Usually I find myself in the camp of those who see the glass half full and not half empty. But here is some information that challenges my philosophy: there are about one hundred cities in China with a population of more than one million people. With the Chinese economy booming, most of these cities are building or planning to build a new art museum. So what's not to like? It's definitely a bonanza for architects. Call it the Bilbao Effect; in the last decade, Frank Gehry's famous Guggenheim Museum in Spain inspired untold numbers of cities around the world to erect their own cultural monuments in the hope that, as the saying goes, if they build it, then people will come.
In the last fifty years, new museums around the world have been popping up like mushrooms after a rain. The problem with that is that there are not enough masterpieces or even great and simply good artworks to fill all these millions of square feet of exhibition space. One way to deal with the problem is to create a blockbuster show and send it out on tour as former Guggenheim director, Thomas Krens, did with his half-baked exhibition of motorcycles or Armani clothes. Another way to satisfy this endless demand for exhibitions is to lower standards and allow mediocrity to enter the game.
By and large, when people go to museums, they still believe that they will see something worthwhile, but often that's not the case – especially where contemporary art is concerned. Museums used to show the best of art, but now they are fighting for the dubious honor of hosting mid-career retrospectives of young, trendy artists. However, no matter how many art schools are out there churning out annually tens of thousands of new artists, great talent has been and always will be in short supply, whether we are talking about visual artists or movie directors, writers or musicians.
The ever-expanding art market keeps attracting hoards of new people with money to burn and costly mistakes to make. The biggest one is buying something on the spur of the moment just because you like it. Wrong. Go to see the artwork again in a few days to be sure you like it at least as much, if not more. Otherwise, pass on it. See other works by the same artist to make sure that the one you are contemplating is among his or her best. Never, and I repeat, never, buy anything while vacationing at fancy resorts, casinos or traveling on a luxury cruise; something inexplicable happens to us there – our intelligence drops to the lowest possible level and we become easy prey. Last week the New York Times published an article about lawsuits filed against cruise ships where travelers were promised favorable art deals and instead got ripped off. Actually, I talked already about that in my program a few months ago following an earlier report on CBS's Inside Edition.
And if you think that the art scene is already bursting at the seams, here is the latest one. Guess who is coming to dinner? Yes, the Vatican. Contemporary art probably is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Vatican Museums, which have a very uneven presentation of modern and contemporary art in their vast holdings. Its director says that he would like “to bring a Picasso to the Vatican Museums.” In addition, the Vatican is planning to build its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale and to exhibit there specially commissioned works by contemporary artists, including our very own Bill Viola. How about that?
Banner image: Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005