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MoMA Raises Admission Fee (to $25), While Its Icons Go AWOL

AbEx Gap: Pollock flanked by two Newmans stand in for the entire New York School in painting-and-sculpture galleries at New York’s premiere contemporary/modern museum.

Not to be outdone by the Metropolitan Museum’s recently announced $25 suggested adult admission fee, the Museum of Modern Art last week announced that it would up its mandatory fee to $25. MoMA’s rate hike (from $20) will kick in on Sept. 1. (Note to the thrifty: You can save $2.50, if you buy your ticket online.)

The timing of MoMA’s announcement is particularly unfortunate, because It has lately been depriving its own ticket-buying audience of large groups of its signature works—the ones that visitors (especially one-shot summer tourists from abroad) hope to see when they make the pilgrimage to W. 53rd Street. They may be disappointed to discover that large contingents of must-see icons have been dispatched to loan shows at other venues.

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, had stated (a year into her tenure) that she deemed only about 10 works from the collection under her purview to be so crucial that they would almost always have to remain in the galleries. Who knew this might translate into decisions to ship off-premises, for long periods, large groups of works that we normally expect to find on MoMA’s walls?

Two weeks ago, when I fled from the press preview of MoMA’s high-tech Talk to Me show to the permanent-collection galleries for painting and sculpture, I discovered that the New York School was barely represented at New York’s preeminent modern/contemporary art museum. That’s because the museum’s sprawling “Abstract Expressionist New York” show—some 100 works including almost all of MoMA’s masterpieces from the period—is summering in Canada at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In the introductory wall text for the above-pictured MoMA gallery (which also includes non-AbEx works by Francis Bacon and Giacometti), the museum did not so much as mention the words “Abstract Expressionism.” Instead, it referred to “allover compositions built from webs of paint or walls of color [that] fill the viewer’s field of vision.”

For any wall-text references to Abstract Expressionism, you need to proceed to the galleries that present an extensive survey of Pop artists and other successors to the AbEx-ers. There we learn that Johns, Rauschenberg and Twombly demonstrated “both continuity and rupture with their predecessors,” signaling “a way beyond Abstract Expressionism.” (But don’t try to make these comparisons for yourself. Right now, you can’t.)

The show now in Toronto is essentially what we saw in New York for a very prolonged run (Oct. 3-Apr. 25). It is high on masterworks, low on insightful interpretation, with wall texts and labels that seem targeted to newcomers who don’t crave deep insights into this pivotal period because they have entered the galleries knowing next-to-nothing.

Temkin essentially admitted as much when she invited a press focus group (including me), on June 2, 2010, to learn about her plans for the show (which opened on Oct. 3). She told us that a chief mission of AbEx NY was to expose those works to younger museumgoers, for whom this 60-year-old movement was distant, vaguely apprehended history. She also said that she was not going to provide in-depth insights in the related companion publication, because she wanted to ponder her own juxtapositions of MoMA’s extensive holdings before thinking deeply about their significance.

The result reminded me of a terrific hand in bridge, where the cards you’ve been dealt are so powerful that you can just slap them down on the table (or, in this case, on the walls and floors) and make a grand slam without even thinking much about how to play it.

Installation shot from MoMA’s recent “Abstract Expressionist New York” show

Glenn Lowry, director of the museum, alluded to the show’s unambitious purpose in his preface to its catalogue, which also includes a brief essay by Temkin, but no in-depth commentary on the individual works:

For many younger viewers, for whom this period ended long before they were born, it provides a first chance [unless, of course, they caught the much more absorbing and illuminating Action/Abstraction show, just two years earlier at the Jewish Museum, New York] to view in depth works of art whose formal and philosophical concerns have great relevance to their own generation.

Fortunately, the Canadian vacation of this beautiful-but-dumb show ends on Sept. 4, so a more satisfying sampling of Abstract Expressionism should return to MoMA’s galleries soon after its admission-fee hike take effect.

But soon after, another group of masterworks takes flight—Picasso to Warhol, opening at the High Museum, Atlanta, on Oct. 15. These snowbirds will staying south until Apr. 29.

Here’s how the High describes that show:

With more than 100 world-famous works assembled exclusively for the High from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, this exhibition features fourteen key 20th-century artists, seen together for the first time in the Southeast.

Here’s that exhibition’s signature mastepiece:

Picasso, “Girl Before a Mirror,” 1932

© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This was one of the 10 works that Temkin had previously said should always be kept on view at MoMA (except, I suppose, when they’re on loan elsewhere). Disappointed visitors can always head over to MoMA’s giftshop, where they can view (and acquire) the “Girl Before a Mirror” magnet and the “Girl Before a Mirror” note card box.

I’m should emphasize that I’m not against lending important works to other museums. I think it’s not only praiseworthy but essential to give farflung art lovers a chance to see international cultural treasures close to their own homes. But subjecting these objects to the rigors of travel and depriving the hometown audience of their usually dependable presence shouldn’t be undertaken lightly: The “Masterworks of…” (single-museum) show should have a seriousness of purpose and a compelling scholarly mission. To my eyes and mind, those are lacking in “AbEx.”

As for the upcoming High show, we can’t take its measure until it opens. What we do know now is that although not a drawings show, it is being organized under the auspices of MoMA’s drawings department—Jodi Hauptman, curator of drawings, Samantha Friedman, curatorial assistant for drawings. This curious curatorial assignment may result in a great show, but it’s puzzling nonetheless.

Are MoMA’s greatest-hits extravaganzas both being structured as “rental shows”—intended to raise megabucks for MoMA? The High Museum, we know, has a history of lavishly compensating object-rich museums that unload their holdings in Atlanta.

Here’s what MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, told me (before the admission fee hike was announced), when I asked him whether the shows at the AGO and the High (which is hosting a series of shows drawn from MoMA’s collection) were organized “collegially,” in terms of the size of the fees being charged to the borrowing institutions:

Lowry: I hope they’re organized collegially—in terms of fees and expenses.

Rosenbaum: In other words, they’re not intended to raise money for for the museum?

Lowry: Let’s put it this way: No matter what we did, we could never recoup the cost of our exhibition program through fees. Our goal is to try to create an exhibition program that is as self-supporting as it can be.

Rosenbaum: But not to add to the bottom line? It’s supporting itself?

: Exactly.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the hefty $25 ticket price for the prefab AbEx show (which, Lowry said, hadn’t been expected to travel until the AGO asked for it) bespeaks an attempt to milk the collection as a cash cow (albeit in support of the exhibition program). As I wrote here, spokespersons for both the AGO and MoMA declined, more than a month ago, to answer my queries as to whether AbEx was structured as fundraiser for the lender.

I should soon get a chance to see how MoMA’s AbEx exports are faring at their summer home. Like MoMA’s masterworks, I’m planning to vacation (actually, “work-ation”) up north for a few days, later this month.

In the meantime, we can all look forward to John Elderfield‘s de Kooning: A Retrospective, which opens at MoMA on Sept. 18. It might mitigate the pain of the $25 admission fee.

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