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Tuthmoses I,
The Third Pharaoh
of Dynasty XVII

Gold Jewel Depicting
the Child Shed

The Vizer Hemiunu

The Sarcophagus of

The Cupid on display
in the lobby of
the French Embassy's
Cultural Services
building at
972 Fifth Ave

Photo: Daniel Moss

The putative
Michelangelo of
Fifth Avenue.

Photo: Daniel Moss

visual reality
by Lee Rosenbaum
A new breed of art impresario whose strong 
suit is showmanship, not scholarship, is 
moving in on the blockbuster business. As 
exemplified by both the "Wonders" exhibition 
series based in Memphis, Tenn. and the 
Florida International Museum, St. 
Petersburg, these presenters hire art 
experts as temps; shell out megabucks to 
borrow treasures from money-hungry foreign 
museums; construct lavish installations 
recreating the ambiance of tomb, temple or 
palace; charge hefty admission fees; and 
promote the whole package like an art 
theme-park. The goal is to attract 
thousands of visitors and millions of 
tourist dollars.

The latest manifestation: "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," artifacts from the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum of Hildesheim, Germany, on view through July 7 at the Florida International Museum, a renovated former department store. The faux-papyrus press release promises "a taste of the actual Karnak experience--using mirrors and two dozen massive columns to completely surround the visitor with the magnificence of the temple." Another gallery recreates a pharaoh's burial chamber. The audio guide narrator is Charlton Heston, whose memoirs are on sale in the museum shop. Now drawing some 2,700 visitors a day, the show almost didn't happen. The organizers spent $3.5 million by their own reckoning ($4.8-6 million, according to press reports) on aborted plans to bring 72 artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The money was partially raised through $1.5 million in loans guaranteed by the City of St. Petersburg.

Trouble was, the Floridians never got a written commitment from the Egyptians. Dissatisfied with the financial and touring arrangements, the Egyptians walked from the deal just one week before the show was to open. The desperate Florida organizers managed to snare another show to fit the already designed Egyptian galleries--175 stone reliefs, sarcophagi, papyrus scrolls, jewelry and statues from the Hildesheim museum, which is undergoing renovation. Reflecting the chaotic state of affairs, the show's catalogue features the Cairo objects, not those on display. The St. Petersburg organizers are now scrambling to sign up four to six more venues. Despite the confusion, the exhibition itself is first rate; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts has expressed interest for the fall.

It should be noted that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been a helpless victim of foriegn lenders. It happened with the last-minute indefinite postponement of the Medieval Spain Show two years ago, and it nealy happened with the current "Splendors of Imperial China: treasures from the National Museum of Taipei."

The Florida museum's next attraction: Greek art from the era of Alexander the Great, to be drawn from two currently touring exhibitions, one organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture, the other by the Fondazione Memmo of Rome. Scheduled to open Oct. 7, the show may catch some of the media hoopla surrounding the proposed Presidential candidates debate in St. Petersburg on Oct. 9. But is there a signed exhibition contract? Not at this writing.

Meanwhile, those craving the no-mirrors approach to Egyptology should head to Cleveland: "Pharaohs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from the Louvre,"Cleveland Museum of Art through Apr. 14.

TALKING OF MICHELANGELO You've heard what the Michelangelo virus can do to your hard drive. There's another strain that periodically infects susceptible art historians, who start seeing visions of the master's long-lost (and presumably destroyed) works in the most unlikely places. Could we be witnessing another such outbreak in the feverish excitement over the putative "Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue"? New York University professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt assures us that a lifetime of study has prepared her for this discovery, and that her archival research in four countries confirms it. Trouble is, she expects us to accept all this on faith, until her research is published in The Burlington Magazine, tentatively scheduled for July.

Meanwhile, she's lined up a roster of curatorial and professorial supporters, some of whom haven't actually set eyes on the work but nevertheless find her pitch convincing. She also found a receptive ear in John Russell of the New York Times, to whom she spoon-fed the scoop in a letter that she said he requested after she contacted him. The boy's photo landed on the front page, discreetly cropped above the genitals (befitting a family newspaper).

Other distinguished Michelangelo experts, most notably professors Leo Steinberg and James Beck, have eyed the ungainly weakling in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York and asked, "Where's the beef?" Unlike the Michelangelos we know and love, this boy's got no muscle. The expression on his face, called "rapturous" by Brandt, tends more towards vacuous. But some allowances must be made for the possibility that this is an early work by a budding genius on an off-day.

Whatever it is, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, eager to get in on the act, has invited the Louvre (because the French government owns the sculpture) to co- organize an exhibition that would display the questionable Michelangelo in the company of unquestioned ones. Maybe they should put it to a vote by the hoards of curious visitors who will undoubtedly flock to the spectacle.

WHO'S THE BOSS? It's Hugo--the German menswear company that's playing major Medici with a $50,000 annual artist's prize to be administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Whatever else you want to say about the Guggenheim's director, Tom Krens, he knows how to catch big fish for splashy projects. (Hugo Boss also recently committed to major ongoing support for Guggenheim Museum exhibitions.) The new prize will recognize "a body of recent work representing a major aesthetic achievement or a significant development in contemporary art." It can go to an established or emerging artist of any age or nationality.

Suddenly entrusted with one of the world's richest art awards, the Guggenheim could have exercised more imagination in picking the jury. It includes Krens, two Guggenheim curators (Lisa Dennison, Nancy Spector), and the president of the Guggenheim's International Director's Council (Athens businessman Dakis Joannou, whose collection of recent American and European art will be shown at the Guggenheim SoHo). The two other jurors are Marie-Claude Beaud, executive director of the insolvent American Center in Paris, which recently closed after unsuccessfully proposing a partnership with the Guggenheim, and Fumio Nanjo, Japanese art curator and critic.

The award, to be announced this fall, also includes an exhibition--at the Guggenheim, of course. LEE ROSENBAUM has written on the art world for 24 years and is author of The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf). She is contributing editor of ARTnews magazine and writes frequently for the Wall Street Journal "Leisure & Arts" page and Art in America magazine. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times, London Daily Telegraph, Barron's, Money, and New York, among others.