This Friday The Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA is unveiling Albert Beirstadt’s 1870 painting “Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast.” As far as landscapes go, Bierstadt did a pretty good job (this is an understatement). As far as museums go, The Clark is my favorite (Western Massachusetts has a special place in my heart). But this painting is particularly exciting for Clark goers because it was won in a bet. The Clark had a bet with the Seattle Art Museum during the Superbowl. Because the Patriots won, The Clark gets the Beirstadt painting for 3 months. Had Seattle won, The Clark would have had to say goodbye to a Winslow Homer piece for the same amount of time.
“Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast” (1970) by Albert Bierstadt.
This bet might be my favorite piece of art news ever. It is a genius move for both parties because both museums profit. Obviously the winner gets the actual painting, but because it is on loan, there’s no real monetary loss (except if SAM has to pay for a curator to travel with the painting, which as I recently found out, is a real job the people do). The people of New England are exposed to a painting they’ve never seen–perhaps even an artist they’ve never heard of (I’ll admit, I couldn’t place totally Bierstadt when I first read about the bet). But the real gain for both museums is the publicity. Though The Clark has the pull of an actual painting to go see, SAM benefits from the advertising. The people of Seattle read that their local art museum has lost a bet to a New England museum and all of a sudden they can’t remember when it was that they last partook in *culture,* so they decide to take the kids on an afternoon to the museum. On the flip side, residents of New England get that fuzzy feeling of pride all over again, and because it is nice to bask in the glory of the Pats, they head on out to The Clark to see what exactly it is we’ve won. These two museums just used America’s most loved sporting event as the best marketing tool ever, no matter what the outcome was. Though, it probably is worth it to note that though The Clark has a fairly impressive collection, it is a much smaller museum than SAM, so The Clark probably had more to gain by winning this bet. But either way, both museums benefit.
“West Point, Prout’s Neck” (1900) by Winslow Homer at Clark Art Institute.
This light-hearted bet is an important reminder that the arts and arts institutions don’t exist in their own sphere separate from the world. For many people it is easy to write off a 19th century painting as stuffy and old. Something like this revitalizes the Beirstadt (and the Homer too). Sure, it is gimmicky. Intense art snobs might call it a cheap trick. They might say that those who come out to see the painting aren’t interested in the art for art’s sake. But who would be? Art is appealing because it is somehow relevant. People who have always been interested in art will always see the relevance. But many people won’t; they will not see relevance in something painted hundreds of years ago. But some might suddenly see relevance in a painting because it was won during a Superbowl. Arts communities are constantly looking for ways to bring in new community engagement, and this is it. This bet makes art that had previously been irrelevant to some, relevant. Art is for the masses–that is why we have museums. This is the very definition of art that is cultivated for the masses.
Post inspired by a blurb on WBUR’s The Artery