I interviewed the MCA's James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling and wrote about the behind-the-scenes aspects of Chicago's biggest culture coup of the year, David Bowie Is. I would have loved to have written a longer piece, had to leave out lots of details, but I think it works. And I relish the chance to publish on Prospero, the Economist's culture blog.
Text below for non-subscribers:
Ch-ch-changes in Chicago
Oct 10th 2014, 15:38 BY J.D. | CHICAGO
THE Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is the only American venue for Ziggy Stardust fanatics to see "David Bowie Is", the touring exhibition organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, exploring the rocker’s life, creative process, artistic influences and collaborations. This makes it a genuine coup, both for the museum and for Chicago, a perennial second city. It is also as close as visitors to the exhibition will get to seeing Bowie this year: he hasn’t performed in public since 2006.
It wasn’t a high price tag or art-world intrigue that made this possible: the MCA simply got there first. Michael Darling, the chief curator at the MCA, read about the show before it opened at the V&A and immediatly got on the phone. The MCA secured a date, but not before agreeing upon one detail. “We wanted to make sure we were the first American venue." Mr Darling says. "That was one negotiating point we were really firm on. We felt being first was crucial.” The exhibition soon filled its remaining tour slots leaving the MCA as its sole American outlet.
Despite reports to the contrary, the MCA's show features the same collection of 300 objects (from costumes to handwritten lyrics), originally shown in London. But it isn’t exactly the same show. “It was a different aesthetic in London, more chaotic and whiz-bang." Mr Darling explained, "We take more of an elegant, minimalist approach.” Even so, hosting the exhibition required much of the MCA. The fees for securing "David Bowie Is" weren’t out of line with what the museum would usually pay for a visual art show, but the technical aspects of the exhibition, such the audio-visual design required, were expensive. An architecture firm was hired to sort out the infrastructure and the MCA brought in additional staff, extended its hours, and launched an online ticketing system in order to offer 150 tickets and audio headsets at half-hour intervals.
The hope is that this expenditure will be justified by a steady increase in the number of visitors. Despite its downtown location, the museum is usually only a modest draw. The massive press coverage for the show (Chicago’s tourism bureau advised on promotion) has meant unprecedented exposure for the MCA itself. So far it seems as if the MCA's efforts are paying off: ticket sales ($25 for adults) are robust and the pop-up gift shop is selling above projections.
Certainly the museum is now much more visible: it's emblazoned with Bowie in lightening-bolt makeup as Aladdin Sane, one of the singer's alter egos and the titular character of his sixth album. According to Mr Darling, "People are even taking pictures of our loading dock." Clearly being bathed in the Bowie's reflected glitter is making Chicagoans and tourists alike take note of the MCA like never before.
David Bowie is is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago until January 4th 2015