continued
Though there are plenty of museum studies programs around the country, Holo says none is quite like USC’s. Most other programs take a generalized approach, lumping together all museums — archaeology, science, natural history, art, culture, technology, zoos and aquariums — as a broad class of institutions. The USC program is special in its exclusive focus on art museums. It also stands out as one of the few programs in the country that leads to both an academic degree in art history and a museum studies professional credential.
“We provide a firm graduate-level training in art history. On top of that, we offer a complete museum studies program,” Holo says. She underscores the importance of USC’s art history faculty to the MSP’s success. “This integration allows many of our students to proceed to the Ph.D. level in art history, enhancing their qualifications even further for the highest level of curatorial work.”
USC’s Fisher Gallery — a fully accredited museum — serves as a practical laboratory for MSP students. Because Holo also doubles as director of the Fisher, the museum’s activities are all perfectly integrated with the curriculum. Students get a first-hand opportunity to buy art for the permanent collection, plan and hang an exhibition, produce a catalogue, organize symposia and design education programs.
Based on the private collection of Elizabeth Holmes Fisher, the gallery’s eclectic collection contains Barbizon School works, English portraits, Hudson River landscapes and more. Though the gallery has no acquisition budget, Holo scrapes together $1,500 to $2,000 from her operating budget every year to buy at least one new work for the museum. Characteristi-cally, she turns the purchase into an exercise that gives MSP students real-world experience with the acquisition process.
Once Holo has assigned the category of work to be acquired, the students have to find it, present it to a mock board, negotiate the price and then make the purchase.
Anyone who has visited a Rodeo Drive gallery recently may well wonder how the students can be expected to purchase serious art on such a shoestring budget. That’s just what Holo asked her mentor, Norton Simon, back in 1983.
“He said, ‘You’re giving them too damn much money,’ ” she says. “Norton Simon taught me to buy art. People think you can’t buy anything for that kind of money. Well, you can!”
The MSP’s coursework is equally functional. In addition to art history electives in their area of specialization, first-year students receive an intensive, nuts-and-bolts immersion in gallery work through a pair of seminars led by Holo.
“I piece together the courses to mimic what a museum actually is,” she says. A parade of experts drawn from L.A.’s museum community provide the meat of the seminars, leading mini-workshops in conservation, museum law and ethics, education and outreach, fundraising and other relevant topics.
In the second year, the class (no more than eight students per year) produces a show at the Fisher Gallery, usually curated by a faculty member or professional curator on a topic selected in collaboration with Holo. To gear up for that, the students participate in an in-depth colloquium led by the curator, looking at the materials and themes relevant to the planned exhibit. They do everything from selecting objects and writing labels (descriptive text) for each work to arranging the pictures in the gallery space and composing essays for a catalogue that’s widely circulated to museums and university libraries. This last exercise yields not only a valuable learning experience but a stunning portfolio piece.
During the third year, students complete their training in a full-time internship. “This is what I’m most proud of,” Holo says. “We have the most highly individualized placement imaginable. That’s why the program takes only five or six students a year. Because I watch them like a hawk.”
Sometimes, Holo almost needs a raptor’s keen senses to figure out where a student’s real interests lie. She had already set up an intern-ship at the Getty for Oriel Lucero M.A. ’99, when it became evident that the full-blooded Navajo student had had a change of heart.
“I realized she really wanted to work on contemporary Native American art. I spent a whole semester looking for an appropriate internship, and eventually found a great one in New Mexico,” Holo recalls. Lucero now has a permanent curatorial position at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, in Santa Fe.
That isn’t at all unusual. With any luck, an internship easily translates into a permanent job, making Holo’s extremely personalized approach to placing interns all the more important. It also helps account for the MSP’s stellar 95 percent placement record.

In the increasingly complex world of art museums, Holo’s students need every edge she can give them.
“Museum work is full of conflicts,” says 1996 graduate Maite Alvarez of the Getty’s education department.
How do you preserve objects and at the same time make them accessible to the public? These goals often are in competition. Museums need to balance their books each year. When they’re in the red, they need to raise money. That can conflict with the goal of serving the public. Selling memberships or raising ticket prices are the most obvious sources of new revenue, but once any public institution goes down that road, it opens itself to charges of elitism and exclusivity.
These tensions are very well illustrated in a hot-button issue confronting today’s museum world: the mass marketing of art through blockbusters.
One of the surest ways for museums to enlarge their audiences, increase their visibility as cultural institutions and ensure their financial well-being in one fell swoop is through blockbusters. These touring shows are to the art world what the Three Tenors are to opera. Experts point to the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” traveling exhibit of the late ’70s as the birth of the blockbuster. Suddenly, museums were selling advance tickets, visitors were standing in lines, pushing and shoving to get a better view, and gift shops were swimming in sales receipts for cartouches, scarabs and Nefertiti heads.
American museums have since played host to countless mega-popular Impres-sionist and post-Impressionist exhibitions, “where the perennial Monet, Renoir, Manet and Van Gogh have their outputs re-analysed, re-categorised and re-packaged each time with a different

Pictured above: “Madonna and Child with a Book,” by Raphael, c. 1503, oil on canvas, Norton Simon Art Foundation.

slant,” sneered London’s Financial Times in January. “The drawback is that visiting these shows usually offers about as much aesthetic uplift as a Tokyo subway car during rush hour.”
Last fall, the Claude Monet show at the Boston Museum of Art drew 490,000 visitors in three months, according to Newsweek. Mary Cassatt pulled 233,000 guests through the Art Institute of Chicago in the same span. “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” was expected to break records by packing in 900,000 visitors during its 17-week run at LACMA West (the show closes May 16), where visitors shelled out up to $20 per ticket. On its first stop at Washington’s National Gallery, tickets were nominally free but almost impossible to obtain. Scalpers got as much as $100 apiece.
The success of blockbusters, according to Mary-Kay Lombino of the UCLA/ Armand Hammer Museum, is not a function of the show’s quality, but of the marketing behind it. “Marketing used to be a four-letter word [in the museum world],” she says, “but [administrators] are realizing that they have to compete with Super Bowl Sunday. It’s become accepted that marketing has to happen, even though our mission is more about education than entertainment.”
Why would the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam ever put these priceless treasures at risk by letting them travel? Because it brings in bucket loads of cash. Museums that lend their art to blockbuster shows can charge borrowing institutions a hefty fee. The borrowing institutions, in turn, can more than recoup costs by selling $20 tickets at a rate of 500 per hour (as LACMA did with the Van Gogh show). “Museums exist in an economic reality,” says Alvarez. “If the stock market goes up, it affects museums. If it goes down, they’ll suffer.”
So blockbusters may be “a necessary evil,” says Lombino. “They’ll always bring new people to the museum, an important and a difficult task.” When the Hammer Museum hosted an exhibition from the Vatican, she says, “it tipped our annual attendance higher than it had ever been. And those ticket sales help with our other programming.”

Other museum professionals think the blockbuster fad is fading. Last fall’s dazzling array (Monet, Mary Cassatt, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko), they say, may signal the genre’s supernova.
“Blockbusters are dying out,” says Alvarez.
For starters, museums are loath to take fiscal and social responsibility for irreplaceable objects. “When you’re trekking objects around the world, there’s bound to be wear and tear,” Alvarez says. “Does the end justify the means?”
In some cases, the answer is clearly no. Certain art is so well known, says the Norton Simon’s Gloria Williams, that it becomes a cultural icon, too precious to risk no matter what good could come of the loan.
Some art is just too delicate or too bulky to transport, adds LACMA’s Tim Wride. “Caravaggios are not going to travel very often,” he says. “Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and ‘Guernica’ will never travel again — they’re too large, too fragile.” Even audiences’ in-satiable appetite for Impressionists may eventually go unfed. “We’ve already done so many shows,” says Alvarez. “How many more are of value?”
Not that all traveling exhibits are by definition evil. Frequently such shows have merit, says Williams. A show about an artist whose corpus of work has not been brought together in 300 years, for example, might be worth the risk.
“Some works can travel — not every work is fragile. Our knowledge of climate control, packaging, standards of handling and move-ment of objects has expanded quite a bit,” she notes.
Indeed, there may come a time when conservators can actually stop the aging process, says Wride. But even assuming they perfect that trick in the next decade, a 17th-century painting will still have weathered 400 years of aging up to that point. It will remain forever delicate.
And, although the museum’s mission is to educate and enlighten, when all’s said and done, the museum professional’s first obligation isn’t to the public, to a board of directors or even to art donors. It’s a sacred duty to the art — to serve as loyal steward and tireless advocate for treasures that cannot speak for themselves.

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Leslie Fischer M.A. '96

City Art Collection Manager and Murals Coordinator, Cultural Affairs Department
of Los Angeles
Photographed on March 29, 1999, in front of “Pope of Broadway,” a 1985 mural by Eloy Torrez showing actor Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek, on South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

Education B.A., UCLA, history/art history

Internship Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution

Current Project Overseeing the city’s permanent art collection: 2,000 pieces, sited in municipal buildings and major indoor and outdoor public spaces.

Gloria Williams M.A. '85

Curator, Norton Simon Museum
Education
: B.A., UC Santa Barbara, art history

Internship: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Department of European Painting

Current Project: Overseeing a major renovation of the Norton Simon’s exhibition space and sculpture garden.

 

Mary-Kay Lombino 'M.A. '96

Assistant Curator, UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum
Photographed March 26, 1999, in the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum, in front of “Pleasures of Evening,” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, c. 1875.

Education: B.A. University of Richmond, art history

Internship: UCLA Wight Art Gallery

Current Project: Facilitating the presentation of “The Secret Victorians: Contemporary Artists and a 19th-Century Vision,” a touring exhibit coming to the Hammer in September.

 

Portrait Photography by John Livzey

 


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