Reaction to the Met's Alexander McQueen has been decidedly mixed. It was a popular smash, with thousands lining up to get into the exhibition's last weekend, and garnered the title of eighth most visited exhibition in the Met's history. The New York Times reports that attendees frequently dressed to the nines, sometimes in McQueen imitations, and the Met spokesperson told Artinfo that he'd seen nothing like it.
On the other hand, Holland Cotter took the Met to task for failing to ask "critical questions" about McQueen's possibly-racist stereotyping, producing a scholarship-lite catalog, and effectively renting museum space to the Alexander McQueen fashion house. Tyler Green picked up the last thread, a pet hate of his, and did the math. The Met's pay-to-play approach, while not unheard of in the art-museum world, isn't exactly the norm, and is anathema to many museums and curatorial departments nationwide.
It's easy, therefore, to cast the McQueen show as a testing ground for a number of oppositions plaguing the art world. It's even easier to see the show as a limit case for the art-museum's role these days. The relentless pace of admission hikes means that most museums are effectively off-limits for anyone lacking a student card or deep pockets. That holds true for some of the country's best-known institutions in the country's strongest arts communities; MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art are all now prohibitively expensive. And, unlike the Met, they don't charge "suggested" admission prices. So, if museums are suggesting through their ticket fees that they're exclusive strongholds of culture, strictly upper-middle-class and up, why hold shows pandering to popular appeal?
Make no mistake, populist shows aren't inherently bad. They do good things for the local economy, they prompt large swathes of the local population to get involved in the art scene, and (as the McQueen show has obviously done) inspire visitors to greater creative heights. These are all tangible benefits. So, just because the Met has stressed some parts of a museum mission over others (sacrificing scholarship and ethical integrity), is that a reason to castigate the show? I tend to say yes, but McQueen's not really my cup of tea anyway, and it's a conversation that needs more voices than frustrated scholars in the blogosphere.