Saturday, January 02, 2010

Goodbye Kokeshi / Hello Kitty 

(I wrote this in November but didn’t get around to posting it.)

OK, time to crawl back out of the cave and into the light again as we whip round to the approaching end of another jam-packed year. I know it doesn’t seem like it was jam-packed for LATDA except that this year’s successful Kokeshi show was a great undertaking during a year of global and personal challenges.

And a success it was. Over 20,000 visitors experienced the exhibition in person, with countless others who were able to get a taste of Kokeshi via the many web-based testimonies and the NBC TV spot with Cary Berglund.

The Custom Kokeshi 2009 portion of the exhibition was also a great success with 56 of the 105 kokeshi going to new homes. This was a great experiment in the museum world…including the display of artwork for sale in the galleries.

That traditional kokeshi were originally created as “commodities” to be sold, played into the exhibition. Part of the revenue generated from the sales went to support JANM (whose permanent collection does not include kokeshi.) That LATDA did not benefit from the sales is proper, since LATDA’s collection DOES include such objects. Whether or not future museum exhibitions will be allowed to work this way at JANM or anywhere else is a question. But in light of the lack of public, corporate, or government support, museums have to figure out new ways to survive.

Hey, I promised you transparency in museum operations, and this is part of that process.

So the obvious question on everyone’s lips is “What’s next for LATDA?” There is not an equally simple answer to that. One component of a LATDA show is the mission of the host venue. What we are considering next is to have a venue that does not restrict us in that way.

I think you all are getting the idea of what a LATDA exhibition includes. It isn’t simply a dry, historical, nostalgic display of toys, and it isn’t just a gallery show of lots of cool stuff for sale. We like connecting you to the people behind the toys, the process of inspiration that culminates in an object of play and amusement. We like connecting the past to the present and opening the door to the future of toys. We don’t dictate or judge, but we do ponder what would happen if people did pay more attention to how toys have shaped minds and cultures of today and how they will shape those of the future.

Which brings me to the editorial portion of this blog entry – my visit to the recent Three Apples / Hello Kitty show at Royal T, in Culver City, which ran from 10/24 till 11/15, a mere blip of a run for a show with so much drawing power.

Would that LATDA had a permanent home, we would have loved to do a Hello Kitty show. Would we have done it the same way? Probably not exactly (although the ancillary programming, while not particularly educational, was formidable!) The sheer number of artifacts in the show was enough to make a collections manager tremble in terror (and maybe a little delight.) Placement of the artifacts was completely without interpretive labels except in one area where traditional Japanese craft houses presented their homage to the smile-less feline. Perhaps the explanation was a requirement from the manufacturers. But it would have been edifying to have some sense of historical development throughout the show.

The display was tantalizing in that the showcase areas were essentially large walk-around vitrines. It was frustrating not to get closer than 5 or 6 feet away from some of the objects. At one point I saw a photographer inside one of the display areas and envied her proximity to the artifacts. Some of the objects were obviously old and used, perhaps on loan by private collectors. It would have been nice to know more about the provenance of these items. My favorite pieces were the miniature food.

The group show curated by JapanLa was a great addition to the whole, although it would have been interesting to have the artists design actual HK product as opposed to just depicting her image in various artistic styles. For me, Yoskay Yamamoto’s piece came the closest to objectifying HK in a new and different way.

But perhaps that is what is at the essence of the difference between gallery shows and museum exhibitions. I’m not saying that one is better than the other – we definitely need both kinds to encompass the constant creation of content.

The nature of a museum exhibition is that it spans a lot of time, both in creation and in substance. There is a definite educational component which requires a great deal of fact-checking and research about the subject. This takes time. There is also a respect for the artifacts that means that you assume responsibility for the objects as if they were in your care for perpetuity. This sometimes surprises artists or collectors when they see the care with which collections people handle objects for an exhibition.

In a way, the difference between a gallery show and a museum exhibition is like the difference between playing with your nieces and nephews and having kids of your own. There is a lot of long-term responsibility for the latter that goes beyond temporary stimulation. Having a child (or a museum exhibition) is about 24-hour security, insurance, constant care and attention. You have to be mindful of the past, adaptable to the constant change of the present, and have an eye for the future, all when you are tired and worn out.

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