This seems obvious, but art museums should show art rather than things that are not art. The overwhelming majority of them do so all of the time. That makes it all the more glaring when an art museum turns itself into the local mall food court or, in the case of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the local Planet Hollywood.
The VMFA is now exhibiting “Hollywood Costume,” an exhibition that the VMFA says “explores the central role costume design plays in cinematic storytelling. Bringing together the most iconic costumes from a century of cinema, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the clothes worn by unforgettable and beloved characters in films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Birds, My Fair Lady, Superman, Titanic, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and The Dark Knight Rises.”
The VMFA has no film department, no fashion department, nothing of the sort. Its mission is to “to collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret art, to encourage the study of the arts.”
The museum is even doubling down on this charade: This weekend it will open “Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation.” The museum describes the show as “prints by the most important photographers working in Hollywood 1920–1960. Selected from the Kobal Foundation collection in England the exhibition features prints of some of the greatest stars during the golden age of the film industry, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson and Clark Gable.” The foundation described a recent book of images from its collection as showing off “the incredible inventiveness and ingenuity of the marketing and publicity departments of the great Hollywood Film Studios.” So PR trumps art.
The last time I can remember an art museum going this far over toward art-free silliness was 2010, when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery effectively turned its galleries over the the Buffalo Sabres hockey club for a presentation of photographs of the team. Here’s what I had to say about it. What I wrote then about the A-K’s sin stands for VMFA as well.
There are many talented people who work at the VMFA who care about art and about the direction of the museum. I’ve heard from many of them in the last few weeks. They report that thanks to director-driven silliness such as “Hollywood Costume,” morale is at an all-time low. No doubt. Here’s hoping the VMFA and director Alex Nyerges move on from these ridiculous diversions before they further damage a very good museum.