Friday, January 25, 2013

The Warhol effect

Te Papa announced late last year that it will host a Warhol exhibition in June 2013 selected by its curator of contemporary art and acting senior curator Sarah Farrar. Metaphor aside, nine months is not much time to pull off what the museum must be hoping will be one of those if-we-show-him-they-will-come blockbusters. The works will be selected from the collection of Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum (plus some local and Australian ring-ins one assumes) but having just seen the bloated three hundred work exhibition Andy Warhol: 15 minutes eternal touring Asia and also from the Andy Warhol Museum, it’s not going to be easy to get a great show.

Museums manage their collections on the principle of that airline safety instruction video - ‘Secure your own mask first before helping others.’ Institutions with iconic collections like the Andy Warhol Museum can't afford to disappoint their own audiences with anything less than the best possible sampling of Warhol’s work. The problem for borrowers then is that what tends to be left is the smaller, lesser known, less popular examples (often on paper rather than canvas and in the Asian show occasionally in facsimile rather than original). This situation made 15 Minutes Eternal a pretty drab affair. To make up the numbers far too many average works were included and this quantity over quality perspective was aggravated by an absence of curatorial point of view.

The challenge for Te Papa is satisfying the drive for a strongly marketed blockbuster against a smart show with a point of view. Warhol is not seen in New Zealand often. The last time was the highly focused show The Warhol look in 1998 at the Auckland Art Gallery which only managed to draw in less than half its projected audience of 50,000 and lost around $90,000.  Warhol is not an audience slam dunk but working with what’s available after the Asian vacuum cleaner has been through and making some other institutional loans (the country code for Australia is +64) let's hope for a sharp, focused exhibition of one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Whether that will be enough to draw the crowds and turnaround Te Papa’s declining attendance figures is another thing altogether.
Image: Diminishing returns. Top Andy Warhol boxes in the studio. Bottom left at the Andy Warhol Museum and right, in a tragically blurry photo taken against all odds, the slim pickings exhibited at the 15 minutes eternal exhibition