The Curious Fixation of the Rodin Chaser: A Museum's Proactive Strategy Heads off Potentially Damaging Media Coverage
Shortt, Tanis, Communication World
Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, is one of Canada's largest and most entrepreneurial museums, welcoming more than 160,000 visitors every year. Home to an art gallery, a library and archives, the museum presents three major temporary exhibitions annually. In 2004-2005, one of these exhibitions was Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, which was traveling from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in Los Angeles, home to the largest private collection of Rodin works in the world. It was the first Rodin exhibit to come to Calgary, and Glenbow Museum was the first Canadian venue for the exhibition on its North American tour.
Several months before the exhibition opened, the Cantor Foundation advised the museum that the Calgary media would likely be contacted by Gary Arseneau, an artist and gallery owner from Florida and a self-proclaimed crusader on a mission to expose supposed art fraud. Previously, Arseneau had contacted the media in cities where the Rodin exhibit was to be held with claims that some of the casts were fraudulent replicas being passed off as originals. Arseneau's efforts generated negative media coverage and raised questions about the role of museums in producing culturally authentic experiences. While most art experts, scholars and museum curators dismiss Arseneau's claims, the allegations could divert attention from the true value of the exhibition and the goal of presenting the work of a remarkable artist whose work had a huge impact on the course of modern art.
Glenbow's communication team needed to protect the museum's reputation and to communicate with key audiences that the upcoming Rodin exhibition was authentic. The sculptures in Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession were original, cast either during Rodin's lifetime or post-humously according to the artist's explicit wishes and instructions to the French government, and now overseen by the Musee Rodin in Paris. All the bronzes in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection and Foundation were vetted by the world's leading expert on Rodin, the late Dr. Albert Elsen of Stanford University.
Rather than waiting for possible controversy, Glenbow Museum decided to take a proactive approach by getting to the media first, thereby not only developing pre-exhibition interest but also controlling the message before Arseneau contacted the media. Calling Arseneau the "Rodin Chaser," the communication team carefully crafted a media advisory to let local media know they could expect to hear from him. The intention was to beat him to the punch.
The museum's first goal was to maintain its reputation as a leading cultural institution, reaching Glenbow's media contacts prior to the Rodin Chaser and controlling the media message in a proactive manner.
The team also aimed to create awareness and understanding about issues of authenticity in the art world through media coverage, with a specific focus on print media in Calgary's two daily newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun.
Lastly, as part of the overall objectives for the Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession exhibition, the museum set a goal of meeting an exhibition attendance target of 27,600 and a revenue target of CDN$200,200.
Solution and implementation
Because of the complexity of the casting process and the issues surrounding authenticity, Glenbow's staff began by conducting informal research. They learned that Arseneau previously targeted daily newspapers in the host venue's city and usually contacted the media within two weeks of the exhibition openings. They needed to advise the media of Arseneau's intentions earlier than this. …