George Lindemann Journal - "Are Museums Selling Out?" By ELLEN GAMERMAN
A Bulgari snake bracelet-watch on display in Houston. Julie Soefer for The Wall Street Journal
A display of Bulgari jewels in Houston features cases of spot-lit gems, photos of Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley laden with signature baubles and testimonials about the company's "shimmering, iconic jewelry."
Pretty typical for a jewelry presentation except for one thing: It isn't in a store, but a museum.
The exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, "Bulgari: 130 Years of Masterpieces," includes slick video and screen displays, hologram-like installations and glowing descriptions of the pieces—all created by Bulgari, which supplied most of the jewels, footed half the bill, and provided the catalog essay.
The timing of the exhibit is also notable. The same week the museum show opened in May, Bulgari unveiled a gleaming makeover of its boutique in a Houston luxury mall. The company brought in experts from Rome to help rebuild the shop, which is partly inspired by the Via Condotti flagship store and features some of the same images of gem-covered movie stars on its walls as the museum exhibit, along with leaflets and window banners advertising the show.
Exhibits featuring luxury fashion and jewelry brands are increasingly jamming museum calendars. For cultural institutions, the shows offer the potential for a blockbuster that attracts a broader range of visitors, brings in big first-time donors and tours the world. To date, more than one million people have seen a traveling global exhibit about designer Jean Paul Gaultier, what museum experts call a record number for any fashion exhibit.
The line between art and commerce is increasingly blurred as museum directors flock to crowd-pleasing shows, while luxury brand executives get aggressive in nabbing exhibits. WSJ's Ellen Gamerman discusses the details on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: hmns.org
For luxury companies, museum exhibits are becoming an important new tool in their marketing arsenals. Fashion and jewelry executives have long cultivated museum shows to provide a stamp of legitimacy and a chance to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Now, big brands have gone further, hiring curators to shop shows to museums, spending millions to build their archives for exhibit loans, wooing arts venues in strategic markets and enlisting stores and VIP clients to help secure and promote these shows.
Individual luxury items that boast a museum pedigree can soar in value. A Van Cleef & Arpels art-deco diamond brooch sold for more than $662,000 at Christie's in New York in 2011—more than eight times its high estimate. The sale followed the piece's appearance in "Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels," a 2011 exhibit at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum that drew record-breaking crowds in New York.
"These exhibitions are very, very important for us," says Nicholas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. "When clients see some pieces exhibited in the museum that are pretty similar to ones they've bought, it confirms to them that it's a valid choice, and it's a good incentive to add to their collection."
The explosion of recent exhibitions featuring fashion, jewelry and other luxury accessories includes shows created with input and money from the featured brands. Chanel curated and paid for the creation of its brand-related exhibits, known as "Culture Chanel," which museums and arts institutions went on to stage in Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, China. A Chanel spokeswoman says the company sometimes helps cover installation costs at the venues, too. This year, a collector of David Webb jewelry and a major dealer sponsored an independently curated show about the society jeweler at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. An exhibit on Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry that closed earlier this year at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., was curated by a Van Cleef employee with production costs paid partly by the jeweler.
Even for shows whose curators or sponsors have little connection to the luxury business, a brand's cooperation is often pivotal. A coming September exhibit curated by the Brooklyn Museum, "Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe," will feature lent pieces from a wide range of established and emerging designers including Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. (A museum spokeswoman says the show has no confirmed sponsors yet.) Cartier didn't sponsor the Denver Art Museum's new fall exhibit, "Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century," but it opened its gem vault and various archives to the museum's curator more than a dozen times. The Gaultier retrospective, making its ninth stop this fall in Melbourne, Australia, was originally conceived by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts without funding by the brand. But its curator, former model Thierry-Maxime Loriot, worked closely with Mr. Gaultier and sought his approval. "It's his baby, it's my baby," says Mr. Loriot.
Putting the Shine on Display
A look at luxury brand shows at museums across the world. Leonardo Finotti
The sheer number of luxury shows today—and the differing levels of corporate involvement for each—have some critics increasingly concerned. While some museums assert complete curatorial control and refuse brand sponsorships, others install exhibits with major corporate involvement, and varying degrees of disclosure about that relationship.
"Nobody ever said museums are pure, but at least there's an element of public trust that when you go to a museum, what you're seeing is museum worthy," says Bruce Altshuler, director of New York University's Program in Museum Studies. "The widespread exhibiting of luxury-brand goods erodes that trust."
Other museum professionals argue that some of these exhibits cede too much control over content.
"When the company is the curator, it's the appearance of a conflict that we stay away from," says Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where officials recently rejected a proposed exhibit about a movie remake because it seemed too promotional. "The notion that we may be in bed with a commercial venture in a less than appropriate fashion—it's not worth it."
Many museum curators say luxury exhibits featuring work by living designers are no different from art exhibits featuring living artists. Why is it a conflict to work with a wildly creative couture or jewelry house, they ask, when the economic benefits from museum shows could be even greater for fine artists? In the end, they say, the only thing that matters is quality.
"The hunt for conflict of interest is irrelevant to the museum visitor—the exhibition stands or falls on the strength of the artistry of the material displayed," says Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern art department in New York, Mr. Tinterow was an early supporter of a widely debated show about a jeweler known as JAR. "I've worked with lots of living artists, I've worked with dead artists—there are always interests at stake."
A Cartier necklace will be displayed at the Denver Art Museum. Cartier
With stepped-up competition from rivals, fashion and jewelry labels are investing heavily in museum outreach. In 2011, Chanel hired a former curator at the Louvre in Paris, Emmanuel Coquery, to head its "patrimony department," which is responsible for compiling heritage pieces that can be shown in museums. The company, which opened a sprawling new space for its archives outside Paris last year, uses its Culture Chanel shows to demonstrate the art world's influence on the brand, a spokeswoman says. The shows display paintings, photographs, archival materials and other objects next to Chanel pieces such as the little black dress, jewelry or perfume. The company's biggest Culture Chanel show opens in Seoul this summer.
Christian Dior CDI.FR +0.34% has been busy, too. "The last five years have been very rich ones for the house of Dior when it comes to exhibitions," Sidney Toledano, president and CEO of Christian Dior Couture, said in an email.
Dior works closely with museums to place its fashions alongside art in a series of themed exhibits with names like "Inspiration Dior" and "Esprit Dior." The company, which collaborates with external curators for the shows, declined to discuss the funding arrangements for these exhibits.
In 2011, a Dior show at Moscow's Pushkin Museum paired haute couture pieces with paintings by masters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; a show at Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art last year presented an Alberto Giacometti sculpture next to dresses from Raf Simons's first haute-couture collection for Dior. Attempts to reach the two museums were unsuccessful.
The venues in growing luxury markets like Russia and China aren't accidental. Bain & Co. says Chinese consumers make up nearly 30% of the global luxury market. Russia ranks third in the number of the world's billionaires, according to Forbes. "The country and city are chosen firstly for strategic reasons, based on the markets in which we want to focus our communication," said Mr. Toledano, adding that sometimes museums approach Dior to initiate a show.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., chose to have its 2013-2014 Van Cleef & Arpels show curated by the company's "heritage director" Catherine Cariou, who joined Van Cleef in 2000 after working in French auction houses. Museum President Peter Keller said it made sense to have Ms. Cariou curate because of her access and expertise. "She's in charge of the foundation archives—she knows the collection better than anyone," he said. The museum's budget is too small to cover in-house curators so all shows are guest curated.
MUSEUM BLING A Bulgari sautoir necklace once owned by Elizabeth Taylor is featured in a current exhibit in Houston. Museum shows can burnish a brand's image and increase gem values. Bulgari
The show opening at the Bowers coincided with the expansion of a Van Cleef boutique in nearby Costa Mesa, Calif. Although the Bowers noted the store unveiling in its media materials, Mr. Keller says he planned the show well in advance of the store renovation. He calls the museum's efforts on behalf of the boutique too minor to qualify as marketing: "Just because it's in a press release? How many people read a press release?"
A Bulgari exhibit that opened at the Grand Palais in Paris in late 2010 was a private event staged by the company rather than a project organized by independent curators, a distinction that might have been lost on the general public at the time, says Grand Palais chief curator and exhibitions director Laurent Salomé. The Grand Palais is considering changes to make it clearer to audiences when private interests are at work, he adds: "Bulgari was maybe the big problematic exception."
The line between retail promotion and museum exhibits has become increasingly blurred. For this year's exhibit on the society jeweler David Webb, the Norton Museum of Art employed the same architect and designer who worked on the brand's Manhattan flagship location to design the galleries for the Florida museum show, too.
"We wanted people who were accustomed to creating luxe interiors," says Norton deputy director James Hall. Designer Katie Ridder says she used the same color scheme for the interiors and velvet for the display cases as she did for the Madison Avenue boutique: "I think it definitely has a similar feeling as the store."
The exhibit was first proposed by the husband of a board member who collects David Webb's jewelry and was partly funded by that couple, Mr. Hall says. A major local dealer of David Webb jewelry also paid for the show. The exhibit, assembled by a freelance curator, was chosen because of the strength of the pieces and the jeweler's connections to Palm Beach, says Mr. Hall, adding that he doubted the show increased the market value of the jewelry.
The American Alliance of Museums guidelines on exhibition ethics don't specifically address brand-themed shows, and, regardless, all of its suggestions are voluntary. Most museums write their own institutional codes of ethics and are subject to local, state and federal laws and international conventions governing nonprofits.
At the Bulgari exhibit at Houston's Museum of Natural Science one recent afternoon, images of bejeweled stars such as Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Alba flashed on screens. A former cast member from "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," Camille Grammer, perused the vitrines with her Louis Vuitton purse slung over her Chanel jacket. Cocktail music tinkled in the background.
Two people familiar with the exhibition planning say a staffer from Houston's Bulgari boutique made the initial overture to the museum in 2012. Joel Bartsch, the museum's president, and Alberto Festa, president of Bulgari North America, say they can't quite remember who initiated negotiations over the show.
Cartier in Paris Pierre-Olivier Deschamps/Agence VU/Cartier
Bulgari officials eventually made a presentation to Mr. Bartsch, suggesting ways a recent Bulgari exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco could be retooled for Houston. He was impressed.
"They had done their homework," he says, adding that the Bulgari team was familiar with the museum's gem collection and its commitment to jewelry exhibits.
Houston socialites soon were helping with loans to the show. Joanne King Herring, a political activist and widow of a natural-gas tycoon, volunteered her Bulgari sautoir necklace with scores of diamonds, a piece she spotted in a window of New York's Pierre hotel in the 1970s. "My husband said, 'Well, do you want that or the state of Rhode Island?'" she recalls.
People with knowledge of the Bulgari negotiations say the museum exhibit was the main impetus for the Houston store's makeover. Workers toiled all weekend to get the boutique ready for the show's debut, one person said. Mr. Festa says the timing was coincidental and largely due to the expiration of the shop's 10-year lease and its outdated design.
For the exhibit openings in Houston and San Francisco, Bulgari boutiques in those cities were supplied with stacks of tickets so employees could offer VIP customers and foreign visitors tours of the galleries, according to people familiar with the exhibits. In some cases, the shop set up appointments ahead of time so that visitors could go straight from the museum to the store, one person said.
Mr. Bartsch, a gems expert, says the exhibit's aim is educational: "This is about the design and quality of the stones, with a connection to natural history and the technology that goes into making the pieces," he says. "One of the major points is that these pieces are not for sale and are not going to be for sale. This is a historical retrospective exhibition."
Bulgari, an Italian jewelry company purchased in 2011 by Paris-based luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, MC.FR -0.24% started its push for exhibitions five years ago with a 600-piece show at a cultural center in Rome. The next year, Bulgari rented the Grand Palais in Paris for an exhibit. Bulgari shows followed in Beijing and Shanghai, and Mr. Festa says China is interested in more.
"Clearly now there are going to be more exhibitions world-wide, which is an initiative of LVMH," says Amanda Triossi, an independent curator who created Bulgari's heritage collection and helped develop many Bulgari museum exhibits.
In recent months, Bulgari executives have approached the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Perez Art Museum Miami as well as institutions in Dallas and Chicago to lobby for shows featuring its jewelry archive, says Mr. Festa, adding: "I approached other institutions in the country mainly where we have stores."
For more than a decade, Bulgari has been buying back its collection of archival jewelry—the pieces often displayed in museum shows—including nabbing more than $20 million worth of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry at a Christie's sale in 2011.
People familiar with Bulgari's business practices say that while archival pieces aren't for sale, customers can ask the company to create a custom-made piece that draws inspiration from the original as long as it is valued at $50,000 or sometimes more.
For Ms. Grammer, who paused in the Houston show to stare at a 1967 necklace with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, the exhibit renewed her love for the brand. She owns two Bulgari pieces, gifts from her ex-husband, the actor Kelsey Grammer. "People have questioned me, 'Why would you wear anything your husband gave you after the divorce?'" she says. "Why wouldn't you? They're works of art."
Write to Ellen Gamerman at firstname.lastname@example.org