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‘Museum Confidential’ is a surprising glimpse into Philbrook

‘Museum Confidential’ at Philbrook Museum of Art

Greg Bollinger

Like most art museums, Philbrook Museum of Art shows about 5 percent of its collection at any given time.

The pieces on display in Museum Confidential—running now through May 6, 2018—represent the other 95 percent.

Picture a clown of many vivid colors. A few feet away, a cowboy lounges luridly across a fence, tempting the camera with a smile. A samurai’s suit of armor stands at attention just yards away from a classical painting of men hauling away Christ’s corpse. Farther on, a painting of a portrait of Edward Hopper on paper taped into the white space of an empty frame defies perspective, an artist’s trick so successful I thought it was lazy at first.

Picture all of these with paintings, drawings, and photographs stuffed between, so close they’re almost overlapping, and you have a sense of the occasionally overwhelming scope of Museum Confidential.

“The subject of the show is the museum,” Director Scott Stulen said. “We want to answer the questions people frequently ask. ‘What’s in the collection that you never show?’ ‘How do you curate a show?’ ‘What do you guys do all day?’ We want to tell people stories about Philbrook that they haven’t heard.”

The show answers these questions. Around the space, television screens repeat an assortment of videos in which Stulen explains aspects of Philbrook’s processes: a tactic that succeeds in disseminating information while having the odd effect of Stulen’s pleasant, disembodied voice floating about the room at all times.

Many of the pieces are framed in blue with explanations as to why they might be excluded from any given Philbrook show: “CURATORIAL PREFERENCE,” “CONDITION,” or “QUALITY.” I felt bad for the painting with the “quality” tag. It wasn’t that bad.

The artist-in-residence for the show, Andy DuCett of Minneapolis, has an installation titled “At the Intersection of Everywhere,” which includes a Route 66-style ‘60s motel lobby situated near the entrance of the show. Upon invitation from the friendly attendant Bhadri, I wrote down a travel recommendation in the guestbook and was thanked with a custom-printed book of matches. While the experience was warm and endearing, I wondered what exactly DuCett was trying to
tell me.

One part of “Everywhere” that I wish had been more fleshed out is what DuCett rightly calls on his Instagram “local lamps,” a platform of 19 lamps culled from Tulsa homes. While the lamps themselves are tagged with their type and identified, the idea behind the piece doesn’t come through. More contextualization could help these luminous vehicles to shine, but, alas, they appear at first, second, and third glance to be simple lamps on a platform. I failed to understand their purpose or the ideas they’re meant to represent.

One of DuCett’s more stimulating touches is the installation of an entire wall of his studio onto a wall of the exhibition. It’s huge. When taken in at once, the countless post-it notes, photographs, and sketches give the space a refreshing touch of rawness, albeit a calculated one: no one puts their studio into a public space without giving it some thought.

All in all, where some fine art exhibits pander only to audiences who are in on the secret, Museum Confidential, for the most part, demystifies the museum. This is Philbrook when it gets home and takes its pants off.

The clever (and free) Museum Confidential Club Member rewards card speaks to the fact that this exhibit pays intangible dividends on repeat visits. Even after four hours, I grew to respect pieces I hadn’t fully appreciated when I walked in. Even with what I found to be a few missteps, the exhibit keeps its strong footing, and, more impressively, it explains itself while doing so.

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