The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is currently hosting the first major American exhibition of lesser-known Canadian painter Lawren Harris. This exhibit, however, is a first in more than one way, because it is the first co-curation by celebrity Steve Martin.
The comedian, actor, writer and, most importantly, Grammy Award winning banjo player, was not chosen out of the blue. For years, Martin has been an active member of the art community: as an art collector, a former member of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art board and leader of the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation, which has given significant amounts of money to different artistic institutions.
But despite his passion and involvement, many question the validity of Martin as a curator. Whether or not Martin is educated enough to put together an exhibit is the probably first thing that comes to mind, considering that the comedian gained his celebrity from such goofy, slapstick characters. But criticizing Martin’s artistic authority is not the biggest issue at hand here.
Martin himself recognized the doubts, and said in a public talk, “It was never on my radar [to be a curator]. I think [curatorial work] is best left to scholars.” Later, Martin explained that friend of Martin and director of the Hammer, Ann Philbin, had to convince him to curate the show. These statements could be seen as just false modesty, in an attempt to prevent criticism or bad press. With Martin making additional efforts to convey his reluctance, it is not unlikely: “My intial reaction was, ‘Of course not,’” he told The Hamilton Spectator.
Aside from artistic authority, critics question Martin’s integrity due to his position as an art collector. Because Martin has the work of Lawren Harris in his personal collection, and is making a show with it, there is controversy. Almost always after an artist has his or her own featured exhibit, the value of the art becomes extremely inflated. Artists gain exposure, their pieces become more popular and the demand for their work is higher. In 2006, Martin loaned his Edward Hopper painting to a touring exhibit, and after the tour finished, sold the painting for $26.9 million dollars. The previous record price for an Edward Hopper painting was $2.42 million dollars.
Martin knows this looks bad. He owns three Lawren Harris paintings, and people are wondering about future transactions. Commercial motivations seem all too prevalent in the case of “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris.”
There is the obvious fact that Steve Martin’s celebrity gives the exhibit and the Hammer Museum lots of attention. “The Idea of the North” may be publicized as a mission to expose an unappreciated artist, but it is really a kind of tourist attraction in the context of Los Angeles. The name of the exhibit is evidence of that the Hammer directors wanted to emphasize a Canadian artist in a stereotypically American place: Hollywood. So it is only fitting that they chose a celebrity to curate it. Not to mention the exhibit opened Sunday, just one day after the star-studded Hammer Museum gala took place, which boasted its ability to bring celebrities and artists together in one big self-fundraiser. The Hammer Museum may have faith in Steve Martin and his artistic authority, but they must have chosen him with huge commercial motivations.