By W. KEITH BROWN, NOV. 2014
The origins of the David Bowie exhibition at MCA Chicago were grounded in an opportunity graciously proposed to theatre and performance curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) around 2011. One of David Bowie’s associates reached out to V&A pitching the idea of unique access to the artist’s personal archive of some 75,000 objects. V&A were allowed to make selections for the construction of a show that would open in 2013. When the museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago caught wind of this they quickly contacted their friends at V&A to see if the show might travel and if so, to share their interest in getting it to Chicago. The exhibition that opened on Tuesday September 23 features around 300 Bowie objects selected by Broackes and Marsh. In strategic coordination, these V&A curators worked with MCA curator Michael Darling to re-imagine the exhibition for Chicago audiences.
The show is great for exactly what it is - a show. It’s a museological pop spectacular, a contemporary mashup featuring state-of-the-art audience engagement technologies, costumes, images, videos, art, photography, flyers, posters, and more. Walking through the exhibition I could not help letting the immersive Bowie experience penetrate my personal fandom. I appreciate Bowie as much the next art kid and I will admit his influence on me is great. This was deeply felt upon seeing images of his influences (Sci-Fi, Dandy, Glam Rock, Teddy Boy, McLuhan, Tzara, Little Richard, Nomi to name a few). Hearing my favorite Bowie hits (Space Oddity, Starman, Life on Mars, Changes, Ashes to Ashes, The Man Who Sold The World, etc.) and watching his videos while looking at the things he wore and materials he has personally handled was quite an enjoyable museum experience. It reminded me of pictures taken inside Elvis' formerly private Graceland estate.
As much as we would like to believe otherwise, museum exhibitions are based on board vision, money, and institutional opportunities just like this one. When opportunity knocks, museums examine their missions and crunch the numbers in order to make things happen (e.g. Madeleine Grynsztejn’s opening remarks at the media preview about how this show fits perfectly in-line with the MCA’s mission). Such is the case with the Bowie. It’s disappointing and rare for contemporary art museums to mount exhibitions in response to current cultural phenomena, which is why the very conception of this show feels out of touch. It’s also worth mentioning that museums make exhibitions years in advance, which further complicates their ability to practice in step with culture. This way of working makes it quite hard for a contemporary art museum to be “contemporary.” Exhibitions take a lot of time and resources, but planning things this way can also make exhibitions seem disjointed from our everyday reality.
David Bowie and his career should be an incredible inspiration to us all. He cleverly explored artistic identity, he pushed the boundaries of popular music, heteronormativity, notions of gender and masculinity and so on, but I did not feel this was the focus of the show. With so much happening in our world today around race, class, gender, and sexual inequality, never-ending wars, occupations, and the 400,000 people who recently marched for climate awareness, it’s really hard to see how the celebration of David Bowie’s career fits into our lives. Perhaps I am supposed to feel that I can use this person’s approach to celebrity and pop performance to somehow make my own transgressive gestures in the world. I don’t know, but I rarely find activist inspiration via celebrity.
As I stood gazing a gazely stare into the heart of pop culture and commodity fetishism, I could not help but think of a dozen other visual art exhibitions that deserve this same spectacular platform. I kept thinking of a number of critical and political artists, working class artists of color, and international artists who would love to have these same resources dedicated to their work. I can think of Chicago artists who if given access to these riches could deliver a much more meaningful culturally relevant exhibition. What would a well-financed politically challenging show look like?
I think this is why so many people have trouble coming to shows like this; they see the amount of time, energy, and excitement spent on things that bring in money, but when it’s time for a critical show, they don’t see as much support, excitement, or marketing. I predict that this show will make the MCA a lot of money. It then becomes our job as Chicagoans to place new demands on the museum. Okay MCA you gave us Bowie, thanks, now how many nights can you be open for free? How many youth and teen programs do you plan to execute this year? How can you expand your audience to include more working class people and people of color? What are you doing in terms of outreach to people that have never been to this museum or the “Mag Mile”? What kind of city do we want to live and learn in and how can our cultural institutions help make these things accessible to us? I can’t help but wonder how many young people would be inspired by this exhibition if they had the money to see it. Who is the museum excluding through its ticket practice?
If we are still to believe that museums are spaces of cultural enrichment for all and therefore hold all of our best interests at heart, then would it not follow that exhibitions like the David Bowie Is should have a free day? I can understand ticketing most days of the week especially under U.S. neo-liberal capitalism where museums lack funding support and therefore must make their money. Museums and institutions must make self-service a priority under these ideological cultural conditions, but $25 for adult non-members seems a bit steep. Furthermore, not granting discounts of any kind to school children, seniors, undergraduates, and graduate students of art seems unfair. Not offering a free day at the very least for local Chicagoans seems like a missed opportunity programmatically. As patrons of the MCA we should hope to see great benefits beyond this show played out in new programs and culturally relevant contemporary art exhibitions down the road. Aside from lower ticket prices and a free day for other shows, we might also ask for more culturally and politically relevant exhibitions and programs by females and artists of color.
"David Bowie Is" opened Tuesday 9/23 and runs through Jan. 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Individual adult and teen tickets are $25, $10 for children (age 7–12), and free for children 6 and under. Price includes the regular $7 museum admission fee. MCA members are allotted two free tickets for David Bowie Is. A “basic membership” is $60.
For more ticket information: http://www2.mcachicago.org/exhibition/david-bowie-is
W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.
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