Sunday, February 22, 2009

"It's Time We Met"

I always have fun in museums, but until yesterday I never had fun at a museum because of an advertising campaign. Like many of you, I like to think I’m an independent thinker who makes my purchasing decisions based on a series of circumstances, not glossy images with great or sly punch lines. But sometimes, the punch line is so good, the suggestion so appealing that we capitulate to the advertisers. This winter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched a brilliant campaign/photo contest, titled “It’s Time We Met.” The contest encourages people to come into the permanent collections and take pictures of their experience. One winning image will be chosen and it will be used in the ongoing campaign.

There are a lot of reasons why the Met’s initiative is so good, not the least is its hook—the playful, double entendre in the title. New York has a crowded museum field with scores of institutions vying for the limited time and attention of the museum-going public. Couple this with New Yorkers’ perception that the City’s most popular museums are tourist traps and you can begin to understand why (incredibly, unbelievably) many New Yorkers have never visited the Met. “It’s Time We Met” addresses that problem head on. But the title also reaches out to another under-represented museum-going demographic—Generation Y. By turning the museum’s nickname into a verb, the Museum, which has a popular reputation of being elite and stodgy, has adopted a popular linguistic convention rife in 20-somethings speech—I googled it; I’ll blog about it; etc.

The campaign is pitch-perfectly geared towards Gen Y and their sense of fun. Gen Y likes to actively participate and share their experiences with their friends. The Met asks people to upload their contest submissions to Flickr, a photo-sharing website. Instead of saying, “email us your photo submissions,” the Museum is encouraging the fun to continue after a trip. As you upload, you can see what everyone else’s visit was like. The photos are awesome and makes clear that there are thousands of different ways to experience/personalize the same museum.

I was amazed at the photo contest transformed my experience of the collection. I go to the Met a lot and for no specific reason—it’s my defacto I-have-some-free-time-and-don’t-feel-like-reading-in-a-coffee-shop destination. I often wander aimlessly into special exhibitions or just stroll through the permanent collections. It’s fun in a quiet, cerebral, passive way. For this trip, I invited two friends, Patty and Abby, to go along with me to take snapshots. It turns out that taking a contest-worthy shot was a lot harder than we thought! Our visit turned into a scavenger hunt for photo opportunities, making us consider the collection in a new and creative way.

We started out in the American Wing, of course, and discovered it’s really hard to make the dec arts playful when you can’t touch anything.

Abby and I peek out from behind some awesome Tiffany vases.
Photo taken by Patty, Louis Comfort Tiffany Intern at the Met
and the author of the awesome blog, Retrograde Design.

Patty and I "strolled through Versailles" as Abby snapped pictures. Although, we really liked the sunset lighting, we realized this wasn't really funny, exciting, or iconic.

So we thought and we thought and we walked and we walked and we finally hit upon a contest-worthy photo. It’s going to be awesome (we hope). By the way, if you live in the city and own black clothes and are free next weekend, email me. Otherwise, tune back in next week to see our entry.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Visiting the Guggenheim

I probably shouldn't admit this, but until yesterday, I had never visited the Guggenheim. After nearly nine months of living near the city, it was becoming a scandalous omission in my rounds of museum visitations. Could I truly call myself a culture vulture without taking in this iconic temple to modern and contemporary art? I decided definitely not.

I also decided that given my limited free time, I should game the President's Day holiday; I combined my first visit to the Guggenheim with a blind date. Besides the obvious benefits of combining culture and love, a new friend and I decided (snottily and quite rightly) that museum dates were the best possible way to weed out a potential amour. Sure, you can generally figure out if you click with someone over coffee, but you can often waste several additional dates trying to suss out their erudition, cultural literacy, and true sense of humor. The Guggenheim, as luck would have it, is the best possible museum for this sort of first date crucible.

I knew my date--an actor in a Broadway musical--liked photography, so I lured him into accompanying me with one of the Guggenheim's current exhibitions Isamu Noguchi: The Bollingen Journey Photographs, 1949–56. While that exhibition was our stated goal for visiting, we decided to wander around first and talk. Rarely, have I been to a museum better designed for just walking--there were no dead ends, there were no decisions about going right or left. As we climbed the spiraling ramp, there was a constant stream of new sculptures to consider and small alcoves with installations to discover. The alcoves turned out to be delicious reprieves from the masses of people in the museum; in several, we found ourselves the sole viewers of a work of art for stretches of time. Were I the type to enjoy starting into someone's eyes, this would have been delightful for reasons other than the art, since I am not, I reveled in the opportunity to feel alone with a piece.

One alcove's photographic installation of an old growth forest evoked an almost Walden-like aloneness. The artist photographed individual, majestic, old trees in 8 x 10 segments. Each 8 x 10 was framed and stacked one on top of another. Each vertical row was one tree. Below the trees was a black shelf stocked with mason jars. Each jar held a specimen--a leaf, a cocooon, a pine cone, etc.--from the photographer's hike through the woods. The jars mitigated the sometimes distancing effect of photographs. The forest was both a representation and a tangible presence in the alcove. Lovely and powerful.

Alas, my silent communion with the piece couldn't last long, I did have that date to entertain. We wandered out of the alcove and back into the hustle and bustle. We stopped before a sculpture made of driftwood and I got a chance to see just what my date was made of. The sculpture provoked a story about his dad's home in Los Angeles and its modern aesthetic and his feelings about it. I happen to be reading The Fountainhead at the moment and asked my date if he was familiar with it. He wasn't and launched into a discussion of how he found the language and historical context needed to truly enjoy the classics off-putting, a barrier to accessibility. As his example he boasted he could never really enjoy Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Poor boy--on so many levels. Instead of setting him straight, I gently suggested we go find the Noguchi exhibition.

Here is where Frank Lloyd Wright, in his infinite wisdom, made some questionable architectural choices. It was nearly impossible to get to the basement where the exhibition was held. We tried taking elevators--the ones we got on didn't go to the basement. We walked all the way down to the lobby and tried to get to the basement from there, but we couldn't find an obvious staircase. We asked for directions; the guard told us to go to the second floor and turn left and go down the staircase to the basement. We followed the directions precisely and ended up in the lobby. Again. We got a map and studied the diagrammed elevators. We went up to the second floor, wandered into a gallery of impressionist paintings and bumbled our way to the back where there were a bank of elevators. Success, these we reached the basement at last.

I'd like to say that the Noguchi exhibition was worth the monumental effort to get to it, only it wasn't. The exhibition depended on the viewer's intrinsic interest in the personality behind the photographs to drive it. Because Noguchi was a sculptor, one might sustain an academic interest in how he captured Asia's monuments and architecture on film. Sadly, the photographs simply weren't that good--they felt like the rejects of a National Geographic article on Indonesia, nor did the curator, through the inclusion of objects or even label text, draw parallels between Noguchi's experience in SouthEast Asia and its subsequent effect on his artistic productions .

The exhibition was a bust, but the empty gallery allowed me to experience the most ridiculous line I've ever heard: "Wouldn't it be cool I asked you out on a second date?"

Wouldn't it be cool if I gave the Guggenheim another chance?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Let's Get Started

This post is the requisite throat clearing and introduction for The NY Culture Vulture, a haphazard blog dedicated to the fine and performing arts in NYC and its environs.

As a publicist for cultural institutions, I spend my days convincing people that ----- Museum has a hot exhibition going up and that -----
Magazine should talk about it.* By and large, I enjoy that endeavor, but it's also vaguely frustrating. I'd like to have a voice in the cultural conversation (even if only my friends hear it). Thus, this blog is born.

*Don't worry, there won't be any I-shouldn't-be-appointed-to-a-cabinet-level-position impropriety; I promise I won't write about institutions represented by my company.