Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Final days of the Gilbert Collection

The world class collection of decorative arts formed by world class self-promoter Arthur Gilbert that has been resident at Somerset House since 1996 will close to the public on January 27th. The Gilbert Collection was displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until the petulant millionaire became frustrated with the unwillingness of that museum to water the plants in his galleries frequently enough or to provide enough magnifying glasses or to give him his own dedicated curator so he carted it off to England in exchange for a knighthood. Ah, the glorious LA philanthropic tradition, previously bemoaned here.

Despite Gilbert's shortcomings, the collection he formed is truly special and it is absolutely worth a visit or 3 before it's closed up for the move to the Victoria & Albert Museum. There it will continue to have a suite of dedicated galleries when it reopens in 2009, but the announcement posted on the Gilbert Collection's website includes the following important sentence:

Some pieces will be incorporated into displays elsewhere in the V&A and some of the silver will be returned on loan to the historic houses for which it was originally made.

At long last, the vanity of Gilbert will cease to limit the ability of curators to present it to the public. It's surprising but relieving to find that he didn't include, in the terms of his gift, a clause that said the collection could never be split up and all pieces must always be on display, that classic LA move that ensures that museums remain "a tomb where the past and its taste remain preserved," to quote Adam Gopnik.

If and when you make a visit to the Gilbert Collection before it leaves, you must not miss the snuffboxes. (Others might argue for the micromosaics, also wonderful objects.) The gold, bejewelled boxes are things of staggering beauty made for the humblest of tasks. They are well installed in Somerset House in a dark room with spotlights picking up the diamonds and enamel that encrust the 40 or so on display. The photograph above is of particularly lavish example made for Frederick the Great. It will be sad to have them in far off South Kensington, though it is unquestionably the right decision to bring the collection to a larger public.

It is a source of no small pleasure to me that I have been able to track down an image of the gloriously tacky recreation of his LA office, complete with his honorary degrees and a wax effigy of the man himself, that occupied one of the Collection's galleries for many of its years in the UK. (The real Sir Arthur is on the right.) Not the proudest day for Somerset House.

P.S. Those two "paintings" behind wax Arthur are examples of the dazzling micromosaics. They have to be seen to be believed.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Farewell to Philip Conisbee

National Gallery of Art Washington Senior Curator of European paintings Philip Conisbee, 62, died last Wednesday from lung cancer. He will be remembered for distinguished museum scholarship that includes "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting," "Van Gogh and Millet," and "Georges de la Tour and his World." Born in Belfast, he studied for his BA and Ph.D. at the Courtauld before teaching at Reading, ULondon and Leicester. He will be missed.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Following Philippe

There is exactly one well-proven, ethically unimpeachable director of a major American museum that has not been mentioned amidst the wave of speculation about Philippe de Montebello's successor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One can't help but wonder why the most similar current museum director to Philippe de Montebello, the figure that gives the lie to the critical consensus that he is the "last of his kind," has been ignored in recent coverage of the Met's search. Not only is she the next longest serving director in America, now in her twenty-fifth year in the job, she too has only an MA (from the Courtauld) as her highest degree but a solid scholarly reputation nonetheless and even has the same aristocratic "de" as Philippe. (She comes from Austrian aristocracy while Philippe is a French Count.) Commentators may be writing her off for the reason I gave in a previous post: that she is practically synonymous with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it is difficult to imagine her leaving. She has in the past rebuffed inquiries from the National Gallery in D.C. and the MoMA and she may be difficult to drag away in the midst of major construction of new special exhibition galleries and a much-needed parking garage. However after successfully seeing the renovation of the Perelman building to completion she may be at last ready for a new challenge. At 64 years old, she's in her prime and has what it takes to be a dynamic advocate for at least the standard ten year term.

The absence of d'Harnoncourt from the lists is certainly not due to any lack of qualification on her part. Her record has been exemplary and, as I can attest from an internship at the institution, she has successfully held the respect and loyalty of the staff, an important part of the job of any leader but particularly at an institution as crammed with fragile egos as the Met. With a background in 20th-century art, she couldn't be a more perfect candidate for the Met's major agenda item, building the modern and contemporary collections. At the PMA, she has lead the development of 20th and 21st collections that make those at the Met seem utterly laughable by comparison.

Though my pick for the job is Neil MacGregor, the fact that the lists of candidates compiled by critics everywhere don't mention Anne d'Harnoncourt reeks of sexism. She has demonstrated that she can ably handle a similarly large and complex institution and has what it takes to make the Met better than it is. The list-compilers of the New York Times and others have let their readership down on this one. When that readership includes every member of the Met's Board and Search Committee, as is the case with the Times, this is a serious problem.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Saving Neil

As I mentioned in this post, the British Museum's director Neil MacGregor is everyone's favorite candidate to succeed Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Besides the legendary Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who is unlikely to be lured away for any job, it would be difficult to think of another currently serving director that has so ably demonstrated the personal integrity, scholarly chops and administrative ability that the Met's search committee will be looking for in de Montebello's successor.

It would appear that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has noticed the threat of the country's greatest non-profit leader leaving for America and has quickly made some moves to urge him to stay. (The offer of a knighthood proved insufficient in the past- "Saint" Neil, as is staff his said to call him, turned it down.) Culture Secretary James Purnell named MacGregor to the grandiose position "Chairman of World Collections." The job, which is in effect that of a culture ambassador to encourage international loans of Britain's collections, appears timed and targeted to make Neil's departure from the UK difficult. The Art Newspaper article I link to above does not give an indication of exactly when this happened, but it appears so recent that the Department's website has not yet posted the press release. One can only conclude that the announcement's timing, one day after de Montebello declared his intention to retire, is no coincidence. Well played, Perfide Albion, well played!

introducing friedemann vogel

Stuttgart Ballet's first soloist Friedemann Vogel is widely considered to be one of the best male ballet dancers in Europe today. Although in the hierarchical world of ballet companies, Stuttgart's name may not be as instantly recognizable as that of the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, or the Kirov, Stuttgart's dancers together form a particularly strong company.

Vogel, born in Stuttgart, completed his ballet training at the John Cranko School in his hometown before training at the Princess Grace Academy of Classical Dance in Monte Carlo on fellowship. In 1997 he won a prize at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne--the competition's roster usually reads like a ballet Who's Who list sent from the future. Class of '97 included now New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena and Royal Ballet much-loved principal Alina Cojocaru. The following year Vogel won the bronze medal at the very competitive "Olympic-Style" International Ballet Competition, held every four years in Jackson, Mississippi (don't ask me why).

That year he joined Stuttgart Ballet as a member of the corps du ballet and quickly rose through the ranks. When the Stuttgart Ballet had a brief run at City Center in New York in 2000, legendary dance critic Anna Kisselgoff noticed the young Vogel. "Friedemann Vogel," she writes, "a 19-year-old in the corps, is already a standout, eye-catching in his lively purity." In 2002 he was promoted to first soloist, the company's highest rank. In the same year he also won the much-coveted Erik Bruhn Prize for young dancers, beating Guillaume Côté and David Hallberg, of National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theatre respectively. (The female prize went to ABT's Michelle Wiles).

His repertory includes title roles in the classics as well as principal roles in pieces by choreographers ranging from Balanchine to Forsythe and Béjart. Vogel's technique, like many of today's ballet stars, is impeccable. (But some are more impeccable than others). Beyond technique, though, Vogel is a versatile dancer who handles any material with a confidence that's rare even among the top echelons. His dancing has a unique, lyrical quality that's hard to describe--might have something to do with his beautiful lines, remarkable sense of musicality and above-average flexibility (among male dancers). With good looks and great dancing, it is no wonder that Vogel always stands out. He has guested for several companies and has always attracted much attention, including in London (2005 and 2007).

But all the accolades and rave reviews don't mean anything. You've got to see him dance live. Luckily for us, we're all in for a treat as Friedemann Vogel is coming to London. The Stuttgart Ballet is bringing its production of John Cranko's Romeo & Juliet to the city as part of the Spring Dance Season at the Coliseum, the line-up of which will get any dance lover excited: The New York City Ballet, with four different programs (!), Stuttgart, Carlos Acosta with Guest Artists, and Sylvie Guillem/Russell Maliphant (!). There will be eight performances of Romeo & Juliet, from Tuesday March 25 - Sunday March 30. By the way, if you're interested in any of the shows, my advice is: book now! Many of them will sell out. Unfortunately I don't know which dates he is performing yet.. But will definitely try to find out.

If you miss Vogel in March, he's coming back to London again in June, guesting in Derek Deane's "Strictly Gershwin" at Royal Albert Hall, an "in-the-round dance celebration of Gershwin greats." (Last June he was Prince Siegfried in Deane's in-the-round Swan Lake at the same venue and outdoors at Versailles in July). Along with Vogel, Royal Ballet's Tamara Rojo and National Ballet of Canada's Guillaume Côté are joining the dancers of English National Ballet. The show runs from 13-22 June.

Here's a clip of Friedemann Vogel in William Forsythe's notoriously difficult "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated," one of my favorite dance pieces. At the above-mentioned Erik Bruhn Prize, he danced this piece and a pas de deux from Giselle, with another Stuttgart first soloist, Alicia Amatrian. There are several interpretations/versions of this piece on Youtube. Vogel's is one of the most outstanding. (For the definitive version, type in Sylvie Guillem--Forsythe choreographed the piece for her. It's amazing). I couldn't find a good clip showing Vogel in a classical piece, otherwise I would have posted it here too.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Disturbing Changes at the British Council

The British Council is destroying itself from inside. Right now a bureaucratic conspiracy is unfolding to abolish its arts departments (film, drama, dance, literature, design, and the visual arts), and replace them with ‘cultural diplomacy’ - whatever that means. What could be more culturally diplomatic, in real terms, than the sixty exhibitions a year for which the visual art department is discreetly responsible, taking British art all over the world, from the Venice Biennale to Tehran and Beijing. Repercussions go way beyond the art world. Like the BBC, the British Council has national cultural importance: in the current global political climate, its aim to promote British culture abroad is as crucial as ever. These furtive, idiotic bureaucrats have to be called to account.


Big stories from the States

The blog returns after winter break and finds a number of big arts stories waiting for it:

The New Yorker ran what is just about the first sympathetic coverage of disgraced Getty curator Marion True (left) in their issue of December 17. (Abstract here ) She has gotten a raw deal from the start and this profile, though it contains a few significant oversights, is an important step forward in the coverage of her case.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art announces the "gift" of the Lazaroff collection of modern art, a significant addition to the institution, already the finest museum west of Chicago. Soon thereafter, (a.k.a. yesterday), Eli Broad, board member, donor, and funder of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LACMA, announced, in what could only be taken as a slap in the face to the LACMA administration, that he would not be giving his collection to fill the building he built but would instead keep it in a foundation that loans to museums. He was annoyed that the curators would not guarantee that his collection be kept permanently on display, an absurd requirement that calls to mind Norton Simon, Armand Hammer, and Arthur Gilbert. The latter, the man behind the Gilbert Collection, housed until Jan. 27 at Somerset House, pulled his collection from the LACMA and brought it to England when similar demands could not be met. Los Angeles' nouveaux riches have not yet come to understand the meaning of true philanthropy and the city's greatest museum has suffered because of it. Men used to wielding immense power in life have been unwilling to relinquish that power to mere scholars of art in death. (At least the Gilbert Collection situation has ended for the best- its incorporation into the Victoria & Albert museum has the collection where it belongs at long last, in a museum in the care of scholars, Gilbert's vanity largely forgotten.)

Philippe de Montebello has announced his decision to step down as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by year's end. His tenure has served as a model of ethical, serious, scholarly leadership and one can only hope that the Met's board learns from the success of the scholar-director model and does not join so many other museums in trying MBAs as directors. Many people with Courtauld connections are in the running for the job, including former Director of the Institute James Cuno and alumnus Neil MacGregor.