LACMA sells out for Interscope Records exhibition

Santa Monica music giant Interscope Records is celebrating its 30th anniversary and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has commissioned a commemorative exhibit for the occasion.

No, not a sponsored fundraiser for the museum.

Not even a private event for Interscope in a rental hall.

It’s an exhibit open to museum members and any gullible public willing to shell out admission dollars to see it.

Introducing “Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reimagined,” which opens at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion on January 30. The company commissioned 46 artists to do paintings (and a few sculptures) tied to their favorite Interscope tracks by Gwen Stefani, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Tupac Shakur, Black Eyed Peas and more. The artists retain ownership of their works, while the company intends to use the images in the packaging of future limited-edition album reissues.

We are asked to believe that this low consumption marketing idea is something that deserves our passionate, albeit pandemic-weary, attention.

Strip away the confusing celebrity names and what remains is just a museum exhibit of a corporate collection. Corporate art collections are not a rare thing – although this format is certainly unusual – but exhibitions of them in major museums are. There are many reasons why. On the one hand, the outsourcing of art selections to corporate executives usurps the role of museum curators. Curatorial independence disappears.

Other potential landmines are even more significant.

Chief among them: when a corporation pays funds to a museum that exhibits its collection, the museum’s exhibition program appears to be for sale. Interscope Records underwrites part of “Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reinvented”. (Neither Interscope nor LACMA spokespersons would disclose the amount.) The specter of pay-to-play should be of considerable concern, particularly to the board of supervisors overseeing the county’s establishment.

Why is LACMA organizing a museum exhibition for a major record label? Beat me. Interscope has built a lucrative empire producing a wide range of pop music, including rap and alternative rock, featuring some of the biggest names in the industry. LACMA is an art museum in the midst of a massive fundraising campaign to fund the construction of a hugely expensive new building, which will be named after record mogul (and top donor) David Geffen. Let the gross motive speculation begin.

A last-minute announcement of the impending show hit the mailboxes the other day, which is a sign of the depth of thought that has gone into preparing it. Various ridiculous claims are made about the ostensible seriousness and importance of the business.

Leading the chart: “Artists often cite music as inspiration, capturing the sonic experience through color and form, or translating musical innovations into their own practices,” the press release reads. (No museum publications are planned.) In this exhibit, “a diverse, cross-generational group of contemporary visual artists are in creative dialogue with iconic musical artists.”

Well yes. They are. They were paid to come together “in creative dialogue”.

Which is certainly good for me (and no doubt for them), if not exactly audacious. A drawing by the great assemblage artist Wallace Berman adorned the 1948 cover of a bebop-jazz album for Los Angeles’ defunct Dial Records label.

If the folks at Interscope instantly whip up a quasi-corporate collection of paintings by named artists – Ed Ruscha, Lauren Halsey, Kehinde Wiley, Stanley Whitney and others – good for them. But don’t pretend this is a demanding LACMA discovery and analysis of a wave of artists seized by a contemporary urge to explore synesthesia. This perceptual phenomenon, sometimes called joint perception, describes how the stimulation of one sense can lead to involuntary solicitations in a second sense.

The last time synesthesia made big cultural waves was a hundred years ago, when Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky courted the sight of hearing. He created rhythmic visual experiences in oil on canvas and watercolor on paper by deploying line, color, texture and form. (LACMA has a great one,”Untitled Improvisation IIIfrom 1914.) This radical artistic idea came from him, not from the heads of a large international entertainment conglomerate.

Instead, what’s happening at LACMA is an art exhibit designed as a corporate marketing tool.

The museum project was launched last summer when Interscope approached LACMA director Michael Govan. Staci Steinberger, a curator at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design who has acquired historical album covers for the museum’s collection in the past, was assigned to oversee the exhibit.

The anniversary idea to commission album covers came from Justin Lubliner, the savvy young record executive who led Billie Eilish to stardom, sweeping the ‘big four’ Grammy Awards (album, song, record and new artist) in 2020. Interscope executives John Janick, Steve Berman and Josh Abraham chose the painters and sculptors, as well as billionaire company co-founder Jimmy Iovine.

Cecily Brown, Anna Park and Lisa Yuskavage have all done paintings “inspired” by Eilish. (Perhaps the place to note that 60% of the show’s artists are male.) Kendrick Lamar is the musician with the most connections to painters — six — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Lamar’s track record of commissioning terrific video installations by artist Khalil Joseph.

All this to say: Who cares? Since when has LACMA’s mission been the promotion of corporate marketing plans? A depressing answer to this question is “since 2020”, when the museum attempted to pass off a selection of props from a TV commercial for a beer as a work of art.

Paying to play is no small feat. As a trading firm, not a non-profit charity, Interscope probably wouldn’t be aware of the perception problem of funding such an exhibit, but the museum certainly should.

On the bright side, this game will be brief. The run for this one-show fiasco is barely two weeks away. two whole weeks. The museum’s Interscope birthday party ends on February 13.

James C. Tibbs