This writer is aware that there have been several articles published on this subject by the Montreal Museum and Gallery Examiner, but hopes that readers find that the different perspective that this article provides is worthwhile.
Most Montrealers who have passed through the downtown core have surely noticed the glinting, stained glass dragonfly billowing on the facade of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is signalling a widely marketed exhibition entitled “Tiffany Glass” or in French “Le verre selon Tiffany”. Some people’s thoughts may have had immediate recourse to Breakfast at Tiffany’s or revert to a vague memory of a dim ceiling lamp hanging in the kitchen of their youth having been referred to as ‘the Tiffany lamp’. Chances are that it may not have exactly been a Tiffany lamp, although its inspiration indeed comes from a bygone epoch and a legacy left by an American designer named Louis Comfort Tiffany and his glassworks operation. Tiffany (1848 -1933) expanded his father’s existing jewellery company in the midst of true fin-de-siècle spirit, combining training he underwent in Paris and American entrepreneurial savoir-faire to create a glass design empire on a scale and of a fervour reminiscent of Apple.
The incentive for a fine arts museum to host an exhibition dealing with modern decorative arts is that it is a very accessible art world territory. Aspects to tweak the interest of visitors from diverse backgrounds easily suggest themselves. From a general window shopping to a business perspective, to inspiring creative process details for artists and designers, to a socio-historical point of view, etc. — there is something here for everyone. The exhibition comes at an exciting time for Tiffany scholars. It has very recently been discovered that the most celebrated lamp designs were in fact the incarnations of one of Tiffany’s head designers named Clara Driscoll…
This exhibition is being endorsed as exclusive since it is the first time such an extensive anthology of Tiffany pieces has been curated. By the end of its international tour, it will have first been shown in Paris at the Musée de Luxembourg, and following this round is set to be installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Montreal’s particular Tiffany-related claim to fame are stained glass windows which were custom made by the house for downtown Montreal’s Erskine and American Church and which provided a lot of the original impetus for the show.
Museums seem destined to take this type of new direction, navigating the sea of pop culture to draw out something enticing, embodying the spirit of the day without compromising too much respectability. Tiffany is directly linked to Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement which have been strongly mingled with the air du temps for the past few years now. Two recently established boutique hotels in Montreal have Belle Epoque themed bars. The Intercontinental’s is called Sarah B. Absinthe Bar (in honour of the divine Sarah Bernhardt of course) and the Koko Lounge of the Opus Hotel has conflagrated itself with Aubrey Beardsley’s configurations. Koko is located in the1914 Art Nouveau style building on the corner of St. Laurent Blvd. and Sherbrooke Street. This conspicuous building happens to be the first poured concrete building in North America by architect Joseph-Arthur Godin.
The annual attendance figure calculated for the MMFA’s 2008-09 year was 572 205 for permanent and temporary exhibitions. This was hailed as a landmark year, being up from the one before by a difference of 132 862. This increase was surely due to the programme which included shows entitled Yves Saint Laurent and Warhol Live. These kinds of shows with wider popular culture appeal transcend the traditional boundaries of fine arts and are part of a global tendency in museums. From the MMFA, to the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art to the Louvre, museums are trying desperately to attract and maintain new audiences. Similarly, the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art reported a significant increase in numbers after their 2008-09 ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967’. Besides the recent quasi-scandal of a McDonald’s opening within the sacred auspices of the Louvre, that venerable museum has launched a program incorporating contemporary art installations in the midst of its permanent collections. The Louvre has been holding nocturnes for years now, and both the MACM and the MMFA have followed suit and instated theirs.
The nascent clientele the MMFA has attracted are probably buying tickets according to two main speculations. These visitors are strolling into a cohesive, materialized Ebay, contained within the walls of a cultural asylum. Therefore they have engaged in educational diversion, and for once they didn’t have to pretend that they enjoyed themselves when they were really bored to tears and feeling hopelessly uncultivated. They can breeze enjoyably throughout instead of breezing past like the lot of paintings in the Louvre’s Italian corridor paving the way to the Mona Lisa. They are window-shopping.
The power struggle between so-called institutions of high culture and popular culture has been going on forever. Today’s pandemonium in the cultural sphere is inherited from the turmoil of the Paris Salon of the late 19th century. The wave of contemporary scholars and institutions who are adapting themselves and seizing upon the possibilities of profiting from the changing cultural landscape does not seem to be ebbing.
Henry Aubin, a freelance journalist writing for the Montreal Gazette, published an article this past week entitled, ‘The changing faces of our cultural institutions; It’s possible to attract bigger and younger audiences without lowering standards’. He moves into his first paragraph by asking us to consider the appointment of the brand new directrice of the McCord Museum of Canadian History. She doesn’t hold the expected PhD in Canadian history with museology studies like the departing director, but instead boasts a loaded marketing background.
In the March 20th Saturday edition of the Montreal Gazette, which is a major partner of the MMFA, the edited Tiffany ad showcased two selected review quotes which are reminiscent of thumbs-up blockbuster persuasions. From Radio-Canada, ‘…an overview of everything…dazzling…definitely worth a visit!’ and from Voir, ‘A must-see!’ The museum’s mission to increase numbers by holding exhibitions that appeal to a more diverse, popular crowd is very clear in its language. As articulated in the 2008-09 annual report, the Tiffany exhibition is the most recent prized asset in a sequence of similar ‘productions’.
It is fascinating to observe the control of culture, its musical chairs of hierarchization, its selling and repackaging. Our golden calf will undergo metamorphoses so long as the middle class is diaphanous, and as the old and the nouveau riche fight for rank in the upper class by waxing philanthropist.
In this hyper-mediatized and impatient world, our search for originality and novelty seems frantic. We skim the past hoping for the new, we layer and cross-reference our cultural codification like fiends. How relative is it all anyway? Are our current concerns about our superficiality more familiar than we would like to think? Do we have, as a population in general, just as little or as much perspective as we ever did in any given epoch? Are we providing ourselves with stimulating enough resources to imagine the future?
The popularization of our cultural institutions should ultimately be viewed in a positive light. These establishments are bringing in crowds that were beforehand uninterested or intimidated to cross their thresholds. A first-timer buying a ticket on his own initiative is already half the battle for art museums. A venture into the permanent collection after taking in the temporary exhibition would be the next best step, and a return visit the triumph.