Last week, a large, important-looking letter arrived in the mail. Opening the brown envelope, I removed a stiff, glossy square of expensive cardstock embossed with a chainlink pattern and featuring the Gucci logo. An announcement of a trunk show, no doubt intended for Houstonia’s fashion editor. I was on my way across the office to deliver the misaddressed missive when I noticed the verso side of the card, which featured some almost microscopic text. The card was, in reality, an invitation to a cocktail party benefitting the Alley Theatre, to be held at the Gucci boutique in the Galleria.
If the idea of an arts fundraiser being held at a shopping mall seems strange, you don’t know Houston. In June, the Louis Vuitton store in the Galleria hosted a cocktail reception for the MFAH’s James Turrell show, featuring a rare appearance by the artist himself. The store was closed to regular customers; to get in, you had to navigate a velvet rope and a liveried bouncer outfitted in epaulettes. Inside, the store was overheated from the capacity crowd. Attendees milled around aimlessly while trying to avoid spilling champagne on the racks of clothing. Turrell held court by the ladies’ handbags, leaning back against the glass display case. The Galleria is undoubtedly popular, but it’s far from the only place to host your arts event. The Bayou City Art Festival is holding its kickoff party later this week at Advantage BMW Midtown.
And businesses aren’t just hosting receptions. FotoFest Discoveries (through Sep 27), one of the summer’s best exhibitions, is spread out among four downtown skyscrapers owned by Brookfield Office Properties. Unless you work at one of the four buildings, finding the exhibitions is a bit like a downtown scavenger hunt. Since the exhibitions are located in the buildings’ lobbies, passing office workers frequently interrupt your enjoyment of the art.
To complain that these types of events mix art and commerce is silly; art and commerce have been inseparable since well before the Medicis. Museums name buildings after their biggest donors, and stamp exhibition catalogues with the logos of the sponsoring corporations. So what’s wrong with throwing an opening reception at a high-end boutique or an exhibition at a corporate office building? Isn’t that just an acknowledgement of who pays the bills these days? And it seems especially churlish to complain about the privatization of art in Houston, where the public/private distinction is so blurred as to be meaningless.
No, my beef with these events is aesthetic rather than ideological. Stores are built to sell stuff, not host parties. As quickly became apparent at the Turrell reception, their air-conditioning systems are designed to handle a handful of well-heeled fashionistas, not a mob of art-world supernumeraries. Then there’s the ever-present danger of spilling food and drink on products that cost more than my annual salary. Most of all, it just feels weird to be celebrating art in a temple of commerce. I’m not calling for throwing the moneychangers out of the museum, but let’s at least keep business and culture in their separate corners.