Paul Schimmel on Selling Murakami
Paul Schimmel on Selling Murakami
Like its subject, the “© Murakami” exhibition currently on view at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art combines elements from pop culture with mass-market and luxury products to attention-grabbing effect. Just as Takashi Murakami has profited from his appropriation of Japanese anime and manga and the impressive output of his massive Kaikai Kiki enterprise, the exhibition is making a name for itself through high-profile associations with Kanye West and Louis Vuitton.
The media frenzy surrounding the show began before it opened, with the museum drawing criticism—or at least skepticism—from museum stalwarts and the media for its decision to include within the exhibition space a functioning boutique offering products by Vuitton, with whom Murakami has collaborated for several years.
MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, an art-world hotshot since his landmark 1992 exhibition “Helter Skelter,” which jettisoned a school of L.A. artists to recognition, organized the show, and worries that the hoopla around the boutique may overshadow the quality of the work. (He told us that despite the glut of media coverage of the show, “If you focus more on the exhibition and less on the boutique I promise you it’ll be fresh.”) He talked to ARTINFO about the criticism he’s faced, Murakami’s ties to Fluxus, and how he got Kanye to perform at the museum.
Paul, how’s the turnout for the Murakami exhibition so far?
It is a very large audience. And we had the largest members opening to date: 7,600 or 7,700 members went, which was huge, and then we had 1,200 people for the concert and gala the next night.
And you had Kanye West. How did you get him?
It came out of a collaboration that began about a year and a half ago when Kanye West was visiting Takashi in Tokyo and asked him if he would design a record album; ultimately they also did an animation together. It was really a gift. Kanye charged us a tenth of his normal fee; I’m not even sure we covered his full expenses. And he gave a spectacular performance that made for a different evening.
I heard some of the place mats got stolen from the opening dinner.
Takashi and my wife and I had gotten up at some point before dessert and were talking to people. When we returned our place mats had been pilfered. I don’t have one!
Do you think the art world has resisted Murakami’s work at all? Where does he fit in?
Look, he works with great galleries, he’s in very important collections, he’s in museums all over the world. I don’t think resistance is the case—as a matter of fact I think that one of the hallmarks of his career is how unbelievably persuasive he’s been again and again.
For me the soul of this exhibition is the space in the bunker that has an archive of 500 collectible objects—everything from key chains to postcards to plush dolls to T-shirts. It reminds me of those old Fluxus collections. I was kind of brought up on that era, and everyone from Dieter Roth to Joseph Beuys or Nam June Paik made these unlimited-edition objects, or large editions that seemed unlimited. They called them multiples—the idea was to make collectible objects that would be available to the widest audience possible.
Has such a large collection of them ever been exhibited in one place?
No. And in some ways it was the result of Takashi not wanting to take on the offer we gave to Louis Vuitton, which was to build out and operate a fully functioning boutique. I had said to him that if Kaikai Kiki wanted to do it, it’s yours. He said, “You mean staff it?” I said yup and he said no.
Whose idea was the Vuitton boutique?
It was Takashi’s idea to the degree that he had worked with them on two occasions. I don’t think he thought they would do it. But Takashi had full control through Louis Vuitton of what has gone on inside that space. And there have been some things that have surprised me.
Takashi found exactly the point that would irritate both me and Louis Vuitton. He took the materials that he had printed for various [Vuitton] products—the white one, the cherry one, five different sorts of patterns—and he had them stretched like paintings and made into a very large but numbered edition. He’s sort of selling this rather high-end multiple up in the Louis Vuitton boutique.
How much do those go for?
I’m not sure, but I’ve heard five or six thousand. The Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, who’s taking the show, bought a whole set.
Has MOCA bought any?
No, but if Takashi would like to donate one, I would gracefully accept it.
So, MOCA has obviously been criticized for bringing this boutique into the exhibition space ...
Have we? No really, seriously. Have we been criticized? Read me a good one. Everything I’ve read, people have sort of backed off of it.
There was a criticism about how the announcement was made—you know, Tyler [Greene] felt chagrined, understandably so since he was on top of it that the L.A. Times was going to get the scoop. But hey, I guess that’s the fast lane between blogs and newspapers.
I have certainly heard [some criticism] off the record, but most of the stuff has been either curiously positive or sort of like, What does this mean? Which is a good question, I suppose.
Tyler says it “dances around—or over—the line between ethical behavior and bald commercialism.”
I would say, “Is he talking about the show or about Takashi Murakami?”
You know, the experience of participating in Takashi’s art through purchases is something he laid out very clearly. He drew this out on a piece of paper a couple of years ago; I have it on my wall. It started with audience, and then it said exhibition, shop, and memory. He said you take something home with you that is the memory of the exhibition.
He’s right. You can see how for some people the possession of an object triggers a richer experience. And associates it with another time.
But that’s not unique. Isn't that what museum shops are for?
It’s just that instead of a card or a book, which we sell all the time, Takashi offers collections of hundreds or dozens of objects. One is representative of something and one is the object itself.
What’s the financial arrangement for the boutique?
There is none.
It all goes to Vuitton?
I hope not. I think Takashi’s going to get a big hunk of it, don’t you?
Are you seeing a hunk?
No. We have no financial interest. We did not put any money into it, we get nothing. They have to operate it and provide the product during the run of the exhibition. They staffed it, they built it, and they created a new line, which is only available there. People have to pay an entrance fee to get in, so I guess that’s a direct benefit.
You don’t see rent or anything?
Nothing. They did give us a considerable gift to underwrite the gala, which they were the sponsor of. But they were not a corporate sponsor for the exhibition, nor did we ask them to be.
Is the shop going with the show to the other venues?
The Kaikai Kiki archive room is traveling as part of the show, and the invitation is on the table [to take the boutique], but obviously it is something for each institution to decide. It’s important though that it remain part of the exhibition, meaning within the body of the exhibition, or not associated with it at all.
So I guess you can relax a bit now that the show’s open.
Doing big shows is a great deal of fun, but once the show opens, you are no longer walking the dog, the dog walks you.