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Is It Art or Commerce?

Cosmetics exhibit at NYU raises eyebrows and points to tensions over fund-raising ethics


The poster shows a slim woman in black, kneeling on the floor, a large, bullet-shaped bottle of Shiseido's Zen perfume superimposed over her torso.

The copy beneath notes the model's "sophistication" and the bottle's "sleek, minimal, and elegant design." This isn't an ad in Vogue or a Shiseido cosmetics counter display. Instead, the image was part of a recent show at New York University's Grey Art Gallery, "Face to Face: Shiseido and the Manufacture of Beauty, 1900-2000."

The exhibit, which closed late last month after a six-week run, chronicled 100 years of cosmetics and advertisements from Japan's largest beauty company. It was paid for by Shiseido, and virtually all of the material came from its corporate museum. Shiseido also donated $500,000 to the gallery's endowment.

While independent museums have exhibited corporate products such as Tiffany lamps and Cartier watches in recent years, and allowed the manufacturers to underwrite the cost, such productions are not common at university museums, whose exhibits tend to have a more scholarly focus. But some observers say the N.Y.U. show may be the beginning of a trend.

"As funding continues to be tight, and as this becomes a common practice at privately funded museums, there's no question that university museums and galleries are going to have to look at this as a possible source of income," said Harriet Senie, director of the museum-studies program at City College of the City University of New York.

Critics say such exhibits blur the line between art and commerce, turn museums into showrooms, and raise ethical questions about corporate influence on nonprofit institutions.

In fact, the N.Y.U. exhibit spoke of Shiseido's products and advertising in admiring and uncritical tones. A face powder from 1919 was described as "pleasantly scented and easy to use." Various products and advertising campaigns were hailed as innovative and sophisticated. A model used in many Shiseido ads was said to be "the quintessentially beautiful Japanese woman -- a doll come to life."

"Are manufacturers going to be bidding on what is artistically the best commercial product out there?" asked Marie C. Malaro, former director of the museum-studies program at George Washington University and one of the harshest critics of this trend. "It is so stupid to do something as commercial as that."

Defenders of the practice argue that high-quality merchandise can merit scholarly examination. Moreover, they say, exhibits of gowns, watches, motorcycles, and makeup can also reach mass audiences in a way that high art may not, and raise provocative questions about social and cultural issues. Many museum directors said that, in theory, they don't object to the idea of exhibits featuring one company's products that are also underwritten by that company.

"The key is the degree to which the sponsor had influence or authority over the content of the exhibit," said James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums. Mr. Cuno and others said they are comfortable with such exhibits as long as the idea came from the museum staff, the museum retained curatorial control, and the museum would be willing to finance it through other means if necessary.

Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery, said she had complete curatorial control of the Shiseido exhibit and would not have done it otherwise. The idea was presented to her by an independent curator in New York who has worked with Shiseido. Ms. Gumpert was enthusiastic about the idea, but told Shiseido that if it wanted N.Y.U. to house the exhibit, it would have to underwrite the show because no one else would likely pay for it. She declined to say how much it cost.

Shiseido gave $500,000 to the gallery after the exhibition was already agreed upon, she adds. A corporate executive asked how best to support the arts in New York City, and she suggested the donation. Ms. Gumpert said Shiseido was worthy of an exhibition because it has been on the cutting edge of design since its founding in 1872. The products, the packaging, and the marketing, Ms. Gumpert said, tell a lot about Japanese ideals of beauty, and how Western art and social movements have influenced Asian consumers.

"If we can get students to think about what is the manufacture of beauty and what are the visual images deployed to convey these ideas," she said, "then we've made a huge leap forward." Art historians and gallery directors who have seen the show or reviewed the catalog were divided over the results. Edward J. Sullivan, chairman of the fine arts department at New York University called it a "thoughtful exhibition." But one university gallery director, who asked to remain anonymous, said it lacked meaningful scholarship. "It was sort of a singular focus on Shiseido," the director said. "It wasn't an examination of changing conceptions of beauty and makeup."

Presented in chronological order, the products were described in terms of the artistic and social influences that affected their packaging or creation. For example, the exhibit noted that with the opening of Japan to the West in the late 1800's, the standard of beauty shifted from shaved eyebrows and blackened teeth to one more in keeping with Western ideals. While the exhibit included a few 19th-century woodblock prints from Shiseido's corporate collection, the company's cosmetics and advertising made up the bulk of the show.

Most troubling to some was the gallery's uncritical approach toward its subject. The role of women in Japanese society, the manipulation of consumers through marketing, and the inner workings of the Shiseido corporation are either ignored or dispatched in a few noncommittal sentences. "At the turn of the century in both East and West," read a brochure's section on Shiseido's early years, "women's roles underwent dramatic transformations, and makeup followed suit."

Ms. Senie, of CUNY, looked through portions of the catalog at The Chronicle's request, but cautioned that she did not see the exhibit, and was hesitant to render a verdict. Still, she said, it appeared "as if they're using art to sell products." And she called Ms. Gumpert's introduction to the catalog "a puff piece and great advertising for the company."

"I agree it wasn't a highly critical exhibit," said Ms. Gumpert, who insisted that had nothing to do with the fact that Shiseido financed it. She noted that she organized several panel discussions, such as "The Role of Cosmetics in Art, Fashion, and Society," that she felt deepened the discussion of beauty. And, she said, the catalog tackled some topics in more detail than the exhibit.

At the same time, she said the goal was to display objects and highlight issues that had not had much exposure in the United States, not to start an in-depth examination of Shiseido's corporate practices or of the beauty industry.

As for showing only Shiseido products, Ms. Gumpert said the company's design department is unparalleled: "In Japan, it's the equivalent of Tiffany or Cartier. Nobody would question a Tiffany show and say, why wouldn't you include other lamp companies or glass companies?"

The debate over exhibits of commercial products has grown along with the practice. Museums like such shows because they are moneymakers and crowd pleasers. In 1997, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited Cartier jewelry, sponsored by Cartier. Currently, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is displaying a collection of clothes by Giorgio Armani. The exhibit is underwritten by In Style magazine, but raised eyebrows when The New York Times reported that Mr. Armani had pledged $15-million to the museum. The Guggenheim has acknowledged a gift but said it was unrelated to the show and declined to reveal the amount.

This past summer, the American Association of Museums released guidelines on the exhibition of borrowed objects, which explicitly address how to handle potential conflicts of interest. The guidelines were prompted by last year's "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which the owner of the collection, Charles Saatchi, was revealed to have had a major role in financing.

The guidelines, which will be incorporated into the association's accreditation standards, warn museums to be careful of conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts, if the lender has donated to the museum, or is in other ways connected to decision making. It also states that the exhibition should have "intellectual integrity" and the museum should retain "full decision making authority over the content and presentation of the exhibition."

Although the guidelines came out after the Shiseido exhibit was organized, Ms. Gumpert said she believes her actions complied with them. Promotional materials clearly state that Shiseido underwrote the exhibit.

As for the $500,000 grant, which increased the gallery's endowment to $2.6-million, Ms. Gumpert said that it was ethical because it came after N.Y.U. had agreed to mount the show. Naomi Levine, senior vice president for external affairs at N.Y.U., echoed that remark: "Nobody buys us with that exhibit or anything else."

But several academics said the fact that Shiseido underwrote the show and then gave money to the university simply looks bad. Others questioned Ms. Gumpert's claim that the idea of getting additional money from Shiseido never crossed her mind when deciding to mount the exhibit. "It is so dishonest for museums to say it doesn't affect their judgment because any curator knows that the big thing today is getting funding," said Ms. Malaro, a former Smithsonian lawyer who has written about museum ethics.

Ms. Senie said the ethics of fund raising and exhibit financing comes up more frequently in her classes at CUNY. Gallery directors say it is a hot topic of conversation.

Observers say dwindling federal support combined with increased expectations by the public for slick shows has forced museums to scramble for money. Even university museums, often supported by their parent institutions, are not immune.

Lyndel King, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a board member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said her reviews of various studies show that institutional support for university museums has dropped from about 76 percent of the operating budget in the 1980's to about 41 percent today.

At the same time, corporations are tying more strings to their philanthropic efforts. "Twenty years ago, you had this idea of the philanthropic corporation that gave money and didn't expect anything in return," said Ildiko P. DeAngelis, director of the museum-studies program at George Washington University."Now you have corporations that have marketing departments that see these things as good for their image. And they're becoming more quid pro quo."

Although corporations so far have largely ignored university museums -- preferring major venues like the Metropolitan, which had 4.9 million visitors last year compared with the Grey's 25,000 -- some museum directors say it is only a matter of time before they come knocking. After all, university museums attract young adults, a favorite target of marketing departments.

Ms. King said if she were to consider putting on an exhibit of corporate products, she would approach it carefully. "We do have a level of trust we need to maintain," she said. "I have to figure out whether what I am doing is going to make my museum seem untrustworthy."



"Social change was in the air, and at Shiseido as well. More than ever before, advertising began to place importance on the personality and individual style of the models themselves. The 1966 summer campaign featured something seldom seen in Japan -- a woman in a swimsuit, sporting a deep tan instead of traditionally fashionable pale skin. Here was an advertisement that presented not just a pretty face, but also a true sense of personal independence. Shiseido once again broke with convention, firmly renewing its avant-garde reputation."



"Graphic -- and now stage and costume -- designer Eiko Ishioka's poster for the campaign entitled "Let the Sun Love Us" (Taiyo ni aisareyo) was radical not only for its message but also for its use of Bibari Maeda, a Eurasian model who was not considered conventionally beautiful. The camera's wide-angle lens enhances the dramatic shift in scale between the huge foreground close-up of Maeda atop large grains of sand and the distant ocean and blue sky. Her unflinching gaze, moreover, reveals a woman proud of who she is -- so unusual, it seems, that as soon as the posters appeared in public, they were taken by girls who admired her directness and the potential it represented."


Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education Reprinted at with permission. Home
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