So the Oakland Museum of California had a thirty-one hour re-opening gala this weekend. Yes, thirty-one hours. Yes, the museum you may have gone to in elementary school, the one with the giant redwood burl turned into a bench. They remodeled and reopened. I went to join Miss Silver Squid, who tried to organize a whole bunch of people to meet there. Parking was awful (I wasn’t looking at the keyboard and accidentally typed “swefful,” and that’s what it was–parking was swefful. One of the crew looked for parking for an hour and a half and ended up going home. That’s the level of swef it was). I was lucky to find a spot within twenty minutes of looking.
LOWBROW FIRST: SHIT TALKING.
There was a creepy dude who kept looking at us in the Art Gallery. Yes, there is a gallery there called Art. Physically, he wasn’t that bad, if you’re into lanky, painterly rebel-types in their late fifties who try too hard. Had a bald spot at the occiput of his head, fairly large, about the size of his own palm, totally didn’t admit it, so he did a sort of hawk-like pompadourish thing to cover it: dude, it’s still a comb-over. He had paint-splattered pants on: I Am a Painter at the Museum. So he kept looking at me and my friends. Yes, we still are a pretty gaggle of ladies, even in our early thirties, especially if you like them in several shades at once.
But the line-stepper moment (where he showed himself to be the type to habitually step over the line) was when he went up to one of our clan and asked her, “Are you all going around the gallery this way?” He pointed in one direction. She was puzzled, and he had to ask again. “You are? This way? Good!” He stalked off, staring all the while. We then asked her what she had had to discuss with him, and busted up laughing. Because that’s a creepy, weird way to interact with people. I never saw Creepy Painter again. Maybe because we ended up standing in that part of the gallery talking for the next forty minutes.
Maybe he just wanted to know that we wouldn’t be in his way, because our talking bothered him. Maybe he thought one of us would be the type to have change for a five, and he was going to need it later to get a delicious salty snack. Maybe he wanted one of us to tell him the way to San Jose (take Harrison to the freeway, South on 880, dude. Maybe a half hour from Oakland). I shouldn’t think ill of Creepy Painter. Everyone just wants to love and be loved and eat salty snacks and have accurate directions.
There were also a lot of good-looking young people at the museum. Young ladies were peeing circles around their dates, making sure everyone knew He’s Not Single. There was a midnight event called something like CPR for Singles run by someone who owns (worked at? I’m not looking at the program right now) Good Vibrations, a very nice sex-positive sex shop in the East Bay and in the City. We contemplated going, as we were all single, but decided we did not want to meet the people who would show up. Creepy Painter was probably very disappointed, and most likely would have shared his popcorn with us. (My attitude is probably why I am single, and is why I need CPR for Singles.)
These are not my lofty ideas, if you can tell.
HIGHBROW: ANNOYANCE AT THE MUSEUM.
I was irritated with the museum. Not for the collection. Not for the gallery called Art, or the one called History. I could care less if it’s “lowbrow” that way, instead of named after some socialite or archduke. It’s a small museum, and I’m fine with it being accessible to people. Art is in the art gallery. Historical stuff is in the history gallery. The Natural History gallery was closed (boo), but it probably has dead animals in it.
I take issue with the curation of the museum. I think they did a poor job. Let me say first the new interior architecture is great. It allows for crowds to move freely through the spaces without getting caught in eddies and backing up. The dead ends and cul-de-sacs don’t feel claustrophobic. But the actual art that was placed in the spaces used none of the physical space as cues. It felt like every single thing in the collection was trotted out for this show, and there was no cohesive theme to the show at all. Sometimes less is more, Oakland Museum.
The theme was “California,” as in all the art was from California. That’s too broad. Some of the spaces tried to go with just sculpture, or just ceramics, but even then there was too much, and the pieces didn’t gibe with one another. A motorcycle was placed next to a free-form abstract sculpture. Some rooms went with time periods. A sculpted mini-fridge was placed alone in the middle of a room of paintings. The observer was left to guess why they were all together beyond the time, which made most people start to guess out loud what made them all art, or just mumble, “Pretty. How do I look at that? What is that?” and hurry on.
There was one space in the art gallery that felt calming, and that was the Art Nouveau collection. It actually had free space on the walls so that you could absorb what you were seeing, instead of feeling cluttered. The pieces went together, and were shown evolving over time. It made sense. I didn’t struggle to think of a story for the works, and why they were all placed together. This is where people felt comfortable lingering. Yes, it did help that the pieces were pretty to the eye, but they were strung together, like a necklace, instead of jarring against each other like a pocketful of change and lint and gum wrappers. The lighting was even muted properly. Definitely a success for curation. (Though guessing from the rest of the collection, it may just have been everything they had in this area.)
Good curation is infrastructure, like good book cataloging, or good wiring in a house, or good city planning: when done well, it is invisible. The user should never notice it, only have a heightened experience of the works it supports. It is a humble craft. I didn’t know until grad school that there are master’s degrees in museum studies for people to learn actual curation. I also didn’t miss good curation so much as for last night–and that one time at MoMA (in NYC, not SF), in the future technology exhibit. Hoo-boy. Don’t put cooters right smack-dab in the middle of things little kids want to see, and right at three feet high, in a family friendly exhibit. If there was ever a time for things to be placed high up, it was for cooter and wiener art. Let adults think things are funny and leave kids to ask why, then forget five minutes later what they were asking for. It’s part of the gift of being over four feet tall.
Hopefully, the Pixar exhibit is successful, because that looks like a lot of fun. I can see them not getting as many pieces for that, and too many pieces seems to be their downfall.
I’ll go back. I’ll just go back with low expectations. You’re on notice, Oakland Museum of California. Like you care what I think.