WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF THE ARTS?
The transition team of President-elect Barack Obama is keeping a firm hand on any appointment news, but the buzz in art-and-politics precincts has the new administration seriously considering the idea of an official White House Office of the Arts, overseeing all things having to do with the arts and arts education. The new arts czar wouldn’t be a cabinet-level position -- too complicated and too limiting, say insiders -- but rather a liaison with the president with real access to funds and power. Who might fill the post, which would be a CEO kind of job? One possible candidate could be Agnes Gund, former president of the Museum of Modern Art and founder of Studio in a School.
The idea of such a position has been floating around for some time. In its 2008 "10-Point Plan," for instance, the U.S. Conference of Mayors suggested the establishment of a cabinet level secretary of culture and tourism. And though the Obama campaign didn’t specifically mention such a post, it was the first to have an in-depth arts platform (developed in consultation with Americans for the Arts), which actively painted the candidates as "champions of arts and culture," urging the creation of an "artist corps" trained to work in low-income schools, among other projects. Stay tuned.
THE TALE OF CAROLINE KENNEDY AT THE MET
As Caroline Kennedy follows the family tradition and enters politics, putting her name in the running to succeed Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator, her professional history is coming under increasing press scrutiny. One item on her resume of special interest to art lovers is the five years she spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during 1980-85, in between graduating from Radcliffe College and attending Columbia University for law. Having a senator who understands art museums wouldn’t be a bad thing. But what did she actually do there?
Kennedy began at the Met as a part-time researcher in the Office of Film and Television, working her way up to a full-time liaison to outside media. One high-profile achievement was coordinating Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a 1983 PBS special that has Bert & Ernie, Big Bird and others learn about art while trapped in the Met overnight (one notable line comes from Cookie Monster: "mummy look yummy but it not for tummy"). In C. David Heymann’s bio, American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, it was Caroline’s long hours on the Sesame Street project that "dispelled the notion entertained by certain members of the office staff that she was little more than ‘a rich young lady who lunches’." She even has a second-long cameo at the end of the special (viewable on YouTube), strolling past the camera as an early morning visitor to the Met.
A less kid-friendly incident during her time at the Met involved a threat to the entire institution. In 1984, Kennedy received a series of letters at work from a stalker, one Herbert Randall Gefvert, threatening to send men to kill her. According to a New York Times report from December of that year, Gefvert had later "phoned the museum. . . given his name and address and said that a bomb had been planted in the museum." He was arrested by the FBI.
According to her biography, it was this incident that bonded Caroline Kennedy with her future husband, Ed Schlossberg, who was working on museum design at the Met and helped her with museum security. Schlossberg, of course, is also a successful artist -- his most recent show was 2007’s "Conscious Alphabet" at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. American Legacy also gives Schlossberg credit for making over the "painfully shy" Kennedy: "At her 27th birthday party, she wore a flimsy black-and-yellow silk pajama suit chosen for her by Ed Schlossberg. She told admirers of the ensemble that he had helped select a number of her new outfits, pointing out that for himself he preferred op-art ties, linen jackets, and calfskin ankle boots."
More recently, the couple co-chaired the Met’s annual Fashion Institute Gala in 2001. The show that year focused on the wardrobe of Caroline’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy.
SCOTLAND PLEDGES £50 MILLION TO DUKE?
Just how big of an ass is Britain’s Francis Egerton, the Duke of Sutherland, a man with an estimated fortune of £230 million in "art and land"? In August, he announced that he would be selling two paintings from his collection by Venetian master Titian, works which have been on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) since 1945. The works -- Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (both 1559) -- clearly represent valuable cultural patrimony, but the royal-born multimillionaire is essentially insisting that the nation pay him £50 million each to keep them, or he will sell the masterpieces to the highest bidder.
On Jan. 4, 2008, the Independent reported that the Scottish government coughed up £17.5 million to secure the deal. That sum came on top of Herculean fundraising efforts by the U.K.’s art establishment to keep the Duke happy: £12.5 million from the National Gallery in London (which would share ownership); £10 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; £1 million from the Art Fund; £8.5 million from assorted wealthy individuals; and £500,000 in smaller donations. The Duke had set New Year’s as the deadline to buy Actaeon, but if the deal went through he promised to give the nation another four years to buy the companion painting.
The Duke had already received £11 million from the public coffers in 2003 for another Titian, Venus Anadyomene (ca. 1520). That sale allowed the Duke to offset £2.4 million of inheritance tax, as well as make a tidy profit, while the work remained exactly where it was at the National Galleries of Scotland. At the time, he justified the transaction by saying that his family had always wanted the painting to stay at the museum. These days, his excuse for selling off the Diana and Actaeon is that he wants to "diversify his assets."
Perhaps the outrageousness of the transaction is having an effect, however. Calling the Independent story "speculative," NGS director John Leighton refused to confirm the £17.5 million pledge from the Scottish government to Bloomberg, saying only that he hoped to announce a deal in the near future. An anonymous government source did tell Bloomberg that it had made a "significant funding pledge" for the Titian, but wouldn’t say how much.
The unsavory scheming is not, to say the least, healthy for the public’s perception of art. It has already sparked the ugliest kind of cultural populism, with Glasgow MP Ian Davidson telling the BBC that "Very few people will ever have heard of Titian, many will have thought he was an Italian football player. What is the point of wasting this money in this way?"
YES MEN EXHIBITION AT CARNEGIE MELLON
Merry media pranksters the Yes Men -- recently in the news for their part in creating and distributing a fake copy of the New York Times [see "Oh Yes They Did!," Nov. 20, 2008] -- are being spotlighted with their first travelling retrospective exhibition, now at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., Nov. 14, 2008-Feb. 15, 2009. Dubbed "Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with the Yes Men," the touring show, which began at the Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art, in Portland, Ore., is curated by Astria Suparak. It spotlights the "elaborate costumes, slapstick videos, outrageous posters, and selections from their personal collection" relating to their various stunts, for which they have posed as representatives of nefarious organizations including ExxonMobil, the World Trade Organization and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE" AT METRO PICTURES
The 11th annual "Postcards from the Edge," the special exhibition and sale of 1,600 postcard-sized works to benefit Visual AIDS, takes place this year at Metro Pictures gallery in New York on Jan. 10, 2009, from 11 am to 7 pm. Individual works are $75 each, or five for $300. As usual, the works are displayed anonymously, but signed on the back -- forcing selection on the basis of esthetics rather than name brand, presumably. An impressive number of top artists have chipped in for the cause, from Vito Acconci, Ida Applebroog, David Armstrong and John Baldessari, to William Wegman, Lawrence Weiner, T.J. Wilcox and Fred Wilson. Admission to a special preview party on Jan. 9 is $75, with the chance to win the rights to be the first to select a card.