spaces, some with polaroids, where the pieces used to be.

Bluntschli by Charline von Heyl, 2005
Gem in the first floor contemporary galleries.

The third floor is where you’ll find Heidi Norton’s first solo museum exhibition, Plants on the verge of a natural breakdown (and other stories of life and death). At first it might look like just a swath of leaves and paint splattered and combined, but comparing either side of the glass on these two-sided little ecosystems is surprisingly beautiful. One side looks like a crazy person’s collection of plants and odd bits all plastered together, but the other side shows what those bits look like up against glass – and the fusion of natural and unnatural elements somehow manages to seem symmetrical and pastel pretty.

The fourth floor is where things get great. My favorite exhibit in the museum, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity has one of the best collections I can remember. Here, architecture becomes more than just a bunch of vocabulary words about columns – the buildings on the canvases and in the sculptures of this exhibit are able to reach outside reality and prove how fascinating it is to form the space we live and move in. I’ll be posting descriptions of all my favorites from this floor so stay tuned (there are probably ten of them, so brace yourselves:)

Overall the MCA is a white-walled, wood-floored, wide-open space of potential that scales from just discovered to fully maxed. It’s an exciting place to walk through, never knowing if what’s around the corner is the best thing or the worst thing you’ve ever seen.

If you live in Chicago, check it out – especially on Tuesdays when admission is free for Illinois residents!

Check out all my pictures from the MCA Chicago here on Flickr. 
What’s behind a Heidi Norton piece.
And what’s in front.

The Portable City of Hangzou, China by Yin Xiuzhen

The Morgan vs. The Frick: Why dead rich guys shouldn’t have hoarding rights

You know what they say: money runs in the family, or at least the family name. And apparently so does art, and even though Mr. Morgan and Mr. Frick have “generously” made their collections “available” to the public, somehow they’re still making money off of it, going against my number one motto: art is for everyone.

I’ll give you the rundown on these two museums that began as hobbies for these men, a couple of the first true 1%-ers to begin the process of hoarding all the wealth and beauty for themselves:

The Morgan Library and Museum
$15 Adults

Outside view of the Morgan, photo from NYTimes.

$10 Students/Seniors/Children
Free on Fridays from 7pm-9pm

Ceiling paintings in Morgan Library, taken by me.

Originally the collection of John Pierpont (or JP) Morgan, an American financier and banker who arranged the merger of General Electric and created the Federal Steel Company. He died in 1913, leaving his fortune and business to his son John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr. On Wikipedia it says he left his mansion and collections to become the Morgan Library and Museum, but on the museum website, it says his son didn’t “give his father’s extraordinary library to the public” until 1924.

The museum itself is pretty remarkable, but with all that money how could it not be? A relatively new addition is an open glass-box structure that doesn’t even need artificial lighting, and unlike the Frick, they usually have around five temporary exhibits that focus on a single artist or time period. It’s more of your typical museum with moving galleries – most of Morgan’s collection is in the Library section.

Right now for example they have the Josef Albers: Art in America exhibit that I reviewed, plus a pretty cool Churchill: The Power of Words gallery that features a three-screen documentary about his role in WWII, plus letters and awards received and sent by Churchill while he was alive.

Inside the Morgan Library, photo from Architectural Record

These five exhibits exist separately from Mr. Morgan’s original collection, that resides mostly in the Library section, a different building linked to the glass Museum. Here, there are impressive ceiling paintings commissioned by Morgan, with four lavish rooms filled with books and ancient artifacts. Everything is left pretty much the same as he kept it, so much so that there aren’t even labels or identifiers next to the paintings that date back as far as the 12th century. You have to search for each piece separately in a little booklet, and some rooms have no booklets at all. The pieces in display cases do have information though, and in the largest library room you can find handwritten sheet music from Brahms, Debussy and Mozart.

The Frick Collection:
$18 Adults

Outside the Frick, photo from

$15 Seniors/$10 Students
Free on Sundays from 11am-1pm (but boy is it crowded)

Henry Clay Frick who saw the turn of the 20th century at nearly the same time as Morgan, was an industrialist, financier, and art patron who served as chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company and financed the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad. called him one of the “Worst American CEOs of All Time,” and he has a pretty terrible reputation stemming from his ruthlessness in business.

Sixteen years after his death the Frick Collection opened its doors, fulfilling Frick’s intention to leave his collection to the city, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why it took so long. The neoclassical mansion he built on Central Park became the Frick Collection we visit now, with everything left exactly the way he left it, the only exception being the small downstairs space now used for the one temporary gallery.

Prime example of my frustration. Yes that is Jan Vermeer’s Officer with a Laughing Woman (1657) behind the chair that you can’t sit on. Photo from NYTimes.

This is the part that most frustrates me. Everything is EXACTLY the way he left it, with little clear numbers marking the pieces instead of proper labels, with some left completely unnumbered and unnamed. To me, this is just selfish. He wanted everything to exist just as he had it, as if that’s some way to remain immortal, while the artists never receive the proper credit for the masterpieces they created. And there are some ridiculously famous paintings here, so many that I personally consider it a crime for this place to ever charge admission. The Frick hoards has Rembrandt’s self portrait from 1658, Titian’s famed “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap,” plus multiple pieces by Jan Vermeer, JMW Turner, Hans Memling, and El Greco. Just check out the collections’s archives to see for yourself. Pretty much every piece I’ve ever studied in my art history classes that isn’t at the Met.

These artists did far more than Frick ever did, and yet somehow some of their most renowned pieces are stuck in his hallways without labels. There are old roped off chairs beneath them so you can’t see them properly or look close, and random little statuettes everywhere that they don’t even bother to number or name. Plus there’s really terrible placement of legitimate masterpieces in too-dark transition rooms and out in the hallways – people just walk past without noticing.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, Titian, 1516, oil on canvas.
Frick Collection.
Self-portrait, Rembrandt, 1658, oil on canvas.
Unfortunately at the  Frick Collection.

Art should be for everyone. No one should be able to buy The Scream or own a Rembrandt. And it doesn’t help that these places you have to pay to get into are also the ones that don’t let you take pictures. They’re trying to hoard away the image itself, along with the original.

These works should belong to the people and should be seen by them too, not just by those who can afford the $18 admission price. It’s awesome that these places do have times when everyone can come and pay what they’re able, but the judgment I get when handing over my measly one dollar bill is not justified.

No one should have to pay to see the beautiful things that formed the foundations of modern art, especially those looking to learn and find inspiration. Plus, it’s not like these guys can’t afford it.

An Englishman in New York, part two

Above the description of Bell and his previous works posted in the gallery is Bell’s own self-portrait in New York. His right hand reaches out in front of him, and his black jacket blends into the buildings behind him, as if they are one and the same. The sun hits the side of the building and shines right into the lens as the brightest part of this black and white portrait. Not smiling and looking straight into the camera, he must be angling himself and the camera together, because the Empire State Building and the other behind him are almost fully included in the picture as they reach up towards the sky. The photograph was taken on May 12, 2010 in East Midtown, Manhattan. Most of the other photographs in the exhibit feature the person in their workplace or wherever it is that plays a part in who they are, and this placement of Bell in front of the most famous building in the city, in almost the very middle of Manhattan, makes him not only a participant, but the center of his gallery.

Zoe Heller, An Englishman in New York
If you were to continue along the gallery, moving through it clockwise, the photograph following this description and self-portrait is of writer Zoe Heller, most well-known for her novels Notes on Scandal and The Believers. But in this picture of her sitting on a metal stoop by the street in Tribeca, all she looks like is a New Yorker. She’s sitting at an angle on the corner of the stoop, with her right arm propping up her face and her left draped across her knees. Her black converses are loose and untied and she has what looks like a tattoo on her upper right arm. She wears a watch on that hand. She seems like she’s waiting—waiting and looking for who ever she’s waiting for. Her eyes are focused past the camera, but it’s her nose and her lips that draw attention to her face—her nose strong and catching light, her lips full and patient. She’s wearing large, but thin, silver hoop earrings that are mostly hidden by her curly brown hair. She looks like anyone you might pass on the street in New York: casual and creative. In her quote hanging next to her photograph she says, “There’s a mythology here that anything is possible. With so many things, I’m torn between the appeal of that American hopefulness and a kind of English realism.”

Hanging next to Heller is a color portrait of the Detective from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Martin Speechley who says, “As a NY City police officer I don’t just live in the city, I’m a part of it… the NYPD is like a big family. Inside the Englishman in me is still there.” The next wall is one of the short ones in this rectangular room, filled with all color photographs. Here we meet playwright Sir Peter Shaffer and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Sir Mark Lyall Grant. Then, as the only portrait oriented photograph, hanging in the very center of the wall, is one of Thomas P. Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This photograph compliments its center status with a symmetrical border within. This border is made of ancient Egyptian ruins, familiar to any New Yorker as the top floor exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through the doorway of this ancient wall covered in carved hieroglyphics stands Campbell, facing the right but with his head and upper body turned the ninety degrees toward the camera. Dressed professionally in a suit and tie, with black framed glasses on his nose, you can see even more of the same ruins surrounding him. Anyone who’s familiar with the successful British comedian John Oliver will notice a very strong resemblance—a round but serious face, a small straight-lined mouth, and slightly graying hair. In his description to the left, Campbell’s quoted as saying, “I first came to New York in 1985 as a student. I fell in love with the city’s international cast of characters, the scale of the extraordinary buildings cheek-by-jowl with the most rundown, God-forsaken, almost forgotten areas… This is such an exciting country to live in. By living in New York and going back to Europe regularly I have the best of both worlds.”

An Englishman in New York, part one

Hi! This is a project I did for my Reporting the Arts class last semester. I got to choose whatever I wanted to do for the project so of course, I just went for a really big blog post. But I’m gonna break it up so it’s not too terribly long and takes up the whole page. Stay tuned!

As you walk through the white wall doorway of room 38A in the National Portrait Gallery, you’re met with a rectangular white room covered, in the most symmetrical way, with photographic portraits. Miniature spotlights on the ceiling shine onto these identically white-matted pictures, and the same thin black frame surrounds each one. The shorter walls to your left and right are all colored portraits and the wall that’s cut in half by the doorway you just walked through has a mix of both color and black and white. The long wall in front of you is arranged in two rows of photographs, all black and white, and with the title of this one room gallery written above: “An Englishman in New York, Photographs by Jason Bell.” There’s a black bench in the very center of this well-proportioned room. If you were to move through the gallery clockwise from left to right, the first thing you’d see would be a tall white rectangle filled with a description of the gallery and a brief biography of the man behind it.

The inspiration behind this exhibit came from an American Vogue photo assignment that Jason Bell began in 2008. He was shooting an English tearoom called Tea & Sympathy that’s located in the heart of Manhattan.[1] After a conversation with the co-owner, Nicky Perry, Bell learned that over 120,000 British men and women were living and working in New York City, just as he was. In an article discussing the exhibit, Bell told the Guardian, “I suddenly thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out why all these people left England?’ And, of course, I also had all these questions about what I personally was doing there.”[2]

What emerged was this beautiful collection, now a book of the same title. Of course, there was some difficulty in turning the most photographed city in the world into something no one had ever seen before. Rather than focusing on the city itself, the standard buildings or the classic landmarks, Bell turned instead to the English perspective. Beside each portrait in the exhibit is a quote from the person in the picture, describing their first experience in New York, their misconceptions about the city, or why they came in the first place. Bell’s first memory of Manhattan is quoted in the same article. He recollected, “Seeing an expensively dressed woman in her 80s on the Upper East Side bending down to pick up dog shit with a perfectly manicured hand.”[3]

Bell has been living between New York and London since 2003, and although he studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford University, he had already decided on a career as a portrait photographer. He’s photographed everyone from Michael Phelps to Colin Firth, to Katy Perry, and has also shot a number of popular advertisements for movies, and television shows. But as an Englishman living in New York, this project was different. “I went for a walk in Central Park with Sting, and for a cup of tea on Kate Winslet’s roof terrace, sat on Zoe Heller’s stoop and watched Stephen Daldry bicycle down 8th Avenue… I started with a blank canvas and was amazed by the number of Englishmen and women who have made such a large impact on the cultural life of the city.”[4] In the description shown in the exhibit he says, “I learnt more about what it means to be English, what it means to be a New Yorker, and where the two intersect.”

[1] books/