As is the case with most of these things, it's yes or no. Talking to people about underground comix, I got responses that ranged from "wow, that's a hot topic" from someone from the Cooper-Hewitt to a museum director from Houston that practically ran away. The conference started with a well-attended panel on pop culture and how it works in museums, which was fascinating (more about this in a minute). I was also surprised to see (maybe unconcious) approval of comics/pop culture from the AAM itself when I walked onto the exhibit floor. The first thing I saw, looking straight ahead at the AAM's own display, was a big banner featuring Green Lantern hanging above it (cell snap to the left). This well known Alex Ross painting was featured on the cover of Museum magazine in 2008 (included an interview with Michael Chabon).
Can't Stop It! Putting Popular Culture to Work for Your Museum wasn't the only panel that dealt with Hollywood and pop culture at the conference, but it was the one that provided the most useful information. The panelists were from the Experience Music Project (Seattle), the Skirball Center (LA), the V&A (London) and the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame (Cleveland). Victoria Broackes, who had curated a show about the fashions worn by Kylie Minogue for the V&A, and Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the Hall of Fame, both had good advice about how to build a compelling narrative using pop culture material. They also talked about the public vs critical response (popular with public, some negative criticism) and how to deal with adult material in the context of the display. Robert Kirschner talked about a comic art show presented at the Skirball last year. Learning from Hollywood was another panel about using interaction and technology to tell a narrative, as explained by a very lively group of panelists representing Disney, ILM and WET Design (great web site, check it out).
There were other great panels on practical matters like strategic thinking, domestic couriers, and the importance of editing in narrative.Overall, I'd say the main thread that ran through the conference is that everyone is aware that things are changing rapidly, and they are scrambling to adapt. At one committee breakfast I attended, every presentation was about how their particular institution was using social media to build relationships with their audience, members and market.
The AAM's Center for the Future of Museums had an all day session brainstorming about the future of museums in California (get their report here).According to a recent mailing, some of the issues discussed included:
Many of the participants in the all day workshop also attended a wrap up panel the next day, where it was agreed that these issues will be taken up actively. What would happen, for example, if public education lost most of its funding and students were only in school a third of the day? How would museums and other educational institutions fill that gap? What if there was a major earthquake? etc...
- Pop consumerism is driving the oversimplification of real messages—we are becoming a society informed by sound bites
- The withdrawal of the government from many functions promotes “social entrepreneurship” as hybrid profit/nonprofit/governmental collaboratives step to fill the gaps in social services. (education and public schools were a hot topic in this catagory).
- Might we be on the cusp of a potential disruptive moment in nonprofit history—could the government rethink the nature and number of tax exempt institutions?
On the exhibit floor, most exhibitors wished for a bigger turnout, and at times looked a little lonely. Still, there were autotronic dinosaurs and lots of displays where I stood in front of them and said "oh, that's who actually does that." I was happy to see that Cinnabar Design and Lexington Design and Fabrication were there. They started as small non-union scenery shops in the Hollywood area, and I worked for both of them back in the 1980's. Both companies have moved into exhibit design, in fact Cinnabar designed and built a large section of the California Academy of Sciences.
There were great museum events every night. One of the best was at the Getty Museum, which was lovely because we arrived in Malibu right around sunset. They had a fabulous exhibition of da Vinci drawings related to his sculptures. I was particularly thrilled to see his sketches for his (never built in his lifetime) grand equestrian monument, which he intended to be a horse and rider cast in bronze 24 feet high! At the entrance to the gallery, they installed a 24 foot photo of one of his models. It was positioned so you could look at it coming down one of the sweeping stairways from the upstairs galleries and it was an overwhelming sight. Leonardo actually did build a 24 foot clay model, that he presented to his patron, the Duke of Milan, in November 1493. I can only imagine what they thought!
Outside of this, I joined Michael Dooley for an event celebrating the publication of Fantagraphic's Best American Comics Criticism at Skylight Books. There was a panel moderated by the editor, Ben Schwartz which included critics Brian Doherty & Bob Fiore, and artists Sammy Harkham, and Joe Matt. It was interesting to hear the wide range of opinion expressed about criticism and it's worth, and the bookstore itself was amazing. I'm surprised I didn't need an extra suitcase!