Where There's Smoke
Batchen, Geoffrey, Afterimage
Between January 14 and June 4, the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) presented On the Edge: Australian Photographers of the Seventies, an exhibition of photographs on loan from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Unlike most exhibitions, there is no obvious reason for its existence. The choice of images was self-consciously pluralist, making no specific argument about the period and attempting no persuasive connections between Southern Californian and Australian cultural experiences. Despite the expense of bringing 70 gallery photographs from Australia to the United States, San Diego was its only venue, raising the question, why San Diego?
As it happened, this was an exhibition that had little to do with Australian photography and everything to do with the politics of sponsorship. It seems likely that the National Endowment for the Arts will have its budget cut, first by 40%, then perhaps by 100% during the term of this Republican-dominated Congress. When these cuts take effect, corporate sponsorship of the arts will assume an even greater importance than it does now. Tobacco producer Philip Morris, which underwrote On the Edge, is already this country's biggest sponsor of the arts, financing everything from international tours by Alvin Alley American Dance Theater and The Joffrey Ballet to blockbuster exhibitions like The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy and Henri Matisse: A Retrospective. It has also been notable for its support of exhibitions devoted to African American and Latin American artists. So why would such a giant of the arts industry want to sponsor an inconsequential exhibition like On the Edge?
It's all to do with timing. The exhibition's dates just happened to coincide with those of the America Cup races in San Diego. Philip Morris was sponsoring one of the competing yachts. It approached the SDMA and offered to finance this particular exhibition. Part of the understanding between the company and the SDMA was that Philip Morris could use the Museum as the venue for its various receptions and promotions during the yacht races. The Museum even agreed to allow cigarette smoking within their building during these receptions (Philip Morris had just lost their expensive Californian ballot initiative, Proposition 188, that would have repealed existing public smoking restrictions). In return, Philip Morris paid for this exhibition in its entirety, including the visit of its curator, Gael Newton of the NGA, and the production of a sumptuously bland catalog and interactive CD system. …