Exhibitions held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are rarely, not to say never, subjected to serious evaluation by independent critics of art and of culture, and certainly not in the press. The fact is that the institution is virtually impervious to any sort of criticism. Needless to say the Met has a brilliant collection of art of all periods, all nations, cultures, styles, and schools. Various areas and sub-holdings, like the Lehman collection, have some independence and special appeal. The Met is, in sum, a marvelous institution. Furthermore, the majestic building complex on Fifth Avenue in Central Park is probably New York City’s leading tourist attraction, so that it functions as a cash cow for the city, and more broadly for the country.
Who could claim, notwithstanding the elevated position of the Met, that a system of high quality critical reviews would not be beneficial? Books, concerts, opera, gallery art exhibitions, scholarly research, and even medical interventions are inevitably subjected to such analysis, and one can expect that often the product is better for it. But there is a critical vacuum when it comes to the Metropolitan Museum, and one has to add that the same condition operates for the National Gallery of London and its Washington counterpart.
The exhibition Velázquez and Manet: The French Taste for Spanish Painting leaves a great deal to lament. As the title implies, the organizers took two top names in the history of art as the core of the idea behind the exhibition. Several painters rank among the sure winners: Van Gogh in Arles (or any place else), Vermeer, Picasso (and when coupled with Matisse, a sure winner), Leonardo — as in Drawings, the leading proto-Impressionists, and, finally, Velázquez, arguably the best oil painter in history. But winners of what? They bring in more admission fees, they sell more objects in the gift shops, they garnish excellent publicity from the media, they attract sponsors and potential sponsors. By and large, the shows are ready-made door busters, by the very nature of the entire enterprise. And success is ultimately determined by the bottom line, the numbers.
The Manet/Velázquez exhibition cannot be regarded as a success on a scholarly, much less intellectual, level despite the reputation of the artists displayed. The least convincing aspect of the show was the vast number of relatively uninteresting works, assembled in overblown numbers. Instructive is the fact that it was really first prepared for exposition in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay with a different subtitle, “la maniere espagnole au XIX siecle,” which in New York has become “The French Taste for Spanish Painting.” One wonders about the changes, presumably to bring in more people in the new venue. In fact at the Met, a healthy addition of American examples, mainly by John Singer Sargent, have been added. So much for the theme and the structural integrity of the exhibit.
Over and above the sheer quantity of pictures — with New York doubling up the number all’ americana — and the questionable scholarly underpinning of the idea, it is fair to say that the presentation was pitiful. Crowded colored walls lined up with similar shaped pictures, set sometimes as implicit but unconvincing lessons in art history related to influences (or better, presumed influences), are visually unapproachable.
One may legitimately ask why the exhibition was arranged at all. As it turns out, the show was exclusively and fully funded by an outside source, the international consulting firm Accenture (proudly claiming as clients 92 of the Fortune “Global 100”, and revenues of $11.6 billion last fiscal year), which developed, and is hosting, the accompanying online component of the exhibition. The incentive for such magnanimous sponsorship at first seems innocuous enough, though perhaps boastful. In a press release as part of their e-press kit, Accenture writes: “It is no coincidence that Accenture has chosen to sponsor this important exhibition. In his day, Manet was an inspired innovator who started realism on a whole new course and influenced the most talented peers of his generation. Today, Accenture works with the most influential innovators of the business world to change the way people around the globe work and live.” They have functioned as benefactors of the arts in many other instances, for example as major donors of numerous US museums, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum. They even hosted an event called “Open Day,” a visual arts exhibition designed to bring together Nigerian artists with deep-pocketed corporate buyers, as a way for Accenture to help “build a better future”.
This brings us back to the incentives behind the Metropolitan Museum show. While Director Philippe de Montebello praised Accenture and its technology for allowing people all over the world to experience the exhibition, Accenture had a far more targeted audience in mind. A press release indicates: “Accenture will also make the Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting exhibition available to Accenture clients and employees to create a unique setting for the exchange of ideas and knowledge between business leaders and industry experts.” Could it be that a major motive behind such patronage was nothing more than securing a high-culture venue for high-powered cocktail parties?
Accenture also sponsored an exhibition called Van Gogh’s Van Gogh at the Washington National Gallery, a fact not easily discernible since it was made under the company’s former name, Andersen Consulting, before Accenture’s official split from that organization and its parent company, Andersen Worldwide, in August 2000. Andersen Consulting’s sister company, Arthur Andersen, whose claim to fame is as the auditors of the doomed Enron corporation, was found guilty of obstruction of justice in that matter. With Andersen Consulting’s $1 million donation to the National Gallery came the benefit of hosting over one thousand Fortune 100 clients at the exhibit, arguably the hottest ticket in Washington that season, with advance tickets dispersed before the show even opened.
Andersen/Accenture’s pattern of donating money to museums in return for privileged access for their clients is no coincidence, but a carefully planned marketing strategy. Andersen Consulting spokesman Eric Jackson discussed his company’s survey of 1700 clients and prospective clients prior to dolling out the large donation to Washington National Gallery: “We want to build relationships in the c suite — the CEOs, the COOs, CFOs and CIOs of Fortune 1000 companies. They’re interested in the arts. They sit on boards, or their spouses do, and they’re collectors and contributors.” He acknowledged that access to the Van Gogh exhibition would please their clients, who not only could avoid the massive lines that formed each morning before the museum opened, but could hob-nob with senators and congressmen in the “social setting” of the gallery after-hours. Andersen acknowledged not only the massive press they generated and received, but also the “return on investment” through their satisfied clients.
Along with Accenture’s full funding for the Metropolitan exhibition came another perk. They have created an elaborate interactive website to accompany the show, employing the technology of their “strategic alliance partner,” Microsoft. Montebello praised Accenture and the site: “With Accenture’s generous support, this rich artistic legacy will reach an ever widening audience who may first encounter these surpassing works of art either with a visit to the galleries or over the Internet.” Understanding the nature of this technology reveals a very distinct advantage for Accenture as well. Accenture has developed the site using its Managed Internet Service, a “pre-integrated enterprise platform” that is designed to offer full web capabilities to companies while limiting the expenditure of time and development costs. Accenture’s Chairman and CEO Joe Forehand explains in the Sponsor’s Statement of the hefty 608-page Manet/Velázquez catalog that the site is “meant to serve as a model for future exhibition Web features”. It is a “turnkey solution” that they intend to be used by their other clients as well, making the site a perfect marketing tool for Accenture, while the exhibition provides an upscale venue for client and staff gatherings.
All of this corporate attention makes the Metropolitan the envy of museums worldwide, awing other institutions with its ability to draw in the big sponsors. Henri Loyrette, the Director of the Louvre, has acknowledged, with a certain amount of regret, their comparatively small efforts: “The size of the Louvre’s corporate sponsorship doesn’t correspond to what we should have in place. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has 50 people working to bring in sponsors. We have five people devoted to it. We’re planning to reinforce this staff.”
The writing may be on the wall, but the longterm effects of such strategies may ultimately have more serious consequences. A final question remains: Should our cultural heritage be subjected to such indignities, including a mindless exhibition?