August 10, 2007

Controversy Hits Uffizi Gallery, Ai Weiwei, Richard Rogers

After nine years of bitter argument and despite the rage of Florentines including the opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli, the plan to add a huge new modernist portico at the side of the Uffizi Gallery was given approval this week, reports Peter Popham in The Independent. Its designer is Arata Isozaki, the celebrated Japanese avant-garde architect whose other works in Italy include the ice-hockey stadium for Turin's 2006 Winter Olympics. Isozaki's solution was simple: a huge cantilevered canopy fanning out from the gallery, supported by slim rectangular pilasters. The contrast between old and modern was deliberately stark.

Supporters of the work hailed the Isozaki design as a masterpiece. “After decades of frustration and silence,” wrote the architect Nicola Santini, “architecture has come back to talk to Florence again, with clear language and strong ideas.” The last large modern building to be erected in Florence is the train station, which dates from 1935. But art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, appointed undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture in 2001, launched a campaign to get “this horror” scrapped. He claimed that the new portico's foundations would threaten possible undiscovered archaeological treasures.

Reuters and The Guardian report that, two days after China marked the one-year countdown to the Olympics with fireworks, pomp, and ceremony, the Chinese codesigner of the event's most iconic stadium has slammed the event as a public-relations sham. Ai Weiwei, one of China's foremost artists, said he feels “disgusted” that the Bird's Nest National Stadium that he helped design with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron has become a proud symbol of China's development. “I've already forgotten about it. I turn down all demands to have photographs with it,” the artist told Reuters at a studio in Beijing's suburbs on Friday. Ai was raised in a labor camp after his father—regarded as one of China's finest modern poets—was purged in the 1950s after being denounced as “an enemy of the state and a rightist.” Asked Ai, “Can a nation be celebrated and be so proud with this ignoring of its past?”

A golf-course complex designed by Richard Rogers, the architect behind the controversial Millennium Dome in the UK, is being investigated by police, writes the Olive Press. The public prosecutor in Granada has ordered the probe following allegations that multiple illegalities surround Milenarium Coto de la Macairana, the proposed leisure and residential project. The claims focus on an anonymous letter sent to the provincial public prosecutor, accusing the former mayor of Gójar of the trafficking of interests and the abuse of his position. Since it was announced in 2002, the project has met with fierce criticism from local residents and environmentalists. In an open letter sent to Rogers, opponents told Britain's most famous architect that the area “does not need another Millennium Dome.”

August 9, 2007

High-Ranking Smithsonian Official Resigns

A high-ranking official has resigned from the Smithsonian Institution after acknowledging that he destroyed a transcript from an important Board of Regents meeting, reports the New York Times. The transcript at issue for the official, James M. Hobbins, who served as executive assistant to the secretary of the Smithsonian, involved a January meeting in which the board discussed the compensation package of Lawrence M. Small, who was then the institution’s secretary, its top executive, said Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman. Small resigned as secretary in March after an investigation into his housing allowance and other personal expenses that were covered by the institution. Asked whether Hobbins, sixty-four, had been forced to resign, St. Thomas said: “He was allowed to retire, which he did after forty years. He served four secretaries and with great distinction. He’s beloved here.”

August 9, 2007

Louis Vuitton Boutique Confirmed For Murakami Retrospective

After weeks of rumors, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles confirmed yesterday that a retrospective of the work of Takashi Murakami, opening on October 29, would include a fully functioning Louis Vuitton boutique, to sell handbags and coin purses customized for the show by Murakami. According to Randy Kennedy of the New York Times, the museum said that Louis Vuitton would pay for the construction and staff of the boutique and that no revenues from its sales would go to the museum, which receives some public financing. But at a time when several museums have been criticized for close relationships with commercial interests in the mounting of exhibitions, the museum’s officials took pains to justify their decision to include the store, saying that it “symbolizes the interweaving of high art, mass culture, and commerce that has become essential to Murakami’s philosophy.”

August 8, 2007

Subotnick and Ruppersberg Join USC MFA Faculty; Sotheby's Reports High Profits

Yesterday, University of Southern California MFA program director Charlie White announced that curator Ali Subotnick and artist Allen Ruppersberg will both join the core MFA faculty for the 2007/2008 year. Both Subotnick and Ruppersberg had previously been visiting faculty members; together they will temporarily replace artist Sharon Lockhart, who is at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Fellow for the upcoming academic year.

Elsewhere, Bloomberg's Linda Sandler reports that Sotheby's, the world's second-largest auction house, said profit jumped 48 percent in the second quarter of 2007, beating analysts' estimates. The results were helped by rising prices for art, including a Mark Rothko painting. Second-quarter profit from continuing operations increased to $107.3 million, or $1.64 a share, from $72.4 million, or $1.17, a year earlier, the company said today in a statement. Net income was the same as profit from continuing operations.

August 8, 2007

Gap Founders Unveil Plans for New Museum in San Francisco

The New York Times reports that Donald and Doris Fisher, who built a jeans and T-shirt shop into a global brand name known as the Gap, have plans for a new museum devoted to their personal trove of modern art, a collection that includes pieces from the likes of Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and Alexander Calder. Adding to the project’s hometown focus, the museum would be built from scratch on one of the San Francisco’s most recognizable pieces of property: the Presidio, the scenic military base–turned–national park. “I want to have a little curatorial fun while I’m living,” said Mr. Fisher, seventy-eight. The Fisher family currently displays much of its collection at the Gap’s headquarters downtown, as well as in occasional displays at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Mr. Fisher is on the board of trustees. Neal Benezra, the director of SFMoMA, hailed the Fisher collection as “one of the most important in the world,” with an exceptional depth and breadth. The proposal, which is to be formally unveiled on Wednesday, includes building a hundred-thousand-square-foot museum with about fifty-five-thousand square feet of galleries, to be designed by the firm of Gluckman Mayner.

August 8, 2007

Monet and Others Stolen in Museum Heist in Nice

Armed robbers stole four artworks—including a Monet—in a brazen daylight raid on a French museum last Sunday, reports Kim Willsher for The Guardian. A gang of masked men walked into the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice and ordered staff to lie on the floor at gunpoint while they snatched the paintings. They removed five canvases but dropped and damaged one as they made their escape. Monet's Falaises prčs de Dieppe (Cliffs near Dieppe), 1897, and Alfred Sisley's Allée des peupliers de Moret (The Lane of Poplars at Moret), 1890, were taken. Two paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder were also taken. It was the second time the Monet had been stolen and the third time for the Sisley. Both were stolen from the same museum in 1998 but were discovered a week later on a boat moored in a nearby town. The museum's then curator was convicted of the theft and jailed for five years along with two accomplices. The Sisley was also stolen in 1978 when on loan in Marseille. It was recovered a few days later in the city's sewers.

August 8, 2007

Stolen Picassos Recovered in Paris

BBC News reports that police have recovered two paintings and a drawing by Pablo Picasso stolen from his granddaughter's apartment in Paris in February. The works, with a combined value of €50 million ($68.7 million), included a portrait of his daughter, Maya and the Doll, 1938, and a 1961 painting of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque. They were all recovered “apparently in good condition,” said the lawyer of Diana Widmaier-Picasso. Three people were arrested in Paris and are awaiting charges over the theft. The works were taken from the apartment of Widmaier-Picasso, in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, as she slept. The stolen drawing was called Marie-Therese at Age 21. The three pieces were considered too famous to be sold on the open market.

August 6, 2007

International News Digest

This week's International News Digest, compiled by Jennifer Allen, is now online. Click to read news from Germany, Greece, Israel, and elsewhere.

August 6, 2007

Tour Groups Take Documenta to Court; Documenta Reports High Attendance; New Museum Outside Athens; Tel Aviv as EU Cultural Capital?


Who has the right to give guided tours of Documenta 12? As Die Welt's Peter Dittmar reports, this question lies at the heart of a bizarre legal conflict between Documenta 12 and the commercial travel group Studiosus, which has organized trips to the event.

According to D12 house rules, “moderated talks and guided tours from commercial providers are not approved.” Only the official “art mediators”—trained by Documenta 12 staff—are allowed to give tours of the exhibition. Studiosus is now challenging D12's monopoly in German courts, having filed an official complaint backed by the German Travel Association.

The rule is not a new one. At Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11, in 2002, tours given by outsiders were not allowed. Only the officially trained guides—120 in full—were considered “competent” enough to talk about the art. When enough experts came to the fore, the rule was rearticulated as a safeguard against “busloads” of tourists, whose loud-speaking guides might disturb other visitors.

As Dittmar notes, the recalcitrance against large tourist groups doesn't fit with an event that seeks high visitor numbers. The latest argument is that commercial guides like Studiosus will undermine D12's educational mission. “That sounds like an attempt—from a highly subsidized yet commercial enterprise like Documenta—to exclude unwanted competition,” writes Dittmar, adding that private tours are not prohibited by any major German museum.

“The only thing we want,” said Roger M. Buergel in a statement, “is that commercial tour guides register with us beforehand.” In principle, no one is prohibited from giving tours. For Studiosus, Buergel's affirmation is “simply false.” Now it's up to local courts to decide whether Documenta has infringed on the right to professional free practice, as well as on German antitrust laws.


The Süddeutsche Zeitung's Holger Liebs reports that despite the ban on “unauthorized” guided tours and a round of stinging reviews, Documenta 12 has managed to pull in a record numbers of visitors. Halfway through its hundred-day run—which Guardian critic Adrian Searle dubbed “100 days of ineptitude”—the event has attracted 330,000 visitors, a figure that could reach a record-breaking 700,000 by the time the event closes in September. (Documenta 11 attracted a total of 650,000 visitors.)

Liebs attributes the success to Buergel alone and wonders how he has managed to attract such crowds to an event in which one venue, the Aue-Pavilion, was labeled “a catastrophe” by the New York Times's Holland Cotter. Buergel's call for a new art public seems to have fallen on sympathetic ears, although the curator always rejected the hype surrounding the contemporary art market and must-see shows.

“For Buergel, it was about something else,” writes Liebs, “art's new commitment, its duty to a democratic ideal”—a collective duty that might be debated, if not fulfilled, in the public discussion areas known as “Circles of Enlightenment.” “That's how he wanted to maintain a semblance of individuality in this mass event,” writes Liebs. “The astonishing thing is that he managed to pull it off.”

Liebs ponders Buergel's “autoimmune strategy.” Early on, the curator announced that Documenta 12's failure could well be a desirable outcome as a sign of art's capacity to polarize. The collapse of Ai Wei Wei's sculpture Template in a windstorm was called a “productive failure.” While this “pretentious” position goes against the ideal of a new art public, it also raises another problem: What is to be done with success?


A new museum to house modern artworks from the Goulandris Foundation will be built southeast of Athens. As Agence France-Presse reports, Georges Souflias, the Greek minister of the environment, made the announcement after the foundation accepted his proposal to use a new green space near the city's former airport as a site for the building. I. M. Pei will design the museum for the fifteen-hundred-acre park.

The Foundation Goulandris—named after collectors Basil and Elise Goulandris—had previously planned a museum designed by Pei in Athens in 1992. By January 1997, that project was abandoned, due to the discovery of the remains of Aristotle's school at the building site. Currently housed in a small institute on Andros Island, the foundation's collection includes works by Picasso, Matisse, de Chirico, Balthus, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Klee, Kupka, Braque, Masson, and Miró.


Could Tel Aviv be a European Cultural Capital? As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports, that's the dream of Tel Aviv's mayor, Ron Huldai, who sees the title as the perfect cap to the city's centenary celebrations in 2009. It appears as though preparations are already under way, with a whirlwind of renovations and constructions in the city center. A wave of EU funding would certainly help. Huldai is undeterred by the fact that Israel is not a member of the EU, nor does he seem worried by the stipulation that nominations for Cultural Capitals must be made ten years before the title is awarded. Indeed, Huldai says that he has already garnered “much sympathy” for his proposal from EU politicians.

Jennifer Allen