- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

Are blockbusters dead? Hardly, but last season’s art exhibits increasingly came from museums’ permanent collections.

Most successful was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s ongoing “Gyroscope,” a revolving, museumwide exhibit of its holdings that remains open through spring. Another is the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Arts’ “Gold: The Asian Touch,” exclusively drawn from the museums’ collections. It’s a glistening — of course — survey of Asian gold.

As in the rosier 1980s and early 1990s, museums still have to come up with frequent special exhibits and high attendance figures. Back then, they mounted blockbusters such as the National Gallery of Art’s dazzling “Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting” (1985) and awe-inspiring “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (2004).

This year, the National Gallery showcased “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre,” centered around the romantic, though decadent, French painter’s life — and produced one of its most successful exhibits ever.

It also realized Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Director Thomas Krens’ directive of 10 years ago at Georgetown University: “Museums are at the high end of the entertainment industry, and they’d better perform.”

In addition, “Toulouse-Lautrec” showed the public’s compulsive fascination with often tantalizingly named temporary shows. Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum invented one of the best: “Palace of Wonders,” basically a rearrangement of objects from its own holdings.

The horrific shock of September 11 and the ongoing war on terrorism marked the beginning of a downward financial spiral for many museums. Many struggle to prevail with far less corporate and private support.

Let’s look at some scaled-back 2005 successes:

• The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ new “Women Artists Worldwide” initiative, a cooperative venture with the city’s foreign missions, promises much, although its initial “Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body” — coordinated with the Mexican Embassy — bombed.

• American University inaugurated its new $48 million Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center in the summer and fall with several intriguing shows, among them “Soft Openings” — a selection of works from 20 of the Washington area’s best artists. In October, McLean resident Emilie Brzezinski’s mammoth wood sculptures and San Franciscan Bruce Conner’s beat-associated drawings were exhibited as well.

• The Corcoran Gallery of Art, recovering from its financial debacle over the now-canceled Frank Gehry wing and Director David C. Levy’s resignation after a 14-year tenure, hit the ground running in the fall with works by Andy Warhol, a surefire crowd pleaser (“Warhol Legacy: Selections From the Andy Warhol Museum”), and instituted its “Encouraging American Genius” series as well.

First was “Master Paintings From the Corcoran Gallery of Art,” which included such museum “stars” as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church and John Singer Sargent. Second was a long-overdue tribute to Sam Gilliam, Washington’s most celebrated living artist (“Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective”).

• The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, which call themselves the National Museum of Asian Art, mounted an astonishing number of big and small exhibits. Last spring’s “Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries” blockbuster probably was the biggest, best and most expensive (at just less than $1 million), says Director Julian Raby.

The sixth-century Buddhas, unexpectedly found in China under a 12th-century temple in Qingzhou, Shandong province, exuded a spiritual power similar to images of Christ in European Gothic cathedrals.

Sensational in another way are the 16th- to 17th-century voluminous silk caftans, or royal robes, of the Sackler’s “Style and Status: Imperial Costumes From Ottoman Turkey,” which continues through Jan. 22. This array of geometrized, boldly designed silks, satins, brocades and velvet robes from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace is a must-see.

Mr. Raby also recently put together “Virtue and Entertainment: Chinese Music in the Visual Arts,” a composite of 33 bells, drums, chimes and zithers as well as painted scrolls from the museums’ permanent collections. This spectacular exhibit shows art and music’s close connections (through March 26).

The Freer-Sackler galleries director also designed “Artists of Edo: 1800-1850,” a small exhibit of paintings by followers of the famed Japanese printmaker and painter Hokusai, as a warm-up for the Sackler’s major “Hokusai” show in March.

• The National Gallery saved its major blockbusters for next year — “Cezanne in Provence” (Jan. 29 through May 7) and “Dada” (Feb. 19 through May 14) — but opened its 2005 fall season with six smaller exhibits, of which one, “Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public,” was the charming sleeper exhibit of the fall.

• Observe, also, how the Phillips Collection sent its major treasures, “Masterworks From the Phillips Collection: From El Greco to Picasso” — with Auguste Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” as the centerpiece — abroad for two years. Now ending its tour at Paris’ Musee du Luxembourg, the show comes to Washington as “The Renoir Returns: A Celebration of Masterworks at the Phillips Collection,” opening April 15.

“Though there were expressions of disappointment that the Renoir masterpiece was gone for so long, it was seen by two million people around the world,” says Phillips Director Jay Gates.

Washington’s museums amply demonstrated their imaginative resourcefulness with interesting, challenging shows from their own collections, juxtaposing smaller exhibits with related larger ones, sending exhibits on the road, and obtaining small loans from other institutions.

However, they’re victims of their own success. They still have a public voracious for “special exhibitions” and will have to come up with even more ways to satisfy those demands.

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