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Monday, 15 February 2010


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I've been to Chicago only once (8? years ago), and that was to see an Edward Weston show at the AIC.
The lighting was so poor that I wished I could read braile.

Dear Mike,
Now that you were able to get your feelings out in the open, I hope you are feeling better!

P.S. My invoice for being your psychologist for the day is in the mail.

Sincerely, Stephen Bishop

So, Mike, did you like the show? :)

"So, Mike, did you like the show? :)"

It was okay.


Thanks for an enjoyable write-up Mike.

The Guardian has a nice note about "artspeak" for those who are also allergic to that


I was bitching to myself not that long ago as to why the light was damn freakin low at a photography exhibit at SFMOMA!

Martin Parr recently shot some stuff for a Fashion mag (you can see that shot here):

Mike, you sound like Holden Caulfield doing an imitation of... Holden Caulfield.

I don't believe the art's gotten more valuable since it was made -- the money's become worthless. Do you remember when you could take a dollar bill to the bank and get it changed for a silver dollar? I do. And the notes had "Pay to the Bearer Upon Demand". Try that now! They're going for 125-1100K!! So have they become so valuable or have the bills become worth less than the paper upon which they're printed? (http://www.us-coin-values-advisor.com/silver-dollar-values.html) I'm wondering when you'll need a wheelbarrow full of the stuff to get your loaf of bread.


That's one hundred and twenty five dollars up to 1,100,000 dollars! Wow!!

Mike, don't fret; you are not alone. Rubbish such as that depicted in your excellent (as always) article is sadly everywhere. The same badly lit oeuvres, the insistence in telling the visitor how to feel about the thing stuck on the wall, the same never ending video, the collection of "what-the-hells" - all to be found in my home town here in Europe too.
What they call art is now alas a sad reflection on the present "www" culture: world wide wishwash. And no, I don't buy into that "expert's" explanation that I'm fifty or sixty years behind the times either.

I am delighted to see that you visited the AIC, Mike. You picked a lovely day for your visit, particularly to the light-soaked Modern Wing, although I wonder if you were in a very good mood for viewing anything. (Frankly, some of your remarks seemed a little unfairly snarky.)

Sorry you were so disappointed by the Vernacular exhibit. Yes, it is a bit of a mishmash drawn from the permanent collection by a guest curator. It also left me with a bit of a shrug. But the general idea was to set the stage for the William Eggleston exhibit that opens in the Modern Wing later this month.

I agree that the main photo galleries are in great need of revision. To that end, work is currently in progress to raise the funds for this remodeling initiative. Those galleries, created 30+ years ago, are devoted to photography and see tremendous turnover. The miserably dim lighting can be explained by the galleries' relatively ancient and inflexible design which has been permanently dimmed-down to spare the imagery (even imagery that can withstand much brighter light). I am confident that those galleries will get a major make-over as soon as the exhibition schedule and funds permit...not too distant future. Matt Witkovsky, the new curator, is a tirelessly energetic fellow and is keenly and painfully aware of this issue. (Did you visit the smaller, new Bucksbaum photo gallery in the Modern Wing?)

Like every other major museum in the world, the Art Institute is not in its wealthiest days. Late last year it was forced to implement a headcount cut-back that affected every department in the museum. (The photo department lost a long-time, and highly valued, administrative coordinator.) But overall we're doing much better than many of our peers. Visitation is up and private donations have remained strong.

The big headline show for this year will be the Matisse exhibit which opens next month. This is an insightful study co-organized with MoMA, where it will travel during the summer. So this should bring a nice, strong stream of funds to the AIC, some of which might be earmarked for renovation of the photo galleries.

So, I'm delighted that you visited but sorry that neither you nor the museum may have been in top form for the event.

ARTIC seems very generous with allowing photography of the permanent collection: perhaps the dim lighting is their "yeah, but" counterpoint?

Mike, thanks for the overview. I'm making the trip to Chicago in mid-May, and spending a half-day in this gallery is at the top of my list. Now I know where to go - the modern wing's second floor it is! (And the rest of the time will be spent standing in front of the Rothko that they have on display.)

This trip, and this gallery, is one of my main justifications for buying a GH1. It's a win-win.

Boy, was I pissed for paying to SEE Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition in Barcelona a few years ago... the lighting was so dim I could barely read the notes next to photographs... once my eyes adjusted, I did manage to read a note that basically said the lighting in the room was purposefully set so low to preserve the original work (and that was b&w, of course, with supposedly longer life by default)

Notwithstanding the earlier posts on the nature of art (which I have enjoyed and thoughtfully read twice through), I would like someone to explain to me exactly why that particular Picasso is worth an 8 or 9 figure sum.

I'm jealous. If you tried taking photos hanging on the wall in most of the museums here in SoCal you would get in BIG trouble.

I've never seen the Picasso you photographed but at first I thought it was hanging wrong. It still does.

Assuming you made no special arrangements beforehand, I find it interesting the museum allows visitors to take snaps of the work on display. Most museums no longer allow non-"Press" photography, owing mainly to copyright worries.

Darker lighting conditions have come into fashion not only out of curatorial/exhibit design choices, but from two other fronts as well: first, art conservation concerns (despite the irony, for most works, the ideal display from a conservator's standpoint would include everlasting total darkness, ie- light kills!), and secondly, (as you suggested) finances. More lumens used for illumination= more energy consumed for both the lighting itself and the heat the lamps create which then must be cooled by HVAC systems... Even large institutions are finding incremental savings wherever they can these days.

Museums are the NBT for retailing.
They triple, at least, the retail efficiency of the next commercial surface avaliable: airports. Each Museum Store sq.ft produces around 1200 Euro of revenue per year. That is an amazing result, compared to any other retail space.

By the way, and talking about price vs. value vs. appreciation:

There is something very curious about art pieces, and Picasso is the best example for that.

The most important, and invaluable, piece of art of the XX century, "Gernika", is not the best piece Picasso ever produced. But it is the most expensive and highest insured piece of art of the last century.

I think that this stuff goes perfectly with the giacometti value: the very second it gets the label of "most" something, that very label will be the reason why its retail value will hold and skyrocket from that moment on.

For all ye car nerds and nuts [Petro Translation]: the so called "most beautiful car ever" [actually, there are quite some cars with that official label] is, surprisingly, not the Bugatti Type 41 Royale Coupe Napoleon, nor the Bugatti Type 57 Atlantique, nor the Hispano Suiza Air Dubonet Xenia, nor the Pegaso Z102 Thrill, or the Packard Double Six, or the Horch 853, or the Napier V6, or the Pininfarina Modulo, or the Ferrari GTO California, or Daytona, or the very Cisitalia, or the D-type, or the E-type, or the Toyota 2000GT, or the Mazda RX7.

According to global surveys, the most beautiful car ever has been "La déesse". My point with this gigantic list is that not always comes artistic appreciation, or customer [public] appreciation with the label price. Which is what I´m afraid will happen with Giacometi.*

And, by the way, museums define perfectly the so called "junk space".

*=by the way, this comes with the very stuff about "laughing at" surfer critics on famous photographs. Got some shadows cast on mebrain about them, to be honest. Next week, next week.

A lot of museums don't allow photos, are these shots legal....I say this in jest as I can't ever get the same answer why it is not allowed. The flash and positioning disturb other patrons...The flash will eventually deteriorate the paint...and in Florence Italy it was reported that they didn't want me buying an 18' piece of white marble and carving a statue of David that would compete with Michaelangelo....I got a nice shot anyway. Anybody have a real answer ? Fotoziv

And don't forget the photographs of the Modern Wing in the Modern Wing.

That's some curatorial conceit.

The problem with the photography gallery at the AIC is the that the ceilings are too low. They are stuck using direct lighting. I always feel like I am in some therapist's office circa 1978. It's time to take the photography out of the basement!

Isn't that modern wing just a treat?! Besides the collection, the structure (Renzo Piano) tips it's hat nicely to the great Architects from Chicago's past without being trite. It also does not rely on unnecessary flourishes and the wow factor to present itself. It's a bit masculine and just a touch conservative, and it does it's job just wonderfully!

Yes, I can see you as a shearsman, of sorts. And was the day green?


We're all so glad you had a grumpy, good time.

I think light levels are low, aside from unpaid power bills, as a conservation measure; not power, light sensitive materials. I'm hesitant to say Art, as I'll probably get in trouble. :-)

The underlighting of museums drives me crazy. I realize that for some works it's necessary for their protection, but the underlighting seems to me, too, to be vastly overdone, and it's not done at tome of the very best museums -- the National Gallery, for one.

"of things exactly as they are."
Another reason why I love this site. I took a photography course at Smith College (Tri-X, Pentax H1A, Gossen Luna Pro-that ought to date it) ) with an instructor who ignited a life-long love of Wallace Stevens. This guy spent as much time talking about seeing and creativity as on printing and darkroom technique. I remember him singling out,"Idea of Order in Key West" and "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself."
From the same"The Man With the Blue Guitar", regarding your museum commentary,
"Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.'

"I'm jealous. If you tried taking photos hanging on the wall in most of the museums here in SoCal you would get in BIG trouble."

The very first thing I did was check with a guard just inside the entrance and ask what the museum's policy was toward photography. He was a very friendly and helpful fellow and told me that non-flash photography was fine, but that flash could not be used.

I always just follow the rules, and I always ask so I know what the rules are. At the last show I went to--Warhol at the MAM--I was told photography was not allowed, so I took no photographs.


Hi Mike,

I work in an art museum and the reason we use low light levels in photography shows and others that involve works on paper is that light (both in its intensity and the amount of UV it contains) damages these works. It may take a while to show up, but it will happen. I see the results all the time, that and using acidic mat board, various kinds of pressure sensitive tape, etc. My dad liked to put paper clips and rubber bands around groups of photos. Also not a good idea. We're just trying to make sure these works are around for you and your descendants to look at for years to come.

So, regarding the day that museums go back to lighting these shows so that you can see them, it's not going to happen very soon unless these is some huge jump in technology or you can alter physics. The exception to this rule may be an institution is having a show by a living artist and said artist is providing the works and can ask for brighter lighting.

On that note, I hung a show of Ralph Gibson prints one time and he complained to me that the light levels were too low. The prints were on loan from another museum and I had to tell him he didn't own the prints anymore and I needed to respect the wishes of the other institution. Sorry Ralph.

"It's time to take the photography out of the basement!"

I agree. It really does have that under-the-stairs feel.

"Isn't that modern wing just a treat?! Besides the collection, the structure (Renzo Piano) tips it's hat nicely to the great Architects from Chicago's past without being trite. It also does not rely on unnecessary flourishes and the wow factor to present itself. It's a bit masculine and just a touch conservative, and it does it's job just wonderfully!"

I totally agree. Really a spectacular building, in form and function. Splendidly done.

My big problem with MAM (The Quadracci Pavillion designed by Calatrava), even though it's a work of art in itself and a focal point of civic pride, is that it's just not a very good space for exhibiting art. The galleries are an afterthought and have nothing to do with the main features of the building. There are libraries like that too, where space for storing books is an afterthought. The Modern Wing really balances form and function in a very successful way--elegant and distinctive without being egocentric or imposing. I was really impressed and look forward to getting to know it better as time goes on.


I like to attend new exhibits, and experience new art, but certain works I can't see often enough. At the Art Institute of Chicago, that might be Gustave Caillebotte's 'Paris Street; Rainy Day.'

Yep, the photo "Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095" is Christopher Williams.
Conceptual Photographer in the Vernacular bent. The car is real and it has long tail.
pdf download

Regarding photography at the Art Institute of Chicago... Non-flash photography is permitted anywhere within the confines of the museum's permanent collections. That amounts to most of the galleries. It is, however, prohibited within exhibits of borrowed artworks, such as special/traveling exhibits (ex: the upcoming Eggleston and HCB exhibits).

This is somewhat unique and more liberal than most museums' policies.

I got to get down there to see the Modern Wing before the Illinois legislature takes my Blagojevich free Metra old peoples pass away. What a guv.

I think I might be able to explain the 'lame' Vernacular exhibit at AIC. Our ongoing economic melt-down has had a grevious impact upon museums everywhere. Endowments have been hammered by falling stock prices and donations have dried up. The cost of mounting, insuring and transporting a major show with many loaned items weighs heavily on the bottom line. It's far cheaper for a museum to cobble together a show from existing holdings. Or better yet, amateur hour! George Eastman House recently hosted an exhibit consisting of hundreds of amateur snapshots of the Rochester region. Cute, very popular, and cost the museum basically nothing. This might explain why the planned duration was extended. On the other hand, 'crushing banality' comes to mind. I tend to have a pretty jaundiced view of 'high art', but even I can tell this kind of show doesn't move the ball down the field.

"I'm jealous. If you tried taking photos hanging on the wall in most of the museums here in SoCal you would get in BIG trouble."

A quick check shows that LACMA and Norton Simon allow non-flash photos except in special exhibits. I've taken hundreds of photos at the Getty and Armory, so I assume that their policies are similar. I've never been scolded for pulling out a camera in any museum in NYC or DC or SF.

Unfortunately, the National Museum of Australia has changed their policy in the last few years, so I'm glad that I got pix there on my first visit though only with a P&S. Oddly enough, it has a wonderful collection of modern American art co-mingled with aboriginal art.

>> Regarding photography at the Art Institute of Chicago... Non-flash photography is permitted anywhere within the confines of the museum's permanent collections. That amounts to most of the galleries. It is, however, prohibited within exhibits of borrowed artworks, such as special/traveling exhibits (ex: the upcoming Eggleston and HCB exhibits).

This is somewhat unique and more liberal than most museums' policies.<<

Ken, this is also true of three other museums I've visited recently - the Boston MFA, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Delaware Art Museum. The former two have the policy documented on their websites.

This seems a reasonable approach; I hope it's adopted more widely.

Well done Mike.
If you need to feed your depression at the art world, try Tate Modern in Southwark (opposite the City of London). It has only one beautiful, well-curated exhibit. That is the view across the Thames to St Paul's cathedral. Yes, there is some expensive stuff (art?) inside Tate Modern, but it is so badly curated that it simply depresses.
On the other hand the photography exhibition at the British Library is excellent. Their remit is books, but they have recently discovered lots of their Victorian books (especially in the Indian collection) contain pasted-in photos. Lovely historical material, brilliantly curated.
Please keep up your rants. We need their common sense. John

Please don't get me started on Calatrava. To me that man symbolizes everything that's wrong with modern `architecture': form, not function.

My old hometown recently bought 3 bridges by the man (to great dismay of the local population, who thought it was a bit high-brow for a small community).

The bridges started to rust before they were finished. Apparently Mr. Calatrava didn't think his bridges would be used near water, or just plain-out flunked his high-school chemistry class.

To make matters worse, part of the designs are batteries of high-powered floodlights.
Which are angled in such a way that any approaching motorist in blinded when nearing the bridges. Moving, re-aiming or dimming the lights is not allowed by Mr. Calatrava, as this would diminish his glorious designs.

I guess adding wreckage and blood to his 'Art' is allowed though.

IMNSHO, architecture should start from function, and is only then allowed to alter the form. If you only want to think about form, design something else.

Rant over.

Jeff said, "Certain works I can't see often enough. At the Art Institute of Chicago, that might be Gustave Caillebotte's 'Paris Street: Rainy Day.'"

Ken said, "Non-flash photography is permitted anywhere within the confines of the Art Institute's permanent collections."

Thomas Struth said, "You're both right: I sold this non-flash photo to the Art Institute for almost $200,000."

P.S. Because it is in the AIC's permanent collection, Struth's photograph could be photographed by visitors if it were on display (it's not right now). I've always thought that if someone took a photo of museumgoers looking at Struth's photo and then repeated the process several successive times, they could create a neat almost-infinite mirror-within-a-mirror-within-a-mirror effect....

Mike -- I get where you're coming from, and I will commence getting off your lawn posthaste.

The word you're looking for is probably 'lackluster'. It even scans with blockbuster.

If you think the state of photo art is bad in the US, come to Scandinavia. Very few galleries will even consider photos, and the ones that do usually go for grimy, reportage-y photos as dark and depressing as possible. I always enjoy seeing galleries in the US where there are half paintings and half photos, and the photos are a joy to look at rather than something that deconstructs the social imbalance between cocaine users and hypocritical factory workers.

It's not a European thing, though, I saw several excellent photo exhibits last time I was in Edinburgh.

Thanks for the review Mike, I always enjoy going to the AIC whenever I have been in Chicago.

You are right about the "curatorial gloom" trend. I live near Amherst, MA, here we have the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Years ago (before my daughter was too old and too young to visit again) I went to see an exhibit of paintings of Maurice Sendak. It was so dark that only after 5 minutes (maybe only 2) we left completely disapointed. There was no point in trying to see the brilliant colors of the original in that dim light.

I would second the motion from John Woods about the British Library Exhibition.
It's called "Points of View" and covers the first 60 years of photography using prints from their collection. The prints are lit well enough to see and its a great tour through the hectic technical changes in photography through the nineteenth century. It you can't make it to London the exhibition is on-line
at: http://www.bl.uk/pointsofview/

My favorite was this print:

Best of all it's free, though it did appear to be partially in the basement.


With regard to several comments on the low light levels to protect the photos isn't there glass that can block out almost all UV? Do parts of the visible spectrum also fade B&W and color photographs? What about white LED's? Or are they just missing too much of the colors to work for photographs?

Just wondering and I know that with all the engineers and scientists who read this blog somebody will have the answers.

FYI, the Martin Parr "beautiful woman pumping gas" pic is surely a set-up. Unlike in most states where self-service is the norm, in New Jersey, where that pic was taken, only gas station attendants are allowed to pump gas. (Sorry for my shallow FYI comment, can't help it.)

You're right--see the "Update" to the post.


Hey, I was at the Art Institute Sunday too, with a couple photographer friends, Dave Rudin and Ted Preuss. Wish I'd known you were there too so we could have found you and said hi. I had come to town for a gallery show opening Saturday night: http://www.galleryprovocateur.org/currentexhibition.html

I pretty much agree with you about the photo show at the institute. But we did comment that it was at least better and showed better work than if it had been done by someplace like MoMA where they obviously hate photography, based on what they put on the walls there and call art.

This was my first time to see the new wing. I was last there back just before it opened to see the Karsh show (which was great, btw). I agree that the new wing is a great place to look at art. The one thing I missed was the way they have the Picassos hung. In the past there was a room filled with the best collection of Picassos I've ever seen in one place. It was wonderful to stand there and see all this work he had done over his entire creative life, all in one place. Now they have scattered his paintings throughout the third floor and it doesn't have that same impact, at least for me.

And I agree about the second floor. I was muttering the whole time I was there. And that an entire room was given over to those white panels...please!

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