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High anxiety

The High Museum won the popularity contest with its brand-name blockbuster shows, but at what cost?



Across the country, general-interest museums are finding ways to strike a balance between provocative contemporary art programming and bottom-line-boosting blockbusters. Take Salt Lake City or Houston. The premier museums in each of those cities will play host to important and provocative contemporary art exhibitions — the kind even New York might covet. At the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, a career retrospective of zany but transcendent Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's paintings, sculpture and installation will show off an impressive array of psychedelic visions and oversized polka dots. At the same time, a retrospective of Utah native son Trevor Southey will chronicle the artist's dark, expressionist paintings, which paralleled the rise of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Likewise, a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston will get you a close-up view of a public installation by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that transforms the streets in front of the museum into a bold, graphic canvas of geometric patterns. Inside, balancing out a selection of Post-Impressionist drawings, a major exhibition of contemporary Latin American art will combine cutting-edge installation, sculpture and video projection drawn from private collections both local and from throughout Central and South America.

The majority of what you'll see at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, however, are brand-name, mostly dead artists recognizable to anyone who's ever flipped past a PBS station. Currently, it's Salvador Dalí's turn at the High. Unlike some of the museum's other recent megashows, the fresh perspective on America's favorite surrealist has been lauded by critics and audiences alike. The museum reached capacity at the opening and at several subsequent Dalí-inspired events. Patrons had to be turned away at the door. The man with the funny mustache, it seems, appeals as much to the suburban rank and file as he does to New York Times art critics. By all measures, Dalí: The Late Work has been a runaway success.

Unfortunately, Dalí's the exception that proves a bigger rule: For every major name-brand exhibition that fires the imagination of the art world, a far larger number simply falls flat. Recent High blowouts of 19th century French Impressionists and works from Paris' Louvre Museum have grabbed headlines but left many in the art community yawning. Even more poorly regarded by the art world (though well-attended by the general public) were big budget juggernauts such as 2008's Terracotta Army and 2010's Allure of the Automobile, which highlighted rare high-concept cars from the 1930s through the 1960s. Both broke attendance records but left some artists, art dealers, curators and others in the art community feeling that the museum's primary mission is pandering to a public that generally prefers spectacle over substance.

The High's series of big-budget exhibits over the past dozen years has unquestionably been a boon to the museum's audience numbers and its bottom line, which perhaps has overshadowed the fact that the programming has felt alarmingly one-note to many Atlantans seeking more daring contemporary art. This is not by chance. According to some museum insiders, the High employs a museum director whose curatorial vision eschews riskier work, and the museum's board has been reluctant to offer alternative visions. As a result, Atlanta's contemporary art enthusiasts have been left hungry for the kind of dialogue launched by exhibitions showcasing contemporary artists such as Atlanta-educated printmaker Kara Walker, installation artist Olafur Eliasson, and Israeli video artist Omer Fast, all of whom have been at the center of recent spirited debates and have shined a spotlight on some of the most contentious problems around the globe.

Across the country, midsize, general-interest museums like the High face a similar balancing act. While many have likewise championed big-name shows, a few, such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, have won favor in their communities for deftly mixing the safe and proven with the risky and provocative.

Aware of criticism surrounding the High's programming, the museum hired respected writer and community-minded curator Michael Rooks last January to helm its modern and contemporary art initiatives, and to help bridge the gap between the High and the local arts scene. But many in Atlanta's art world wonder whether Rooks will be able to overcome the one hurdle that's tripped up more than a few curators before him: museum director Michael Shapiro and what's widely seen as his stranglehold on the High's vision.

Michael Shapiro is a plump middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and the evenhanded demeanor of a college professor. Based on his experience, he seems to have learned the diplomatic work of a museum director in a trial by fire. After teaching art history at Duke and serving as chief curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art, Shapiro found himself at the center of management criticism in 1993, when he was the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Inheriting deep, countywide budget cuts, Shapiro's troubles were compounded by accusations of staff mismanagement and changes to the museum's schedule that worried some in L.A.'s art scene. He resigned his post at LACMA, saying his skills didn't match the already financially troubled institution's needs. He joined the High in 1995 as the director of museum programs and chief curator. He became museum director in 2000.

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